Landscape design at its best

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, September 23, 2010

More than 5,000 landscape architects were in town this month for the annual convention of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The gathering offered me a chance to tag along on a tour of first-rate gardens in Northwest Washington and to see them through the eyes of learned professionals.

I have my own take on professionally designed gardens. Some of them can be as deeply mediocre as they are expensive, a phenomenon directly linked to the talents and sophistication of the designer, the business model of the company doing the work and the lack of design literacy of the client.

There are clues to unfortunate landscape design: the excessive use of elements such as ponds, retaining walls, arbors and the trophy outdoor barbecue. They are places where the designer has emptied the bag of tricks. I have a deep aversion to modular pavers and walls. They give a clean, finished look, they're functional and they allow a contractor to price and execute a job without the hassles of working with the irregularity of natural stone and slate or organic brick. But this same uniformity and predictability makes one garden look pretty much the same as the next, robbing it of its essential character.

Happily, the five gardens that I saw were spared the ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all concrete paver. What they did share, without compromising character, was the use of terraces to form distinct garden spaces. Whether it holds a pond, a lawn or paving or, often, all those elements, a terrace is a vital component in making gardens. It provides not just the physical and psychological comfort of flat ground, but also becomes the floor to a garden room shaped by plant borders, hedges and perhaps walls. It is used to fashion spaces that are consciously linked to a room in the house.

In one garden by Richard Arentz, a sunken terrace held a rectilinear pond incorporating planters. There was a sheer Edwardian decadence to it, and the descent added much to the sense of drama.

In another garden, landscape architect Joan Honeyman spoke of how a terrace forms an elevated front lawn that puts the house on a pedestal.

One of my favorite spaces was a small side garden featuring a round fish pond and beds of roses, enclosed by a high, clipped beech hedge. The tall hedge is a fabulous device for creating a high wall, especially in a small urban garden, but it requires vision and patience and a twice-a-year clipping by someone who knows what he's doing. Designed by Lila Fendrick, this garden wraps around an Italianate villa and has a timeless beaux-arts feel about it. Opulent but relaxed.

Seasoned landscape architects know all this stuff; what they're looking for is the same sort of thing any garden lover is seeking on a tour: ideas and inspiration. It might be something as small as the radius of an arching stone step, or the grate detail of a drain.

"One of the things I love about these gardens is that every square inch is wonderfully designed and maximized," said Kathryn Pacious, a designer based in Alexandria. She was saying this after looking at a rear garden in Cleveland Park by Florence Everts. It incorporates a swimming pool and an old garage that has been converted into an elegant pavilion. The garden is framed by lattice fencing, painted white. The fence provides privacy but with a lightness that would be lost with a solid fence. Elsewhere, Everts has hidden the black tubing of a container irrigation pipe under the stone wall's limestone top. Her cohorts lapped it up.

In the garden by Honeyman, the tourists are drawn to a stone wall fountain with a sheeting waterfall. Craig Bergmann, a landscape architect in Wilmette, Ill., noticed that the submerged lamps in the pond were topped with bronze covers with a lily pad motif.

Water features are tough on their materials and components, especially in states such as Minnesota. William Pesek, a landscape architect in St. Paul, eyes everything through the prism of a brutal freeze-thaw effect. "You'll see a lot of water features done 15, 20 years ago now serving as planters," he said.

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