Transparency in the Landscape

As modern humans, we spend our days surrounded by solid, imposing “stuff”. We live in big brick and wood houses, drive two-ton steel vehicles to work on concrete and asphalt freeways, and go work in big concrete and steel buildings. It makes sense, then that we carry this through to the landscape. Need to block a view? Throw up a fence panel, or maybe a solid hedge of evergreens. Looking for shade? Build a pavilion with a big shingled roof.

photo credit: Mine Daelemans

I ran across an article the other day while catching up on my design blogs that got me thinking about transparency and visual weight (you can read it here). It features the church that’s pictured above. My first thought was “ok, it’s clearly built of steel, but other than that – what’s the big deal?”

photo credit: Kristof Vrancken

Oh! That’s the big deal. The designers, Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, kept the overall form of a church but created a large, sculptural space that looks like it’s trying to turn to smoke in front of us.

Not everything needs to be solid and expected. How does this translate to the landscape? Sometimes you just need to distract from a view rather than block it. That’s where a simple trellis can stand in for a fence panel, like in the photo below. Adding in a line of low boxwood and hydrangea leading towards the front of the house will be the finishing touch, using rhythm in the landscape to move the eye past the undesirable view.

The same idea holds true for plantings. I love this picture I took on the grounds of the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art in DC. They have subtly created defined exhibit spaces for the various pieces using the shapes of the pathways and the planting. In this one, you can see that the higher canopy of the crape myrtles and the lower ground plane plantings create gaps that you can see through yet you can clearly see the boundary of the space. That’s great.

Transparency can be used to great effect in the landscape, whether it’s with structure, sculpture, or plants. If you want to see a designer doing it beautifully with perennials, you need to check out Piet Oudolf’s work. It’s like I keep saying with all the different facets of landscape design: lighten up and have fun!

Landscape Design Lessons from a Newport Mansion

Several weeks ago MJ and I made the drive to Rhode Island for my niece’s high school graduation. We stayed an extra day so we could celebrate my mom’s birthday. Since everyone had to work during the daytime and we don’t get to RI very often, we made the trip to one of my favorite Newport Mansions, The Elms.

You would think that the grounds of a place like The Elms would be so far removed from reality that there’s nothing you could take back and use in your own space. Au contraire mon frere! Just like a catering recipe, you can totally reduce it down for home use (now I want cupcakes).

Lesson #1: A comfy place to sit in the shade is always a great idea.

Sometimes a bench is just to create a focal point, and sometimes it gives people a place to sit and chat. It should always be fabulous, though.

Lesson #2: Outbuildings deserve love too.

When I’m working with my clients to design screen houses, pool houses, or even sheds, I always try to pull architectural details from the house to tie everything together. This gate is on the carriage house behind the mansion. I doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Berwind or their friends ever had reason to see it, but the architect knew.

Lesson #3: Focal points are important.

This section of the garden is a really cool “hallway” of clipped evergreens that leads to a service drive. However, the fountain serves as a focal point that “stops” the eye. See how different the space would look without it?

Instead of stopping your eye, the rhythm of the landscape design leads you right out of the garden. No me gusta!

Lesson #4: Everyone loves a surprise.

I’m a huge fan of elements of a space revealing themselves to you a little at a time. It adds to the sense of wonder if we can move through a garden and periodically say “hey, what’s that? Cool!” Even in a manicured garden like that at The Elms there’s room for surprises.

Lesson #5: The lawn is a design element.

There are a lot of lawn-haters out there. I’m not one of them. Sometimes you need lawn area for practical reasons (kids, dogs, lawn darts) but other times the lawn can make the design by acting as negative space. This allows individual elements to pop in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

Look at that awesome weeping beech on the right side of the photo. Forget the architectural elements in this shot, losing the punch of this tree would be a shame. Sitting on the broad flat plane of the lawn as it does, the tree makes a strong statement.

If you’ve never been to The Elms, I strongly encourage you to go. Why is it my favorite “summer cottage”? Mr. Berwind believed that a proper house should run as if by magic, with guests never seeing the utilitarian aspects. It’s pretty amazing.

