Designing for others

inkognitoMay 1, 2011

Designing for others

�tis true I design gardens for other people, however I didn�t design my own garden that way. Obviously I am flattered when visitors compliment the garden that my wife and I have created but that was not the motivation for it. If I wanted my garden to make a statement that would impress people as they flash by in their cars I might call that style �curb appeal�. If it does make a statement that others can connect with it is purely coincidental as the motivation had no aim other than our pleasure.

When I see a photograph of a house with a cameo of what surrounds it as if it were a two dimensional thing that only exists within that frame I am often at a loss wondering if this is actually how some people see it. One of my favorite poets once said that his darker poems came from the realization that behind every blade of grass was a shadow. If I only wanted to show the bright side of anything I would call it curb appeal. A biography that presented a person as having no flaws would be a boring read and you would be excused for thinking that it was a gloss.

Yet �curb appeal� is a constant plea. I asked someone recently what they meant by �curb appeal� after all this is what they said they wanted, they seemed to say that it was a carefully placed tree so I still don�t know what they were asking for as something they had thought about. So is it just a buzz word like �bling�, everybody needs it but nobody can describe it?

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So what does curb appeal mean to you???????

    Bookmark   May 1, 2011 at 10:24PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Reading carefully above, the 'ink' version of curb appeal is plainly stated. That you don't find it probably means you have a different understanding of the phrase.

To my ear, "curb appeal" is a catch-all phrase that has no clear meaning. It's almost identical to saying "look nice". If I say to a designer, "I want my garden to look nice," that doesn't give the designer much to go on. What is nice for one person is bland, or wild, or tacky to another. There is a need to explain what one likes in order to get what one wants.

If you go into a restaurant and say "bring me some food" the scrambled eggs might be a disappointment if what you really wanted was the barbecued ribs and coleslaw. It's not that there was anything wrong with the scrambled eggs; they simply weren't what you had in mind. You must share the information if are having breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or merely appetizers and cocktails, or maybe all you want is dessert. It's important to have a general idea of what you want, and let the server and cook know. Same thing when asking for help with your garden.

By the way, this discussion is not intended to give anyone a black eye, so don't take it personally. Reading and discussing concepts is a way of learning more about garden design. Some contributors here are like that college history professor I hated so much. But damned if I didn't learn more in that class than any of the others I took that semester.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 12:12AM
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Curb appeal is a term used to mean "generally look nice to passers by" in my mind. That is a simple, and thus only requires a simple solution. It can be more complicated to achieve that goal, but if that is the goal, complication is an extra.

"Curb Appeal" is often the quest of someone not having a deeper understanding of the residential landscape. The best thing about landscape design on a residence is that it can be simple. The problem is that you have to be aware of what complicates things in order to make simple work.

Landscape is not a religion to everyone. Curb appeal is a good goal for anyone. It is just that there are so many more facets to a landscape that makes for missed opportunity to address other things at the same time. But, if they are unnoticed by the homeowner, they must not be valued issues.

Designing for others as a professional is not going to be about "curb appeal" simply because whomever is going to invest in a design is declaring that they value the landscape enough to pay for design. The expectation is that more than they can understand and resolve on their own is going to be addressed.

That is why making a living as a professional designer is a lot more than being able to put plant compositions together. It finishes with plant composition, but the majority of the value that is being purchased is in the facilitation of matching the client's required uses and desired uses to the site. Plantings and hardscapes are simply the media to get that done.

"Presentation of the house" is the term that I use to clients that covers what may be the equivalent to "curb appeal". But that is one very general aspect to be addressed. "Curb Appeal" is general and can be simple, but curb appeal within the complexities of a greater landscape is not.

"Curb Appeal" threads started here are a temptation to educate people with a simple understanding and interest in the landscape, but is it necessary for everyone to have a more complex understanding?

