North Idaho is included in the region commonly defined as the Inland Northwest. Our weather cycles often alternate from relatively warm maritime, west-to-east airflow, to much colder and harsher Rocky Mountain patterns. Though this winter has been relatively mild (maritime influence or El Nino), the last two weeks of December ’08 saw over sixty inches of snow! – our gardens are often buried for many months. The hardiness zone map of this region is a mass of swirling, non-contiguous color, roughly indicating boundaries of mountains, valleys, altitudes and latitudes. Microclimates are the norm and require the designer and gardener to adapt carefully to site-specific requirements.
The ‘genius loci’ – the distinctive atmosphere or pervading ‘spirit’ of a local site – is defined not only by its fair weather characteristics but also by the realization that winter is often the longest season of the year. A specific design concern for all projects here is providing sufficient area to pile snow that is removed from drives and walks. Lawns (if absolutely necessary) and/or perennial/groundcover beds sited strategically can serve this purpose. A related design concern is drainage; in some instances the only solution is the creation of GIA (grassy infiltration areas), or swales, which I now specify with groundcover and shrubs that don’t mind wet feet (instead of wet, hard to mow turf).
Though I imagine that design clients are very similar throughout North America (i.e. they desire a pleasing landscape, seek knowledge-based solutions and have the resources to pay for these solutions), I’ll go out on a limb to characterize our local clients: many are retirees, but certainly not the type who escape to Florida at age 65.
In general, my client loves the outdoors, is perhaps a fisherman, hiker, skier or gardener, and loves to do as much of his or her own work as possible. The term “rugged individualism”, in its most positive context, comes to mind; though very self reliant, my client is wise enough to seek additional design and garden expertise.
So my design presentations include as much education as is needed (or as much as I can provide). Sometimes the enthusiastic client subsequently finds the workload of landscape installation far more than anticipated, even though I have provided a detailed workflow. But then the included education offers an outline for evaluating contractor bids and performance.
Since my clients do appreciate as much knowledge as I am able to provide, I recently started exporting my CAD drawings to PDF files, in which I can include live links from plants (symbols or listings) to online databases; the client can see photos, descriptions and care recommendations for proposed plants as she studies the planting plan. This interactivity seems to be well received.
A very serious design concern in our region is how the built landscape harmonizes with natural surroundings. Though in more densely populated areas we can “borrow” a distant view or focal point to include in the landscape, the generally larger, open properties here require that we consider the impact of our work on the surrounding beauty. Occasionally I travel to a stunningly beautiful, potential new design project and think: “Do we really want to change anything here at all?”
Though the client certainly feels that a built landscape will increase his or her enjoyment of the property, it is humbling to undertake the creation of a landscape that will at least not detract from the natural beauty.
Ideally the built will complement and enhance the natural, and toward this goal I follow these precepts:
(1). garden elements with the most intense need for care (water, pruning, etc) are installed closest to the home; (2) a middle area of lower need elements (patios, grasses, groundcovers) occupy a larger area further from the home; and (3) an outer area is designed, transitioning to the natural as seamlessly as possible, with native and adaptable plants. Here I use red-twig dogwood, tall oregon grape, ocean spray, other natives and perhaps viburnum. In respect to harmonizing the built with the natural, this transition area is extremely important.
As mentioned above, our winter is often the longest season of the year, so providing as much winter interest as possible is an important goal for every local design project. Many native plants, and others well adapted to our region, can provide excellent winter interest. The red-twig dogwood, ocean spray, oregon grape, native rose (hips), river birch, hollies, yellow-twig dogwood, viburnum (opulus and trilobum) and others are welcome in the stark winter landscape.
One of the very best landscape elements for winter interest is a flowing water feature. Properly sited, designed and installed, the winter water feature becomes an important source of visual beauty, pleasant sound and perhaps most important, a symbol of hope for the upcoming spring. A little advance planning and minor ongoing maintenance will ensure continuous flow even at temperatures below zero; the constantly changing ice sculptures are stunning! See the short video below.
I hope the above discussion has provided a glimpse of the landscape design process in our region. Evaluation of all site-specific variables is likely even more important here than in other, milder regions. Our climate, topography and client demographics result in a challenging environment for the garden designer and gardener. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
The following garden designers have also written about their regional experiences: visit their insights!
A special shout out to Scott Hokunson who invited the participants and coordinated this project.
Thank You, Scott!
Susan Cohan–Chatham, NJ– Miss Rumphius Rules
Rebecca Sweet–Palo Alto CA– Gossip in the Garden
Laura Schaub–San Jose CA– Interleafings
Pam Penick–Austin TX– Digging
Michelle Derviss– Novato CA– Garden Porn
Ivette Soler–Los Angeles CA–The Germinatrix
Susan Morrison–East Bay CA– Blue Planet Garden Blog
Susan Schlenger–Charlottesville VA-Landscape Design Viewpoint
Scott Hokunson–Gramby CT–Blue Heron Landscapes
Tara Dillard–Stone Mountain GA-Landscape Design Decorating Styling
Jocelyn Chilvers–Wheat Ridge CO- The Art Garden
Genevieve Schmidt–Arcata CA– North Coast Gardening