Do you have a favorite Newport Mansion?

Elements of Design: Color

Color theory talks about three main topics: hue, value, and intensity. Hue and color are sometimes used interchangeably, and they refer to the named colors. Warm colors, like red, orange, and yellow, are considered stimulating; cool colors like blue, green, and purple are seen as calming.

Value is how light or dark a hue is seen as being. As an example, a rich navy blue is a low value blue; a pale, powderpuff blue (think of a ’70s tuxedo) is a high value color.


Intensity is the brightness of a hue. Pure colors are the most intense, but they can be dialed back by adding a neighboring color, a contrasting color, white, black, gray, or any combination of all of these. In interior design color theory classes, you spend entire classes mixing pigments to understand how colors affect one another. Cool stuff.

“That’s great, Dave,” you say, “but how does this help me in the garden?” Color can be used as a way to give a built element a lot of visual impact. I love love love vividly painted stucco and concrete walls:


Understanding color can also help in selecting foliage and bloom colors. Now, I hold the belief that Mother Nature is awesome and none of her flower colors ever clash. Color-themed gardens can be a lot of fun, though, and it helps to have an understanding of color when deciding what’s a cool color, what’s a warm color, how everything plays together, etc. A color wheel is a fantastic investment of less than ten bucks (3451 9-1/4IN. COLOR WHEEL DIAMETER:9-1/4″, Amazon affiliate link) that will let you get a better sense of what are contrasts, what are complementary, all that jazz.

That’s the final element of design. I hope you found this series useful! Any recommendations for future topics?

Elements of Design: Light

Unlike interior design, with landscape design light is what it is while the sun is shining. Where we can really play with light is after the sun goes down. The most obvious way to use light is to accent specific elements in the landscape. For example, this is the wedding arbor out at Old House Vineyards:

Landscape lighting design also involves subtlety, however. The general idea is to see the effect of the light, not the source. If you do end up seeing the fixture, at the very least you want to avoid staring right into the light bulb (which is actually called the “lamp” – now you know).

The best way to understand how landscape lighting can work is with an actual demonstration. Contact me if you want to learn more about lighting your property.

Elements of Design: Pattern


I struggled with whether to include pattern or not in this series, because pattern is seen more commonly with interiors – think wallpaper and fabrics. In the near future I’ll do a post about outdoor fabrics, because the options are now amazing, but I didn’t want to do that here. After all, we rarely mix patterns and fabrics outside the same way we do inside. Does my umbrella coordinate with my cushions? Awesome. Hit me with more sangria.

Then I got to thinking about hardscape design, something that deals a lot with pattern. With natural stone patios we tend to have either irregular flagstone or random-pattern rectangular flagstone. Used together, they can play off one another quite nicely:

When we start talking about pavers, there are lots of different options. A commonly used pattern is the I-pattern:


An important consideration when selecting a material and a pattern is making sure that the pattern is appropriate to the scale and the repeat in the pattern is pleasing. In this driveway we broke up the pattern with inlay sections, but even the repeat on the large field isn’t overwhelming.

Pattern repeat is why I don’t like the pavers that try to look like irregular, natural flagstone. They don’t work, because in order to be a modular product the number of sizes and shapes is pretty limited. They’ve gotten better than they were even a few years ago, but they’re still unconvincing.

This pattern is better than some in that it’s more random, but even at that the size of the pieces is wrong – you wouldn’t lay a real flagstone patio with pieces that small.

Where pattern gets even trickier is when you’re selecting both wall and pavement materials. If you have a big brick house, a brick patio will give you a feeling of “whoa, the brick!” A rectangular patterned flagstone patio with a brick border can tie it all together quite nicely.

On the other hand, if someone is using pavers with a brick house, I usually caution them to go for a paver that’s quite different from the house brick. If you select a reddish brick-style concrete paver for a red clay brick home, they’ll never match and it will look like you tried and failed. Better to select a very different paver (i.e., 6×6 and 6×9 pavers) in a completely different color family. It’s like fashion, too matchy-matchy is bad, and so is clashing.

Next up: light!

