The cure for a weedy embankment: A Chinese silk screen-like scene, with a stone staircase ascending through hydrangeas and poppies and disappearing behind a weeping cherry tree | BY DANIEL SHERMAN
Landscape architects are, I believe, a little like doctors: People come to us with problems that require examination and diagnosis. Unlike doctors, though, we can always come up with a cure. I never tire of hearing my clients’ complaints, because I really enjoy figuring out the most fitting solution.
At an initial meeting, my clients and I start the “examination” by walking around the property and reviewing the challenges the landscape presents. Properties that really need help are my favorites—say, a worn-out landscape that was designed for people back in Eisenhower’s term, with owners who realize that nothing about their property works anymore. Perhaps the screen plantings are reaching the moon but not screening anything back here on earth, or there is parking enough for one and a half Corvairs, or no one can find the front door. There is such a thing as an out-of-date landscape. Huge, hulking fireplace barbecues way back in the rear corner of the yard, or flagstones made of that wacky purple and blue Vermont slate, are indicators that this yard might need a hard look.
Landscaping issues can range from a client’s desire to reproduce a look he or she has seen in a magazine to practical space-use problems to serious site concerns like flooding and safety issues. I see houses whose elegant dining and living rooms face nasty, weedy embankments, and the owners don’t know what to do about the dispiriting view beyond drawing the curtains. Too bad: They don’t know what they have, for an embankment holds more potential for a picturesque landscape setting than a flat yard. Picture a Chinese silk screen showing a winding stone staircase ascending through hydrangeas and poppies over a boulder-bridged cascade and disappearing behind a weeping cherry tree. Try that on flat land! Or, if the scene is shaded, there’s the same stone stair, but it ascends through ferns and bleeding hearts and disappears behind a dogwood or Japanese maple.
People show me front doors that have never been used. That is often because the door can’t be seen from, or is inaccessible from, the place where people park. For instance, just as I began working on this article, someone presented me with this design dilemma: a lovely home whose driveway goes down to garages that are about a dozen steps below, and half a football field away from, the front door. After 30 years, they are taking action, partly because their parents are 90 years old and can’t climb all the way up anymore, and partly because the original design has proved to be terrible. We discussed creating a horseshoe drive that will pass through an elegant court several steps from the front door, as well as a parking tag on the upper level at even grade with the kitchen door. Inaccessibility of the main entrance is a common design problem associated with older homes, and there are usually easy fixes—ways to bring people right where they need to go and make the house more user-friendly.
I love being the first actual step taken in the realization of a person’s hard-won dream: They’re finally going for the in-ground pool. Or, after looking at a slippery slope for 15 years, they figure that perhaps a terrace or two would level things out. Or they’ve bought the lot next door and now wonder, What should we do about it? A hedge maze, perhaps?
As they pitch their plans in earnest, I get caught up right away, ready to help them build on their vision. There are often setbacks—literally. When I draw the dream landscape components onto the survey with the actual dimensions and required property line setbacks, sometimes there is a reality check. Sometimes the dreams don’t suit the size or layout of the property. But, for me, trying things out on paper is where all kinds of new design opportunities pop up and get carefully worked out. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
One can imagine the intensity with which an enthusiastic homeowner reviews the landscape doctor’s plan, which is a synthesis of the homeowner’s rambling wish list, the site-walk observations, and the doctor’s prognosis, all rendered to scale on the property plan. I discuss each component of the design—the arrival, the drive and parking, the lawns and patios, the pool, the sports features, the service functions, and the feature plantings and screening. Although technology has provided very amazing computer rendering techniques, I still feel comfortable with our thoughtfully constructed, hand-rendered view drawings, with me in the field with a tape measure to convey how the landscape will look and how it will work for my clients. As I measure, I am testing the design for myself.
The way a property is used can be reinvented through a landscape architect’s creativity, experience, and expertise. A landscape master plan addresses everything from overall layout and structure to technical issues such as drainage and lighting to creating whatever sense of style or degree of grandeur might be appropriate. Even deer—yes, landscape architects even address that problem. Creating a landscape that really is resistant to deer is not a perfect science, but—I’m reporting from the front lines—we have ways!
Landscape doctors cannot fit a tennis court on a half-acre lot or grow roses in the shade of oaks, but we find ways to cure most landscape problems—beautifully. TME
Daniel Sherman is principal of Daniel Sherman Landscape Architect, PC, located in Valhalla, New York. The nine-person staff, which includes landscape architects, garden designers, an architectural rendering artist, and office support, addresses upscale residential landscape design throughout Westchester and Fairfield counties, the Hamptons, upstate New York, and beyond. (914) 824-0999; www.danshermanlandscape.com.