What if a genius landed in your garden, but, only stayed a couple of days?
Last week, Jeff S., he who designed my yard 15 years ago, came to visit. He lives in Seattle now, working by word of mouth for clients who share his aesthetic and philosophy. He comes to visit us Californians every once in a while.
I thought I knew what I wanted. The drought, and the years of neglect, replanting, transplanting had worn away at my garden’s structure. Much as I love to work on a small scale, I felt uncertain about landscape design, and I hoped Jeff might add some Big Plants For Big Impact.
We talked, ate lunch, considered. He shopped, I did too. He dug a lot of holes, I dug one. What? Holes are harder than they look.
In the end, I was surprised. Experts avoid the obvious. This is certainly true in personal style (you don’t often match your shoes exactly to your bag, do you?) and also, I’m beginning to discover, in interior design. Non-obvious changes of note included:
Nestling a few bellflowers (campanula) underneath my big showy New Zealand flax (phormium). Like pats of butter to glossy up a sauce. The blue-white of the campanula fights with the cream phormium, just enough. Like lemon, in that same sauce.
Staking the arching branches of a cotoneaster so they are visible behind but above the flax plant. Adding depth and layers of movement, but no more plants.
Replanting a couple of newly planted trees in the side yard so that the olives could catch as much sun as possible. Adding a third “strawberry tree,” (hybrid of arbutus madrone.) Some trees just look better in groves, even when teeny and suburban.
We made at least 10 other small changes, moving, subtracting, adding plants. But let’s move on to big lessons. 7, in fact.
7 Lessons From A Genius of Landscape Design
- Think vertically as well as horizontally (It would not have occurred to me that I needed campanula.)
- Nowhere does “the eye has to travel” mean more than in a garden (We decided to let one path go altogether, so the garden flowed more purely toward the big flax plant.)
- Respect your plants (We moved unhappy sword ferns farther back, planted some other, more suitable varieties closer up. Related, need to water the hydrangeas more often.)
- Respect your soil and all its inhabitants (We planted gardenia and jasmine, but in pots. Turns out my neighbors’ enormous cypress is responsible for that intractable empty spot. Nothing will ever manage to grow there.)
- Step back, experiment, do both more and less than you thought, learn your garden style by saying yes to the experts a little bit more often than you want to. At first. (I made some tradeoffs between native plants and useful ones. We shall see how it turns out.)
- Think across time (I have a volunteer palm in the side yard. For now it’s staying. We moved a tea tree out from under some shade (leptospermum), to a contiguous sunny spot. We shall see how palm and tea interact over the next 5-10 years.)
- Be prepared to choose one dream over another (I wanted a butterfly garden in the side yard. I also wanted the discipline and architectural serenity of a minimal plant palette. Butterflies won.)
And now to the lesson so important it shrugs off its number:
Waiting is a joy.
I’ll be here until early spring, finding beauty in “ruined choirs,” as Shakespeare calls trees without leaves. I’ll clap for red berries, those non-obvious changes plants make for themselves.