What should be the first principle of garden design? This is a hard question, and I have heard and read many answers to it. This winter, I have been taking classes to become a Mecklenburg County Extension Master Gardener. In those classes I have heard many skilled and experienced gardeners and landscape architects address this question within the context of their particular specialty. Tree experts give their views on tree design; rosarians on roses, perennial enthusiasts on the proper choice of season, color and length of bloom. David Goforth, the Agricultural Extension Agent for Cabarrus County, gave the best answer I have yet heard when he taught us last Thursday about the esoteric subject of fruit and nut trees.
David observed that over the past century, we have moved from gardens that showed the strong hand of mankind taming the wilderness to gardens composed as paintings, where the concepts of composition, color, balance, line, and harmony taught in fine arts schools prevailed, to the recent notion of landscape architects that the landscape should be planned and arranged as an architect or interior decorator would, using plants to decorate “exterior rooms” of hard surface patios, outdoor kitchens, arbors, swimming pools, decks, summer houses, sitting walls and other hardscapes. None of these approaches capture the entire function of a landscape; and none of them satisfies. In David’s view, this is this key to responsible, satisfying garden design: our gardens should be a place where plants shelter, nourish and provide refuge for ourselves and for wildlife. This concept, I believe, is brilliant in its simplicity.
First, a garden is about plants arranged on a site. Obvious? Consider landscapes that consist primarily of pavers, firepits and planting walls. The last thingthe designer thought about was plants. A garden with inappropriate plants is no garden. Next, the plants must be selected and arranged to meet human needs. Sound garden design has to function for the benefit of the property owner, not the designer. Walkways should be placed where humans walk. Shade should be provided where it is too hot for human comfort. Beautiful places should be created where humans can see them. Play spaces should be arranged where children want to play. This seems obvious, but there is great subtlety here. Too often a would-be garden lacks shade, places the entertainment area far from the kitchen where the food will be prepared, and devotes the great majority of the property to time-sucking, water intensive, money-devouring lawn.
All of these decisions add up to a landscape that does not nourish the homeowner or meet her needs. It does not provide a place of joy, peace or refuge. There is no interaction with growing, ever-changing plants and the animal life they summon and nurture. Instead, the homeowner lives in a sterile environment that gives nothing back in exchange for the dreaded hours of maintenance this artificial and barren environment requires. I think it is for this reason-the landscape does not meet human needs- that the most common questions I get about landscapes can be summed up as, “How can I spend less time in my yard.”
With balanced garden design, this question never arises. Your outdoor property can and should nourish your soul. We all get a sense of calm, peace and refuge when we visit a natural park and walk among the trees or view the meadows or savannas. This reaction to nature is innate. This reaction might follow from a landscape decorated as an outdoor room or composed only as a painting, but that is unlikely. What we need is a garden designed for use, tranquility and regeneration, and not one designed for ostentation or fantasies of outdoor living.
But a garden design created only to please ourselves is missing an essential element. It is a stool with only two legs. When we go into nature to sooth only our own souls and to provide for only our own needs, we nourish our selfishness; we do not get closer to nature. We must invite wildlife in as well in order to have a complete landscape. Without critters, the plants are sterile; and the attempt to return to nature is futile.
My philosophy is that there must be an enjoyable three-way interaction between the owner, the plants and wildlife. Only by designing a landscape and choosing plants that meet the needs of the owner and wildlife will the owner truly be satisfied with his property. Planting and planning for both increases the homeowner’s enjoyment and actually decreases maintenance. The chores that remain become pleasurable opportunities to interact with birds, butterflies and anoles or to harvest healthy food rather than misery-inducing labor to simultaneously force and restrain the growth of unsatisfying plants.
Note that employing this first principle of graden design does not dictate the style of design, which may be formal, traditional, specific to a particular county or period, naturalistic or modern. Style can be applied to any balanced garden. but the garden first must be balanced in order to meet the needs of all the creatures that compose it.
Moreover, by planting for wildlife as well as for humans, we help in a small way to fulfill our responsibilities as responsible stewards of this earth. The cumulative effects of backyard wildlife habitats should not be underestimated. Millions of acres of America are devoted to sterile landscapes. We can reclaim a portion of this waste and provide significant befits to the planet and ourselves. We do not have to be for or against a carbon tax, “cap and trade” or solar roof panels to make our yards a place where small birds, owls, hawks, insects and little critters can find protection, food, water and safe places to raise their babies. The rewards to us, to them and to our descendants are enormous.