The Art of the Open Air Living Room Garden
October 2, 2021
“If beauty’s understood as a form of order, its elements perfectly self-regulating, then an orderly day is not a worn circuit, or rote, but a haven and a habitat.” Lia Purpura
Too often the habitat garden, the wildlife garden, the native garden appears a mess, chaotic and uninviting to the human animal – not a garden for outdoor living, not a thing of beauty. You see a jumble, a tangle of green and you know your HOA would never approve of such disorder. Plants overgrow paths. The lack of lawn, though ethically agreeable, deters your foot from entering the yard. Where do you step? Early in my gardening life I learned the importance of directing foot traffic when the amorphous bed I’d created was trampled by otherwise good friends. How can a habitat garden express beauty “understood as a form of order”? How can your wildlife attracting yard also attract you and your friends?
Through art. Yes, we need all the plants to thrive, we need smart choices and horticultural prowess, but we also need art.
Recently we made one of my favorite gardens ever for Ami and Jeff, the Garden of Open Air Living. Like all of our creations, it aims to enhance the habitat of the outdoor space that was formerly static lawn. It aims to re-animate the land. We used three key elements that make this space art, that make it approachable, livable, and human, as well as a haven for birds and pollinators.
Element #1: Strong Ground Plane Patterns
When you first come upon the new garden, your eye sees where to enter and where to settle. You are drawn out into it, to become a part of the scene, not just to admire it from afar. This is the effect of the first element of an art-driven design to habitat gardening: strong ground plane patterns. In other words, have fun making interesting patterns with paths and patios. Use materials on the ground as an abstract artist would – play with shapes and interconnections, flow and expanse.
The standard yard with too much lawn and foundation shrubs is only appealing because the open space of lawn is easy to see. It’s easy to see how you get to the door. The result is that you’re quickly swept inside, missing an opportunity to engage with life. A habitat garden can be not only easy to see, but attractive too.
In the Open Air Living Room Garden, a mix of materials (lawn not being one of them) play with the patterns that each material performs best. Decomposed granite flows in a grand S-curve lined with black metal edging as a path from covered patio out to Jeff’s creative man cave. Large rectangular pavers stagger and mass, overlapping the D.G. path to create a gathering space known as the Sun Patio. It’s very geometric next to the curve. The contrast is stimulating, noteworthy to all who visit.
The third path material sparkles in the moonlit mist. Mica-flecked flagstones, from outdoor kitchen to hot tub and moon viewing garden beyond, follow the naturally irregular shapes of the stones in a meander, moving your gaze and your step along its way.
These three materials are clear and crisp and their patterns are bold and legible. They form the structure that invites you into the lushness. They make art of the ground. Art that’s human. Art that engages and immerses.
Your ground plane, or hardscape, can be of one material or many. The key is to make it bold and clear and of a scale that’s ample and comfortable for the human animal to inhabit.
The spaces left over, that which is not hardscape, not for biped’s trampling gait, this is the area normally considered garden. But, I want you to think of the thing as a whole. You belong in your garden just as much as the flowers and bees do.
Element #2: Intentional Plantings
The second key component to making a habitat garden that speaks artistically is about these soft spaces, the planted spaces of the ground. Avoid the chaotic jumble by intentionally choosing, by planning designed plant communities. A combination of plants that, as Claudia West and Thomas Rainer describe in their book Planting in A Post Wild-World, evokes nature, that calls to mind meadow or woodland or the edge between. Instead of hodge-podging the mix with whatever eye candy is available on the day you visit the nursery, take some time to plan.
In the Open Air Living Room Garden, I used the simple trick of setting a theme to guide plant choices, to link together colors and forms, to describe mood. With a social gathering patio at its heart is the Sun Garden. And not just in the sense that it’s for plants that like growing in the sun, but plants that call to mind the energy, the sparkle, the vigor of the sun. The layers are open-hearted, meaning tall plants encircle a low growing center, a golden bowl welcoming the light and warmth of the sun. Colors include orange and red and yellow, from amber queen epimedium (Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’) spreading through the shade on the north side of the house to the rich embers and rusts of Forever Susan lilies (Lilium ‘Forever Susan’). Sparkling variegated moor grass (Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’) and repeat blooming mango lassi avens (Geum ‘Mango Lassi’) form the perennial matrix uniting the seasonal blooms that wash the ground in waves of sunny hues from early spring through fall. PNW native Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) contributes year round spears of foliage, raying forth even on the most overcast winter day. Repeat blooming mango popsicle torch lily (Kniphofia ‘Mango Popsicle’) elicited a gasp of delight from Ami on plant delivery day.
Shrubs like daisy bush (Brachyglottis greyi) with its canary bright bursts of blooms and a smoldering smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Winecraft Black’) follow this theme of sun inspired stories while giving structure in the mid range. A grouping of three Persian ironwood trees (Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’), chosen for their patterned bark, fall color, and resilience, stand in the expansive corner of the Sun Garden to create a small woodland. A bit of shade makes the sun feel even sunnier. All these plants and more were chosen for their relevance with the theme, but also for they way they connect to each other, the way they create a designed community of intersecting, networked, layered life.
