There’s a big difference between a well-designed garden and a garden that sparkles, and it’s in the details. Getting things in just the right place and taking advantage of opportunities are what bring a garden design to life.
Good designers “have a sense of scale and proportion and circulation,” says James Drzewiecki, a landscape designer and owner of Ginkgo Leaf Studio in Cedarburg, Wis. “And when you have good details, even if they are subtle, people pick up on that.”
Drzewiecki never has to look far for inspiration in the gardens he designs. “I look at the house first,” he says, picking up visual cues that suggest the ideal location for beds and pathways. The choice of materials for hardscaping in a garden design often echoes the materials in a house, he says, and gives the garden a feeling of belonging in the place.
In an award-winning garden near Milwaukee, Drzewiecki reimagined a client’s front yard, adding functional and artful details designed to make the space more modern and welcoming. Bluestone pavers set in slate-chip mulch, placed adjacent to the driveway, give passengers a comfortable place to step in and out of a car without stepping in flower beds. Along the front walk, a pad of irregularly shaped field stones reflects the home’s prairiestyle architecture and creates what Drzewiecki calls “a pausing point” in the landscape. It’s a skillful touch: Instead of coming in on a runway of a front walk, visitors immediately find themselves in the midst of a gracious garden landscape.
Wickie Rowland, a landscape designer and creative director at Design and Landscapes by Labrie Associates in North Hampton, N.H., relies on design details to create movement in a garden.
Rowland designed a sweeping stone walkway with a generously proportioned curved seating wall on the waterfront of a client’s property, an expansive gesture that pulls the eye into the landscape. Behind the wall, her design called for a row of wispy plantings, just enough to soften and highlight the edge without blocking the view. A fancy garden gate, which borrows architectural details from the home, marks an entrance but also keeps deer out of the vegetable beds on the other side.
In another garden, Rowland used an unexpected combination of boulders, pea gravel and field stones in her design of the hardscape, but limited the color palette to warm brown tones. Even though the materials are texturally very different from one another, the color choice “marries it all together, so it makes sense,” she says.
Details strongly reinforce design decisions, Rowland says, describing the great care an installation crew took to place clipped boxwood globes around a client’s perfectly symmetrical rose garden. “The pathways had to line up just so, and the boxwoods all needed to be the same distance from the edging,” she says. “You may not notice consciously when the smaller details have been paid attention to, but there’s a sense of extra pleasure in seeing a project like that.”
In small projects, details are particularly important, says Ryan Prange, a landscape architect and the founder of Falling Waters Landscape in Encinitas, in Southern California, where small lots are typical. They have their own challenges, Prange says. In tiny spaces, design elements frequently have to do double duty, solving problems (and hiding them) while giving clients beautiful spaces for the outdoor lifestyle they’re dreaming of.
On a tiny lot just north of Encinitas, Prange met with a client who needed a solution to periodic flooding but also wanted a home office off the deck, a place to entertain and privacy from the street.
Water problems had to be addressed first. “We talked about everything — from lifting the house to rebuilding,” Prange says. In the end, they excavated, creating swales and depressions in the landscape and lining them with rocks and water-tolerant plants. A company that specializes in water systems contributed valuable technical expertise, but Prange’s design details, including a recirculating fountain that seems to spill into one of the swales, and a footbridge over a catchment area inspired by the experience of a similar bridge in Yosemite Valley, set the project apart.
“Sometimes a problem can be hidden with a pot or a plant, but there are also times when I say, ‘This is going to be a neat moment’ — and everything needs to work together,” Prange says. “It all matters a lot to me.”
Great garden designs respond to site and situation, solve problems, and manage to make it all look beautiful, inviting and natural. It may look effortless, but the details are hard at work everywhere you look.
The website of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (apld.org) is a great place to look for examples of award-winning garden designs, and to find a designer in your area.
These designers are among many APLD members whose work has been recognized with APLD design awards:
James Drzewiecki, Ginkgo Leaf Studio, ginkgoleafstudio.net.
Wickie Rowland, Design and Landscapes by Labrie Associates, labrieassociates.com.
Ryan Prange, Falling Waters Landscape, fallingwaterslandscape.com
Ross is a freelance garden writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo. She writes a regular gardening column for Universal Press Syndicate, and is a regional editor and garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens, Country Gardens, and Nature’s Garden magazines.