Will There Still Be a Place for the Plants?

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where is the garden heading? Quite possibly to the distant past, to A.D. 1404, and the garden of the Central Asian prince Timur. In the ancient city of Samarkand, he built a garden where he received visitors while reclined on an embroidered mattress set on a dais.

In the surrounding orchards, writes the landscape historian Penelope Hobhouse in "Gardens of Persia," "there were pitched many tents the walls of which were of silk stuff or the like."

Yes, friends, the current mania for bringing the house outside is turning the suburban back yard into a set right out of the Arabian Nights. Timur, no doubt, would feel quite at home flipping through the pages of the current lifestyle accessory catalogues advertising hot tubs, outdoor kitchens, banquet tables, even netted chaises and divans for where the roses once grew. Some yards now boast finely crafted stone hearths and chimneys reaching as much as 16 feet in height and $60,000 in cost, according to a recent report.

This trend is called Outdoor Living, or the art of communing not so much with nature as with commercial goods.

This all begins to seem a little bizarre when you consider that while houses are getting bigger and lot sizes smaller, garden space is more precious than ever. That staple of the 19th-century American garden, the gazebo, made sense when people needed more light, more air and more room. Now, the gazebo might be considered merely the starting point. Why stop there when you can get a trophy kitchen, bed, shower and hearth, all under the stars?

I should say that not everyone believes we are paving over paradise. Some close observers believe this will help the cause of gardening by bringing new converts. "I think it's a wonderful thing because it's getting everyone outdoors," said Charlotte Frieze, garden editor at House and Garden magazine. The practical need for soundproofing and screening will lead people to plants in search of solutions, she said. "People who are building gardens are aware of the environment," she said. "I have seen people put [the full works] in but they still have plants in their garden."

Todd Meier, publisher of Fine Gardening magazine, has gauged the trend by observing his local garden center in Connecticut. The nursery used to sell plants alone, but now half the inventory is outdoor furniture, he said.

Last May, he and his colleagues put out a special edition called Outdoor Design and Living that drew from file stories in Fine Gardening and other publications of Taunton Press focused on home building, cooking, woodworking and interior design. "It's not just gardening, it's about lifestyle," he said. Another issue is in the works. Is he worried that the interest in pure gardening will diminish? "In a way, yes, but I think there will always be an interest in gardening," he said.

Perhaps one stylish and appealing way of dealing with this trend comes from (who else?) Martha Stewart. She has just published a special issue called Martha Stewart Outdoor Living, on the newsstands now. To her credit, the garden and plants are front and center, and the rest of the issue is about making things yourself, from stay-put tablecloths to barbecued chicken.

Margaret Roach, editorial director of Martha Stewart Living, said she has seen "so many" overblown landscapes "that lack the joy of being outside."

"If you're going to entertain all the time, that's fantastic," she said. "I would just say -- and I think Martha would agree -- if you're going to be outside you want that connection to the outdoors. Make room for the botanical elements; that makes it so much more fantastic, and different from being in the house."

The key then, is to know when to stop. The accumulation of hardscape, of pavers, rocks, boulders and walls, can become such a critical mass. "There's a certain point" said Roach, "that it makes me think of 'The Flintstones.' "

As with all aspects of the landscape, another essential need is for a skillful designer, and not one with a vested interest in specifying every last bell and whistle.

"Everybody is wanting these things," said Sandy Clinton, a landscape architect in Hyattsville. "I always say to my clients who ask for these kinds of things that it's a matter of proportion" between built elements and plantings. "We try very hard to integrate the two, so it's not one versus the other."

Book publishers are noting this phenomenon. Australian designer Jamie Durie has written a book called "The Outdoor Room" (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), which shows some novel if highly designed landscapes geared to the outdoor life.

I am drawn more to a new book that comes at this more obliquely, "Small Buildings, Small Gardens," by Vermont landscape designer Gordon Hayward (Gibbs Smith, $29.95). The book is full of pictures of structures, including decks and patios, positioned sympathetically in the garden and begging to be used and enjoyed.

He writes: "If you use built structures wisely and with restraint, if you construct lasting structures in concert with a wide variety of plants for all sorts of purposes, then I think your garden will engage people." In an interview, Hayward added that hardscaping offers the promise of something immediate, preformed, whereas "it's more difficult to create a garden; it takes more thought and more care."

I think of two other aspects of this California living on the East Coast: Will the outdoor room still be used after the novelty has worn off, and how will it age? A garden, with planning and maintenance, grows better through the years, with your presence. Can the same be said of a tented gazebo? There is one other fly in the ointment, although it's a different type of flying insect. "Mosquitoes are such a problem now," Clinton said, "that people are wanting something quasi outdoors in a screened area."

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