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Garden Design

( Originally Published 1935 )

A brief chapter on garden design is necessary in a book about homes. The home does not stop at the walls of the house; it includes the entire plot on which the house stands. It is well for the reader to realize that landscape architecture or design, including garden design, is not the same as landscape gardening. Landscape design is the art, landscape gardening is the handicraft in gardening. The landscape designer uses plant materials as elements in a composition organized for human use. On the other hand, the landscape gardener is concerned with raising horticultural specimens for their pleasing details. The landscape design is more important both for the usefulness and the beauty of the garden than the details of the planting.

The type of garden that one plans depends upon the owner's need and personality, and upon the amount of space, the outlook, and the style of the house. The house, its interior, and the garden should harmonize in spirit, so that they enhance one another and form a unified whole. A simple cottage should have a simple garden. A house that expresses formality needs a garden with the same feeling. An important house usually has a dignified plan with various gardens to fit the topography of the land and the style of its architecture. If a house has real architectural merit, the garden should merely be a setting for it without concealing any of its beauty. But if a house is ugly, vines, trees, or high shrubs should be used to hide it.

All the principles of art apply to a garden design as well as to a picture or to a room. The beauty and character of the garden will be advanced by a proper regard for good proportion, balance, emphasis, rhythm, repetition, variation, opposition, and transition.

Three definite divisions, according to function, are necessary even in a fifty-foot lot:

1. The service section, including the garage, drying yard, and vegetable garden.

2. The semi-public section facing the street.

3. The private section or the former "back yard," now made private.


The service portion of a lot is the part around the garage and drive, the drying yard, kitchen garden, dog run, ashpit, and tradesmen's entrance. This is the area with which to begin a garden plan, because it is indispensable. It should be made compact and complete, serving the needs of the family that is to live in the house and garden.

The service section should be separated from the private garden by planting, such as hedges, or vines against link wire fences. If there is considerable space in the garden mixed planting of sufficient height might conceal the garage from the private garden. If the garage is attached to the house, with the doors on the street front, high planting might conceal the garage door from the house door. It must be admitted, however, that for the person of modest means the garage has come to be the most-used point of entrance and departure and should therefore be respected and beautified, instead of concealed.

A well-designed vegetable garden may be decorative as well as useful. The red beet foliage, fern-like carrot leaves, red tomatoes, purple cabbages, enormous rhubarb leaves, decorative artichokes, and prim borders of parsley are only a few of the aesthetic joys of a vegetable garden. If one is tired of rectangular beds one might try a wheel design for the vegetable garden.

The cutting flower garden, and the rose garden, which looks ragged much of the time, and also a digging space for the children are often placed in the service area near the vegetable garden.


The semi-public part of the garden is the area in front of the house, facing the street. If the lot is small, it is well to leave as little space as possible for the front yard, depending upon what the neighbors have done. In this country, particularly in the East, the front yard is intended to have a somewhat dignified air since it is partly for the benefit of all those who pass. An effect of restraint is achieved by the type of plants selected as well as by the design. Sometimes it is well to have only a green garden in front, reserving flowers, particularly annuals, for the back yard.

An inviting door and approach are of primary importance to the appearance of a house. The character of the approach depends upon the type of house. Winding entrance walks are poor because they do not fit the lines of a rectangular lot. A tiny hedge makes a good edge for an entrance walk. Courts or patios on the street side are used in the South and Southwest and are particularly desirable in windy localities. They usually contain plants growing in the ground and in pots and tubs.


The private section of the garden consists of all the space that is left after as little area as possible has been given to the service and semi-public sections. This remaining space should be carefully organized into an outdoor living room.

It is well to have the living room of the house open out into the living portion of the garden. To make this possible some houses have the kitchen at one side on the street front, with the dining room back of it, and the living room occupying the other side, extending from the front to the back of the house.

A feeling of unity between the house and the garden comes from placing the floor almost at ground level and having plenty of doors and windows. A house that is already built can secure the same effect by terraces, which are desirable for transition between the house and garden. On the other hand, some garden designers advocate having the foundation high enough so that it is possible to look out over the garden and see the relationship of the design elements in it.

