Last month I took a landscape design workshop at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens ,with Walt Cudnohufsky. I thought November was an odd time for making garden visits, but Walt wasn’t much interested in talking about plants. This workshop was about space.
I was worried I had gotten in over my head. I know a bit about garden design – the fundamentals of flow and harmony and offering a surprise – but no one would accuse me of being a designer. I could never handle a garden that was “finished”. So I was hoping to blend into the back row, keep my head low and maybe learn something in the process.
I don’t think I was alone in feeling a bit unqualified to be there. Walt Cudnohufsky is a very successful landscape architect with major clients and accomplishments. He is also a adroit teacher and his enthusiasm allowed us to ask the stupid questions without feeling judged. What a relief.
Walt talked a lot about impressions and how a space makes you feel. Darn if he wasn’t right that most people can instinctively sense when things are in the right place or at the right scale. We all have different tastes, of course, but when someone suggested swiveling a garage 90 degrees, the entire group lit up and agreed that was the perfect solution. The garage in question had been sited behind a house and was blocking the view of the mountains. The owner was considering moving it to the side of the property and hadn’t even considered swiveling it parallel with the house. Doing that would mean he could connect the two buildings with a patio, which he already wanted. It could be covered with an arbor, for shade. It would be more functional for getting things into the house. And… it would open up the view. Not only that, it would further block the street noise from the backyard. Amazing.
I certainly did not become a design expert after my day of peeking and critiquing a handful of homes in the Berkshires, but I did take away a few baubles of wisdom.
1. Look for the positives first. Find the features you want to keep and enhance and develop your ideas from there.
2. Don’t loose sight of what you liked in the first place. Fix the problems, but keep the needs and positives in mind.
3. Think about how the space makes you feel. Is it welcoming? Awkward? Confining? Stimulating? Secluded? Protected? Are you a contented cat? Once you have a handful of positive and negative feelings, figure out what features are causing each of them.
4. Work backwards when planning something new in the landscape. For example, if you get the idea that you need a new border on the side of your house, ask yourself what problem you are trying to fix with that solution. Do you simple need more color? Are you looking for a better view from a window? Are you more comfortable working out of sight, sheltered by the house? Would a garden there improve curb appeal. Once you know what you’re really trying to accomplish, you may come up with a better plan.
5. Make things human size. People are more comfortable when features like walls and hedges, don’t loom over them.
6. Make friends with your compass. Check it before siting the sitting areas. A southeast location would get the morning sun and would be out of prevailing winds. Don’t waste the southeast aspect on your driveway. Stick your car on the northeast side, which gets less sun and is less optimal for growing plants.
7. Driveways can be assets. They are near the house and used everyday, but don’t have to be eyesores. You can expand the area, create a seating area nearby and border it with a garden, changing it from a public space to a more private one.
8. Don’t be afraid of creating outdoor rooms. They’re just organized spaces. For example, a semi-wild wooded area, a space for kids to play, a dining area, a contemplation nook.
9. Plants come last. Heresy, I know, but texture and form are not going to compensate for a bad layout.
10. You don’t have to do everything at once. Budget, time, and/or effort may be in short supply at the moment, but you can always do a little at a time.
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