Here's another piece by Mary Zahl about gardens — getting into the nuts and bolts of the way a garden works and how that contributes to what it means:


by Mary Zahl

Reflecting on what is happening visually in what I consider good
residential garden design, whether my own or someone else’s, I have to
start with the relationship of the house to the garden.  For good or
ill, the house is the most important structure in the landscape.  That
makes creating an effective relationship between the two all the more
difficult if the house is a) not particularly attractive, and b) not
designed to open up to the outside visually. 

The first point is staring me in the face as I look at much of the
residential architecture around me:  In Central Florida, most new
housing is the big-box-with-a-roof look in stucco, the older houses are
one-story cinderblocks, and the terrain is pretty flat for both.  Only
where there are established large trees (live oaks!), is there much
hope for a satisfying complimentary landscape design.  The photo above shows a typical single-story Central Florida home graced with majestic live oaks.

The second point came home to me vividly in the last house we lived in,
a church-owned rectory situated next to a parking lot.  This was an
attractive two-story colonial stone house from the outside.  But from
the inside, the only views out from the living areas were of the
parking lot.  Even the screen porch had this vantage!  We might as well
have been living in a house with no windows, apart from some of the
filtered light.  I found it depressing.

When designing a garden, one of the primary tasks is to go into the
house and look out from the key windows and doors.  I ask the clients
where they like to sit, and it is almost always in a room with a view
of the garden.  Most gardens end up being a stage set, which means they
should look as attractive as possible as much of the year as possible
from the inside.  Above is a garden in Birmingham, Alabama, as seen from a favorite indoor spot of the clients.

Anyone who has a swimming pool understands that it
should be beautiful to look at, because it may seldom be used for what
it was intended.

Then, working on paper, I draw center lines out from each of those
important vistas, and try to make the garden’s axes work from them. 
Not only is this the classic design principle we inherited from the
Ancients, but an adaptation of this axial approach is what makes the
greatest gardens of the world — many in England — work so well:

I am often reminded of a friend’s explaining to me that Balanchine was
such a great choreographer because he never abandoned the classical
principles, but found creative ways to interpret them.  This same idea
is at work in the best English gardens, such as Sissinghurst or
Barnsley House.  That's Sissinghurst Garden in the photo above,
in Kent, England, designed by Harold Nicholson and
Vita Sackville-West, among the first to combine strong geometric lines
with profuse planting, a marriage of two elements and two personalities
that matched them.

The challenge for me as a garden designer is to stick
to classical principles of axes and proportion with a huge variety of
residential architectural styles.  Above, the “axis” of a garden in Birmingham.

This is where the plants and the quality of hard materials come in. 
Planting needs to soften and “warm up” the geometry. Materials should
age as quickly as possible to do the same, which is why natural stone
or brick or pots are always preferable.  Geometry alone makes for a
cold garden.  A profusion of plants with no geometry or relationship to
the house’s architecture is too chaotic for my tastes, and makes for a
less integrated whole, and actually a less peaceful atmosphere
year-round.  Getting that balance right for the client’s taste is the
biggest challenge I have.  Well, that, and creating something that
doesn’t die!

Below, an example of strong geometry and natural  materials softened by planting in a Birmingham garden:

Finally, to go a step further, I want the views to be so appealing that
they actually draw the owner out into the garden.  This is my unstated
goal: to create a gardener — or at least someone who is drawn into
nature and away from the computer or television — to a place that might
feed their soul.

Below, an inviting space for sitting in a small courtyard garden in Birmingham:

I'm struck by Mary's comparison of the garden to a stage set, something that must work first as seen through the “proscenium arches” of a house's apertures — windows, doors, porch frames.  The same is true for a theatrical set, once the curtain rises, or for the shots in a movie.  All these “sets” must be pleasing in themselves but also invite us to enter them — literally in the case of gardens, imaginatively in the case of stage or screen.  A stage set or a shot in a film, like a garden, can't just offer us a pretty picture — it must have a spatial quality which lures us into it, makes us want to inhabit it.  Only then, as with a garden, can it work its real magic.

[Photos by Mary Zahl, who also designed all the Birmingham gardens pictured above.]