Landscape Design Guide

"If now we ask when and where we need the Fine Art of Gardening, must not the answer be, whenever and wherever we touch the surface of the ground and the plants it bears with the wish to produce an organized result that shall please the eye? The name we usually apply to it must not mislead us into thinking that this art is needed only for the creation of broad ‘landscape’ effects. It is needed wherever we do more than grow plants for the money we may save or gain by them. It does not matter whether we have in mind a great park or a small city square, a large estate or a modest dooryard, we must go about our work in an artistic spirit if we want a good result. Two trees and six shrubs, a scrap of lawn and a dozen flowering plants, may form either a beautiful little picture or a huddled disarray of forms and colors."

— Mrs. Van Rensselaer.

Landscape gardening is eminently a fine art. The enumeration of painting, sculpture and architecture as the fine arts is seriously deficient, and yet it has a wide currency. That is a fine art which attempts to create organized beauty—to unite several dissimilar parts in one harmonic whole. In this respect landscape art stands on a level with the other fine arts. In some other respects it even surpasses them.

Landscape gardening is much the best known term in America for the subject which we have now in hand. Landscape art is an equally correct term, but it does not seem to bring so clear a suggestion to most minds. Landscape architecture is much spoken of in France, but it is unsatisfactory in English usage. In former times the simple word "gardening" was in general use in England to designate this art, especially that style of gardening practice known as the natural, or English, method. This would still be the most convenient word if we could dissociate it from the growing of cabbages and parsnips; but that seems impossible with us now.

The chief objections to the term "landscape gardening," are that it is too long and has too large a sound. By its very look and sonorousness it seems to suggest princely and magnificent undertakings of parks, villas and hunting grounds, and to overshoot entirely those small domestic concerns around which the most of our life and interest center. This is the difficulty we would overcome if we could get back our older and plainer word, "gardening." But landscape gardening does, nevertheless, bring itself to the consideration of these lowlier problems; and it is for the sake of such smaller cares that we need most to study its principles. All persons ought to endeavor to understand the methods and aims of landscape art, as they endeavor to master the alphabet of literature. Good taste in gardening will yield its possessor as much pleasure as good taste in architecture, literature or music. And just as one may cultivate good taste in literature without designing to become a littérateur, so one may properly educate his taste for landscape gardening with no expectation of becoming a landscape gardener.

Gardening art offers this advantage to its lovers: That they can everywhere enjoy it, and that with comparatively small expense they can patronize it on their own account. The poor man who has hardly time to look at the statue of George Washington in the city park, and scarce money enough to buy a picture, is quite able to grow geraniums in his windows and to have a pretty bed of marigolds and phloxes in the yard. The opportunities to cultivate a taste for this sort of landscape art lie all about us, while to only a few comes the freedom of art galleries and exhibitions. Cheap and simple materials may be combined to give an excellent effect.

"Landscape gardener," "landscape architect," "landscape artist," "gardener," have their obvious relation to the terms already considered. Whatever he may be called, the practitioner of the art is an artist. He may be a good artist, or a poor one. He would face the same possibility if he were a painter. It seems to the writer that the term "landscape gardener" is much the best one for American use in all connections where simple "gardener" would be of doubtful intention. The affectation of the title "landscape architect" by those professionally engaged in the art seems to be gaining ground, but it is surely unfortunate. In subsequent chapters we will distinguish two great schools of this fine art, and will endeavor to justify the names of "natural style" and "architectural style" for them. If the professional artists of the former school would call themselves landscape gardeners, and those of the latter inclination would assume the title of landscape architects, we should have a consistent and useful terminology. The fact is, however, that some of the Americans who call themselves landscape architects are the warmest partisans of the natural style.

We have already tried to distinguish between the landscape artist and the layman who has a trained and sympathetic understanding of the artist’s work. The layman possessed of good artistic taste and a proper horticultural knowledge can doubtless produce many beautiful and satisfactory things in his own yard; and such lay artists are sorely needed. But for real creative work of any magnitude the born and trained artist is required. Genius like that of Raphael, or Turner, is more of a natural endowment than an education. Genius like that of Frederick Law Olmsted is of the same order. In the few following pages the only attempt is for the cultivation of the taste of the layman. There are many things which he ought to understand, and to that end a systematic classification of principles and a somewhat didactic treatment of details may be excused.

The order and relative importance of the several principles may be understood most easily by a study of the analytical outline. It is conceived that unity, variety, character, propriety and finish are the fundamental characteristics of any landscape,—that these qualities are ultimate and coordinate, though by no means equally important. Each work of landscape art is to be tested separately for each of these qualities.