The view in and of our residential landscaping is not what it used to be. It is better than ever. Thank goodness we don’t “make them like we used to.”
American residential gardens and landscapes when viewed by almost any standard twenty-five years ago could have been easily weighed, measured and found to be sorely lacking in defined style. It could be argued that they also lacked substance or direction in the vast majority of cases.
It could also be stated reasonably that the paucity of exceptional work was traceable to a lack of reference as well as practice.
European garden roots have history, tradition and style development dating back centuries. American residential gardens did not begin to develop with any notoriety until roughly the mid-1800’s. And while Andrew Jackson Downing, Jens Jensen, Calvert Vaux and others provided a quick start from circa 1850-1930 the great depression dried up the market.
What developed from that point until about 1985 was a process of ‘planting shrubs’ that lacked pride, order and generally was void of good design. Dan Kiley, Garret Eckbo and Thomas Church gardens would have been exceptions to the rule. But they were not active in the Midwest. Designers and architects primarily planted what they could obtain locally. And designs were always plant heavy and hardscape light.
The term outdoor living space had not entered the vernacular. A landscape was primarily a conglomeration of shrubs, a patio and maybe a walkway.
Perennials were limited to primarily daylily and Hosta. Ornamental grasses were plants you only saw in books. Kettle style grills with a bag of charcoal were sitting outside the back doors of our collective homes.
But whether experience, the economy or the internet contributed, our gardens and landscapes have blossomed magnificently over recent years.
We have seen a surge in homeowner interest for more sophisticated and stylized spaces that meet their personal needs far beyond enjoying plants. American garden designers and landscape architects have answered that challenge. Multi-level social spaces, fire pits, outdoor kitchens and water features are a few design components that are now routine inclusions. Add site amenities like furniture or pottery and what has now developed is a complete and total outdoor experience for the homeowner.
We have learned to live large in our space like never before.
Mike Wesley of the Wesley Design Group sums it up nicely, “We find today’s homeowner to be much more involved in the design process than ever before. Their expectations are such that we are challenged to be innovative with every concept we generate.”
There has been an increase in education and committed professionalism. Classes are available through arboreta, botanic gardens and through state organizations such as the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, the Illinois Society of Landscape Architects and Midwest Ecological Landscape Association. The educated landscape designer and architect is now better equipped than ever to
Tina M. Turner of Dutch Barn Landscaping comments, “With the advent of HGTV and an abundance of visually stimulating gardening magazines, consumers have become more aware of what landscaping options they have. They now ask for custom designs that are an extension of their lifestyles, and differentiate their yards from their neighbor’s.”
The combination of more discerning clients and more refined design talents has driven the evolution of the landscape process nicely. Residential design now routinely reflects upon the architecture and space at hand. More than ever it can be said that projects reflect a stronger historical sense in one form or other. It is now routine, not the exception, that research precedes design.
Those residential gardens featured herein are a testament to a new, more illuminated vision of site development. At times a classic European influence is evident. At other times designers clearly eschew those roots for a new direction that might be tagged as the ‘New American Garden’.
“Influences from the architecture of a home are often reflected in hardscape design/layout while the softscape and site amenities may reflect a new era of influence. Today’s designers are fortunate enough to have an influx of new plant varieties each spring as well as innovations in water gardening and landscape lighting.”, Wesley adds.
Each of the featured projects is noteworthy as an award winner in its own right. While it may be difficult and perhaps unnecessary to define todays gardens it is evident that they all have a sense of unity and clarity. The use of natural materials is strongly represented. Modular and cast materials have improved dramatically and are not necessarily ‘Plan B’.
Construction techniques ensure sustainability of the ‘hardscapes’. Planting styles may vary widely from the strongly formal to the elegantly subtle to the sublimely exotic. But regardless of planting style or hardscape composition Midwestern designers have begun to express themselves with a sense of strength, confidence and Gestalt that did not previously exist.
We are creating gardens today that will establish not only reference, but legacy.