Recently, I was asked what makes a landscape design unique? An honest question. After thinking about it for a few days, I realized it’s simple: a passionate story. Passion for the outdoors. Passion for plants. Passion for, well, gardening. While this may seem redundant (a landscape designer with a passion for plants?), it’s somewhat alarming to me how often landscape designers, architects, and landscape professionals I meet have little more than a casual and rudimentary interest in plants and botany in general, and specifically gardening. I’m talking about gardening as a hobby, an activity, a passion in their own lives. And it shows in the finished product, “spaces” (not gardens, notice) which often recycle the same dozen or so plants in the same, admittedly effective at times, groupings and combinations. Personally, I think that’s a cop out. It’s like going to a restaurant where the people aren’t into food. Way too easy and largely uninspiring results in the end. Great garden design, for me, begins with a love of plants, tailored to fit the interests and character of the garden’s keepers, as well as the history of the surrounding architecture and land. Landscape design that doesn’t reveal a passion for the plants they contain or bear the weight of the area’s rich botanical history (notice the story in history), whether personal or otherwise, are largely bankrupt. At the best, boring.
Of course, there is also a lot to like when you look around Austin. In Central Texas (and Austin, in particular), we are blessed with a rather large number of talented and highly-educated landscape designers and professionals. So I am not alone in my love for plants. I admit it. No, what truly makes my landscape designs unique, after thinking about it, I hope, has to do with my other passion: literature, especially poetry (I have an M.F.A. in Poetry from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop). I am enamored with the idea, for instance, that a garden possesses an inherent narrative, telling a story of the people who live there (or lived there) or the history of that particular place. A garden vernacular, I suppose. I also aim to create gardens that possess true character, illicit an emotional response to those who would sit still in them, even for a short period of time, and I want gardens to open up a new way of seeing the world we live in. Why shouldn’t gardens surprise, delight, and entertain us? Or allow us space to think, relax, or discover ourselves? Great gardens should burrow their way into the routine of our daily lives and, hopefully, shape those lives for the better.
All of this is what happens in the greatest gardens, just as it does when you are standing in front of a great painting or reading a great novel. And while this may all seem rather lofty to some, I wonder whether those in the business of garden-making wouldn’t benefit from having, at times, loftier and more far-reaching goals. Personally, I think we need more loftiness and, for my part, I plan to make a few people’s lives (maybe not everyone’s, but a few) all the richer.