A landscape is most pleasing when it blends with its surroundings. Although your legal rights may stop at the property line, your viewing rights continue as far as you can see — to the neighbor’s yard, the surrounding hills, and the skyline. Also, you can choose to display your landscape to your neighbors or wall them out with shrubs, a wall, or a high hedge.
Public and Private Spaces
Land set aside and designed for the public has a different personality than land intended only for private use. Many privately maintained landscapes are, however, partly or entirely visible to the public.
Decide which aspects of your landscape you regard as public and which ones you regard as private. In some countries, the entire residential environment is considered private; even friends are rarely asked to visit there. In the United States, homes are often used to entertain, and front yards are often designed to be most attractive from the street or the front walk.
Work out a division of public and private spaces that appeals to you. You may want the entire garden to be on display, or you may want some degree of separation from onlookers on the street. Most landscapes arrive at a compromise between these two points of view, devoting some space to public and some to private use. By making this distinction a conscious one, you will increase the likelihood of attaining just what you want.
Openly visible parts of the landscape can usually be converted into private or semiprivate spaces. You may need to build a fence, screen the garden from outside view with carefully chosen shrubs, or perhaps plant some trees to block out a neighboring building. If you are mainly concerned with the way the house looks from the street and the impression it makes on people coming to the door, plan the garden accordingly.
The Borrowed Landscape
Although it is helpful to make the distinction between public and private land, you can also look at your landscape as actually extending beyond the limits of your property. In a sense, whatever you choose to notice becomes a part of your landscape. Your experience can be as limited or expansive as you choose to make it. The principle of borrowed landscape can be applied to the street you live on and the neighbors’ yards. Use the vistas and vegetation that happen to lie outside of your yard. Regardless of the size of the plot, it can be expanded by incorporating views of the neighboring terrain. By opening the view, distant trees or mountains can be included in the landscape.
Perhaps you can work with your neighbor to plant trees and shrubs that blur the property line and make the two gardens appear as one. By visually merging two yards, a much more usable and pleasing space than either of the individual sites can be created. And some privacy can be maintained by screening certain areas.
In Japan the borrowed landscape is a long-practiced tradition. Low, mounding shrubs conceal property limits, but do not destroy the ability to enjoy the surroundings at large. A quarter-acre lot can be made to look much larger by cleverly locating the house, providing view spaces, and camouflaging the property boundaries with plantings. Unless surrounding views are unattractive, make use of them where possible. Don’t plant a straight line of trees along the deed line. By doing so, you make the statement that nothing beyond your garden matters and that you want to block out any other view.
What you do within the confines of your yard makes an impression elsewhere. The trees you plant will be seen from afar as they grow, and flowers and shrubs will be appreciated by passersby. The attention you pay to the streetscape will eventually have an impact on the atmosphere of your own place. Plant the parking strips, if there are any, and consider planting street trees that will correspond with plantings in your garden. The more interest you take in the space surrounding your home, the more you will, in effect, own it.
Taking Advantage of What You Have
Except in new subdivisions where the sites may be graded but unplanted, some kind of landscaping, however limited, usually exists. Whatever this older landscape is — a well-developed planting, a wild country spot with native trees, an apartment courtyard — make changes fit into the whole. Make the most of what you have to work with. If you live in a condominium and a 10-by 20-foot patch of ground is the only space in which to landscape, consider the unique advantages of your situation. Your garden can be like a jewel box. Although you won’t have room for large trees, you can certainly grow small ones in tubs, train vines onto an overhead canopy, or add the special atmosphere of a mountain stream with the aid of a simple Japanese splash-box. A limited amount of space needn’t hamper your ability to design a charming outdoor area that improves the mood of your home.
Or you may own a big place in the country that needs landscaping. Consider the possibilities of creating areas that have an intimate quality, modifying the tree cover, siting auxiliary buildings, and establishing new roads, paths, and routes through the site. Most outdoor environments fall somewhere in between the two extremes. A house will almost certainly have some sort of existing landscape that will need to be assessed in order to use it wisely, without wasting its existing qualities or potential.
Respecting the Genius of the Place
You will appreciate and enjoy nature more if you are alert to its needs, and if you work to satisfy them in the design of the garden. Designing a landscape is not only the art of making changes that complement existing architectural and natural surroundings. It also involves appreciating and incorporating the unique qualities of the area.
Before non-native plantings and other changes were brought about by housing developments, the character of an area had a special flavor. It may have been a dense, hardwood forest with craggy outcroppings, as Manhattan was until after the sixteenth century. Perhaps it was an open, grassy field, sparsely peppered with giant oak trees.
Respect the genius of the place in creating gardens and landscapes. The genius is that special quality characteristic of the natural setting, unaltered by human hands. This respect demonstrates an attentiveness to and feeling for what is natural. But even if the neighborhood doesn’t resemble the wild landscape that once existed there, the character or genius that has taken its place must also be respected.
To discover more about the native character of the property, drive out beyond populated areas to observe undeveloped nature. Is it flat, rolling, or steep? Is it forested or open?
Observing the quality of this native land can serve you in two ways. First, it is a sure indication of what grows well in your area. Planting your landscape with native plants will not only blend them with the surroundings, it will reduce landscape maintenance. You actually work against nature when you use plants that do not grow well in the region.
Second, by following the natural landscape trends of the area, your individual landscape will fit into the environment and not look out of place. Your landscape will be a personalized extension of all that nature offers in that locality.