This is a totally pretentious post on a subject I actually do know something about. Nevertheless, I opine here about matters more serious sociologists among us bring far more to the game with. I have, however, watched landscaping evolve – this I do know and can comment authoritatively on. In the early ’70’s, when I began a career in landscaping, we were called “gardeners” – a catch-all phrase which also described a certain contempt for our trade. How it has changed!! – but, then – it never was different. As I mention below, serious people have been designing landscapes for literal centuries. Anyway, this is my best effort:
Landscaping has become what it once could be. I happen to think it came in at least 3 waves of popularity over the past 100 years- and I understand I am discounting the designers of Babylon, Alexandria and also the Medieval Times. As well, I discount the Bourbon Kings and that fabulous flowering of Chinese, Japanese and Islamic Gardening simply because of what I want to more directly address. I do know that fabulous gardens have always been a human achievement from the organization of the first urban collectives. I also suspect the simple cultivated beauty of flowers actually inspired the beginnings of it all and that those may well have been naturally-occurring owing to their secondary agricultural benefits. Bees don’t go for ugly flowers – they like them hot! Marigolds can keep all sorts of slugs and pests away and even Thistles can deter a deer from munching on a garden’s food supply during those times they were not eaten by hungry lions and tigers and stuff. It’s busy out there and even Troglodyte such as myself and friends will use whatever works. I played softball with a few, so I know them. We are practical. 😉
(left click on all images to enlarge)
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, American cities were experiencing some severe growth issues, calling for increasing amounts of planning. Frederick Olmstead, among others, became much sought-after by far-seeing cities such as Montreal, Baltimore and Louisville. Naturally, Central Park also beckoned from New York City. Urban planning and the hosting of prideful Expositions, Fairs and even World’s Fairs became a currency of not only a city’s proud self-advertisement but also of a method of installing grids and logical street layouts to suit the individual needs of those towns. What came with these plans and people were a further development of a virtual field – urban planning and, by necessity, the study of Parks and Landscaping. There was an explosion of beautification, the installations of fountains and city parks and a sense of community pride vested in a pleasantness which only large scale landscaping and planning could provide. Interesting figures dotted the landscape from Antonio Gaudi in Spain and Europe to the grand figures of Olmstead, Samuel Parsons and others here in the United States. It led to many things but most importantly it led to an overall appreciation of the plants used and the overall concept of landscape design.
The next development for the US was the expansion of the middle class. This occurred after World War 2 when the US became an economic superpower and the economy lifted so many people into the middle class. Suddenly homes were available – self-owned homes, in increasingly large size and variety. This was the second development in landscaping and the one into which I and my current contemporaries were thrown. This element is what I not only grew up in but where I ran businesses and dealt with design. This would be the era we are currently emerging from, in my little analysis of the “Earth As Steve Thinks It”.
I believe we are in a third phase of maturity of the landscaping game, one more of quality and one more of creativity. The passe’ works of the past – decorating front yards to give a minimum of acceptability and of making back yards either basic or else ignoring them – have changed. I honestly believe “statements” are what are next with front yard landscaping and that “Quality of Life” issues will prevail for our back yards. I have watched as my own Baby Boomer Generation matured, asking for bells and whistles in landscaping out back in a more general sense. Secret water features and wondrous constructions now dot the rear yard landscape in a hidden but incredibly creative manifestation of both the landscaper and the homeowner’s sense of style. Entertaining includes not just others, but oneself. This movement into what was once the preserve of royalty has come nearly full circle in the construction of fabulously inclusive private areas where one’s life is enhanced and made more joyous in conjunction with nature and with an artist’s touch.
The challenge for landscape designers and installers now is to – first – understand this development.
Granted, the economy is not what it was at present and this will curtail some of the more elaborate constructions for many of us. It will also lead some to do what I have often observed to be some of the most breathtakingly beautiful work in all of landscaping – doing their own place, with their own labor. But be this as it may, the development of landscaping as a tool for living a fuller life maintains and will not go away. As an ideal, it has many aspirants – plenty of people wishing for it as a priority. When you consider it generally takes from $14,000 – $18,000 to redo a bathroom, imagine what that amount could do in a landscape. Believe me – a lot!
The tools for all this upgrading have developed according to the demands of a voracious commercial market, lending items once considered very exotic – such as brick pavers, basalt columns, water features, fountains and bubble rocks of an amazing variety, iron works, carpentry and maybe especially lighting – to now be regular yard features. The framing of a “nightscape” can be achieved with uplit trees and walls, providing a virtual outdoor room on those gorgeous Spring and Summer nights when going inside just seems so reductive. The soft splash of water can pacify any rear yard so that one can read a book in solitude or just take a nap with the gurgling or splashing sounds of water accompanying it all.
Fire pits can warm an evening around a gas fed grate, providing another element in another season, making the outdoors still more effective as a place to hang out. Blooms, trees, aromas, color, night lighting – the possibilities are endless. Even food of a delicious home-grown sort can enliven and enrich our lives in the everyday sense. Herb and aroma gardens which are inexpensive and which smell like Heaven itself can pervade at atmosphere and make one want to stop while passing by – or waft through an open window. The sensuality of landscaping involves every single sense and can be driven to that end by a studious installation. 360 degrees of fun is the result.
Rebellious, awkward, purposefully funny – there are design themes which also raise the awareness of all who observe them. Kitsch themes such as this picture I mined from Phlip’s Garden Blog (click the link to visit) represents the prior sentence as well as does the entire post he delivers on this marvelous and eccentric piece of Los Angeles landscaping. Please treat yourself to my favorite blogger in the world:
The world is opening to an almost introspective style of representation. The limits are our own but I like what I am seeing and I believe it is a challenge to us all. We can create marvelous things in our very own back yards.
Or our dentist’s office!
Or you can just do some plant art. Anywhere, any time.
Our operators are awaiting your call……….
Very nice work.
Very beautifully written and you truly capture what landscaping means!
Fascinating stuff, Steve. Thank you for feeding the public. One way landscaping interest spread to the middle classes was from interest generated by contests sponsored by railroad companies among communities. Since train stations were once gathering places where residents of a town might see famous people, hear the latest news, sell homemade sandwiches and baked goods, they gave annual awards for landscaping around the station and along the tracks heading into a town. In much the same fashion as towns post signs at the city limits espousing their merits, landscaping and any award appeared beside tracks as far out of the station as trains slowed in hope of attracting commerce to communities and the economic and population growth new businesses brought.