Can someone ask for a simple solution and get it? I think so, but I also think that this is a forum for discussion. If that is the case there is no reason not to discuss more complexity even if the OP only wants simple.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 7:37AM
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How many homeowners have you met with who call perennials annuals and shrubs perennials? We live in this world, not them, so it's up to us to suss out what "curb appeal" means to THEM (along with what the heck they mean by "that really tall evergreen 'perennial' with the spiky leaves and red berries"). For someone looking to put the house on the market next week, it means they want a Potemkin village of a landscape, to gloss over any flaws and invoke the oooh factor. For someone with long term goals of living there, curb appeal means the face you show your neighbors. There's no one size fits all definition. We're in the making people happy business, we just do it with landscape design.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 8:15AM
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I have two projects that come to mind with regard to this thread. One is a very basic front yard of a small colonial for a retired woman. She just wanted a row of shrubs in front of the house that is easy to maintain and looks attractive from the road. So I designed a very attractive planting of trees and shrubs. Period. Its not for me to convince her otherwise in that situation.

The other project is a two acre woodland garden. The first time I met with the couple they told me when they looked at this beautiful woodland area all they saw was brown (I guess in reference to the leaves on the ground). I saw a stream with a waterfall, a beautiful high canopy of oaks and maples, swaths of skunk cabbage and ferns and limitless possibility. When I suggested making a winding path - they actually said "ohhhh, we never thought of that" And when I talked about a sitting area as a destination in the garden you would have thought I was Einstein.

So, I see my job as a designer to help people see other creative possibilities when they are open to it. At the first job, I was not going to convince her to create a landscape different then what she knew she was looking for and frankly, different from everyone else on the street. So I made a very attractive foundation planting that she describes as curb appeal. At the second home, I am going to create a garden that will be beyond anything that couple ever thought of, and in the process of making that beautiful place a tremendous life experience that will enrich their daily lives, it will also be a garden that will give their house a kind of curb appeal they never thought possible. Curb appeal is not necessarily a bad thing, but the definition of that phrase that can either be limiting or full of possibility.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 9:41AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I think the term "curb appeal" has the most to do with putting a house on the market, and wanting to make it more presentable on first impression to the general public. In this generic sense of the term, the added "appeal" is usually fairly generic, and any real estate agent could tell you that in its simplest form, it means having things neat and tidy, hedges sheared, dead plants removed, leaves raked off the lawn, dead patches of lawn replaced, a pot with some color at the front porch, etc. Simple things that replicate the things one does indoors to make the house more presentable, such as clear out excess clutter and furniture, depersonalize the house by removing personal photos, sticking to a neutral color scheme for walls, opening blinds and curtains and turning on lights to make it seem brighter, or only leaving them drawn if you need to screen a view, and fresh baked cookies scent wafting from the kitchen.

Curb appeal in this broadest generic sense has very little to do with actual design or problem solving, and is usually geared toward the quick or cheap fix. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn't really engaging the full possibilities of landscape design. As a landscape designer, I've been involved with creating curb appeal for houses to be flipped, when that was still a money making proposition before 2008's market crash, but it usually involved doing quite a bit more than the quick/cheap fix. I strongly believe that it is always possible to exceed the client's expectations if their initial budget is flexible, and to make the case that relandscaping can be a better return at lesser cost than more extensive work indoors. On the other hand, if they aren't willing or able to afford more extensive new landscape work, I'll usually advise them to skip the new landscaping and spend the money on painting the house if needed. I don't think a few pansies in the front border and a pot of red geraniums at the front porch actually entices anyone to buy the house in question, if the house doesn't meet the proper price point or needs of the buyer. A prettier front garden doesn't usually have more value than the house itself, for most buyers.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 10:40AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Interesting topic Ink. I do wish you'd share some more pictures from your garden - ditto other pros on here... It would be interesting to see how the personality that gets projected in your comments matches up with your personal garden :-)

'Curb appeal' has it's place in our front garden because it is the 'public' face of the garden and we want it to project a friendly face to the world :-) But, like Ink, personal pleasure is the primary driver for all parts of the garden. The main viewing lines for the front garden for ourselves are looking north from the dining room, from the front porch and at various points along the driveway. The main 'public' view is looking west from the street towards the house. Of course, we also see it from that point as we take the dogs for a walk or leave and arrive by car. Some of the elements in the 'private' view are visible in the 'public' view but with less clarity. I considered both public and private aspects when I planted the garden and when making on-going changes to it. But the personal aspects are the dominant ones.

