Gardens Grow Better by Design: Discover Your Garden Style with a Landscape Designer

first published in The Goodlife Magazine


by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden




For the past few years, I have taught several courses on garden design for the Austin Museum of Art School. During these classes I try to steer my students away from the typical suburban landscape of a lawn punctuated by a few boring evergreen shrubs and amoeba shaped planting beds. Instead, I try to help them design highly personal spaces; places they will want to explore and spend a life time in. However, I remind myself not to impose my views on others. I know that most folks would be perfectly happy with a yard that offers a little curb or “road appeal;” they simply want a space that looks nice from passing cars.


Landscape designer, C.L. Williams, has little patience for this approach. “Road appeal is like road kill,” he says with a chuckle. “Road appeal is a huge phrase in landscape design. But, what is the homeowner going to experience looking out of their windows at that kind of space?”


Anyone who knows C.L. knows that he is a man of strong opinions, but there is one thing he is absolutely passionate about and that is garden design. “Why is it that when we build a new home for ourselves, we are willing to spend bags of money for an architect to design it for us, and than spend whatever is left on interior design,” he asks. “Most of the time, the garden is an afterthought and the designer is lucky to be able to afford a bag of rye grass seed.”


C.L. has a point. A well designed garden is actually an extension of our homes and our personal space out into the landscape. A garden can offer nearly all of the amenities of the home – private space, places for play and entertaining, and a chance to show off our own personal sense of style. Sadly, however, most of us end with a yard that feels like a chore and looks like everyone else’s. In fact, the only detectable difference between most American yards is the level of maintenance time that is invested in them, not their design or beauty.


This is where a landscape designer or architect steps in. A professional designer will work with the homeowner to create a space that is both functional and attractive if not absolutely unique. And this can be accomplished if the owner is a gardener or not.


“The homeowner needs to decide if they want a landscape or a garden,” says C.L. “A landscape is broad-brushed versus a garden which is fine grained and polished. A landscape does not require a high level of expertise to maintain, but a garden does,” he adds. “So, a good garden designer teaches his clients – here’s a neat plant and here’s how you grow it.”


Sometimes, good landscape designers will actually convert their non-gardening clients, and turn them into certified green thumbs. “I try not to cook or garden,” laughs Robin Shivers, a client of Big Red Sun, a local landscape design company. “But they have done such a beautiful job with the plants that I want to take care of them,” she continues. “Dylan and Selena have used plants that even I can care for.”


Dylan Robertson and Selena Souders are the design gurus behind Big Red Sun and they are about as hot a commodity as you will find in the world of landscape design. They are noted for their wonderfully detailed spaces and a unique sense of style that is catching national attention.


“People should think of their home and garden in an integrated fashion,” says, Selena. “We try to match our designs with the site and how our clients intend to use their space,” she adds. “My design philosophy, in a nutshell, is structured informality. I love classicism, but also our native plants that have structure and movement, I enjoy marrying the two.”


It is a marriage made in heaven as far as Robin is concerned. “The poetry of their landscaping, and the artful way that they handle space provides me with great peace and pleasure,” she says.


As with any design process, the chemistry between client and landscape designer is all important.


“There should be creative sparks, you need to ask yourself if your project is going to be fun for the designer or is just another paycheck,” says landscape architect, Inga Marie Carmel. “It is crucial that you spend time with your designer,” she adds. “Your personalities should mesh, the designer should listen to you and develop an understanding of what your needs are. I have my clients fill out a six page questionnaire before we even begin the design,” Carmel continues.


C.L. Williams agrees, “Pick someone you enjoy and who has real expertise. Consult with a number of designers and pay the consulting fee, free advice is just that.”


Sometimes, even experienced gardeners need to call for expert design advice. In fact, I am convinced that most gardeners, myself included, start out by falling in love with plants and end up jamming them together in a chaotic mess. Only later do we realize that gardens grow better by design.


Susan and Steve Anderson, who live in far north Austin, were well down the garden path before they called for help. Ask Susan why they hired a designer and she answers with a single word, “Vision.”


“Steve and I had gardened for years,” she continues, “but we were stuck with a couple of site issues that we didn’t have a fun or creative way to get out of. We had deer problems, crummy soil, drainage issues, too much shade - the standard prissy yard wouldn’t work for us. We needed help,” she says. 


Eventually, their search for a designer led the Andersons to Nancy Webber, an Austin based designer.


“Nancy’s plan, the style that she came up with, really worked for us; it solved all of our problems and looks cool,” says Susan.


“I really like the technical problems,” says Nancy. “I like having limits to work around – drainage problems, the deer. It’s fun coming up with something that is beautiful, but works, and doesn’t demand high maintenance.”


Webber, a self-professed plant fanatic, understands that not all of her clients will have either the time or the budget to constantly be tending to their gardens. “Most people don’t have disposable time,” she says, “I want to be out puttering in the garden but not everyone can do that.”


Like most landscape designers, Webber uses contractors for the actual installation work and oversees all phases of the project for her clients. She enjoys her work, especially scouring nurseries for the perfect plant for each location. But the biggest thrill of all is pleasing her clients.


“I try to draw my clients outside – to make them happy, to see them feel more at peace,” she adds. “We are so divorced from the natural world we forget how good it feels to get out into the flora and fauna. It feeds us at some deeper level.”


For Eleanor McKinney, of McKinney Landscape Architecture, connecting people’s homes and lifestyles to their gardens is essential. A botanist and degreed landscape architect, McKinney’s design sensibilities came into focus during a six week trip spent studying the great gardens of England.


“I was experiencing those gardens through the lens of my camera and really was impressed by their strong bones, or structure,” says Eleanor. “It was amazing to see how elegantly the different garden rooms were orchestrated; it was choreography of movement. That experience has stayed with me,” she adds. “Another thing that you see in the English gardens, is that they carry the materials of the home, the architecture, out into the landscape,” she continues. “I think that it is real important to try to blend those materials, knowing that in most cases, architecture is going to be your back drop.”


Where does a designer actually begin to get the ideas that will end up transforming an entire landscape? For McKinney, the seed of inspiration can be often found indoors.


“You need to be open to your client,” she says. “I like to go into their homes and look at their artwork, see how they live and translate that into the exterior living spaces.”


Ann Prothro, an avid gardener who hired Eleanor to help create a new garden space, appreciates McKinney’s thoroughness.


“The details of the garden are just wonderful,” says Anna. “I keep exploring and I am always finding new things to appreciate. Eleanor really tried to express me.”



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