Garden Design and Landscape Architecture- Where the Twain Shall Meet

I remember being 6 years old and eating dirt. It had just rained, and the smell of the wet soil, the sound of the moisture dripping off the leaves was so intoxicating I just wanted to be a part of it. One way I could think of to feel that connectedness was to eat the dirt. As I crunched away on a small handful, I realized it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but the longing I felt left its mark, and today I am here at UCLA studying landscape architecture.

To me, landscape architecture and garden design are not separate entities, but two sides of the same coin. When both are done well the results are beautiful and bountiful, not just for us, but for all of God’s creatures.

When one walks out onto an outdoor plaza, stunning as it may be with its marble steps and sumptuous statues, the sun beats down harshly, the light reflects blindingly off the surfaces, and the only sounds we hear are the echoes of our footsteps. But when we add just one tree, suddenly there is welcoming green, we can rest under the filtered light of the branches, the air is cool, and the staccato sounds are replaced by a lovely symphony of singing birds. We have gone from a space devoid of life to one blossoming with it. With that single tree we can start to understand the need for garden design in landscape architecture.

There are three critical roles that good garden design plays in completing a successful landscape architecture project: a) to establish or enhance the architectural lines of the space, b) to create a ‘sensual’ experience, and c) to contribute positively to the ecosystem and our well-being.

From the beginning, a primary objective in landscaping has been to create a sense of place, where we can be outdoors, but still feel safe and protected. In order to create that space we need the sense of a floor, ceiling and walls. Hence, plants wisely-used can create a green carpet to lie upon, tree limbs can be used as gentle bowers to sit beneath, and walls – implied or definitive, can be created with hedges and shrubs.
Design-wise, plants themselves can create powerful architectural lines. How striking - the soaring branches of a eucalyptus against the skyline; how comforting - the curved lines of an undulating grassy hillside; how stimulating - the stark primitive lines of ancient succulents.

On the more subtle side, as adept as we humans have become in our craftsmanship, no one does it better than nature. Just as we need the dark and the light to offset each other, so do we need the softness of plantings to complement and enhance the beauty of the architecture. There is such a spectrum of shape and intricacy to plantings, such nuances in color, hues and texture, that the possibilities in arrangement are infinite. For a landscape architect to explore and experiment with plant design, creating contrast and harmony, blending tones and hues, is much like a musician learning to master their instrument.

However, to address merely the ‘look’ of a project limits our experience to just one of our five senses. Humans are also blessed with the gifts of scent, sound, taste and touch. With some thought we can create gardens that reconnect us to those other often ignored sensory experiences. In the smallest or largest of settings one can create a truly holistic experience. For example, by simply planting one orange tree, a person’s experience can be increased hundredfold. The sweet scent of blossoms wafts on the breeze, the air is cool and the light shaded beneath the canopy. In the background, one hears the gentle droning of insects and the soughing of the wind in the branches. The bark is strong and warm against the back. Then, into a lap drops one deliciously sweet, juicy orange – quenching both hunger and thirst. All those gifts can be found in the planting of one orange tree. It is that whole experience that encourages us to stop and linger for a while rather than simply pass through.

But there is yet one more layer in which garden design adds to the beauty and impact of landscape architecture, and that is the element of time. In no other medium or art form is there such an opportunity to explore and utilize the intangible, unpredictability of change over time. Garden design, well done, can reflect the most significant of life’s patterns and mysteries. With each season we can watch plants grow, bloom, go to seed and into dormancy, only to break through once again come spring. It is a powerful tool and a great reminder of our origins and the circle of life to which we are all bound.

The final role of garden design is one of the major callings of landscape architecture - stewardship of the land. When a garden is well crafted, it is also in harmony with its environment. It becomes not only a garden but also a habitat. Selected plants will thrive in their settings, not require more water than we can afford. An effort is made to create an environmental balance by attracting natural predators to minimize pests, thus avoiding toxins. Every tree and shrub planted contributes to improving air quality, cooling heat islands, and softening noxious sounds. Every perennial and vine will invite the birds and butterflies to rest and propagate and fill the world with that much more beauty. With these simple gestures we can give back to the planet that which has been so radically plundered.

And though it will take my lifetime to master, I will strive to create glorious multi-layered gardens that will serve the good of us all.

Poetic Plantings
Landscape Design