Bahai's points re the pragmatic issues around curb appeal and selling are very relevant/valid. When the time comes to sell here, this garden will likely be either irrelevant or a drawback. Irrelevant because there is a very good chance that a purchaser would tear down this place and build a much larger home, destroying much of the garden in the process. A drawback if the purchaser actually intended to live in this house. A non-gardener would be intimidated by this garden I think (hence the maintenance manual I put together for it to leave behind for a future homeowner...) A gardener would want to make their own garden, not just maintain mine! So, in either scenario, this garden would either disappear or be radically altered once we sell the house.

Gardening for your own pleasure is ultimately the only reason to create your garden I think. For most of us who garden, it gives us pleasure when others enjoy our gardens. 'Curb appeal' then becomes a minor subset of the personal reasons for gardening.

I think many non-gardteners still want the pleasure that comes with knowing others enjoy your garden, giving rise to the desire for 'curb appeal'. But a non-gardener would have less interest/confidence/commitment to the process of planning/design, planting and on-going maintenance that gives pleasure to those of us who are more 'into' gardening and all that relates to it.

Some non-gardeners will be drawn into gardening as they become more comfortable with all it entails. The discussions here may help eductate and draw those potential gardeners deeper into the process sooner.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 1:02PM
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I'll chime in with a homeowner perspective.

I am in a long planned, seemingly forever to completion project at the moment. One of the goals could be "curb appeal". My definition is probably close to the realtors. Which is I want my yard to be broadly appealing, so that if/when I were to sell my property would be more desireable than a comparable (in some cases practically identical) unit in my neighborhood.

I am hoping to accomplish this by having attractive plantings that coordinate well together and make sense in terms of their placement (sun vs shade, seasonal appearance, future size, etc). I know nothing about this so I hired expertise. Many of the plants went in this past weekend, and its looking great. Well great for being planted without mulch yet, with mud instead of a lawn, etc.

The other part of my strategy is to have some amenities that the other neighbors are less likely to have. I don't expect to see a positive return on my expenditures, and hope I don't have to sell for years so I can enjoy my yard. But I am a corporate nomad. If this job ends (for whatever reason), I will be moving.

I have used this forum and gotten a lot of advise that has helped me figure things out. I still know very little about the plant side of the equation, but I was well steered on other items and figured out that I needed professional help. But I think I approached it a little better than some people who just say "give me ideas" with minimal context or questions (patting myself on the back).

In terms of learning about this topic, now that I have some plants my wife and I are educating ourselves on those and enjoying the care for them so far. The topic is to broad to pick up in pieces.

At some point I will add planting pictures, if the rain ever stops for a couple days in a row and some real progress can be made (it looks incomplete right now). I put a link to my thread in here if anyone is curious, although I have sorted my questions at this point.

Here is a link that might be useful: My messy thread

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 12:09PM
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I'm interested - Ink, when you began creating your garden, what were the starting points and goals, did you begin with a blank slate or an established lot, what were the biggest problems to solve, what were the thoughts that went into it... I guess you already said we cannot hope to see photos, but a story would be good to hear.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2011 at 3:51AM
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Timbu:a tall order. Let me start by saying that all garden making is subject to the same restrictions, the budget, the client and the site. What this means is that it doesn't matter if you have studied garden design history and traced a continuity from oasis making and closing it off to where you live all this will be tempered by who you are and your resources. And any dreams you might have will come to naught if the climate doesn't allow.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2011 at 6:38PM
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I'm all ears. Do you mean you started off with having something exotic in mind?