Elements of Design: Texture

Texture deals with how smooth or rough a surface is. When talking about elements of structures, smooth surfaces can often seem more modern and contemporary, while rough surfaces seem more rustic. Think of the difference between a rammed earth or concrete wall (favorites in modern design) versus a stone or splitface block wall.

Rammed Earth Wall. credit: ASNZ website (click to visit)

Texture has an additional role in landscape design, however. A pleasing planting design includes plants of different textures used in the landscape. Soft and spiky, narrow and broad, whatever the mix you choose the idea is to create some contrast to keep things interesting. This photo shows a really basic pairing of soft and spiky – something that’s actually quite common in container plantings:

An old trick I learned a long time ago was that if you want to be able to evaluate whether you have successfully blended textures in your planting design, take a black and white photo of the plantings. With the color removed, the textures become obvious. Brilliant. You don’t even need Photoshop anymore, just a vintage camera app for your phone. How cool is that? Yay, technology!

Texture is really effective, and it’s one of those tools that, when used properly, isn’t even readily apparent. It just “looks right.” The key to achieving interesting textures and relationships is knowing your options – which is where a good landscape designer can be a great asset.

Elements of Design: Line

We all know what a line is: a connection of two or more points. In design, line happens when two planes meet, or when we see an object in silhouette. Line helps us play with scale and proportion by emphasizing height, width, or movement. There are several types of lines, each with a particular effect that it creates.

Straight Lines

Horizontal lines: Horizontal lines are secure, restful, and stable. They can emphasize the horizontal nature of a space, and they can lead the eye to a focal point. In the photo below, you can see how the horizontal lines of the house give it a sense of grounding, without a lot of excitement.

Vertical lines: Vertical lines can be inspiring, drawing the eye towards the heavens – which is why they’ve been used in church architecture for centuries. Too many vertical lines and it can feel like a prison, but the right number… good stuff. I love ecclesiastical (church) architecture, and occasionally I’ll stop the truck for pics of a really cool church. The picture below is of a church somewhere off of I-81 that I fell in love with from the road. Look at the vertical lines of the front of that church! And they continue into the three crosses. Too cool.

Angular Lines

Diagonal lines: Diagonal lines show movement and action, yet they’re still considered stable. Diagonals can be a great way to add emphasis to design. In the photo above, you can see that the roof of the church leads the eye to the dramatic vertical structure of the front wall. If you haven’t yet figured it out, I really like this building.

Zigzag Lines: Zigzag lines show a lot of exciting action and movement. They also introduce rhythm. In the photo below, you can see where this set of steps is still very comfortable and easily navigable, but is much more interesting and dynamic than a simple, straight set of steps would be. Too much movement, or too many repeated zigzags, can be overwhelming.

Curved Lines

Curved or Circular Lines: Circular lines help balance the straight, angular lines of a house or structure. They can also provide emphasis while giving a more human character to the space. In the photo below, the circular medallion defines a dining area while also providing a pleasing counterpoint to all the angular lines of the flagstone patio.

Flowing Lines: Everyone likes flowing lines in their landscape design. They provide a gentle sense of movement and grace in the space. Done correctly, you can’t help but want to walk down a gently curving path!

So, that’s line. Such a cool element of landscape design!

Next up: Texture!

Elements of Design: Mass in Landscape Design

There was a guy at one of the gyms at which I worked out who had a T-shirt that said “don’t be passive, be massive.” He was definitely the latter; you kind of have to be to pull off such a shirt.

Mass in the landscape is the same way – it has to be right if you’re going to pull it off. Mass is very closely related to shape and form. Actual density occurs when the shape is filled in. Optical density is when the piece in question is not completely solid. In terms of interior pieces (a common reference point), think of a couch that has a skirt all the way to the floor versus a couch of the same size with no skirt and tapered legs. The skirted couch appears to have more mass, even though it’s not solid all the way through.

How the heck does this relate to landscape design? It’s important to consider the effect that mass has on the pverall feel of a space. Obviously the bigger the space, the more mass it can handle. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a heavy mass can “stop” the eye and make the space feel smaller.

