The Designs in My Mind

“I have a new vision for the backyard.”

I say this to my husband as I gaze out the kitchen window, assessing the lawn, trees, and borders. It is all unsatisfactory! All of it!

He looks at me with suspicion as he sips coffee. My urge to create new territory is not new territory for us.

“Does it involve ripping out something you’ve already planted?” he asks.

How much should I tell him?

I decide to keep it vague. “Wellllll, it would involve a bit of a shift here and there….. See, look –” I gesture at the wide grassy space between the pool and the toolshed. “Imagine two sweeping curves that form the edges of the lawn as it leads back to the shed. Wouldn’t that be incredible?”

“How much lawn do you want to take out? I like our lawn.”

“It’s not so much about taking things out as adding and enhancing. I mean, these would not just be any curves. They would be the perfect curves. They would be, like, Porsche curves, Scarlett Johanssen curves” (pause to check his expression) “they would swoop back towards the shed in a sort of serpentine avenue but they would swoop the right amount in just the right way, and they would, like, speak to each other as they swooped, and off to each side would be little woodland walks that curved around too but everything would hinge on these two beautiful swooping lines of the lawn.”

My husband glances out through the window and furrows his brow. I’m pretty sure he’s not seeing the swoops.

That’s alright. The Swooping Lawn Cutting Through a Contemporary Woodland is just one of many designs I have in my mind for my backyard. Other ideas have included The Zen Garden of Good and Evil, Piedmont Tropicale and The Flannery O’Connor Tribute Garden. (The latter would require peacocks, try suggesting that to your spouse.)

Such is the life of the gal who fancies herself a garden designer but who actually works as a teacher. I’ve got all these design ideas buzzing around in my head, but only the one piece of property on which to spill them.

So yes, a certain amount of tearing out revision is going to occur in my garden from time to time.

Now, I know that real working designers don’t necessarily get to create all their dream gardens with clients, but at least they’re presented with some different contexts, some different canvasses.

Imagine if da Vinci were in my shoes. He’d have painted Mona Lisa and then thought, “aw damn, I only have the one canvass. So much for that Last Supper idea I had.”

See what I mean? My front yard can’t be Romantic Foliage Garden and Appalachian Meadow at the same time. But I want to design both!

Sometimes I’ll dream about a landscape design, and when I wake up I try to imagine if I can build it somehow. Awhile back I dreamed I was walking down a path, and along one side of the path was this huge wall made of enormous rocks, boulders ten feet across, and there was this feeling of being dwarfed by the boulders, but also of being protected by them. It was amazing! When I woke up I still felt the effect of being in this imagined landscape, and I even experienced a heady little buzz from my own hypothetical powers of design.

If I were a working designer possibly I could incorporate this giant wall into a client design: “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, I know you had requested that seat wall by the patio but I’m thinking if we’re going to do this let’s go big. I think a twenty foot wall made from massive blocks of granite would really make a statement. It would really blur the lines between your outdoor entertainment area and the gates of insanity.”

Well, I can dream, can’t I? Oh, that’s right, I did.

Listening to music also conjures design projects in my brain. There’s one piece of music that I’ve always felt could be beautifully expressed in a garden design: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

If I could take the closing segment of that piece (especially that part where the violins do that little crescendo thing and then the flute comes in) if I could pluck the notes out of the air and turn them into mountain laurel and maple, bloodroot and bluebell, just the right scattering of rocks, and of course all the spaces between them, I swear I would never need to design another garden as long as I lived.

Or at least for that week.

37 thoughts on “The Designs in My Mind

  1. As always…perfect…..

    I am so grateful for clients’ gardens where I get to carry out garden fantasies my own yard can’t satisfy…..this week I got to help clear and plant a 3 story cliff….At same time my most unique creations are at home where the only other person I need to compromise with is Mother Nature….and my kids, and the deer, and my pocket book, and….guess that thought has already proven to be a garden fantasy of it’s own!

  2. I LOVE this post! It totally spoke to me. I do this exact thing–particularly the elaborate but poetic titles for parts of our yard.

    We are artists and poets ;). We can’t expect the world to appreciate our genius!

    A brilliant post, Mary. I chuckled all the way through.

  3. I once had a client say “I like the words you are using” when I was trying to sell them on a grand idea. You are using amazing words Mary, it is just 9000 times harder to sell your husband on ideas than a client. I have tried to figure out why and I think he knows me to well to believe my design magic!

    • Heather, yup, you are so right. The other problem is that sometimes my ideas don’t look so hot the first year or two, so i have try to explain how fabulous they’ll look once everything is grown in. Yes, spouses are the toughest clients!

  4. I know well that dubious look from the spouse. Loved your post — very funny, as always. And hey, let that creative genius out of the bottle from time to time — go for it with the swoops!

