Despite my chosen and beloved profession – landscape architecture – I do not like to design gardens very much at all. I have sorted out the reasons over the years and they are several. In the main, gardens are usually uninteresting problems to solve, from the perspective of an INTJ personality, which I am. We like patterns and patterning and also developing intricate systems that are layered, multivalent, responsive, and rich. Intriguing and compelling opportunities usually present themselves at larger scales, like park and city where a plethora of factors come into play.

Landscape exists in many milieus, and comprises so many dimensions. There are environmental, temporal, cultural, horticultural, architectural, material, and historical considerations to satisfy. The design of landscape appeals, too, because good spaces/places need to accommodate pairs of superficially contradictory human needs: legibility and mystery on the one hand, and coherence and complexity on the other. The multitude of interdependent constraints and conditions is a siren call to conceptual designers, as together they require and foster extensive creative thinking. A great landscape design is a superbly crafted solution to an immensely complex problem. Fun!

It’s more than scale that limits garden design, though. Small projects could yet be challenging, for not one of the constraints I’ve mentioned is ruled out. Any garden could speak to the environment, to its larger context, rural or urban, to the culture or history of a neighborhood, community, or owner, to architectural stylings, even to the spatiality of its intended plot. To elicit foundations for these layers (and also to reveal preferences), I developed a questionnaire for clients. It usually gets me nowhere. Most residential clients have no interest in a tapestry woven of abstractions, meanings. (Their responses are often contradictory and confusing, too.) Mostly homeowners want something pretty to look at, or a showcase to impress. And the problem to solve becomes simply visual, reducing to personal taste. I find this trivial, and rather distasteful to be honest – it’s too intimate for my comfort. If I put it in terms of home design you may understand better. I would love to design your house, the structure, its faces, windows, and walls, to shape the rooms and movement between them, and even to diagram furniture placement, with general suggestions as to size and type. These are spatial, aesthetic, and contextual relationships to explore, just the same as landscape offers. But I wouldn’t/couldn’t pick out the material for the accent pillow on your couch, or the colors to paint your walls. Nor the flowers in your garden bed, without a great deal of tutoring, teasing out, and investigating you. It all starts to feel like therapy. And really, I just don’t want to get to know anyone that well, for business. Some clients are easy, because they know themselves, they know the options and possibilities, and what they want. Delightful others – artists, musicians, theater folk – are nimble with meaning and its expression in concrete form. I guess I am a designer’s designer.

The most intriguing element to craft into a design is narrative, and this too works at most scales, from garden to park to town to city. For public places in homogeneous communities, a garden or park can tell a local story – one of its founding, history, or even of present day concerns. Ideas are surprisingly easy to express with trees and plants, water and stone, metal and wood.1

A unifying narrative is often hard to come by in diverse communities, however, as histories, meanings and values differ. The designer’s challenge in this case is to create a gameboard – a neutral yet provocative place that holds and handles many personal meanings, played out by each visitor uniquely with each visit, in new and renewed ways upon return. This approach, where audience is recognized as author, is borrowed from the open narrative framework of literary theory, and also from participatory art. Enabled as originators, people create place [art/stories] by their use [interaction/reading]. In such public spaces community itself is made, constantly evolving – restored, revised, remodeled, revived. Crafting such a conditional ‘field of play’ is anything but trivial and boring, as video game makers all the world over can attest.

Despite the allure of the larger scale, I am not bored with my own garden. Though it is small and familiar, I have attended to its myriad of contexts, symbolic and real. It is also an ongoing project, never done. Gardens naturally change over time, and mine is a chess board I return to over and over. As nature makes its plays I tweak and re-imagine in response. I am always inventing, rethinking, resolving, experimenting. The process delights me.

What puzzles and frustrates me instead are the folks who try to copy my design. Knowing as I do how specific the garden is to its site and frameworks, and how impossible to export/import, to re-create with integrity in any other place, I am perplexed by the incongruity, the mal-appropriation. I wonder too, if you like my garden, why don’t you want something one as wonderful and unique and holistic designed – invented – for you and your property?
Or better yet, imagine something of your own?


  1. See Chambers For A Memory Palace, by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles C. Moore (1994 MIT Press, Cambridge MA) for a wonderful exposition of the language of architecture – how the arrangement of components and elements carry meaning.
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