Taking control, creating a focus

Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2003

These are designing times, while the ground is thawing. And as the days get long enough to have some afterwork time, and before the "on the ground" work commences, we remake our rooms, our homes and the outside spaces we call our yards. They all serve to provide us with the settings for our lives. The way these spaces work together determine if we are content with our places or if we continually feel uncomfortable.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

Last week I said we would be able to look at some design criteria, some way to look at the settings we live in and ask the questions that would help us decide how to make our spaces work. These criteria help us decide whether we can make our old yards into something new, or if we have to start all over again.

The first question to ask yourself is: Do you feel joy in your yard; does it please you the way it is? Are you comfortable sitting in a chair, or digging in the flowers? Do you feel that it is your space, or is it a place you hurry through on your way to somewhere else?

People who don't garden still have yards, and whether you want to plant and cultivate or not, the outdoor spaces that surround your dwelling are at least as large as the interiors, and can support or hinder your lifestyle. Landscape design is not all about roses or bluegrass, it is much more about making choices and finding satisfying ways to do things.

Begin from a distance away, look down the street at your home, what are the surrounding features of the larger landscape? Making use of the big picture allows you to fit your home into its setting. Are there views of the mountains, do you have a good set of forest or meadow to use as background? Is there a feature to focus on that will link you to the natural world? This is the real bargain in design, using the nearby features to boost your setting.

Much of how to see depends on focusing, and the same is true of how to see your space. Looking at a setting can be very confusing if all the features are equally exposed, but filtering out some and emphasizing others is a route to more satisfaction. Masking is sometime an option, but redirecting the attention to another feature is often more effective.

We worked for a family last year whose home was set in a great view plane, but the neighbors' windows overlooked their outdoor spaces and they always felt observed. The neighbors weren't necessarily home, or even looking at our clients, but the very sight of the windows made them feel uncomfortable.

We placed a couple of trees and a small group of flowering shrubs on a slight rise and brought the focus down into the yard, and the windows faded into the background. They were not obscured, just diminished in importance, and the people who planted the trees now use their yard all season.

Controlling the view may be as easy as putting in a tree, or building a free-standing screen, but it often entails more stage management. If your vantage point at your front door is placed so that every time you open your door, your views are directly into someone's living room - or where they have a big, blue-tarped boat - you may want to adjust that position. Adding another layer to your porch, and wrapping that angle with a screen is one method, another is to create a strong focus in another direction.

Homes without big views, ones set in neighborhoods that seem tame, can develop delightful settings by choosing some object and developing it into a focal spot. The rest of the landscape gets tuned towards that feature and a design scheme is born. This can be a tree trunk with moss growing out of a small rise, or a weeping larch draped over a trellis. It can be a small water feature, or a collection of Japanese maples planted among a common groundcover, or some particularly delightful blueberry bush that you collected on a trip to the beach. Whatever it is, setting that object at the focus of a couple of sight lines, giving it a suitable background and framing it so that it gets the attention you intend, will bring the eye to it. Most problems are design problems, and a session with a good designer works wonders.

You can get in touch with Dave Lendrum by e-mailing him: davel@ptialaska.net; or go to his Web site: landscapealaska.com.

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