    Bookmark   May 5, 2011 at 1:20AM
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lpinkmountain(5b/6a border PA)

I think it is quite different for what a person might design for their own garden and what a landscape designer might do for a client. A garden will always be a reflection of the gardener, whatever that may mean. If the gardener is very concerned about what others "think" about him or her, then that's going to be reflected in their garden. Who knows how that might manifest itself though. Some shy people might want their garden to be as non-descript as possible, to avoid possibly offending someone. Others might go in for some showy, expensive accoutrements that convey (in their mind) a certain amount of status. Others might enjoy planting roses along their front fence so passers by can stop and smell them. Someone else might plant a memorial garden in memory of a deceased loved one. Someone else might have a handicapped person in their life and design a garden that they can enjoy. That's "designing for others" in one sense.

However, I don't think that is the meaning of "curb appeal." First of all, I think basically curb appeal has to do with the front of the house, where the curbs are in most cases. So curb appeal is the impression your home gives as people approach and enter it, or pass it from the street. It also means designing your yard so your home will sell. I have seen some gorgeous front yard rose gardens, but when selling a home, such an amenity has a limited appeal. It's the same with selling your home, you want it to appear neat, easy to maintain, and also easy for future owners to imagine it meshing with their lives and their tastes.

Lastly, I think there are certain things about landscaping that can, in general, make a space more appealing. There are certain vistas, colors, etc. that appeal to people, make them feel positive about a space. I'm not familiar with all those concepts, but I know there is a whole body of research about what kinds of vistas appeal to people, as well as the influence of color and form on perception. There are things you can do with color, form and texture that can enhance the beauty of your home, and within those general parameters, you have a lot of options as to what particular effecct you want. That's the classic case of taking a home and saying--well here's a formal look, here's a more casual look, here's one using edible landscaping, etc. But all of those kinds of plans will still use some general concepts of aesthetics to achieve their purposes. That, BTW, is what I would hire a landscaper for, someone with a good eye and understanding for aesthetics and also the relationship of that to function, how to solve problems for people aesthetically. For example, I might know that I have an ugly view next door that I want to block, but not know how best to acheive that aim in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. So I put up a huge fence that is in a color and style that doesn't match my house or the style of the neighborhood, and I have replaced one ugly problem with another. Those are the kinds of cases I think landscape designers can be really helpful. Some people don't need that kind of help. I have two friends without any training and they have an absolute natural talent for coming up with beautiful landscapes. My dad on the other hand, spreads ugly clutter wherever he lands, he has a real knack for that. He is immune to aesthetics. He makes blackened "burn piles" to get rid of yard debris, all over the formal landscape of my parents yard. For him, their ugly appearance does not matter, he needs to get that debris burned!! No amount of discussion of alternatives will sway him. I am similarly aesthetically challenged. I'm not immune to it, quite the opposite, I know what doesn't look or feel right, and I'm accutely aware of the effect of the environment on the human psyche, but I can rarely imagine or execute solutions on my own. The entrance to my home is not offensive, but utilitarian and hardly the showplace of the neighborhood. That's a combination of lack of time, skill and most importantly, money to make it more appealing. So, grass on the hill and a few porch boxes and call it a day. That beautiful retaining wall will have to wait.

Some people don't care a whit about others, and it shows by the way they design their yards with no consideration to how it will affect other people living near them, such as putting their grill right next to the entrance to someone else's home so the smoke drifts into their house, etc. I feel lucky that my row house neighbors get the importance of that!

And for some people with allergies, vegetation, no matter how artfully arranged, conjures up feelings of impending misery. Hard for a gardener to be a good neighbor to those kinds of folks unfortunately. I mean I wouldn't plant ragweed or anything, but the list of potential allergens is long.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2011 at 8:47AM
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When I first came to Canada I would often encounter such remarks as "What I want is an English garden full of wild flowers," when I asked for a description of what this meant to the speaker it was a magazine picture that came to mind. That approach is prevalent here on this forum too when people want help with plant choices as the first (or perhaps only) step.

