Monthly Archives: January 2009

The principles of planting design

img_9276A friend, who is both a designer and a plant expert, remarks that “a planting design should be done without reference to plant names”. Instead, “the designer should use sketches and cross sections” – and then think about what species could achieve the design effect.

Though I accept the point that planting design is very much to do with colour, texture, mass, etc, I do not agree with the point. Think about furniture design: you need to know whether the item is to be made with steel, plastic, cast iron, oak, ash, birch or whatever, BEFORE the design can be started.

So what are the principles of planting design? We published an eBook on the Principles of Garden Design in 2008 and, if time and inspiration permit, would like to follow it with an eBook on the Principles of Planting Design.

Though unsatisfactory, it it tempting to conceive the subject in terms of historic approaches to planting design. My friend’s approach, I think, relates to the Bauhaus belief that there are certain principles of abstract design which, presumably, apply to any project in any time in any place.  As Geoffrey Jellicoe wrote in 1925  ‘The bases of abstract design, running through history like a silver thread, are independent of race and age’.

Modern planting designs are treated as abstract compositions which need only please the eye. But there is more to planting design and abstract composition runs contrary to the idea that ‘form follows function’. If one wants to grow cabbages or apples, or to engage in permaculture, then one cannot think about ‘the design’ in isolation from its function.

The photograph illustrates the point that “Dierama pulcherrimum is an elegant plant which looks well with the softness of Stipa tennusima“. But could this plant combination have been achieved by doing the design BEFORE thinking about the species?  I asked the designer and learned that ‘ The Stipa was planted first and placed because I thought it was a place it would flourish. Then I walked round, some years later, with the Dierama in a pot – and thinking both where it would grow and what it would go with from a compositional point of view’. So species selection preceded aesthetics.

Sustainable landscape architecture, planning and design

Sustainable Landscape Architecture - Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks

Sustainable Landscape Architecture - Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks

Congratulations to the Sustainable Sites Initiative for producing the best publication I have seen on sustainable landscape architecture, planning and design. They are inviting comments and you can use this link to download a free copy.  The Sustainable Sites Initiative is an interdisciplinary partnership, led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden. Good though the report is, my feeling is that the scientists have had a greater say in its production than the designers. The general public and the design community will only make a significant committment to sustainable landscape design when it looks right. It needs to become a ‘must-have-can’t-live-without’ commodity. Never having found much use for blue jeans, I am convinced that people buy 501s for their looks.  I also suspect that people wear stilettos more for style than because they are so durable, comfortable and sustainable.  One of the ASLA contributions to the partnership should have been to ensure the report is packed with must-have images. Even at this late stage, ASLA should find some far-superior images for the cover. I love cycling and cyclists – but I can’t see how they help sell sustainable landscape design.  Ditto with wild flowers and riverside parkways. They exemplify good planning – but not exciting design.

Nature, culture, creation and the Japanase garden

sanzenin_templeDavid and Michiki Young in The Art of Japanese Architecture say that the Japanese love of gardens derives from a love of works of art, rather than from a love of nature in its unadulterated form. Japanese gardens are based on the principles of nature and use the materials of nature, but are primarily aesthetic compositions. They say:  ‘Even when temples and shrines are placed in natural settings, such as at Ise Jingu or Sanzenin, vegetation is not usually allowed to reproduce freely but is controlled to produce a natural but tranquil feeling that we have termed “spontaneity of effect.”

Nature is ‘soto’ rather than ‘ichi’. It is a domain which contrasts strongly with the cultural. For the Japanese nature is a place to visit briefly with friends. It is not a place where a person would want to spend much time alone. According to the Youngs, nature is revered by the older generation as the domain of nature spirits or kami. These spirits are not always benevolent. They say although nature is admired because it represents spontaneity, it is also the source of unease, because it is untamed and unpredictable. For the Japanese nature becomes less threatening when it is domesticated. [Image courtesy Marser]

The definition of landscape architecture

I define landscape architecture as the art and science of composing landform, water, vegetation, paving, structures and sky in relation to human needs and aspirations. At different scales the results are:

  •  garden design (typically private outdoor places)
  • landscape design (typically public outdoor places)
  • urban design (public, semi-public, community  and private outdoor spaces)

If the six compositional elements are not designed in relation to each other,  less-good places will result. The objectives of landscape architecture relate to Vitruvius‘s three objectives: Commodity (Utility), Firmness (Technical Quality) and Delight (Aesthetic Quality)


See also:

Definitions of landscape architecture

The importance of landscape architecture

 Ueda Landform – Scottish Gallery of Modern Art  design by Charles Jencks (Image courtesy Matt Riggott).

The design and care of great gardens

cypress-katsura1Short-term thinking produces such horrors as the ‘useful quick-growing screen’, achieved (left) with Lawson’s Hated Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Horribilis’). Long-term thinking produces such masterpieces as Katsura Imperial Villa (right).

It is a sobering thought, for the highly trained professional designer, that most of the world’s best gardens owe their brilliance to the work of owner-designers – not to professional designers. One thinks of Katsura Palace, the Taj Mahal, Sissinghurst and Little Sparta. Then one thinks of all the billions spent on public parks in the twentieth century: they produced a few good designs, a mass of trash and nothing in the first order of excellence. Think of the  Parque Juan Carlos I . It must make the poor old King of Spain think about abdication (or just about changing its name to Parque General Franco?).

There is one outstanding candidate amongst many possible explanations for the problem. Professional designers think about making an impact on their immediate clients and their peers; owner-designers have often belonged to dynasties with a concern for the very long term future of their property in general and their gardens  in particular. They combine the essentials of ‘ownership and control’ with a sense of duty to the past and duty to the future. Garden designers and landscape architects can assist only with help from enlightened patrons.

To make better public gardens and  landscapes we require very much better patronage. What can the modern world do? Reinstate primogeniture? Abolish inheritance tax? Bring back the aristocracy?


Desert experiences

The painterly imagination

The painterly imagination

Image source:

Most depictions of the desert are of a rather unhospitable place, yet this canvas by Robert Juniper entitled ‘Desert Landscape’, is rather enticing. Juniper is a West Australian artist of “poetic and spontaneous vision” best known for his evocative landscapes. His work is represented in the collections of most major Australian galleries as well as being collected privately.

What quality of landscape does his work capture? This is not the landscape of abstract contemplation – rather ‘people’ are intimately involved in their environment….as much a part of the scene, they are coextensive with the wildlife…