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The Real Job of a Landscape Designer

At a neighborhood party last week, I heard two comments that brought me up short, and reminded me again about a basic conundrum in my work.

bldg3 1024A landscape doesn't need plants, to be a landscape.  First comment: “Oh yeah, I know that place. There’s no landscape there.” This from a friend after I told him the location of a property I had been hired to design.

Although I completely disagreed, I knew what he meant. Most people think “landscape” means “plants.” Beyond having a lot of lawn, this property’s front, side and back yards are empty of plants. Ergo: no landscape there. Yet the property is full of problems, big problems, problems that plants alone won’t fix.

Next comment: “So, how would planting some flowers around my house save energy?” This from a guy who heard me describe my book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design. To him, it seems, the word landscape equals flowers.

I suppose this isn’t really so surprising. Our society defines landscape as something to look at. A scene. A work of art to be appreciated aesthetically. If you Google the word landscape, you’ll end up with vastly more sites offering landscape paintings than sites dealing with real-life landscapes. In addition, most people use the verb “landscaping” when they mean “to add plants, or to beautify with plants.” My two neighbors were simply revealing a widespread and deep-seated social convention: a landscape is some assortment of plants that is visually interesting or pretty.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I understand the impulse to make our surroundings beautiful. I also accept that there are social norms, assumptions and pressures that push people to define beauty a certain way, and to work toward achieving that ideal. And I know that plants play a big role in that ideal.

But a landscape is much more than just a pretty space.

In fact, a landscape consists of every single thing outside the house:

  • Sun and shade, wind and breezes.
  • The ground, both within boundary lines and beyond them.
  • Rainwater flowing across the land, and groundwater flowing beneath it.
  • Views all around, both incoming and outgoing.
  • Driveways and parking areas, and where the driveway meets the road.
  • Snow, and snow piles.
  • Ditches, drain-ways, streams and rivers.
  • Bedrock and surface rocks.
  • Paths, steps, patio, deck…every place that people walk around or gather together.
  • In the air: pollinators, pollutants, passing birds, oxygen, carbon dioxide.
  • In the soil: chemicals, minerals, microbes, gases, nutrients, creatures.
  • And plants.

DSC 0299No amount of plants can fix a path in the wrong place.As a landscape designer I am almost always hired to, at the very least, make a property look good. And I would very much like to do that. But quite often, the things that are making a landscape look unattractive and feel uncomfortable are actually completely unrelated to plants or the lack of plants.

Here’s a parallel. Do you remember from childhood those fancy living rooms that you weren’t allowed to play in, maybe at a friend’s house, those rooms that basically no one ever used except on special occasions? They were pretty. They were all fixed up, full matchy-matchy furniture and impressive things. But they were almost always lifeless and uncomfortable.

That same thing can happen so easily in a landscape, when the goal is only to make the property or yard look a certain way.

To make your landscape truly livable and enjoyable, the most important things to deal with are the very things most people don’t even associate with the word “landscape.” I’m talking about things like: how people get in and out of the house, and around the yard; the place where cars drive and park; how water flows, without causing problems; having a cozy place to sit outside; having outdoor spaces that that extend the comfort of indoors, places that stimulate and intrigue you or relax and calm you, places that feel good, places that you love. Plants may have an effect on these experiences, but they equally may not.

Here's a truth about design.

DSC 0382Before a landscape designer can consider choosing and arranging plants, the first job is to make sure that all the big components of a yard or property are properly positioned and shaped in relation to all the others, and to the surrounding world. When this is done well, the physical realities of the site can get out of the way and let the pretty things be pretty. If the designer’s goal is only to add more plants or jazz up the yard with flowers, the landscape will fail.

Beauty alone is not enough. Nor, however, is utility the whole answer. Landscape design is, above all else, the shaping of relationships. The real job of a landscape designer is to arrange the spaces and the things within those spaces so the whole place simultaneously works well, feels right…and looks great.