Classic Landscape Design
The grand public landscapes of the Chicago area owe their lasting beauty to classic principles of design, and the work of those pioneering landscape designers and architects exists to this day to inspire and delight us. The same principles can be applied to residential landscape design to bring order to nature and enhance the comforts of home.
It starts with a plan
Daniel Burnham, the man behind the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Plan of Chicago of 1909, famously said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…” While your yard may seem small in comparison to the scope of urban planning, the best place to start is with a master plan for a landscape that will match the aesthetics of your home and your terrain.
Susan Jacobson, a landscape architect and manager of planning and site design for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, says, “I think, for a homeowner, it’s a matter of knowing your property and doing a site analysis. Do you have big trees or no trees, good soil or bad soil, a lot of sun or a lot of shade? Which direction does the landscape face?” She gives a couple of examples: If you live on a lake, orient the view in that direction; if there’s an alley or road behind you, create a privacy screen to block the view. When laying out a landscape, always consider how to enhance the best views.
At the Morton Arboretum, the original plan of the grounds was created by O. C. Simonds, a landscape architect known as a founder of the Prairie Style of landscape design. The basic structure of his work remains in what Jacobson explains are the broad views of the prairie and the long views of the landscape. One of the notable long views still to be seen is from the administration center, looking through the hedge garden to the Four Columns sculpture.
From a practical standpoint, Jacobson recommends visiting the Arboretum’s hedge collection, which includes sheared and uncut varieties, as well as the fragrance and groundcover gardens, the children’s garden, and, of course, the collection of trees, to get ideas for what trees, shrubs and plants might work well in your garden space.
Determine how you will use the space
In the immortal words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form ever follows function.” The first step in developing a design concept is for homeowners to evaluate how they want their outdoor space to function. Do you like to entertain outdoors? Do you have young children who need a place to play or teenagers who need a space to gather? Would you prefer a pool, a spa or a fountain as a water feature? Do you want lots of lawn space or a lower-maintenance yard?
According to Michael Kehl, landscape architect for Bruss Landscaping in Wheaton, “We start with the conceptual, the big picture. We then come back to the homeowner with a concept plan — walkways there, patio here, pool here, trees here. Then we get feedback from the homeowner to see how they feel about the plan, if there’s any emotional attachment.” An important part of the overall design, he explains, is pedestrian walkways or how people access the site.
Kehl sees the role of the landscape architect as that of a visionary who sees what the landscape can become, “to help them see the big picture on day one, even if it will take years to implement.” That process also includes planning which elements will be constructed first in a multi-phase project for greatest efficiency.
Balance the hardscape and the softscape
Often, the focus of a new landscape plan tends toward the structures, such as terraces, walkways and the driveway, collectively known as hardscape. “It’s easy with a lot of designs to be hardscape heavy,” cautions Mark Speers, landscape architect for King’s Landscaping Co. in Hinsdale. “Be sure to incorporate enough softscape — plantings to soften the architecture of the home.” He urges homeowners to “plan for the future. You want to plant for maturity. Don’t plant everything too tight. Let things naturally grow into a planned design.”
Speers notes that a critical component of hardscape design is materials selection. He recommends using traditional, high-quality materials that are designed for the area and will hold up under our extreme climate conditions. “There are now so many new options, both in natural stone and manmade,” he says. “There are more and more creative ways to do classic elements like outdoor fire places and water features.” And while styles come and go, a strong landscape design and good construction are built to last. “If done properly,” says Speers, “the landscape design usually lasts for years.”
If your project doesn’t involve a lot of hardscape and you want to do it yourself, help is available to design plantings that will work with the conditions of your yard. At The Growing Place in Aurora and Naperville, designers are on hand to provide coaching or design services in-store or at your home. According to landscape designer Mary Saba, customers can request a “Walkabout,” where the designer comes to the home for a quick design consultation and plan. “We can do a good job on the front yard in about an hour and a half,” she says. The consultation involves looking at the soil and drainage conditions and advising on such topics as composting, how to edge and mulch garden beds, and how to space plants. The designer will make a list of the plants you have and the plants you should add.
Incorporate design principles
Robert Hursthouse, president of Hursthouse Landscape Architects in Bolingbrook, harkens back to his college days to share an acronym for classic design principles — R.V. BESS, which stands for repetition, variety, balance, emphasis, scale and sequence. While these concepts may seem abstract, the proper interplay of all six can ensure that a landscape design will be inviting and pleasing to the eye.
Repetition in plant and hardscape materials is important to bring cohesion, he says, “But too much repetition is monotony and too little is chaos.” Variety is important, too, in keeping with an overall color palette and a limited number of different materials. He explains that balance can be achieved whether you want the layout to be symmetrical or asymmetrical, which depends on the architecture of the home, the land itself and your preferences. Emphasis relates to a focal point — “where you want the eye to go,” he says. He suggests adding a pop of color with flowers in a certain spot, or ornamental grasses, which draw attention through their movement.
Scale refers to the proportion of the elements. According to Hursthouse, “Homes tend to be getting bigger and bigger and lots are getting smaller.” As a result, the traditional foundation plantings no longer work. For one project in Glen Ellyn, he designed a landscape that made the small front yard appear larger by adding planters near the public walkway and a carriage walk. Finally, sequence refers to how the different elements of the landscape are placed to move you through the space.
For another project, Hursthouse drew inspiration from early Prairie Style landscape architect, Jens Jensen, who was in charge of Chicago’s west parks system, including Columbus, Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt parks, about a century ago. Jensen had designed the landscape and pool of the 1920s-era home when it was built. The new owner wanted to expand the water features and gardens onto the adjoining property. Hursthouse researched Jensen’s original plans, mirroring many of the elements and going so far as to have the stone sourced to match the existing stone, working with the same quarry as Jensen did. “It was very gratifying to work alongside Jens Jensen,” he says.
Although the landscape plan itself may be elaborate, the overall composition should be harmonious. “People like designs they can understand — plain and simple,” Kehl says. “For me, less is more — clean lines, simple curves . . . your eye understands it.”
Learn About Landscape Design
Whether you’re looking for a quick introduction to landscape design or a deeper knowledge of horticulture, you’ll find plenty of options in the western suburbs, including classes at public gardens and garden centers. At College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Brian Clement, Horticulture Department coordinator and associate professor, estimates that half the students are seeking professional degrees or certifications while the other half are work in the industry or just want to learn more about a specific subjects. Class options take students “from the very beginning steps through the whole process” of landscaping, including two classes in landscape design and two in high-tech 3D landscape design.
Morton Arboretum, Lisle
April 7: Backyard Bootcamp: Landscape Basics for Homeowners
April 19: Design a Small-Space Garden
April 26: Spring into Gardening Walking Tour
The Growing Place, Aurora and Naperville
April 7: Dig In Day! (Aurora)
April 14: The ABCs of Front Yard Design (Aurora)
April 21: Native Day (Aurora)
April 28 – 29: Tropical Fiesta Weekend