My favoured approach and the one I used when making my own garden is to regard it as a 'place' and not a 'picture'. This place is a garden with a house in it (to paraphrase Gertrude Jekyll) making it easy to avoid creating a 'necklace' of plants around the house in an attempt to enhance its appeal. When someone wants an English garden or any other style it is the feeling they are after and I believe this can be achieved wherever you are with what material is vernacular. I wanted to create a sense of being grounded which meant focusing on seasonal change that helps to instil a history. There is a great comfort in watching birds nest in the same tree as previous years and to note which trees flower first or when all the leaves are down and so on. I didn't have the budget to do the whole thing at once and I didn't have a plan other than what I have already mentioned plus many of the plants were recuperated from clients gardens that I revised. My garden came together over a number of years and I was lucky that there was nothing much here other than some mature trees when we first arrived.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2011 at 1:48PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Ink - you could be describing my garden and how it has developed over the years! :-) If you can't or won't post pictures of yours, can you post a sketch of the layout? I'd love to know more about it... You're in Quebec I think...? I spent part of my university years in Ste. Anne de Bellvue. That was such a nice area and the architecture of the older houses in Montreal and older suburbs is so beautiful. Are you lucky and had a distinctive property like that to work with? There was one old stone house with a stone wall and a nice garden on 'the main drag' in Ste Anne's when I was there in 1977-1980- I still covet that property!

    Bookmark   May 5, 2011 at 2:35PM
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I known what I think a lot of people mean by curb appeal and I know what is actually appealing to me when I drive up to or walk up to a house, and they are 2 different things. that leads to some dissatisfaction because I have high expectations for "real" curb appeal, including the architecture, the perfect trees, steps, walkway, welcoming entry or cool gate or something, the types of things that make me drool and have curb envy. So in fact I would really enjoy discussions or demonstrations of how you could , for a given home, pick the several , or 1 or 2 most important things that would give my kind of curb appeal when maybe having it all isn't realistic. We do have those discussions a fair amount and sometimes it is what drives an OP nuts because one says add a porch when the person was asking where to put the Japanese maple.

That is related to my hijacking question because I see the curb appeal post and I am not really that focused on what the poster wants but on what would actually make the home appealing, endearing, happy when you drive up kind of thing, to my taste. Given of course what ink noted about the limitations of 2-D so that the home in the photo might be actually more appealing " in person" and/or there are "appeal improvements that can't be rendered by a photo.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2011 at 11:29PM
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The workmen are building the driveway outside, so a few hasty, if not very organized thoughts:

In a sense, I am designing for others - trying to improve my bit of the neighborhood, and hoping to inspire the neighbors to do their part as well. I don't have a "front yard" and "back yard" but one yard that is simultaneously public and private, located on a street corner as it is - so the curb appeal thing, in my case, means choosing which views to block - but it could also mean making a compost bin as pretty as possible, or, yes, even tarting up a shed.
I confess to having set up a number of two-dimensional pictures in my garden, since photography is the language I speak - but there were other goals as well, such as evoking memories, creating a habitat for small creatures, improving functionality (I may have gone to extremes with that one lately) - I keep reminding myself why I made the path 4ft wide - so I could later let plants spill over the edges. And when the boys dash past me on the new path with bicycles, skateboards, toy cars, whatever-things-with-wheels, I wonder if putting in steps wouldn't have been a more practical decision after all - while also making better visual use of the slope.
I feel that "having the funds" and not having the time is a curse for a garden rather than a blessing. Then again, one can spend years thinking and planning and still not make the luckiest decisions!
"Grounded" is a nice word, Ink - is it something that comes naturally when a garden is old and lived-in?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2011 at 9:07AM
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It is a nice word timbu but like most concepts it is not clearly definable. There is a notion in Japanese design called 'wabi-sabi' which is equally difficult to pin down but both imply to me a sense of not perfect. I won't go as far as to say imperfect because that implies some kind of anti perfection. When you go to a restaurant with a spotlessly clean white tablecloth it is what you expect but its ambiance is nowhere near what comes from grandmas table cloth with a wine stain from your 21st birthday or a burn from your dads pipe on it. Brian Patton (one of the Liverpool poets) was given a lot of the plants in his garden so he called them by the name of the giver and each had a story, his dog was also buried in the garden. So I guess it is a very personal thing.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2011 at 4:02PM
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So landscapes designed for others could be compared to spotless tablecloths. Is that what clients want nowadays? Have you ever been asked to design a garden that looks old from the start?

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 1:37AM
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