Seeing Genius Loci



This October Michael and I travelled to Sedona, AZ. and national parks in Arizona and Utah. It was a journey through geology and I found myself wishing I knew more about geology the farther we travelled.

Driving east from the Las Vegas airport, we turned south towards Sedona from the main highway. The terrain began to change dramatically. Cinnamon, ginger, and eggnog-colored rocky cliffs climbed steeply on either side of the road. At road level, we followed a sparkling, verdant creek. The contrast of colors and the sheer, natural beauty of our surroundings were stunning.

hiking views
hiking views

Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the spa resort where we were to stay for two nights and saw what could have been the front garden of far too many homes in America. Lawn, boxwood borders, hydrangeas and other familiar garden plants surrounded the spa. It was so out of character to the area! It was almost as though there was an abrasive line where their garden ended and the natural environment started. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why didn’t they just work with what they have?” Our local excursions presented an amazing array of native plants. Manzanita’s deep crimson bark and pale gray-green leaves combined with brassy yellow flowers of surrounding groundcovers were gorgeous. Prickly, paddle-shaped cacti were abundant. Blue-gray leaves of Agaves against rusty-nail colored soil took my breath away.

abundant Agave, manzanita, and cacti
abundant Agave, manzanita, and cacti

Seeing the genius loci of a site isn’t difficult. It’s usually rather obvious. So why is it ignored all too often? We owe it to ourselves to pay attention to this critical clue to the design of a garden. It doesn’t mean plants need to be entirely native, but it does mean respecting available resources and character of place.

Fluffy Cottage Gardens


Cottage-1Okay, it has been quite a long time since I’ve created a new post here. I got sidetracked by a couple of other blogs to which I was contributing. I expect to blog much more regularly from now on!!

Sometimes a rant is in order and as a designer I certainly take issue with some aspects of design. After browsing a very popular home and garden magazine, I just have to speak up about all of those cute, fluffy cottage gardens with their little picket fences and the requisite matching arbor. I know that many people find this style of garden charming, but I’m not one of them UNLESS they are done really well. Usually, I find them ubiquitous and boring.

Cottage-2My major problem with these gardens is that they are usually a muddle of plants. Managing textures takes forethought (read: design) so that you can actually see different plants. There are more shades of green than plain green, too. And flowers are so ephemeral that if you’re going for that really think of when each of them blooms if you want to see them together. Tulips and Echinacea don’t bloom at the same time, so why bother trying to match those two? There are usually too many onesy-twosy’s too. Many designers will tell you to create “sweeps” and “drifts”. Well, I agree, but here’s my definition of sweeps or drifts: varied sizes of elongated triangles that interweave with one another. No drift should be fewer than 5 plants, otherwise it’s a clump.

Cottage-3 Plants aren’t the only issue. If you thought I was going to ignore the picket fence, reconsider. I have seen some interesting picket fences that I would actually consider good design, so it’s not the idea of the picket fence. It’s that so many are identical as though no one could think of anything else to do. Really? Then there’s the matching arbor with the romantic rose arching over intertwined with Clematis. Okay, so I do like the roses and clematis, but I also like something more original that the expected arbor, too. Reconsider materials. Think about how it sympathizes stylistically with the house (or should). What about the color? Is it the major focus of getting to the front door? Perhaps it should be the same color as the front door to improve subtle way-finding.

In short, if you’re going for the cottage garden style, don’t copy the gardens you see in the magazines. One that works with who YOU are will be the very best.

Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD, NCIDQ