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The secret to designing a garden style that best suits your house

By Michael Weishan

RISMEDIA, March 26, 2007-( you step into a really well-designed landscape, something just feels right: There's a sense of pleasure, of comfort, of being at home. Although you might be tempted to think that this sensation arises from a connection with nature, your reaction is really the result of considerable human contrivance, the product of a series of principles that operate behind the scenes of all well-designed landscapes.

Of the many design considerations at work, perhaps the most important is ensuring that the various elements of your landscape work together to connect your garden to your house stylistically. Remember, your house is the most important part of your garden (the landscape was, most likely, laid out around your dwelling, not the other way around), and without a cohesive style that complements the architectural design, even the costliest and most finely wrought landscapes will fail to satisfy.

Before you plant a single bush or lay a single brick, begin by thinking about your house and garden not as separate elements but as one cohesive unit: your property. In the same way that you choose a unified decorative style for the rooms of your house, you should also create a unified theme for the landscape — one that ties the various parts of the yard together as it unites the garden with the house. You can always reevaluate your current landscape, just as you might add to or rearrange the living room furniture or repaint your kitchen walls.

Formal Gardens
Formally styled gardens typically arrange spaces symmetrically around two principal axes: one radiating out from the house, the other intersecting the first toward the rear of the lot. Together they form a large cross whose center is often marked by a design element such as a rectangular pool. In some formal plans, a gazebo acts as a terminal focal point along the main axis from the house, with the expansive lawn area surrounded on all sides by perennial beds. Evergreens, allées, hedges, and walls add structure to this design.

Semiformal Gardens
A semiformal approach works with the same double-axial design as the formal plan, but the overall effect is much more relaxed. In place of a rigid, hard-surfaced terrace, this design may substitute a grass oval bordered by evergreen shrubs. The dominant lawn and the rectangular pool in the formal plan have been replaced with a geometrically designed cottage or herb garden. Although this plan is as balanced as the previous one, its planting scheme, with masses of flowers, vegetables, and herbs spilling out of the beds, is far less formal.

Natural Gardens
A natural approach to landscape design relies less on geometric division than formal designs do, favoring a softer look of meandering curves and stepping-stone walks. Instead of a vegetable garden, this scheme may feature a rock garden with a free-form pool or waterfall in addition to naturally pruned, mostly evergreen plantings.

Choosing a Style
So how would you choose among these three approaches? Although it's true that each of these plans may physically fit the lot in question, the ultimate decision will depend on the architectural style of the house and the taste and budget of the homeowners. Often there may be several plausible options for every landscape, but one style is generally better suited to a site than others, and some remain completely inappropriate.

So simply step back and take your cue from your house. What feeling does your home exude? Is it formal and symmetrical or whimsical and delightfully offbeat? Is the ambience cultured and urbane or informal and country? Does your home invoke tradition or reject it? Whatever it does, choose a garden style that follows.

For example, a naturalistic approach would best suit a rustic log cabin, lakeside chalet, or modernistic house. But this loose, asymmetrical design would seem out of place next to the symmetrical lines of a center-hall Colonial. (This "natural" style, by the way, is also the most difficult to carry off: The more informal the garden, the harder it is to make the landscape look convincing and real.)

A far better option for a Colonial, Neocolonial, or colonially inspired house (which takes in most modern box-style houses based on classical precepts) would be the semiformal approach, which closely resembles the actual gardens of the Colonial and Colonial Revival periods and echoes the symmetry and balance so present in the architecture of those times. Similarly, a columned Greek Revival, large Georgian, Federal town house, or other equally grand or austere traditional structure would look most at home in formal surroundings. Where do you and your house fit in? Take a good long look at your house and your lifestyle, and be sure your garden plans reflect and complement both. Once you have decided what the overall style and mood of your garden should be, picking out the right plantings, furniture, and ornaments becomes simpler and more rewarding.