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A landscape architect’s rules of thumb

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Landscape designers approach each project differently, driven by a site’s size, context, topography, the needs of the owners and, of course, the budget. But some of the basic challenges and fixes at Orlean House in Orlean, Va., involved considerations that apply universally.

Analyze existing features

Don’t assume that existing elements such as decks, paths and patios are in the right place, are correctly scaled or bring unity to the landscape. Often they don’t, especially if they were added piecemeal over many years by previous owners. For example, a deck perched off the back of the home offers usable outdoor space, but it may be too exposed and disconnected from the garden. When Julie Moir Messervy, a landscape designer and author of “Home Outside” (Taunton Press, 2009), designs a deck, she creates different levels and landings, and establishes a lower sitting area where “you are nestled,” she says, in a harboring environment.

Honor the house

Overgrown foundation plants or other vegetation can mask the house or impede a view of its architecture. “The idea of breathing room is important for a house,” Messervy says. “You need to give it its due.”

Shift the boundary

In our culture, people tend to be afraid of expressing themselves in the landscape, especially in the front. A low hedge or fence around the front yard is not unneighborly, says Messervy, but tells the world that “you respect the little bit of land that you have and you find it valuable. For me, it’s also the notion that home starts at the front gate, not when you walk through the front door.”

Create a journey

At Orlean House, the organizing idea was one of a journey to the house. Even in small city and suburban lots, the same principle applies. The entrance to the path should be clear — with a gateway, for example. “You need to create a really important visual cue; this is where you start,” says Messervy. You don’t need to see the destination, the front door, but you do need to know that “if you go that way, you can trust it will get you there.”

— Adrian Higgins

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