Understanding Garden Design: The Complete Handbook for Aspiring Designers

In Understanding Garden Design, Vanessa Gardner Nagel, a professional landscape designer based in the Pacific Northwest, endeavors to cover every aspect of garden design, from site documentation, irrigation, and plant selection to installing art and the proper etiquette during an open garden event. That’s a lot of ground to cover, especially in a format described as a “handbook.”

Nagel opens with “Why design a garden?” and answers by discussing the processes of planning and design, and their advantages, such as using space more efficiently and saving money; she also discusses the psychological and emotional impact that gardens have on us, and how these positive effects are magnified by good design. Throughout the book, she combines more abstract and emotional considerations with the practical aspects of planning and design in a manner that maintains the reader’s interest.

In getting us started in the design process, Nagel asks us to think about the context of the garden: urban or rural, large or small, borrowed views or fully enclosed. She reminds us to consider the architectural style of the house and other buildings that are in view from the garden, and to design our garden to complement this built environment. Sustainability is an important consideration in designing a garden, and not just with regard to the garden owner’s resources (time and money); a well-designed garden also helps sustain the local environment, minimizing harmful impacts on the plants and animals that live near, but not necessarily in, the gardens.

Nagel progresses to the actual steps of planning and designing a garden, which starts with measuring and recording the dimensions, slopes, building styles, and other existing conditions. She incorporates the interior and exterior environments, microclimates, soil types, and drainage into this early stage of the planning process. She draws a conceptual plan for a hypothetical garden and uses this plan in each chapter, adding elements to the plan that are presented in the text. She identifies a site’s requirements, including utilities, access, pet quarters, work spaces, entertainment areas, and maintenance needs, then translates them into square footages, determines the relationships between these different uses, and develops a basic diagram of the garden.

From these practical matters, Nagel moves into the more aesthetic realm of basic design elements, beginning with the basics of color theory. While this is a helpful eye-opener to anyone who does not have training in these concepts, successful garden design would require more information and examples than are provided. Similarly, a valuable discussion regarding the importance of form and shape in the garden lacks sufficient visual examples to enlighten the reader. Nagel expertly explains why scale and proportion influence our emotional response to a garden, and uses photographs to clearly make her case. She also discusses the importance of focal points and introduces more abstract topics such as repetition, rhythm, movement, transitions, texture, contrast, and balance.

Chapters on finishes and furnishings, irrigation, lighting, and construction are full of practical considerations, pros and cons of various materials and garden components, selecting and working with a contractor, and developing a construction schedule. Her advice on selecting and communicating with a contractor is particularly valuable.

The discussion of plants takes a structural perspective, which makes sense in a book about garden design. However, the categories used, such as “thrillers, spillers, and fillers” are a bit simplistic, and do not inform anyone who has more than a basic knowledge of plant materials. Nagel describes the general structure of plants and our emotional response to them; plant shapes and forms are compared to periods, commas, exclamation points, and other punctuation marks. There is a good deal of overlap in the descriptions of some plant categories, which leads to confusion. Each category has three to four examples of plants with photographs, but they did not make the categories any clearer for me.

Nagel concludes with detailing the garden installation after construction is completed, with short sections on installing art, arranging furniture, and planting containers. The topic of planting containers is worthy of an entire book by itself, and the section devoted to it here seems woefully brief.

Many of the concepts in this book could have been better explained with more photographs and drawings. The quality and relevance of the photography varies greatly. The drawings of the hypothetical garden plan are well done and clearly labeled. The bibliography includes many useful books as well as references in academic journals and popular magazines. Understanding garden design, however, is a complicated process involving many different aesthetic and practical concepts. In trying to reduce the design process to a handbook format, so much material had to be left out that what remains is fairly introductory in nature.

Josh Schechtel, board member PHS
San Francisco, California