The other half of this garden is defined by a parallel theme as the Moon Garden. How perfect a theme to surround the evening activity of hot tub soaking! Moon gazing is at its best from the warm waters and softened mind of ease at the end of the day. Colors here are not limited to white as in classic moon gardens, but expand to include lunar yellows with moonbeam tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), sensual pinks of naked lady lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) and hummingbird attracting phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’). Here, the matrix is formed with silvered ‘Valerie Finnis’ artemisia (Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’) and cool blue oat grass (Helictrotrichon sempervirens). Two bee charmers, hop-flowered oregano (Origanum ‘Kent Beauty’) and catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) cascade around the edges. Invoking the spirit of Ami’s beloved mother, a gorgeous specimen crape myrtle in soft lavender (Lagerstroemia indica x faurei ‘Muskogee’) spreads wispy branches over a gently curved stone bench.
Again, the planting here was designed as art and ecology, color-themed and layered for low maintenance beauty. It’s this intentional planting, the planning and deliberate choices, that elevate the scene from chaos and jumble to art. Structural plantings anchor the pattern at every layer with companions weaving and emerging in their seasons.
Different from traditional landscape planting in that these designed plant communities leave little to no ground bare and exposed to weed invasion, and different from purely habitat restoration work in that beauty and aesthetics guide the design, this approach is both easy to care for and soothing to view.
The default mode of garden making is to grab whatever looks good on any given day in the retail nursery and find spots for the new acquisitions. Or maybe you’re a fan of native plant sales, motivated by the good of your heart to support the cause, gathering all the stragglers, promising to make them at home somewhere in your garden. The generosity of gardening friends also contributes to the hodgepodge of plants under your care.
What’s the difference between a work of art and a collection of objects? A collection may hold many wonders and beautiful things. It might inspire awe. It may even appear unified in some way by the theme of the collection. But a work of art is experienced as a whole. Remove one item from a collection and it’s just a smaller collection. Remove one element from an artwork and the story of the thing is changed.
To create a work of art in your garden beds, make time to plan. Whether you latch onto a theme like I did in the Open Air Living Room Garden, or you set a specific landscape from the wild to emulate, think through the planting plan before you purchase a bunch of plants. Using the idea of plant communities, you’ll lean into the big picture, the whole, the art that you’re creating rather than the collection that you’re acquiring.
Element #3: Personalized Details
With satisfying ground plane patterns in place and intentional plant communities designed, next you get to personalize your garden. Make it resonate with your inner sense of the meaningful and the beautiful by adding the extra things, the kind of tchotchkes that light you up. I’m talking about things like garden furniture, pots, sculpture, lighting, found objects—all the things that transform your yard into a fully realized extension of your home, with all the aesthetic sensibilities that feel alive and comforting—that feel like you!
Ami, delighted owner of the Open Air Living Room Garden, epitomizes the style that emerges from well chosen details and finishing touches. She was smart in investing in durable furniture of high design. Her Lollygagger benches from Loll Designs, made of recycled milk jugs, caught the eye of our irrigation contractor and our planting helpers alike. Both mistook the plastic for metal. That’s the quality look of this furniture manufacturer. Look at the great lines of the piece and how the black color creates a mood, a style. They contribute to defining the garden as art.
A peak detail in the Open Air Living Room Garden is the three gas lanterns marking the way out from covered patio to sun patio. You walk out the door into the garden and the flicker of lantern flames draws you into the space. Details of light throughout the garden, from path lights and uplights on the trees to the gas lanterns and a fire table centered on the sun patio create the kind of magic that both Ami and Jeff love to inhabit.
Shortly after I presented the design, Ami texted me a photo of a rusted trellis that she’d picked up at one of her favorite vintage shops with the note: “Perfect for the moon garden!?” Her enthusiasm and hope were contagious. I didn’t know exactly where the piece would integrate into the design, but the crescent form at its center was ideal for the theme. Later, once the patio was built, but without any of the planting in, she texted me another photo. This one of Ami and Jeff’s smiles while sitting out in the new space inspired me to sketch the perfect spot for the trellis. With a bit of welding and a concrete footing, the piece found its home. Combined with the strawberry bush hedge (Arbutus unedo ‘compacta’), it creates a garden wall separating the the Moon Garden from the Sun Garden.
Whatever details your garden needs, go for the wonderful, the extraordinary. Choose the special finishes and gorgeous things that speak to you. Not only do these details make the experience more art-filled, they also personalize it and give it your style. Again, you can use theme to unify the details – like pots of various sizes that are all glazed cobalt blue or furniture inspired by mid-century modern design. Or, you can embrace an eclecticism in the details. No rules other than that you have to love the things!
A sculptural piece of driftwood from a family vacation to the coast placed just so amidst the plantings adds this quality of personalization, of art, of finishing detail. Or maybe you feel peace with a simple buddha statue or a burbling bird bath. Don’t fret about style or what your friends will think of your choices. Add what you love. Make your garden the kind of art that speaks to your heart.
“I believe the most beautiful art is that which makes the world appear richer, deeper, and more meaningful, making nature seem ever more intricate, interesting, and deserving of our attention and love. There is meaning in nature far beyond use, there is form and beauty far beyond function.” David Rothenberg
With a thoughtful arrangement of paths and patios, themed plant communities and unique finishing details, the Open Air Living Room Garden has become an abstract sculpture to live in, to engage with, to delight in every season. How will you use these three guiding elements in your own garden to elevate the design? How will your yard become an interactive experience of the art of nature, the art of your place, the art that resonates with your soul?