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The elements of Western landscaping: a visit with Garrett Eckbo.

The elements of Western landscaping: a visit with Garrett Eckbo In more than half a century as a landscape architect, Garrett Eckbo has designed more than a thousand gardens, including the one on page 138.

Along with such other influential Western landscape architects as Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, and Robert Royston, he has helped redirect and practice of landscape architecture and broaden our view of how to design for the way people really use outdoor space.

Eckbo was raised in Alameda, California, and studied landscape architecture at UC Berkeley and also at Harvard. Over the years, he has written extensively about landscape design. A recent book, Garrett Eckbo: Philosophy of Landscape, edited by Tooru Miyakoda and Isao Nakase (Process Architecture, Tokyo, 1990; $31), presents selections of his writings and an overview of his work.

When we visited Eckbo in his garden we asked him to offer general advice on residential landscaping. Some of his comments follow.

How do you go about planning a new

garden or remodeling an existing one?

Planning is a way to establish control of the space we live in, the things we see, and the use and maintenance of these things. This control is a means of developing the best possible surroundings for family life and individual work and relaxation.

Generally, you should first decide and write down what you want the garden to do for you. Next, make a plot plan; indicate everything that's there, including the house's floor plan. Then note which parts of both house and garden you like and which you don't like.

Identify the challenges. They are basically of four types. In order or importance, the first comes from the shape and composition of the land itself. The second comes from structures that have been (or might be) put upon the land, both yours and your neighbors'. The third comes from the activities of the people who live in these structures. Finally, plant selection and the character of your landscape design should always relate to how you plan to use your garden.

You can begin to make the actual plan by sketching on tracing paper over the plot plan the various elements you want, in the rough size and shape they require and in the right positions in relation to each other and to the house. This rough diagrammatic planning stage may take a little time or a lot of time, depending on how difficult your site is, how exacting your requirements are, and how well you can visualize on paper.

If you have trouble with this, get some stakes and string and lay the areas and elements out on the ground. Then go back and put them on the plan. This working back and forth from the actual site to the plan on the drawing board is the way most professional landscape architects work.

What are the basic elements that make up

a garden?

These are surfacing, or ground cover; enclosure, or privacy; and shelter, or overhead features.

Each of these elements can be made out of either plants or construction material. You have to find a balance between cost and maintenance. If you use mainly plantings, more maintenance will be required, and you must wait for growth. If you build, you have results right away, though initial costs may be higher. It also depends on what you like: plant lovers might choose to go easy on construction.

The design process involves putting together functions and patterns and materials in a way that is both useful and beautiful. Many factors influence this process. For instance, scale can affect the design process. In other words, how big or small, how open or closed, does the garden feel?

This has to do not only with the shapes and sizes of areas, but also with the details of planting and construction. Wide boards in a fence make the adjoining space feel smaller; narrow boards, larger. A preponderance of large leaves shrinks space, while small foliage makes it feel larger. Dark, strong colors reduce apparent space, while light, clear colors enlarge it.

How do you decide what plants to use?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, most of the native trees (such as oaks, redwoods, and Douglas firs) are dark and heavy in appearance. They block too much sun and get too big for ordinary gardens. Therefore, if your space is limited, you may prefer to use lighter, more open, less dominating, even deciduous trees. Darker green shrubs can provide more solid base and background. Sunset's garden guide often offers good suggestions for planting.

Take into account how long it takes for a tree or shrub to mature. You should categorize possible plant choices by size; rate of growth; form; foliage color, texture, and profusion; the character of flowers and fruits; and seasonal effects.

Then consider environmental requirements such as type of soil, climate, amount of water, orientation to sun and wind. Remember that on any lot there are warm places and cold places, and you can't always predict the adaptability of plants. I have just put in my ninth Matilija poppy--I'm determined to get one to flourish somewhere in my garden!

Gardens for gardening can be quite different from gardens for outdoor living. They can, of course, be combined, with adequate space.

How do you integrate house and garden?

Planning must include both indoors and outdoors, especially in the mild-winter West, because people want to use all parts of their houses and lots. People who design houses tend to think too rarely about what's outside and windows--especially along side yards.

The garden should be an expansion of the house or an expansion of specific parts of the house--an outdoor entertainment area off the living room, and so on. Side yards of 5 feet or less are for circulation and screening. When wider, they can expand indoor uses.

Doors and windows are channels for relating indoors and out. The door is the most obvious: it generates a path. Windows are centers for visual focus.

Begin with a diagram of the rooms and chart the circulation--how you come in from the street and the way you go out to the yard. Are wyas in and out as comfortable and attractive as they might be?

Analyze how the house relates to the outdoors. How much solid wall and how much glass are there? Take into account the sun's orientation. Try to imagine yourself as a camera moving through the spaces, registering the available light.

How closely should clients work with

their landscape architect?

The best clients are those who participate in the design so there is a reciprocal relationship. From this, both sides can broaden their knowledge.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:May 1, 1991
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