The framework or basic design of either a formal or an informal garden is planned in relation to the house. The central axis is often the line from the living-room door to a focal point at the far end of the garden, Good garden design also uses axes across the plot from side to side. Focal points are located where these axes cross the central axis and also at the termini of the axes. Color accents and form accents come at these focal points in an orderly garden design.

It is important to have a center of interest as the main focal point for the design. This is often placed on the far end of the main axis of the garden, with the intention of attracting the observer so that he will go to it and see the entire garden. The center of interest is usually most effective when located in relation to the principal doors and windows that face the garden. It may be a sundial, pergola, statue, bird bath, a great tree, a formal flower bed, or a pool.

A simple geometric garden is usually recommended for a small home. The naturalistic garden is much more difficult to design, as it takes more discriminating taste to judge informal balance than formal. There are certain houses and people, however, that do not belong in formal gardens.

Probably the most important point to make about the private section of the garden is that it should be private. A wall, fence, or hedge six feet in height around the back and sides of the lot provide privacy. A vista out over the edge of the yard should be provided, however, to prevent a shut-in feeling.


Only a few general statements are made here about the planting, because it varies in different parts of the country. The choice of plants is an intensely personal matter that requires study and experience. Those who can afford it should have the services of a garden expert in this matter.

However, certain general statements about the planes and volumes of plant material apply to most gardens. It is logical to have geometric forms in clipped hedges and other plants, because these plants are a transition step between the angular man-made house and natural forms. Through good planting the landscape designer can relate the house and the earth plot so they become an organic unit.

Since the total effect of the house and lot should be thought of as a picture, it is necessary to enclose it with a frame of hedges, shrubs, and trees. An expert uses the high points in the planting to accent some fine roof line or to balance the composition. The aim should be to have an interesting arrangement of trees and shrubbery, unbroken grass areas, and well-placed masses of flowers, all woven into a fine design with the house. It is important for plant materials to be related in scale with one another and with the house and lot. Small trees, like mountain ash and alders, make a yard appear larger. One large tree can upset the proportions of any small garden. Only by the use of plant material of small scale can one get an effect of spaciousness in a small garden. Whole Japanese garden plans are based on this idea.

Trees. Trees do more than anything else to make a garden livable, as they are invaluable for shade as well as for beauty. Trees are necessary back of any house to give it the proper setting. Nurseries have full-grown trees that can be planted at certain seasons to produce an immediate effect. Whether or not trees lose their leaves in winter is an important consideration in their use. Shade somewhere in the garden for every hour in the day is desirable, with large trees providing shade for the mostused places at the right time. Of course big parasols can be substituted for shade trees in spots where trees would interfere with flowers. Shadow design is a subtle element in garden distinction.

It is worth while to be aware of the individual significance of trees and plants, as it adds enormously to their interest. Many of them have definite associations or meanings. The personality of a tree largely depends upon its architecture, as a solid leafy structure has a very different quality from an airy one. Garden designers think of the shapes of the trees as cones, spheres, and umbrellas, and make use of the forms which fit their designs. Dwarf fruit trees can provide a very interesting design element in a garden, if they are pruned and trained to give a flat effect against walls or fences. This espalier treatment makes fruit trees very decorative, particularly when they are covered with blossoms or with fruit.

One appreciates especially those trees that become gorgeous occasionally when blooming. The dramatic idea is an important one in beauty, so, the tree that has a period of quiet and then bursts into loveliness is appreciated. During its dull season one feels that nature is getting such a tree ready behind the scenes.

Hedges. Hedges provide the framework of the garden, giving it the geometric outline that agrees with the regularity of the house and the border lines of the lot. Low-growing plants such as dwarf privet, barberry, and bridal wreath can be planted in formal lines and left unclipped. High, mixed, untrimmed planting at the back and sides of the lot combines well with clipped hedges marking the divisions inside the garden. Tiny hedges less than a foot high may outline each flower bed, in order to hide the stalks and to supply pattern interest even when the flowers are gone.

