Landscape Garden

The garden has long been perceived as the highest, most perfect form of all art creations, the one closest to God and bearing the imagery of paradise itself. Indeed, the timeless quote, "One is closest to God in the garden," has been the splendid pleasure driving countless generations to transform the land into garden. No matter how pleasurable, how physically and spiritually rewarding working the vegetable garden and nurturing the home orchard may be, however, the paradise of gardening is the creation and maintenance of a landscape garden. This is the garden of art, the garden of soul. A landscape garden is a plot of ground made beautiful by the arrangement and careful cultivation of plants. The art is called landscape gardening and its artist and cultivator a landscape gardener. Landscaping one's home ground is the means by which most Minnesotans become acquainted with at least the fringes of the art of landscape gardening. When they dream of home it is a house in a setting, a setting of lovely trees and shrubs civilized with a carpet of lawn and an arrangement of beautiful flowers.

Landscape gardening is primarily a visual art form. Its beauty is first to be seen, but its purpose is to stimulate thought, to cause to dream, to effect memory, to inspire. The landscape garden is classically to be a place of quiet where the visitor, upon entering, finds a closer communion with the thoughts and feelings of all who have ever gardened this Earth than with the time and troubles of the day.

Although picturesque, the landscape garden is not a painting, it is a performance. Its artist is not a painter but a choreographer arranging not fixed colors and forms on a canvas, but directing exits and entrances of living members of Earth's realm, plants bearing color and form, lines and textures which, especially in our northland, are constantly changing. Yesterday's garden as yesterday's ballet will never again be performed. Yet the skilled landscaper garden artist, by tailoring shrubs and trees to a particular style or by using annual flowers for sweeps of color, can slow change in the garden to give the impression of permanence.

The landscape garden is to be entered, as one enters a cathedral or library. In English literature one "retires" to or "withdraws" into the library, presumably to consult or escape with some thought, some dream, some memory, some inspiration in print. To aid withdrawal there must be border. The gardened place must be defined so the eye and mind cannot wander; so thoughts and dreams cannot be interrupted. With no borders the landscape garden is no garden at all, but a field.

The arrangement of plants is to the landscape gardener what the arrangement of chords is to the pianist. Although it is possible for a novice pianist to find a pleasing chord, one chord does not make a composition. Likewise, a novice gardener may plant a pleasing combination of flowers and shrubbery, but a landscape garden this does not make. "Composers" of the successful landscape garden know their plants. They know plants' shapes and sizes and how these can be tailored to style. They know plant colors and textures and when and how they change. Garden artists know the sun and shadow of the garden and how to introduce or exclude either. They know plant preferences for shade, soil, and moisture. They gain their knowledge primarily from the experience of working with plants, from years of planting and replacing until the right combination suits the eye.

Not only must the successful landscape garden be designed and planted, it must be given time to mature. Gardens, like people, gain character with age. It may take years, decades before a landscape garden performs its best. Trees cannot yet be manufactured. And the garden must be groomed, regularly tended by caring, experienced hands, the hands of an artist, the hands of a worker. And even when all this is done well, what is achieved is an arrangement of living plants each and all subject to Nature's mood and dictate, to stand or fall as Nature sees fit. A garden as planned is a garden never achieved.

The Practical

In our newer Minnesota communities some form of landscaping is required by local ordinances for the "common good". For newly built homes this usually means covering the bare ground with the least expensive plant material, lawn. Planting shade trees is now also required in some newer communities, whether they are needed or not.

Many homeowners know very little about landscape plants; their variety, their features, forms and sizes, their speed of growth, and soil requirements. It is also generally unknown, logically and artistically, "why what is put where."

Homeowners do know lawn, what it looks like and where it goes. They know it needs fertilizing, mowing, and doesn't do well in shade. In the home landscape a well maintained lawn can be lovely, but without trees and shrubs it is little more than a field supporting a very lonely house.

