A few weeks ago I had the privelege of being interviewed by one fantastic nature photographer, graphic designer and gardener, Cindy Dyer. The interview touches on some of the "day in the life" stuff that most of my clientele never get to see, and it's receiving some pretty favorable responses.
I'm honored that people enjoy learning about me and my work. The interview was a lot of fun for me, too, because it gave me a chance to reflect more deeply than usual on not only my work but also what inspires me. And a little self-knowledge is a powerful thing.
In the course I teach on Custom Garden Design, the first class is devoted to getting to know yourself better. After all, a garden can't be very personal if you don't know the person. But as I went through a couple of exercises designed to help identify my students' influences and inspirations, I could see eyes glazing over, as if they were terrified to get in touch with anything that might be meaningful for them. One gentleman spoke up: "This is supposed to be a course on garden design. We've been here an hour; are we going to do any garden design?"
I reminded him that the course was on custom garden design. As in, the garden you won't find in the pages of any book or magazine. The garden that fits you like a bespoke suit. If all he needed was to fill a corner of his yard, I offered, he could have spent his money at the local nursery instead of my class. But if he wanted that corner of the yard to be a place that feels like "home," that just seems right whenever he looks at it or sits in it, then he'd better get to know a bit about what makes him tick.
Now, I understand that I'm pretty open to introspection, self-awareness and all that Northern California touchy-feely stuff, maybe more so than a lot of people. But garden planning isn't deep therapy. It shouldn't be threatening or intimidating. Quite the contrary: developing your landscape wishlist should be pleasurable, a mini-vacation as you allow your mind to wander to the places and times that have been most enjoyable in your life. It's a chance to revisit the best parts of your life, and even to imagine places you've never been: I've never dipped a toe in the Caribbean, but I can practically feel the fine white sand under my feet, the gentle breeze cooling my sun-kissed face, the calm warm water caressing my legs. I can smell the coconut (OK, and the rum to go with it), and I can hear the clacking of palm fronds against each other and the warbling of some bird or other. I can tell you, without ever having been there, that the Caribbean would be an intensely relaxing place for me. And if I desire intense relaxation from my garden, I could try to recreate some of these sensory pleasures there.
In design-speak, we say this is part of the design program. The program includes a lot of other, quantitative stuff too: the size and shape of your property, the sun exposure, adjacent conditions such as trees and buildings, budget, timeline, and so on. But your wishlist is a necessary component, for it gives us a goal to strive for. Sure, we probably won't be building a beach in your backyard. But if we can understand what about that beach makes it pleasurable and meaningful to you, then we can be very strategic in our design, and probably create a pleasurable and meaningful environment without a gram of white sand.
I don't know whether my student will be able to dig that deeply within himself. Some of us can't. I do start my clientele off with a questionnaire to begin identifying their wishes and needs, and I also ask them to create (if they haven't already) an "idea file" with magazine clippings, photos, journal writings, whatever might give me that qualitative sense of their preferences and priorities. Even if they don't know what attracts them to a particular garden, I tell them, if I have enough data to work with, I can connect the dots and synthesize a design direction.
If you've ever tried one of those one-size-fits-all plant combinations from a book or magazine, chances are it hasn't lived up to your expectations. It's not your fault! You simply may have been starting at the end of the design process, instead of the beginning. Get to know yourself a bit better, and your garden will be the better for it.