by Elsa Johnson
One of Cleveland’s own, landscape designer Bobbie Schwartz, has written a book: Garden Renovation, Transform Your Yard into the Garden of Your Dreams (Timber Press, 2017). In case you cannot tell from the title, the book is written to the homeowner who isn’t prepared to just hand the whole task over to a designer or landscape architect with the invitation to “knock my socks off—do something spectacular.” Which is almost everybody. So the book is not one of those drool-over-pretty-pictures-of-high-end-gardens type books (the kind our bookshelves are so chock full of ) ….and though there are plenty of pretty pictures in this book, some of expensive landscapes, many are of small scale gardens and spaces easier to replicate. So in many ways this book is aimed toward the do it yourself gardener.
The first chapter, Choosing Change, covers all those ordinary reasons that lead one to undertake a re-do, and I will skip over them, but I like that the final paragraph in that chapter introduces the not so frequently seen goals (in garden design books) of gardening for sustainability, permaculture, and diverting storm water run-off to on-site uses, although these are not explored nearly a fully as they could be. I was/ am much taken with the picture here showing a hillside that hides a children’s play tunnel charmingly disguised as a hobbit house.
The second chapter, Understanding Landscape Essentials, gets down to business by mentioning the obvious (which surprisingly, isn’t so obvious to many people): unlike houses, unlike architecture, landscapes change, natural environments change, so the first step in any redesign is taking stock of those existing on-site elements that will affect a garden’s success — soil, light, drainage, wind, microclimates, animals (deer and other pesky wildlife, but also one’s own pets), water, drainage, slopes, retaining walls, steps (and safety thereof) electrical access, lighting, and maintenance. There is a tidy little section on what Schwartz calls design “themes” – i.e., those defining and unifying concepts a designer uses to integrate a garden’s parts, such as rectilinear, diagonal, curvilinear, and arch and tangent. Thorough, but not overwhelming. Lots of helpful pictures.
The third chapter, Working With Hardscape Elements, covers all those garden parts that do not change – sidewalks and paths, driveways, patios, decks, fences, walls, fire-pits, hot tubs, arches and pergolas – but must come together into a harmonious whole to create enjoyable outdoor spaces and ‘rooms’. One brief section dwells on illusions – always a nice touch.
The chapter Assessing and Choosing Plants starts with a brief discussion of natives vs. exotics, invasive species, and what she calls “plant thugs” (interesting word application, that). This is a bit of a slippery slope for garden designers these days and Schwartz begs the question a bit (the question being: what is native?) (in my own practice I aim for 60 percent natives, and of that 60%, most must be species or cultivars with flowers attractive and accessible to pollinating insects). Oh well. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are a garden’s living components, and the book does a nice job of offering ideas and possibilities without becoming encyclopedic.
The next to last chapter is the practical how to’s: how to start (with the soil, then pick the plants); how to add plants to existing beds; how to choose and work with perennials.
Finally we come to the concluding chapter, titled Success Stories. This is the chance for the author to show her stuff, and she does not disappoint. She shows us a series of front yards and backyards in their before and after personas, as they successfully mature over time. (I do not know that they are all her own designs but I assume most are). My favorite is a low slung ranch style house deck and backyard re-designed with a distinctly minimalist, contemporary feeling, with the once closed-in deck opened up and flowing down to a low maintenance yard of stones and gravels of varying textures and sizes laid out in blocks like a Japanese grandmother’s quilt. Nice. This stands in stark contrast to another redo in which the only pavement is the broad walkway leading to the front door – all the rest is planted with low shrubs, perennials, many types of textural grasses. Also very nice. Kudos to Bobbie Schwartz for a book many will find helpful and useful, rather than intimidating.