Shrubbery. Shrubbery provides the transition lines between the horizontals of the earth and the verticals of the house and trees. Variety in unity is needed among shrubs, but it is important not to have such variety in color and form that the planting looks like a nursery exhibition. Some of the less important points likely to be overlooked in selecting shrubs are that they should not be uncomfortable to touch, that they should look well even when their leaves are gone, and that some of them should provide seeds for the birds.

Vines. Vines do much to relate a house to its surroundings. Angular forms are eased into the landscape by the use of vines, and, in addition, beautiful lacy shadow patterns are cast upon the walls. Ugly houses can be almost concealed by vines, but it is usually best to leave some parts uncovered to reveal the structural materials and to give variety in pattern. A pergola, arbor, or trellis covered with vines can be a beautiful sight. A famous tea arbor at Anacapri on the island of Capri has a table and seats covered with yellow and violet tiles, over which the trellis roof and walls are hung with pale yellow roses and wisteria that blossom at the same time.

Flowers. Flowers are the color accents in the garden design. They should be regarded as part of the whole general pattern. In the choice of flowers for one's garden personal taste is the most important matter. Flowers are so expressive that they are very useful in helping to produce any effect that is desired. Roses, calla lilies, and pansies excite very different emotional reactions.

In a small garden it is more effective to have quantity than variety in the annual flowers. Some gardeners like to have only one or two colors at a time, but a variety of flowers in the chosen colors. For example, one might have a blue and white effect in May, pink and rose in June, or other friendly combinations. In a large garden a definite section might be reserved for certain harmonious colors such as blue, violet, and pink, while the other end of the garden might admit only scarlet, orange, and yellow flowers. Magenta, purple, and orchid are always friendly to one another. White fits in anywhere and shows up well at night. Perennial flowers save time for the family that is too busy to take care of annuals.

There should be some flower beds very near to the house so that they can be enjoyed from the windows. If a paved terrace adjoins the wall of the house, space should be left for flowers between them. It is pleasant to step from the house right out among the flowers or to see their colors reflected from the outside upon the interior walls of the house, so that they can give pleasure sixteen hours a day instead of for the half-hour periods which one spends in a flower garden that is away from the house. The garden should be planned before the house is built, so that the exposure will be satisfactory and the location of the shade trees will not interfere with the growth of the flowers. Potted plants should be used more freely than they are, because they can be moved about to beautify bare places.

An owner who is particularly interested in featuring the flowers in his garden should be careful to keep the surroundings quiet in effect. Almost any pale neutral color on the house will not interfere with whatever color scheme is desired in the flowers. If the house is of brick or some other colored material, the color scheme of the flower garden should be planned to harmonize with that coloring.


White is not usually a good color for statues, fences, pergolas, seats, parasols, or paved walks in a garden, because it attracts too much attention. Furniture might well be green provided the green is the color of the living things in the garden, and not a blue-green; or it might be the color of the tree trunks or rocks. The colors of parasols should be related to the color scheme of the flowers, and should not detract from it. The type of garden furniture chosen should depend upon the kind of garden, house, and house furnishings that it is to accompany. Garden furniture can be found that expresses simplicity, dignity, or modernity according to taste.

Eating out-of-doors is one of the graces of living which Europeans enjoy much oftener than Americans. There should be several comfortable places to eat in the garden to suit various conditions. One place might be screened and roofed, another open to the sun, and another under a tree or parasol. Electrical equipment can be arranged to keep food hot. There should be direct access to the outdoors from both dining room and kitchen so that the serving of meals outside will be encouraged. In a simple household the members of the family should acquire the habit of picking up their own trays in the kitchen, taking them outdoors for the meal, and returning them to the kitchen. The family that enjoys picnics should have an outdoor fireplace which is built high enough to permit cooking in comfort. At least one meal a day should be eaten in the open if the climate permits. The most desirable quality in a garden is livability.

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