Dec 15, 2006

Front Yard, Back Yard

Why do we landscape? Sure, we love the color or scent of flowers, or the tickle of lawn between our toes. We want a place to sit and chat, or sit and rest, or run around and play. But deep down in our lizard brains, what really compels us to move the earth around and poke plants into it?

The answer, I suspect, depends on where we landscape. The fact is, most of us landscape our front yard for our neighbors, and the back yard for ourselves. The front yard is the "curb appeal," the "first impression," the "look at me" statement. All of these are externally driven by the opinions of other people, and reflect our insecure little ego's need to either blend in or stand out. I've worked with home owners who wanted their front yards to have the same, boring patch of lawn with a flower bed border that their neighbors up and down the street have; "we don't want to be the weird yard on the street," they told me. I've also worked with people who didn't want their yard to be anything like their neighbors'; for these people the front is the chance to express their individuality to the world, presumably for the world's amazement and approval.

If the front yard seeks the approval that will satisfy the ego, then the back yard is governed by the id's need for pleasure and immediate gratification. The current trend toward lavish outdoor rooms, replete with televisions and dishwashers, indicates a certain unwillingness to endure any discomfort or delay, as well as a wish to wring every drop of enjoyment out of the yard. I've noticed that more clients are willing to pay a premium for larger size plants (and more water to sustain them) to make the brand new landscape look established. And built-in grill centers certainly offer a sense of fulfillment that the humber Weber kettle doesn't.

There are lots of gray areas here — the overdone outdoor room is as much a monument to the self (ego) as a pleasuredome, and those mature plants are being installed in the front yard as well as the back. And I'm not passing judgment on any of it: we all have our desires and needs — I think we may all be human — and there's no wrong answer when it comes to expressing ourselves. There are even online quizzes to tell us whether we're an "ego" or an "id," but I wouldn't depend on that to define the style of your garden.

Nevertheless, it is fun to ponder: which matters more to you right now, your front yard or the back? Can you identify why? There's a field called design psychology that uses psychological insights as a tool for developing the design program (often to help home sellers discover the wishes of home buyers). But don't overlook that the landscape itself can be a place that drives, not just reflects, your mental state: therapeutic or healing gardens can provide sanctuary that helps you, not just your garden, grow. Either way, begin with an understanding of yourself… a truly unique and personal yard will result.

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