This pergola is a good example of playing with mass. It’s a big site, and the large house is just out of frame – this needed to be a beefy structure. At the same time, the openings provide a little transparency and lighten things up a bit. You know it’s a focal point, but you can still see through it to the vineyard view beyond.

Plants can play a role in this as well. If we keep the plants behind the structure pruned even with the top of the fence, we’ve preserved the view to the vines and maintained a lighter mass. If we allow the plants to fill the space between the columns, it’ll have the same effect as if we had built a solid wood screen panel between them.

Because plants grow, you have to think about the effects of mass throughout the life of the landscape. It’s one more reason why working with a landscape designer can make a big difference in the overall look of your landscape.

Elements of Design: Shape or Form

We often think of shapes as two-dimensional: squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. This isn’t how we perceive them in the landscape, however. We see them in three dimensions, like cubes, spheres, and cones. Shape (or form) in the landscape can even dictate how a space feels.

This is a backyard I did for a client in Phoenix, Arizona (sorry, pygmy date palms aren’t going to work in your McLean landscape design). As you can see the shapes are all sinuous curves with nary a straight line in sight. This gives the yard a much more casual, relaxed feel.

Here, you see a lot more angularity of design. This house is a very dominating, simple, rectangular shape, so it made sense to carry those lines all the way to the street. In so doing, you can see we also used the principle of unity (part of harmony). It all ties together!

Part of the reason that I think it’s important to discuss shape in the landscape is that I see a lot of folks forgetting that the shape of their home is a dominant part of the design. Everyone wants flowing curves on everything. Well, I wish I could wear a paisley suit jacket, but I’ll never be able to rock that look. Such is life.

Unless your home was designed by Frank Gehry (or you live in an igloo), your home is a box. Or it’s a grouping of a few boxes. Regardless, the dominant form is rectilinear. That doesn’t mean that you’re limited to a simple rectangular patio, for example.

In the photo above, the house is a massive, two and a half story brick edifice. The client initially wanted big sweeping curves on the patio. I tried, but nothing worked. It was as wrong as sticking a trucker cap on the Queen of England’s head. So, we did a stepped edge on the patio to break up the profile and allowed all the plant beds to swoop and curve and blend the landscape design into the woods. The design finally worked, and what’s even better – the client loves it.

Shape’s fun to play with. It’s one of my favorite parts of landscape design.

Next up: Mass!

Elements of Design: Space

Space is a funny concept in design, especially landscape design. Space is an abstract concept that can’t really be described until it’s defined by walls or boundaries. It’s a crucial part of design, as evidenced by the fact that a large part of design is space planning.

When working with space, we’re trying to balance two conflicting human needs. The first is the need to feel enclosed, sheltered, and protected. This is achieved with smaller spaces – think of when you were little and made a fort from blankets and couch cushions. In the landscape we can make a space feel smaller with walls, railings, fences, hedges – any number of visual tricks. However, if we make the space too small it feels confining and constricting.

On the flip side, we also have a need to feel a sense of freedom, to take in the vastness of a space. Think of a deck or patio overlooking the mountains in the northwestern corner of Virginia, where you can survey the entire landscape spread out below you. There still needs to be a means of creating human scale (see how it all relates?), or a huge outdoor space can feel uncomfortable, even a little unsettling.

The photo below is from one of our trips to the Charlottesville area. From the patio, you have views of forever that could feel a little overwhelming. The pergola helps to “lower the sky,” in a sense, and as the shrubs at the edge of the patio grow and fill in they’ll provide a little enclosure.

Designers have a lot of fun playing with space. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used small entry doors and low-ceilinged hallways that open into large, high-ceilinged living spaces to create a sense of excitement, even tension and release. Outside, you could get the same effect with a narrow walkway between tall hedges that opens out into a bigger space. This photo from the Winery at La Grange shows that really well. The patio at the other end feels twice as large as it is, just because of the “compressed” feeling you get coming down the walk:


As you can probably tell, I love playing with space. There’s the functional part of space planning and circulation that I enjoy, but playing with the edges of an abstraction is pretty cool.

Next up: shape and form!