Hearing the Music in Your Landscape

Posted On January 4, 2018

Make your garden sing with these professional tips


I fully admit it: I don’t know music. I can barely carry a tune and sorry, Mom and Dad, the five years of piano lessons were not a great investment. However, the effort was indeed appreciated… My daughter, though, does know music. I recently visited her school’s music room and was casually looking at some classical sheet music posted on the wall as I waited. My daughter came up to me and started to point out all of the symbols, notations and clefs that appeared as a foreign language to me. She spoke this language (It must skip a generation!) and it got me thinking.

My thought that evening, as we rode home together, was that we all speak different languages in our lives, especially our work lives. And we try, figuratively, to make music. Personally, I like to orchestrate landscapes in my work, and I do believe that there is a correlation to what my daughter read to me—the organization of the sheet music, its parts, and the resultant rhythms—and successful design.

There are two ways we can incorporate the reading of music as we seek to harmonize the effects of choices in our landscapes:

Blank Slate

There are merits and positivity to beginning your choices with a clean start. I’m sure that Beethoven at one point sat in front of a blank piece of paper. First, seek to organize the space before you populate it with individual notes. For this, arrangement is key. Do not be afraid, but rather be bold! Your strengths will come in the form of interesting walkways (irregular or square cut Bluestone with turf or Mondo Grass to infill the joints; tinted and scored concrete; reclaimed brick) and destinations (landings and small patios) that are best accompanied by a piece of sculpture, a modern furniture grouping, or a masonry or wood wall that creates a backdrop. 

Raise and lower your landscape’s “voice” with elevation changes (even if the spaces are graded flat) by creating raised gardens and planters. Movement of the aesthetics are important, and this rhythm that we are seeking can be created with the inclusion of plants that act as the musical notes. Some are to be strung together in groups while others are strong enough to stand alone. Hedging is a great tool. Yaupon Holly, Leyland Cypress, ‘Little Gem’ Magnolia, Green Pittosporum, Hornbeam, Privet, Cherry Laurel and Boxwood are plantings, that when set in lines along the edge, command the performance.  They also allow for the strong notes to shine: Japanese Maple, citrus trees in standard form, tree-formed Ligustrum, and various palms, for instance, can handle the spotlight and make theses spaces sing.

The Music Has Already Started

The challenge of bringing together seemingly disparate genres of music might not be as bad as you think. If you have, say, a classical house, an existing front yard that’s says ’80s disco, and large trees from the Big Band Era, think and strategize by picking the best attributes of each. For instance, the lawn may not flourish under those big live oaks in spite of your best efforts, so under-plant with shade-tolerant, tougher plants, such as Autumn and Holly Ferns, Needle Palms, and Sabal Minors. Ditch the Bradford Pear, Photinia and River Birches that were popular in the heyday of the Bee Gees and go a bit more native like the music of the late ’60s. Utilize grasses, such as Southern Red Cedar, Saw Palmetto, Blanketflower and Echinacea just to name a few. Even swing toward a Mid-century feel with funky hardscape additions: round stepping stones, patterns of brick beyond the herringbone, or a seating wall of orange painted stucco. A cool firebowl, for instance, can act as a piece of art as well as a gathering point. It can make a space within an existing landscape “hit a high note” for sure.  

Form, edges, line of sight, major notes, minor notes, sharps and flats—these are all parts of the whole that make what we hear and see pleasing and timeless. Putting them together is a fun and interesting challenge for sure. Music in the landscape can take you anywhere!