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Garden Architecture
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

February 9, 2014

I have just finished reading the latest edition of The County & Quinte Living magazine. One of the articles featured a residential garden designed by my friend Jason Partridge. When Jason isn’t spending his days lounging around the offices of Scott Wentworth Landscape Group, sipping tea and munching on crumpets (with three fruit marmalade) he is out on the job designing and creating outdoor living spaces. Jason is very, very good at this. If you read the article you’ll discover that he has won professional awards for his work but that’s not the true measure of a craftsman.

Professionals must satisfy their clients; that is their purpose. This is the difference between an artist and a professional- not that there can’t be a serendipitous marriage between the two.

An artist creates something that the customer wishes to purchase after seeing it. The professional uses their creative talents to create something the customer wishes before the physical work begins. When the two come together in a seamless fusion, both customer and designer are satisfied, and we get to vicariously stroll those grounds on glossy magazine pages.

However, you and I, Gentle Reader, can take home some lessons from this little article. Pay attention to the dialogue from Jason and the customer. The focus on gardens and the plants was not the starting point for this project. That’s difficult for me to acknowledge because I’m all about the plants. The starting point begins with the question, “What do you want to do here?” It is that simple. “When you come into this space, what do you want to do?” The answers, of course, are where the planning directions originate. Sit and look into the distance? Meditate? Entertain guests? Actively garden? It should be a given that whatever is put into place will look gorgeous but that isn’t enough. You want gorgeous? Buy a painting and stick it up on a fence.

Once the activity has been worked out, the next step is to determine how to delineate and separate those spaces. When we stroll the grounds of our own estates, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves. What do I want to do here? After awhile and I’m talking aging here, the true worth of the architecture will prove itself. We might change out our beds from annuals to perennials to shrubbery and grasses as our physical abilities diminish but the use of the grounds won’t change.

Although that green open space for kicking soccer balls with your children might be needed again when the grandkids are romping about. You’ve heard the phrase “bones of the garden” and we most often think of foundation plantings. Actually, the bones are often architectural constructs- when we have the wherewithal to construct stuff.

Perhaps we have a hedge that separates a patio from a play area and accessed by a passageway. Whether or not the barrier is a living hedge, a dry stone wall or a fence- it is architecture and bones. The passage between the spaces could be a trimmed out part of the hedge- that’s gardening, it could be a garden centre purchased wooden-slatted affair- that’s simple design or it could be a pergola constructed with repurposed hand-hewn beams from a barn- that’s both architecture and artistry.

So how do we apply this idea of architecture at our own homes? Draw a simple plan of your lot. The only constants are the property line and the house. Everything else needs to be on the block for discussion. You might have fieldstone patio tucked up in the back corner of an ell. It can be moved, it can be turned into a wall, or it can be sold to a neighbour. The point is that you should start with a blank slate. One way to do this is to pretend this is someone else’s property and you get the opportunity to play landscape architect. Do you remember the starting point of the design process? Interview yourself- you should be able to understand the vision of your client much more readily than Jason does with his customers.

After that, have fun. You might pencil in a hot tub and deck with stainless steel barbecue and dry bar when in reality your budget allows for a blow-up wading pool and a TV tray with a plastic jug of Freshie. Don’t let inconsequentialities like money slow you down. The water feature with a flame that Jason slipped into his design might morph into a hibachi with a plastic spritzer bottle- on a matching TV tray, of course, but the thought is there.

In our backyard, we have a small patio made with re-purposed coloured concrete flagstone from the 1960’s with a garage sale wrought iron bistro set and a salvaged acorn style wood burner. The definition between the yard proper and this quiet spot is a dwarf apple tree, a Belgian lilac shrub and sloping ground around the perimeter. We like it and that is the ultimate bellwether.

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