A client once asked us to include a clothesline in an all-natural garden we were designing. It wasn't a large yard, and this utilitarian feature didn't fit the theme. I suggested we get rid of it. The owner had no intention of doing that, so the clothesline became an important design element.
This is the way you should design a landscape. You're creating not only a beautiful garden, but also a practical space that should reflect your tastes.
In this case, the objective was to suggest aesthetically pleasing ways to hang clothes out to dry.
What if owners of a Williamsburg-style house want a natural, low-maintenance grove of trees or a field of wildflowers to grace their property? Fitting a natural landscape design with a strongly symmetrical formal house of this type contradicts certain artistic principles. There are always ways to make it work -- a woodland grove and wildflowers along the entry drive could integrate the house into the landscape; frame a formal parterre with an edging of native plantings arranged in a uncontrived fashion; plant a sweep of meadow through a manicured sunny lawn. These would not break up the formal aspects of the structure, only soften them.
While ideas are developing, experiment with your garden by planting several areas, installing a path or adding a sculpture. Go to garden centers and botanical gardens and look in catalogues to identify the plants and landscape structures that you like.
However, achieving the entire look and feel you want might not be allowed. Some homeowners associations dictate landscape design requirements for ease of maintenance and to unify the grounds. Even in these situations, there are ways to fit your ideas and landscape design preferences -- except maybe hanging laundry, which is forbidden by some associations.
Rules ensure that all yards receive some maintenance, and give a unified appearance to the community, but they can stifle creativity of zealous homeowners, horticulturists and landscape artists. And some jurisdictions and homeowners associations regulate tree removal, plant care, fences, paving, walls, decks and the amount of lawn or tree cover you must have. Some might even require approval for landscape installations.
Even though you may hit some stumbling blocks along the way -- community rules, drainage issues, wildlife damage -- now is a perfect time to develop an idea of your preferences. Garden centers are overflowing with plants.
Landscape design can be an abstract concept to grasp. This is because it's tougher to visualize the effect of an entire garden than to imagine a single element in the mind's eye, such as a flower, tree or trellised vine. Therefore, the big picture should be broken into smaller parts so you can better understand it.
This can be accomplished with a checklist of considerations about what you want for your property. Here are some key points, so you will be able to create a concept for a landscape that is personally yours.
Reflect on your childhood, when you were already identifying favorite landscape elements. The sound of water could remind you of playing with friends by a stream. The fresh, green smell of lawn, fragrant honeysuckle vines and spring flowers might remind you of family picnics.
What elements excite you in the garden now -- sculpture, colors, rocks, smells, paths or types of paving? What themes do you prefer more than others -- formal fountains versus rock water cascades, geometric, symmetrically balanced paving or a curved, sweeping patio into the woods? These thoughts and images form the framework of your design.
Get to know your outdoor space. Pay careful attention to the dimensions of your land, compass points, hours of sun, drainage patterns and the location of underground utilities. This will ensure that your garden is useable and that plants grow. By becoming familiar with all the features of your property, you will save time, money and aggravation later.
Consider every aspect of your outdoor area, favorite colors, seasons, plants, building materials and activities. Do you entertain? Have children? How many hours do you spend in the garden? Do you want screening, seating, lighting or water?
Sit, read, work and relax in your outdoor area, at different times of the day and night. Note how the sun travels, casting shadows or creating hot spots. Where is it most pleasing to sit, and which direction do you like to face for maximum comfort?
Look to the horizon. Check the view from every possible angle. You want to enhance or frame an aesthetically pleasing vista. Often pleasant views are lost when developers clear land, and it is necessary to create beautiful vistas of your own.
Highlight existing features on your property. Develop designs that retain and enhance existing features, such as native wildflowers, streams, rock outcroppings, native woodland plants, an old windblown juniper and existing trees. Decide whether a gnarly old tree is worth keeping. The extra thought is worth it, before removing.
If the features are liabilities, you might want to remove them. For example, if vegetable gardening is your interest, rock outcroppings are a nuisance. An old eastern red cedar or pine would be in the way if you are installing a formal garden. The choices are yours.
Sculptural elements, seating, fountains and water gardens are welcome in most landscape designs. Just one piece in a private corner of the yard, tucked into some background shrubs, and surrounded by perennials, can add interest to your garden.
Ultimately, your budget determines the size and quantity of plants you install. An often-quoted rule of thumb is to budget 10 percent of the property value for landscaping to ensure a return on your investment. But cost shouldn't hold you back from creating your ideal design with thoughts, notes, pictures and drawings of concepts you envision.
This search for design ideas is fun and can be habit forming. I find myself craning my neck to analyze design ideas as I drive past them at 50 miles an hour. Sometimes I'll go back and take a closer look or snap a photograph. Landscape design ideas are everywhere. You are surrounded by them, from neighborhood to mall to office buildings and doctor's offices.
You can find plantings that are exactly what you need to offset a fence, enhance an entry, put around a pool or screen the neighbor. Ask yourself, "Would this arrangement work on my property?" You might even find a way to hang your laundry out to dry.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.