Sunday Opinion: Convince Me

On occasion I will have that client who tells me I need to convince them that they should grow such and such a plant, or reconfigure a portion of their garden like so.  Hmm.  On the subject of what seems convincing, I do admire those landscapes that seem to be all of a piece.  A clear vision, consistent language and execution is very much about what I do, and what I hope to do.  A great garden feels like a world unto itself-complete, confident, and convincing.  The French royal gardens designed and built by Andre LeNotre in the 19th century are certainly a world unto themselves in every detail.  Who does not admire how French garden designers were and are able to edit and edit again?  Their gardens are finely distilled creations that make you feel as though in addition to seeing them, you have had a generous glass of some fabulously complex and satisfying French wine.  I may experience a landscape and drink the attendant wine many times, and be convinced of its beauty-but this does not convince me that I should have such a garden myself.

Some gardens are unforgettable, they are so completely convincing.  Many years ago I saw an old Victorian house, with a rectangular vegetable patch off center in the front yard.  In the spring, there would be rows of lettuce of many different varieties, each separated by a row of orange marigolds. The patch would evolve over the summer, as she planted vegetables of the season. She did not grow every vegetable available to her-she chose to plant only certain vegetables, with specific varieties of flowers. Though the garden would evolve over the summer, it had that unmistakeable look of belonging to someone with a definite point of view.  I have never forgotten the garden; it was charmingly believable.  I went so far as to try to imagine its owner, and what she might be like.  Did this garden convince me to have one like it-no.  I was only convinced that how she gardened genuinely represented her idea of beautiful. 

A convincing garden is much like a country of its own.  There is a visual language, rules, boundaries.  Neighborhoods are laid out just so.  There are roads, stop signs, places to park oneself, shelter; one may or may not need to ask for directions.  There may be a park, or a sports field.  There will be a government in place, though the style may vary greatly; someone is most assuredly in charge.  Some governing bodies are quite democratic; I am sure Buck would describe mine as a not always  so benevolent monarchy. He is funny, that one-but he has a point.  I have staved off every request he has made for a few tomato plants.  We tried them one year.  What a terrific amount of room they took, and what a mess they made, for not much fruit.  I have adhered to my no vegetable zone policy ever since. Buck actually likes his weekly trip to Farm Boy Produce on Auburn Road; everyone is happy. One of the great and adult pleasures of a garden is that you get to be in charge of how it looks-for better or for worse.  On certain issues, I am happy to entertain other ideas-but I reserve the right to refuse to be convinced.

In my opinion, design for clients is not so much about convincing them to do this or that.  I like the word convincing as an adverb, much better than a verb.  Too many things work in a landscape for me to to insist that what I have in mind is the right course.  There are as many right courses as there are people who make a career of persuading others.  When someone is trying to persuade me, I cannot help but feel their underlying assumption is that they know what is right.  Their job is to get me to recognize that. Isn there not great potential for irritation-someone with the attitude that they know to a certainty what is right for your garden?  I find the best design relationships are just that-a relationship.  Any client can assume I design with them in mind-as much as I am able.  If the design interests them, there must be something in it that strikes a chord, and resonates.  Prints can be hard to interpret with a 3-D understanding;I make every effort to explain clearly what leads me to any given plan.  Explaining is vastly different, and much more friendly than that persuasion business.  Clients may say yes or no, or maybe- with this change.  They are, after all, in charge of their garden. 

There all always exceptions.  I will never forget an older Italian business man who came into the shop. He loved anything Italian, every Italian garden, and his business-a big business he had made from the ground up.  He bought a very old marble fragment of a lion-as I recall, the two back paws were missing.  Though there surely had been a marble base at one time, it no longer existed. The sculpture was Italian in origin, and feeling-and large.  It had to have been four feet long and two feet wide; the marble was greatly deteriorated from age. He also purchased a simple, even larger English stone cistern.  His idea was to place and prop up the marble lion in the cistern, and display the two, together, in the lobby of his building.  I could neither imagine these two things in concert, nor could I imagine them in a sizeable lobby of a business- but he was sure it would be beautiful, and brushed me off.  I was not convinced, until I saw them installed; the end result was spectacular.  The sculpture had great presence and dignity-I was not able to see what he saw, until they were placed, and lit.  He insisted that the lion appear to be rising out of the cistern; we obliged.  Not that he needed it in any way, I was persuaded by what I saw. 

I suppose that once you invite a designer to play a part in your garden, there is that element of wanting to be convinced.  Should you not be, there are lots of other choices.  Some choices seem not to make very good horticultural sense, but I have seen plenty of plants grow where all my instincts would indicate a no-go. I have been fooled by nature plenty of times.  I am convinced this will happen many more times before I am done designing and gardening.  Clients speaking back-this can fool me; this can delight me.


  1. Maria DeNardo says

    I so enjoy reading your blog, the rain finally stopped today in NY and I planted pansies, violas and assylum. So I am smiling again. Thanks for all the inspiration.
    Signed a wanna-be designer.

    • Deborah Silver says

      That rain must have been driving you crazy! If you are planting your own pots, then you are designing. It is amazing what some spring flowers and color can do for a gardener.

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