Sunday, May 20, 2007

Walking in the 'hood...

With the long-neglected need to get out and exercise, Lin (my wife and spousal support unit, and from this point dubbed SSU for efficiency) coaxed me on a walk up to the lovely Santa Barbara Mission. Undaunted by fog and mist, we trudged on, giving me the opportunity to look at and comment--sometimes with enthusiasm, but mostly with exasperation--at the sorry state of so many front yards.

SSU commented about my dark running commentary. It gave me a chance to ponder my internal thought process that probably doesn't need to be externalized quite so much in her presence. I see how it can be a little depressing. Here are my ponderings.

Landscape design seems to be a mystical process for a lot of people, especially the scores of students who show up at my Adult Ed classes every year. And for good reason. Most of us seem to have a sense of matching articles of clothing, picking out furniture that creates a semblance of fashion statement, and hang a picture over the mantle that kinda goes with the couch (next incarnation--curator for the Met!).

But when it comes to plants, all bets are off. I think that the key missing ingredient is that most people don't have the vocabulary they need to describe why they like a particular garden. Maybe that's because there is such a range of visual features in the plant world that we can play with as design elements.

You look at gardens you like (magazines in the waiting room at the dentist spring to mind) and get that Pavlovian response when you see something that catches your eye. But if you can "reverse engineer" the design to the basic components that make it work, then you can emulate it in YOUR garden.

So for the purposes of teaching, I use four basic principles to describe any design composition: Harmony, Contrast, Balance, and Scale. I'll be brief here, with more postings to follow.

Harmony: Elements that look like they belong together and share common visual features. Maybe its the repetition of a spikey form or the cool appearance of gray foliage. It's what keeps a garden from looking like it was designed by a committee that's never seen the site or met each other. Repetition of a few basic elements holds the composition together. Let's move on.

Contrast: Well, it's like the opposite of Harmony. If it's all harmonious, nothing jumps out and yells "Hey! You lookin' at me?" So if most of the garden has a foliage theme of medium green leaves or mounding shrubby plants, throw in a burst of burgundy foliage, or something with an upright architecture. Better than No-Doz. Next...

Balance: At the most basic level, think formal, symmetrical balance. Draw an axis through the yard and create a mirror image on each side. It works, but unless you're auditioning for a gig at Versailles, let's try something a bit more naturalistic. Think of the "visual weight" of massings plants and try to distribute them within the landscape. A massing of one type of plant taking up 100 square feet on one side of the bed can balance a single big tree nearby. Also, balance is the key to a great color scheme, but that's another post.

Scale: For me, it's the relative size of the various elements in a composition and the appropriateness to the size of the space you're working in. Picture a formal stone ballustrade like you see along the terrace of a grand building, but put it in place of a white picket fence in front of a country cottage, and you'll have some idea of mismatched scale.

So, on my morning grump walk, I realized that my out-loud pondering was me reminding myself what still needs to be fixed, why I teach, and now, why I'm starting this blog. If I can verbalize the problem I might have a better idea of how to reverse the damage, teach people how to create what they are really seeking, and give my SSU a chance to hear the birds twitter instead of me.

Thanks for "listening".

1 comment:

Diana said...

Oh this is fun! Design reminders and a couple of laughs too. Say hi to the SSU for us.