Designing Landscapes or Creating Gardens? (Part One)

Combining Experience
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to start this design practice with Richard Hartlage, who is renowned for his design of exceptional gardens. Land Morphology’s practice ranges from the design of gardens and estates to the place shaping of public spaces. The goal from the beginning was to learn from each other and combine our expertise in garden design, landscape architecture, urban design, planning, and horticulture to bring the artful design and exquisite horticulture of our private projects into public spaces, botanical gardens, and commercial projects. 

Land Morphology designed the planting areas and South Trellis between Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington.

Land Morphology designed the planting areas and South Trellis between Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington.

Designing Landscapes
My livelihood has been working as a landscape architect; primarily on public and institutional projects. I have planned and designed diverse projects at a variety of scales, in multiple geographies, and in consultancies spanning from a small private practice to public service and as a principal in a global consultancy.  My work has been local and global.

On the large, more remotely located projects, I worked from maps, prints, memory, photos, and plant catalogues; often without the opportunity to see the places in different seasons, at varying times of day, and diverse levels of light. Landscape plans for larger projects were often drawn before the buildings were built, before the soils were placed, or before the microclimates were understood.  Landscape design under these conditions was largely an analytical, intellectual, and project management exercise.

Located in Anyang, South Korea, the project involved the urban design of three city blocks to include a mixed-use retail development, parks, and an underground transit hub. Completed while at EDAW/AECOM.

Located in Anyang, South Korea, the project involved the urban design of three city blocks to include a mixed-use retail development, parks, and an underground transit hub. Completed while at EDAW/AECOM.

The design focuses on defining the spatial framework, meeting program requirements, and creating a design narrative that informs decision-making regarding the details. The spatial framework is reinforced by site architecture, landforms, infrastructure elements, sight lines, circulation patterns, and landscape typologies. Plants are selected based on availability, hardiness, established typology, and to a lesser extent, texture and color. 

Counterpoint: Cultivating My Garden
Over the last three years I have also been working with Richard on my own garden.  It has been a delightful experience. My garden has become a testing ground for plants, ideas, and new ways of working. In our informal and experimental collaboration, very little has been designed on paper. Instead, we have spray painted beds, pathways and features on the ground. We look at them in context and adjust. From working this way on my property, I am more aware of the views, light, and movement sequences.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The foreground, middle ground, background and the lines in the landscape become part of multi-dimensional place. Building incrementally has resulted in a richer experience, but is a new way of approaching a project for me. Without a plan, my garden has evolved not unlike the richness of a neighborhood that has evolved over 100 years versus a new neighborhood that is planned, designed and built in less than 10 years.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

We place the trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers, and bulbs in that order. Each fall and spring we adjust and edit. Annually we adapt, move plants, replace underperformers, and test new plants. We add or subtract detail. We spend more time laying out the plants in the field than drawing a plan. We adjust as needed. Sometime we move the design back to paper. I have learned that cultivating my garden is an endeavor that requires ongoing nurturing and commitment versus the process of planning and installing a landscape, where we quickly move on to the next project after construction.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

My garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Differences in Process
I realize that designers trained in horticulture and garden design are adept at designing on the land and learn to convey ideas to paper.  In contrast, most landscape architects are trained to design in the office and create plans on paper. They are often less comfortable designing on site and they spend less time on site. Most landscape architects are less comfortable than gardeners designing in the field or advising on maintenance.

Garden design in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Garden design in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Designing on paper may result in bolder patterns but designs are often less nuanced. Beautiful two dimensional plan graphics may be misconstrued as a product versus a communication tool. The conceptual designs may not fit the contours of the land, the scale of the site, or be as responsive to views, light, microclimates, and site features. 

The best process: Leach Botanical Garden Master Plan for Portland Parks & Recreation. Garden design informed by horticulture, artistry, and landscape architecture.

The best process: Leach Botanical Garden Master Plan for Portland Parks & Recreation. Garden design informed by horticulture, artistry, and landscape architecture.

Designing in the field may miss opportunities to make bolder moves and create stronger patterns due to the constraints of working with what exists. The best landscape architects and garden designers are skilled in designing experiences in three dimensions, on paper, and on the land. There is a difference in how the two professions are trained. We believe collaboration between our disciplines yields the best results. Garden design informed by horticulture, artistry, and landscape architecture distinguishes our firm. I am working to integrate cross-disciplinary thinking into all of my work, regardless of scale, with an ever increasing interest in beautiful ecological systems.

Design at Land Morphology
Large projects require detailed drawings and construction documentation. All projects benefit from more time spent documenting existing conditions, integrating surveys, and reviewing site photos and videos as plans are developed. Scaled AutoCAD plans facilitate quantity takeoffs, estimating, design of irrigation, and field layout, while providing direction on the means and methods of construction to contractors.

Nutley, New Jersey.

Nutley, New Jersey.

Our plant lists are long. The plants are layered with sophistication that would be difficult to convey by showing single plants on a single CAD drawing. Often a garden plan needs a tree and shrub plan and a plan for perennials and bulbs, each drawn at a scale no smaller than 1/8”=1’0”. We work closely with our clients to understand dreams for the garden and to gain an intimate knowledge of the land. I have learned that the conventional format for a preparing construction document planting plans may actually constrain great design. 

Meadow planting at InSitu in Redding, Connecticut.

Meadow planting at InSitu in Redding, Connecticut.

Part Two will be posted next week.

Sandy Fischer

Sandy has a career that spans over thirty-five years. As a landscape architect and community designer, she has focused on leading teams, advocating for livable communities, designing attractive places and shaping enduring landscapes. She has held senior director positions in local government, international and local consulting firms, and managed her own firm for twenty years.

Sandy enjoys collaborating with interdisciplinary teams on challenging projects and idea-driven solutions. Clients appreciate her ability to balance vision and pragmatism to produce plans and designs that are actionable and catalytic. Her community plans have effectively guided change in new and existing; rural and urban; local and international communities. She has worked with diverse clients on visioning, spatial plans, and policy frameworks.

Sandy has a diverse and award-winning design portfolio of built projects in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest regions. She seeks to understand each site within a larger context of ecology, time, culture, and community values. Sandy often works with scientists, engineers, designers and artists to gain an understanding of and creatively express the unique character and values of the places she is entrusted to work.