  5. I sympathize. I was all about the curved, naturalistic garden designs until I saw the Jens Jensen Elizabethan four-square garden at Northwestern University. Now I want the curved beds and a four square at the same time, in the same yard. My spouse is pretty tolerant, but once I plant a bed and she gets used ti it, she doesn’t like me to change it. Anyhow, great post – very funny.

      • The Jensen garden at NU I don’t think is that well known. I only went to see it because it was the only example of its kind in the area – I was assigned to visit for a garden history class I took. I think you can look it up at the website of the Evanston Garden Club. The thing about it is the way it combines formality and intimacy – i found it very intriguing.

  6. Ha Ha! I literally snorted with laughter when I read this posting because its been replayed at my own house…with my own poor husband…many…MANY times. In fact, I wondered if you had hid a recorder somewhere in our living room…it was so true to life for us. 🙂

  7. Oh can I relate to this. My spouse has quit asking me if I am done with the yard/garden. My neighors are use to me standing in the middle of the garden with my hands on my hips and staring, They say, well, she’s going to change something. Again.

  8. My garden is very site specific. I may tweak details, but the overall concept stays the same. Plant lust tends to drive changes. That and the car that drove through the yard and hit the front porch. I’m very happy with the BIG rocks now in that corner.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Flannery O’Conner. What would her tribute garden be like?
    A Japanese Zen garden involves a lot of plants that don’t like Walnut trees. It’s just as well your husband didn’t go for it.

    • Well…those garden concepts were mostly a joke. I’m a fan of O’Connor’s short stories, and I remember reading once that she kept peacocks, so that is about the only feature that would be required. I am a big fan of Japanese style gardens and have experimented a bit with that aesthetic….but you are right, my camellia died almost instantly, my pieris took 18 months to die, and my azaleas aren’t looking too hot either.

  9. Mary – I don’t know if my idea could scratch that itch at all, but I have found making 3D models of gardens quite satisfying. I love glue gunning the smelly moss into trees and shrubs at 1/4 or 1/2″ scale. Then you can make a little peep hole and gaze in and feel a part of that tiny space. Our version of the child’s doll house, perhaps!

    • Ahh, Mira! What an amazing idea! I had a professor in school who had use do this for each design. I loved walking on the University’s wild land looking for natural tidbits for my models. The woody structure that holds the Nandina berries looks like a little tree, for example. In addition, I attend “Folk Fest” here in Atlanta every year and one of my favorite art forms there is the little “diorama” boxes that you look into. I never thought to cross the landscape model making into the folk art miniature form but I just made that connection from your comment. It could be a real neat thing to explore!

    • Mira, funny you mention this…we did a few models like this at GW and they were a lot of fun, but I have not tried any more since. Making models was really helpful in visualizing the designs, but I never considered doing one just for fun….might be a fun project to do with my son!

  10. Hi Mary. Great. If it is any consolation I have been designing gardens for twenty-five years now in projects of all sizes from very small to very large. However, my wife (who is also a garden designer) and I argue – sorry I means discsuss – constantly about what is going to happen in our half-acre plot. As a result, so far (six years at this house) not a lot. Clients always say to me “I bet your garden is amazing”. I never quite know what to say to this and usually come up with some variation on ‘a work in progress…’

    • Ha! Thanks for the note, John. It’s nice to know that working designers don’t always live in a showplace…in fact sometimes I wonder if designers get burned out doing design on the job and then have no creative energy for their own gardens?

    • I usually use the line “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”. It’s not that I burn out on ideas or my own yard, it’s just that as a designer I get spoiled using other people’s money and other people’s labor that I feel stuck with my non-existent budget at home!

  11. I can relate — hence the reason I constantly make imaginary garden mood boards…when I was working full time as a designer it still wasn’t often enough that I could convince someone to live out my fantasies…(I’m not that great of a salesperson). And so you know the grass in not greener on that side of the fence. What to do?
    Continue to live in dream land I suppose… but I am excited to have a new cobblestone patio going in later this week — and I am on the hunt for telephone pole tops (I may have to wave down a worker on the street!) to make a rustic/ modern/ perfect-for-my-1940’s-house-in-the-woods arbor to go over the top of it all. These challenges…I have to give them to myself….they keep me very happy.

  12. Too bad your spouse doesn’t travel on business…it’s so much easier to sneak in your home-and-garden improvements when the anti-visionary is out of town. You and I seem generally like-minded, but I am going to have to disagree on a couple points here: I prefer voluptuous curves to swoopy, and I wish I had an escarpment.

    • Ha! Calvin you are so right about the business trips. If my spouse were away, I wouldn’t try to sneak in an affair or anything but I might try to sneak in a few extra Cornus or viburnum. Which would make me feel guiltier?…I don’t know….

  13. Your blog posts are very interesting. I really can’t stop reading them your passion for gardening and landscape design is very evident. Keep the great posts coming.

  14. Your blog posts are so interesting and I just can’t stop coming back to read more. It is clear from reading your posts that you are very passionate about gardening and landscape design. Keep the great posts coming..

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