Learning to listen

This article was first published in Pro Landscaper magazine, January 2020.

The approach that is driving an exciting new trend in landscape design

The longer that I am immersed in the art of landscape design, the more I am convinced that we must stop talking. We need to learn to listen instead and if we do, then, and only then, will we be able to do justice to the environment in which we work. 

By listening, I mean that we need to visit the site at various times of day, morning, noon, evening, find a comfortable spot, clear our minds and listen to what nature and the immediate environment is telling us. What does the wind whisper; how do sunlight and shadows play across the land; what about the soil underfoot and casting our eyes up; what can we learn from the horizon – and how will our design merge with, and compliment, all of what we see and hear? 

We need to be aware of the fact that in today’s fast-paced world, creating a design that blends with the contours, the moods, the textures and colours of the landscape in which our clients live and work, provides them with a tranquil place where they can feel totally at home; in other words, a nurturing space that feeds their soul.

Letting Go

I also believe that we need to relax, to let go of our desire to control everything and allow nature to take its course – within reason of course. We are already letting go of heavily manicured and overly clipped gardens- thank goodness. 

Rolling lawns are a thing of the past, and large swimming pools and water features have quickly moved onto the outgoing list. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I designed a traditional-looking water feature. Now we are designing more swales, SUDS system, seasonal ponds and eco pools. In the spirit of letting go, designers should be aware of the need to design landscapes that are low maintenance by selecting plants that perform double duties, that have more than just good looks to offer, and we are selecting resilient plants that are able to withstand the harsher conditions prevailing as a result to climate change and global warming.

Natural Maintenance

And we live in a famine of time – no-one has the time to manicure lawns, to trim hedges and sweep leaves into little piles. That is why our landscape designs must allow for a certain amount on natural maintenance rather than low maintenance. In Japan, they have pioneered a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (roughly translated as “forest bathing” or “taking in the atmosphere of the forest”). The purpose is twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests and natural environment.

In our frantic times, gardens are definitely a sanctuary from our busy worlds and because of this, natural landscaping and biophilic design – a concept pioneered in the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment – is more in demand than ever before. That is why, to me, a landscape design that allows our clients the opportunity to “forest bathe” to reconnect with nature is a recipe for success. 

The more we learn to listen to be inspired by what we hear from nature and, importantly, learn to let go of control that strangles rather than nurtures our environment, the more success we will achieve. 

Humans are also naturally drawn to how something feels, internally and externally; the emotional connection is strong. If something is soft, it makes you linger longer. In landscaping, we must create tactile, soft spaces to which our clients are drawn and where they can pause to recharge.

This is why designers are now designing spaces as one continuous flowing area (shown in my plan) rather than the traditional idea of different rooms. In other words, no more front garden, side garden, back garden, etc. As open-plan living has evolved in the world of interiors, landscape design has also found that continuity and flow is everything and there has never been a more inspirational time to be in this profession. It’s exciting to be able to create landscape designs that are complementary to the local environment, complementary to the design of existing structures, and to what our clients are seeking in their “safe” place.

Tactile Colour

I am also tremendously excited that as South Africans, we are finally beginning to embrace and celebrate our unique culture through design. This is evident especially in furniture, textiles, fashion and the use of vibrant colour, such as Haldane Martin’s furniture collection. 

This trend is taking root among landscape designers and gardeners. I am convinced that the demand for colour will grow in the next decade as consumers become influenced and driven by colourful hues and vibrant energy and that’s why designers are selecting plants more for their textural and foliage colour than for their floral attraction. Grasses still remain popular; as we are drawn to the fluffy lightness, how they move in the wind, how the light catches them, their golden-brown hues, and how well they contrast against smooth textures of concrete and steel.

And let’s not forget that texture is king. Concrete, steel, glass, stone, and our superb South African raw materials are wonderful mediums to use in the garden.

Garden Pets

We must also apply our minds to the fact that apartment living is on the rise, and garden spaces are becoming smaller. Container planting is a new trend and indoor plant sales are booming as a result of urbanisation. 

Beautiful pots and a few key plants, inside and out, are fast becoming the new garden ‘pets’. Young city dwellers are turning into avid plant collectors, and if you’d love to join the houseplant movement but need some help keeping your plant ‘babies’ alive, you’re not alone! More and more gardeners are turning to garden tech to help keep their indoor greenery green. 

As I have already said, there has never been a more exciting time to be a landscape designer as we enter a time of big, bold, bright colours and patterns, gaudy decor and colourful abstract paintings. But it’s about listening, seeing and applying our minds to what the environment in which we work is telling us. 

Cara Smith is a Landscape Designer and Managing Director for Contours Design Studio – a division of Contours Landscapes.

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