THE URBAN LANDSCAPE: PERFECTION IN A SMALL PACKAGE (?)
The title above is an attention grabbing invitation that would make any homeowner take notice and realize the hope of having a beautiful landscape surrounding their home. Unfortunately, for most homeowners, the perfect landscape simply does not exist. Perfection in the eyes of most clients includes year round beautiful color, evergreen warmth for the barren winter months, low water consumption, and little or no maintenance. That is perfection—and in Kansas City, that is probably not possible. But, the good news is, with a little give and take, you can have a wonderful landscape that fulfills most of your desires. Careful planning, insightful site assessment, client inventory evaluation, and experience driven knowledge of a materials pallette can lead to the implementation of a wonderful landscape.
Designing a landscape is a blend of artful creativity and horticultural application. Whether it’s a five acre estate, or a small urban backyard, the basic design principles remain the same. The elements in landscape: the color, texture, and shape of plants, pots, paving surfaces, etc., and the way they are arranged (line), make up the building blocks to be used in basic principle applications of proportion, repetition, order, and grouping (unity). Adherence to these tenents, along with a little practice, enables an individual to develop a pleasing, interesting plan or layout for their yard. The tricky part comes when trying to determine which plant out of tens of thousands will do just what the designer intended. Horticultural aptitude and dexterity are vital when trying to turn a pretty picture on a sheet of paper into a living, breathing environment that is not only enjoyable to look at, but fun and easy to live in.
The best landscape designers have a certain knack for understanding the spaces they’re dealing with—they can almost “feel” how the area should develop. The most adept can take a large, undefined space and make it feel intimate, while a small, cramped plot of land in the right hands somehow feels spacious and interesting. Small spaces are, in fact, probably more difficult to design than larger areas because there is little room for error. The somewhat natural inclination in designing a small space is to treat it casually, and to “just put plants in place where they look good”, but that method can backfire and lead to a rather shabby outcome. Small scale landscapes require careful attention to line movement so as to not be too “busy”, and even more careful attention to materials, especially plant materials, so the space is not overwhelmed and crowded. Special consideration needs to be given to plant selection since a smaller space precludes using large numbers of species; using fewer varieties means those selected must provide a lot of “bang for the buck”. Plants for intimate spaces need to perform well in several seasons, have characteristics that are unique or outstanding, and have a rate of growth that doesn’t require constant pruning. Small space plantings need to stand up under close scrutiny because they’re always “on stage” and can’t rely on many companions to hide rough edges or lapses in performance. Additionally, because the space may be small, there is a tendency to want to use small, dwarf, or even miniature plants in the landscape—but it is best to fight that urge and judiciously employ bold, full sized plants, making sure their growth rate and ultimate size fits well into your plan.
I had a friend and mentor who was one of the finest landscape architects in America, and he designed massive, large scale projects all over the world. But in his “retirement” years, he devoted himself to small scale projects and I studied his precise and meticulous attention to detail as he developed plans. His projects were chock full of interesting detail and I discovered through him how the careful placement of each plant, stone, or art object can make even the smallest spot a landscape delight.