Style and the Environment

A garden site — a particular piece of ground adjacent to your house — should accommodate the architectural style of that house. It lies close to, and must coexist with, other home landscapes in your neighborhood. And it is inescapably part of a geographic region, whose climate, topography, native vegetation, and perhaps traditional garden styles you should examine before committing yourself to a particular style.

Architecture of Your House

To be effective, the style of your landscape must be compatible with the architectural style of your house. If the house is designed in a particular period style — Spanish-American colonial or English Tudor, for instance — one possibility is to design a landscape that reflects the same period. Researching the authentic landscape style for your house can be a fascinating, gratifying undertaking. But strict adherence to a period style is limiting and, in some cases, labor-intensive — for example, shearing hedges, shaping topiary, and maintaining borders or beds, in addition to the preliminary research. It could also be impractical; for example, materials might be unavailable or too costly, the terrain and space might be unsuitable, or traditional plants might be horticulturally inappropriate.

A more workable and at least as aesthetically pleasing solution is to use a style that simply is compatible with the house. If the house is symmetrical and the yard is level or nearly so, symmetry and a high degree of structure in the garden are appropriate. Or you can make more extensive use of symmetry near the house and, if the property is spacious, create transitional areas toward a more relaxed style farther away from the house. An older house without pronounced symmetry or the strong suggestion of a period might be surrounded by a garden of an informal style. If the house is modern and its lines are simple and clean, rather than heavily ornamented or evocative of a period style, almost any style, including Japanese, could be adapted to suit your needs.

The best approach is to study the atmosphere that the house creates in its setting. If that atmosphere is appealing, decide how the style of the garden might enhance it. If the atmosphere is not appealing, consider what style might best neutralize or mask the deficiencies of the house.

Be realistic about the topography of your property and its size relative to the size of the house. Uneven terrain, where alterations are impractical or undesirable, lends itself to simple, asymmetrical designs. An unusually spacious lot invites bold effects or a division of the property into different areas, whose styles may vary to some extent, as long as they are screened from each other and do not clash.

Surrounding Gardens

Does a discernible style prevail in your neighborhood? Walk and look, especially if you are new to the area. Notice whether there is any sort of unity, if only in plant selections, in the overall neighborhood landscape. If so, what can be done to unify your garden with those surrounding it? If, on the other hand, your neighborhood landscape is a patchwork of styles, what can you do with your property to help minimize that effect — or at least to avoid intensifying it?

In some neighborhoods in parts of the southeastern United States, a satisfying style is achieved by minimizing boundary markers — fences, wails, hedges, and screens between front gardens — and leaving or planting the indigenous longleaf pines. This creates, in effect, an unbroken sweep of lawn and airy pines that can be underplanted with azaleas, camellias, and dogwoods, occasionally punctuated with southern magnolias. It is a style with strong seasonal interest, relation to the natural surroundings, sense of regional tradition, and perfect horticultural appropriateness. The unity and continuity make the sense of neighborhood more complete.

Regional Environment

In deciding on an appropriate landscape style, you need to consider your garden in the broad context of the region. It’s imperative to study natural characteristics of the area where you live, especially topography, weather, and native vegetation, if your style is to have integrity and practicality. If you live in a region with a traditional landscaping style that developed because of its appropriateness to the region, you may decide to adopt or borrow from it.

Looking to nature

Even if you’re a city dweller with a tiny plot of land deep in a manmade canyon of brick, steel, and concrete, you must at least consider climate before settling on an appropriate garden style. If you live in suburb, town, or open country, the relation of your outdoor space to its natural context necessitates looking at the native vegetation and prevailing topography of the region (particularly the topography in which, or within view of which, your property lies).

An English-style garden may look out of place and function poorly in southern California. On the other hand, the sort of southeastern landscape style described above works well in parts of the Southeast, largely because it uses plantings native to the region.

In a southwestern garden, the colors and contours of nearby mountains and expanses of flat land might influence style as strongly as aridity and extreme summer heat do. The style of a northern garden might be determined to an extent by the need to trap and hold solar heat in one or more protected, south-facing areas. Native trees and shrubs would make a link with the natural environment and withstand the rigors of winter.

Northern California’s Mediterranean climate influences plant selection in many environmentally appropriate gardens there, and the area’s Mediterranean light invites styles that take advantage of the vividness of color.

Looking to tradition

Many regions of the United States have traditional styles. Some were established early and have strong ethnic flavor. For instance, in California and the Southwest the Spanish-American courtyard garden provides shelter from parching winds, some shade from blazing sunlight, touches of color, and the luxury of splashing water.

Other styles considered to be traditional are more recent in origin. For example, the northern California style began to emerge before the mid-twentieth century, as the population of the area swelled and residential development boomed. Landscape architect Thomas Church, largely responsible for this style, recognized the need for gardens that reflect the pleasures of almost year-round indoor-outdoor living in a gentle climate. He also believed in using widely available and relatively low-cost materials such as concrete, asphalt, gravel, and wood to create modern, low-maintenance terraces and other paved surfaces which were descendants of the Spanish-American indoor-outdoor gardens.

By mixing geometric and free forms, Church created gardens that bore his unmistakable stamp, yet always suited their sites and the individual needs and tastes of his clients.