If You Want the Impact to Be Big, Think Small

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, November 1, 2007

The focus in residential landscape design these days is on small. This is in stark contrast to the focus on the abode, which is on ways of making old houses bigger and new ones gargantuan, carbon footprint be damned. Mansionization, in turn, fuels the interest in small gardens. Once you put up a McMansion, there isn't much room for a garden.

But say you had a modest-sized lot simply because you live on a modest-sized property. Wouldn't it be uplifting to create a landscape that enhanced both home and yard?

Gordon Hayward, a landscape designer from Westminster West, Vt., has been thinking a lot about that in recent years. He has been called on to bring some coherence to bare or ill-defined spaces around existing homes, many of them on the small side. I caught up with Hayward recently at a symposium at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, where he was one of four experts talking about small-scale design.

Hayward is particularly appealing as a lecturer because he has the capacity to identify common if unrecognized mistakes (the first step in getting it right) and to make sense of abstract design principles.

The huge blunder, Hayward argues, is that we use the lot lines as the starting point, and the result is a perimeter bed surrounding a panel of lawn, and a garden that is not only dull but uninviting.

He follows a typical sequence in bringing form to a client's garden. First he designs the paths, arranged to take the owner through and within garden beds. Then he creates structures along the way, as places to sit but also as visual accents to stop the eye and frame views. Next, he selects trees and shrubs that work with the built elements to form a winter scene. If the garden has form in winter, it has structure. Finally, he comes up with plants that bloom in the growing season. "What we usually do is just the opposite," he said. "We go to a nursery and find a plant we can't live without."

The structures he talks about include arbors, patios, arches, gates and pergolas, a fancy name for an arbor that covers a path. And how to locate them? Start with buildings. The house is the most obvious. The first floor of a house lends cues to creating a sitting area next to it; the width of the door or windows can dictate the spacing of the cross members of an arbor attached to the house. The arbor's posts can be positioned to frame a view from within the house. The arbor, its terrace and the larger garden space, enclosed perhaps by a fence, can all draw their dimensions from the height of the eave. For a one-story home, the distance might be nine feet, so you lay out the adjoining garden to be, perhaps, 18 feet wide. A two-story house, rising to 18 feet, might have an entry garden that is 18 or 27 feet wide. This is an old trick, but still, Hayward says, "a very good starting point" in forming a garden.

These ideas are demonstrated in his new book, "Small Buildings, Small Gardens" (Gibbs Smith, $29.95). One photograph shows a wooden arbor set against the side of a house, above the French doors and over a brick path. He writes: "Attach an arbor to the side or end of a house and you do four things: enclose a walking or sitting space, provide a support for vines, make the adjacent room feel bigger, extend the house into the garden."

One could add that arbors blanket us against the vastness of the sky and provide cooling shade in summer.

In rustic settings, which can be found in the city as well as the suburbs and exurbs, an arbor might be something as crude as slender logs of red cedar or black locust. One doesn't have to mortgage the house to put the principles to work, though it would be a false economy to erect something that cheapens the house. I find pressure-treated pine to be unpalatable, green and greasy, and commonly milled dimensions of many soft and hard woods to be too small for the outdoors, where scale shrinks everything. Particularly in small spaces, the quality of the materials and craftsmanship and the attention to detail are important.

It is vital, too, that in small spaces, the design is clean and minimal, with quiet and restrained plantings selected for their scale and texture over flowering appeal. And Hayward points out that you want to avoid trees that cast dense shade in small settings. Maples, lindens, Southern magnolias and even crape myrtles (unless artfully pruned) should be avoided, I would say. Pick something that will bring dappled shade. Hayward suggests a locust; I might add a Japanese cherry or corkscrew willow.

"Keep the design bold and simple," landscape designer John Brookes wrote almost 20 years ago. In his book "The New Small Garden," he said that "where space is at a premium, the style and design of neither the garden nor the house can afford to work in isolation from one another." When they are complementary, "restricted living space inside will benefit from the view of the garden outside, and conversely a cramped garden will seem less so if it is a harmonious extension of the building it adjoins."

Outbuildings, similarly, can be used as anchors for destinations within the garden. Sheds, garages and gazebos become the reference point for sitting areas and fulfill an aesthetic role as well as a utilitarian one. But careful placement is vital. Site a building not just for the view to the structure, but the views out of it. One trick of the trade is to walk around your garden with a light plastic chair and sit in it at prospective locations to see what vistas exist and can be enhanced.

Hayward makes the point that many sheds in America (I would add houses) have roof pitches that are too low. A low roof makes a prefabricated shed easier to ship, but it also lacks the charm and lightness of a steeply pitched roof.

Fences, he said, "clarify edges" and need not exist only at the property line. "We can garden in front of and behind a fence that we put in our gardens." He uses a good example of this in his book from Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River (and one of the sweetest gardens in the land, by the way: http://www.wavehill.org). A flower garden is edged with a fence of logs in a crude Chinese Chippendale style. The fence incorporates a bench capped with an arbor bearing a climbing rose.

Proving that these ideas have been around a long time in landscape design, Hayward points to the urban gardens of Colonial Williamsburg as small-scale places where homes, fences, smokehouses, wells and other outbuildings provide a framework for the landscape.

It should be said that the creation of gardens on any scale works best when there is a pleasing balance between vegetation and structures. The danger is in upsetting that relationship by overdoing the structures, or even in some settings by painting an arbor or gate white instead of letting it recede in a less insistent color.

Many instant gardens today are weighed down by too much tonnage of masonry: How many more serpentine walls of dry-stacked Pennsylvania fieldstone can the world bear? We seem to forget that trees and large shrubs provide their own structure if given some time.

As Hayward puts it so well: "Pleasing contrast is the key to good garden design. Built structures next to the freer forms of nature make each appear more intentional."

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