• SBG

Perennial Optimism

I might have called this blog “Forgetting a Lifetime” because that seems to be the truth. Twenty years as a Landscape Architect is gone. Poof. Wiped.

It is odd to lose that expertise as I loved being a landscape architect, especially on residential projects. I particularly loved garden design. Not the “wow, look at that house” front yard statement of wealth and taste. That never interested me. Waste of money in my opinion. Yes, you need some foundation plantings, but why spend the money there? The place to invest the limited landscape dollars was in the backyard. Maybe I viewed myself more as a set designer, creating the back drop for the dramas and comedies of my clients’ life. After all, the backyard is where most of the outdoor living occurs. I created intimate spaces of color and beauty for their enjoyment and well being. Plantings that screened, created seasonal interest, and assured vigor and success. Sure, there were also pools. Sheds and fences. Architectural elements, both simple and grand. The occasional tennis court, putting green or basketball court. But what I excelled at, what I garnered a reputation for, was planting design.

So, imagine my shock as I crumple up my fourth attempt at a planting design for my own backyard. Is the problem that I don’t know what I want? Maybe. In truth, I want every garden photo I have ever laid eyes on in my once comprehensive library of garden and landscape books. Formal herb garden. Yes, please. Informal shady woodland planting? Of course! Grass and perennial border reminiscent of the great estates? Oooh. Yum. A cottage garden tangled with texture and color? Oh, I love that too. One of the problems with design of a flat barren half acre of grass is that it can be anything. All it takes is time and money. And I really don’t have either.

Okay. I lie. I hope to have a little bit of both for this project. We all say that today is the only day you’re guaranteed, but we don’t live that way. We constantly plan for the future we may never see, but as I approach sixty, I know that living in this house past fifteen years from now is unrealistic. Eventually there will be too much maintenance. So, time does feel short. At least in garden years…

One of my mantras to my clients in my design days was that the garden is not static. It is constantly changing. When you plant a six foot tall spruce to hide yourself from your neighbor, you are also committing to a sixty foot tall spruce at maturity. Unless you ‘edit’ the design. Edit is a pleasant alias for plant removal. A good garden design looks pretty enough at installation, satisfyingly full at five years and maintainable for another five years. In other words, a garden design is really only good for ten years. After that, it needs editing. Removal and renewal. Young trees with initially tiny canopies grow to shade out the plants underneath. The shrubs at the border are now eight feet wide and the hosta that was once near them is now under them. Planning for inevitable removal is the burden of the landscape architect. Good design requires that we do our best to accommodate trees to maturity; but sometimes achieving a satisfying landscape sooner necessitates removal of healthy plants later. Especially when there is nothing. Just grass. A seemingly endless swath of grass in your backyard and your neighbors', and his neighbors', and so on.

Another aspect to my design block is that I can’t daydream right now. I can’t conjure an image of the finished garden. I assume it has everything to do with the pandemic and the loss of the illusion of control over the future. Whatever it is, my mind refuses to construct images that relate to any future other than what we can cook for tonight and tomorrow night. I try to see myself at a garden center buying plants and it becomes hazy. Is it open? Are we wearing masks? Are there other people shopping? Are there plants to be bought? And then the guilt sweeps in. I chastise myself for what I know are trivial concerns. Being an avid daydreamer and future CEO of Daydreamer International, this is quite frustrating to me. Daydreaming is my super power. It is the font of my creativity. Losing this has left me one dimensional.

I would escape into my beloved landscape design books, but I sold or gave away the majority of them. For some unfathomable reason, landscape books tend to be over-sized. I am sure that much of my purging was because the books refused to fit aesthetically in my bookcase. After rummaging through the house, I find my favorite garden book among the cookbooks. Aptly named “The Garden Design Book”, it is almost a cookbook for garden planning. Maybe that is why it ended up next to Julia Child. I carry the book with reverence upstairs to my office and pause before opening. I feel something that might register as excitement. Whoa. I wasn't expecting that. I gingerly open the spine and gasp as memories flood back as I gaze at each page. Photos portray stunning mature gardens. Gardens that create sanctuary as much as space definition. Gardens that soothe the soul. A piece of paper falls out from the book jacket and I see my own hand writing.

“Successful gardens envelope the visitor, creating space for reflection; but not hampering the use of the property for active recreation. The garden must be flexible for entertaining, but intimate enough to comfort the individual.”

Huh. Sounds a bit heady. In a way, garden design is like a painting that is ever-changing with the seasons. Getting the most of flowers, fruit, and autumn color was a game for me. I enjoyed learning what the client’s desire for their property was. The hardest design task was making a plan that worked with their budget. Landscaping has never been inexpensive.

I read further down my handwriting to this sentence:

“A garden should strive to balance and showcase the elements of earth, wind, fire and water.” Underneath the sentence are written the words “Suggestive with color. Incorporate where practical.”

I recall when I wrote this. I was a passenger in our car traveling on vacation and I had just bought a new garden book “Gardens for the Soul” by Pamela Woods. It was in my lap as I wrote this. I was already studying labyrinths and symbolism by this time. Much like cooking, I was of the belief that the success of the end product was as much a part of the heart as the intellect. I recall taking a class at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on perennial design and having a conversation at lunch with someone about Feng shui in the garden. At that time, ideas on spiritual intention were blooming around me quickly.

There is a final sentence and it startles me:

“What would the fifth element in a garden look like? Would it be palpable?”

I hadn’t written down what I meant by the fifth element, but I know immediately I meant the nature of Spirit. Most likely the pagan fifth element, but it could be any spiritual essence. The concept of an energy element. Intentional design to create energy? My head is swimming with ideas. The archived landscape designer files are reformatting. Disk cleanup underway. It wasn’t the encyclopedic plant knowledge that made me a great designer. It was the quest to create more than a pretty flower bed.

I turn from the page to gaze out the window. Oh, I see it! The finished garden. It is an intimate space. A space defined by plantings but flexible enough to accommodate a fire pit. A Japanese Ishi Bachi (basically a stone bowl, similar to a bird bath without ornament or pedestals) to contain still water. Perhaps a boulder. Oriental lilies. Black eye Susan. Coneflower. Herbs. I drift off into the potential of a garden where my soul can sing, grateful for the gift of perennial optimism.


Gardens For the Soul By Pamela Woods. Out of print, but used copies available via Amazon. It is a pretty book, but not very practical.

The Garden Design Book, by Cheryl Merser and the Editors of Garden Design Magazine. Not a paint by number planting book, but a good source for the higher ideas. Also out of print, but Amazon has used copies. Garden Design Magazine was a favorite of mine for years.

The Garden Design website is lovely:

Below is a pic from my previous house in New Jersey. A formal herb garden of sorts. We split the daisy growing there before we moved and my daughter has it growing at her house in Rochester. Splitting and propagating perennials is fairly simple and a great way to save money. Hosta, black eye susan, mature daylily, and daisy split very well.

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