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Straw Into Gold : Coaxing a Beautiful, Well- Planned Garden Out of a Ho-Hum Yard


TRADITIONALLY, Americans have gardens and lived in yards. For us, the yard has been the space around our homes, and a garden has been a comparatively small space, within the yard, that we devote to flowers or vegetables. But in recent years, that perspective has been changing. Because the suburbs have burgeoned and property values have soared, most of us have had to settle for smaller spaces around our homes. As our yards have become smaller, we have begun to look at the entire yard as a place for living--for sitting in the sun or shade, for planting vegetables, for growing colorful and graceful trees, for enjoying the company of friends and family.

All over the country, people have started to view their entire yard as a place to cultivate. Suddenly everyone is buying new planting stock. Nurseries are booming. New plant and garden mail-order companies seem to spring up every day. Each time people put new plants into the ground, they extend that part of their property that is personal and expressive and push aside the part that is public and impersonal. They are transforming their yards into gardens.

TOO OFTEN PEOPLE look at their private space, their yard, their house, with a public eye, as though the most important goal of their life was to meet the needs of some impersonal "they." When such people design a landscape, they call in a designer and demand that the designer do the "right" thing. That way of thinking leads to an awful standardization of neighborhoods. So often the right thing turns out to be the current fad in home or gardening or style magazines, or the look shown on a popular television program, or a landscaping style that makes use of some heavily advertised gimmick or piece of equipment. As a consequence, whole neighborhoods are designed with the same foundation plantings, or the same shade tree in the front yard, or the same rail fence along the roadway. As you drive through such neighborhoods, you rarely see a shady path, a close-growing set of trees or a rock ledge with wildflowers, not because those features aren't beautiful, but because the homeowners just don't know that they are possible. Such neighborhoods are not just monotonous, they don't suit the needs of the people who live in them. They are impersonal.

OF ALL THE constraints of landscaping, those of design will hold you most loosely in their grip. Books about designing often make a great to-do about design constraints and make designing sound like a great mystery that only the very wise and the very creative can understand. We disagree. We would not mention those constraints at all were it not for our sense that hidden behind designers' fancy terms such as "proportion," "balance" and "pattern" lie principles that seem to predict how well a landscape will wear with its owners.

Proportion: When you look at any scene, you naturally try to establish a scale. Things are in proportion in a scene when they are all in the same scale or at least when their scales are compatible. For instance, a small fence would look very different wandering through an orchard of dwarf fruit trees than wandering about the tall trunks of an oak forest. Among the smaller trees it might appear comfortably in scale, whereas it might get lost in the forest.

Balance: Your mind also tries to balance any scene that it looks at. Scenes in which the left and the right sides are obviously of different sizes or colors are unsettling to look at. They seem almost as though they are about to tip over. Scenes in which the two sides have elements of comparable size and color feel composed and placid. You might, therefore, consider balance when you set out trees and other structures in your front yard. You might particularly think about balance between evergreens and deciduous trees. A landscape that looks balanced in summer when both kinds of trees are deep green can become unbalanced in winter when the deciduous trees have become all bones and the evergreens are still heavy, dark-green masses.

Pattern: The human mind enjoys looking for a pattern. If a scene is too chaotic, the mind gives up trying to make sense of it and gets confused. On the other hand, if a scene is too simply patterned, the mind grasps it immediately and gets bored. The best scenes combine elements of pattern and elements of novelty so that the observer is always suspended between boredom and bewilderment.

People vary greatly in the degree to which they prefer pattern and novelty. You might like a formal scene in which a few key elements are intentionally repeated. Or you might like an informal scene in which repetition of any sort is difficult to discern. But one thing is clear: Formal and informal scenes--that is, those that are rigorously patterned and those that are not--don't mix well. A happy-go-lucky, rough-and-tumble garden can work, and a prim-and-tidy garden can work. But a happy-go-lucky, prim-and-tidy garden looks more like a garage sale than a landscape.

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