In older home grounds, likely through neglect at sometime in their history, the landscape becomes a disorder of overgrowth hiding entrances, blocking windows, walkways, the sun and beauty. Once beautiful lawns begin to die. Nothing seems in harmony, so typically everything is torn out, the good and the bad. So, the homeowner starts again, too often not knowing where to begin or what could be done! Beauty becomes a distant second to low maintenance. But beauty drives the soul to visit and learn about and enjoy and maintain lovely landscape gardened grounds.

For many years homeowners were told by established experts "Putting a landscape plan on paper is the most efficient way to design or remodel the arrangement of your home grounds." Further they were, and still are told, to "Gather your tools", graph paper, pencil, tissue paper, the 12-inch ruler, and outdoor measuring tape to create a birds eye view of the prospective landscape. However efficient this method of design may be, landscapes are designed for people who view their beauty at eye level not for crows flying from tree to tree.

What Kind of Landscape best fits your home grounds

The formal or more naturalistic?

The Formal Landscape
Little in American life today is formal. Yet most of our Minnesota home landscapes are still designed, if they are designed at all, more or less formally. Early Minnesota city & town streets and lots were plotted by newcomers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. Streets were straight and lots were rectangular. Houses for most buyers were boxy and had to be built fast! The Vikings were coming!

One of the texts of the day which easterners brought with them was "Beautifying the Suburban Home Grounds", a text to "aid persons of moderate income" to help them "make gems of home beauty on a small scale". "Suburban" meant a part of the city to be built not as rural or congested as in the existing urban areas but as an ideal community of "reasonably" priced lots on 50-foot front by 200-foot depth to some 200-foot by 300-foot lots for "commodious" houses and "suburban homes with stables and gardens". These are to be located "within easy walking distances from business where men of congenial taste and friendly families may make purchases and cluster their improvements so as to obtain all the benefits of rural pleasures and many of the beauties of park scenery without relinquishing the luxuries of town life".

As a mark of displaying the civilized rather than the wild, and influenced by the grid patterns of city streets, the home landscape would generally become a formal design where plants to decorate the house would be arranged more or less in geometric patterns; straight lines (hedges, tree lines, foundation plantings), triangles, circles, or groupings of threes and fives and guided by some unwritten rule that what is placed on the right must be placed on the left. Here is where your "graph paper, pencil, and ruler" method of landscape design could be helpful.

When well designed, the formal landscape makes its greatest impact upon the visitors' first view of the grand pattern. For decades the beauty of the stately, uniformly pruned American Elms formally lining the streets of Minnesota towns and cities declared to richer and poorer these communities were civilized and the people here lived in harmony.

The Naturalistic Landscape Design
Nature is order attacked by disorder. {Some non-gardeners might argue Nature is disorder seeking order.} War, a tornado, fire, earthquake, a construction site, a messy room or an uprooted garden cause disorder and ugliness. Time and/or "cleaning up" or "putting in order" restore harmony and often, beauty. There are many paths to beauty. In the naturalistic {informal} landscape garden harmony and intellect trump pattern and vision. The mind rather than the eye is teased.

Quality naturalistic landscapes are more difficult to design than the formal. They usually require a broader plant pallet from which to draw, exacting therefore, greater knowledge of not only the world of usable plants, but their peculiarities of color, texture, form, and care as well.

The artist must be working on site to see what in the general visual environment should or should not be included in the idealized setting. What forms, what colors, what shadows and sounds? What moods? A patio? A tree? How big? A water feature? Boulders? Where? Why? The naturalistic landscape design imitates not the wild in nature, but idealizes nature's harmony.

Remember, however, that all neglected home grounds, regardless of original design become "naturalistic" in time as they become overwhelmed by weed trees, and shrubs killing off plant neighbors unable to compete creating a landscape of ugly disorder, uncivilized, scorned almost universally as unsuitable to healthy mankind.