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Understanding Garden Design: a book review for

Understanding Garden Design: The Complete Handbook for Aspiring Designers, Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD, Timber Press,                 

In spite of the rise in the number of independent-minded gardeners, who care little what others think, most people expect that their garden will not only make themselves happy but will also please their visitors. To accomplish these goals, fundamental principles of design must be respected. These principles are not based upon social or aesthetic convention, as so many free-thinking gardeners believe. When planning any garden, the author suggests that people ought to understand why a landscape needs to be designed, in the first place.

In this publication, the reader will learn that design principles reflect the need to engage the brain in a pleasurable sensory experience that allows one to perceive a garden as beautiful and fulfilling. Furthermore, when a landscape layout meets people’s physical and psychological needs, it helps them to function better. Sometimes it encourages an interaction with nature.

According to the author, the intelligent use of space is another benefit of proper garden design. Regardless of its size, a garden may serve very special purposes for a home owner and unless such needs are satisfied, the garden cannot be deemed to be a success. To achieve that level of satisfaction, Ms. Nagel suggests that advance planning is required before the first line of the garden can be drawn. Listed in that preparation are considerations for a play area for children, pets, outdoor work, the drying of laundry, storage, growing food, traffic patterns, entertainment, and a place to be alone.

Dealing with the topic of beauty in the garden, the author introduces the reader to basic design principles and suggests that, when they are incorporated into the planning, they are responsible for creating an aesthetically pleasing landscape. These basics are color, line, shape, form, space, proportion, mass, focal point, repetition and rhythm, movement, sequence, texture, variety, contrast, balance and unity. All of these concepts are elaborated upon in sufficient detail to enhance the reader’s knowledge of them.

Each of the twelve chapters of this book deals chronologically with the process of creating a successful garden. The first chapter is the eye opener. It establishes the framework for accomplishing one’s goal both philosophically and realistically. First, it discusses the rationale for a well designed garden and touches on issues such as hobby, health, and personal expression. Then, it alerts the aspiring designer to preliminary projects that must be undertaken before the first shovel is dug. These include, the gathering of data about the physical property, making preliminary decisions, measuring and photographing the site, drawing base plans, developing a concept on the plan, reviewing and deciding upon plants and hardscape materials, assembling costs and budget review, preparing the final master plan, and, finally, an evaluation of contractors and their qualifications. The author suggests that this advance planning, which can take up to six weeks, will allow for better decision making throughout the construction period.

Subsequent chapters elaborate upon the master plan and extend the conversation to include topics such as finishings, irrigation, lighting, and working with contractors. In the final chapter, titled “After Construction”, the author writes about completing the garden installation with garden art, furniture, containers, and outdoor entertaining. Readers will find enjoyment in the last section as it discusses such matters as creating ambience, crowd control techniques, and open garden etiquette. Here the author suggests that gardens need not be perfect or complete before visitors are invited in, as a garden in process is a learning opportunity.

Ms. Nagel reminds us that most landscaping books begin in “the middle” .i.e. with a discussion of basic design principles. The author affirms that something has to happen in the minds of gardeners before they tackle such concepts. Certain questions need to be answered first:-

Why design? What are the measurements that define the value of design? How does a landscape design benefit the homeowner?

By elaborating on these issues, prior to introducing design concepts, the author has added realism to the study of garden design. Her thoughtful guide is practical, and easy to follow. The extensive collection of photographs, selected to illustrate the text, are spot-on appropriate, surprisingly beautiful, and quite inspiring.


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Reader Comments (2)

This book sounds very interesting, and I would like to read it. I am sure it would be helpful to every gardener to understand the theories of design explained there. However, from the way you describe it, the book anticipates the garden work being done by outside contractors and the design itself originating from someone other than the homeowner. In that situation, I agree that "fundamental principles of design must be respected." But also in that situation, the homeowner is usually not a gardener. I think, for gardeners, design is not as important as the process of gardening (I will probably be struck by lightening for saying that). Also understanding design principles cannot replace the understanding which a gardener has of the unique conditions that come together only in her garden. Gardeners who ignore design principles can create a nightmare, but they can also function like Impressionists creating the next school of design in the face of the existing accepted practices.

Allan, This sounds like a book that would be very helpful to me. Although I agree with Carolyn that gardeners who do their own work develop an intuitive understanding of their gardens and gardening conditions, I am at the point in my own gardening and garden design where I need to move beyond happy accidents of intuition by developing a more explicit understanding of design principles. I already do the kind of advance planning work the book recommends -- although it tends to take me years rather than months, but this book could probably help me to improve that process. When I get to my front garden in the next few years, I'm expecting it to involve some work (serious earth moving and building retaining walls) that are beyond my capabilities -- so I think I'll find the chapters on working with contractors helpful, too.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

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