A Walk in the Forest
The landscape designer is an essential partner in the home’s outdoor vision.
By Bill Hensley
THIS TIME LAST YEAR THE WORLD MUCH OF THE WORLD WAS IN LOCKDOWN. Fortunately, many of us could work from home and others in the smart home, building, electrical and related trades were deemed “essential” services as a new normal emerged. But even for those of us working, everything was different, more distant and not always social. Retreating into the work-from-home office, we battled for precious band¬width with other family members, put on our best faces for Zoom conferences (“Your Honor, I am not a cat!”) and sought out new entertainment to binge-watch.
We also sought mental refuge in our outdoor spaces and many of us got acquainted—or reacquainted—with the plants on our properties and with gardening. Sales of plants and seeds surged. We turned to television and the Internet for guidance and that is where many of us discovered a British institution named Monty Don.
“hello – welcome to gardeners’ world”
Those calm words opening each episode set the tone for a relaxing 29-minute excursion through a season of gardening at Mr. Don’s own “Longmeadow” home garden in Herefordshire in the West Midlands of England, with excursions to gardens developed by other presenters on the show and even to famous gardens and gardening events around the U.K.
Did we mention that Gardeners’ World is entering its 54th season? Mr. Don has been the host for the last 19 seasons and—having authored over 20 books on the topic—can share a thing or two about gardening. But beyond topic expertise, it was also the voice, the enthusiasm for flowers, grasses, trees and vegetables, and the calm, steady pace of each episode that struck a chord in the chaotic 2020 season. The British are generally more serious gardeners than we Americans, but the pandemic helped trigger a gardening boom in the U.S., with seeds becoming as scarce as yeast (or for a while, toilet paper).
An underlying takeaway from Gardeners’ World is that plants can heal. They can heal frayed spirits, the can heal the soul, they can even heal themselves and Mr. Don demonstrates weekly with pruning, propagating and dividing roots for transplanting. The Japanese have a word for the restorative benefits of a walk in the forest — “Shinrin-yoku” which translates to “forest bath.” Even the U.S. Forest Service speaks of the healthful benefits, including strengthening our immune system, reducing blood pressure, increasing energy, boosting our mood and helping us regain and maintain our focus.
The restorative forest power is not just from the exercise of the hike or climb, but from the plants growing in the forest. As plants “exhale” oxygen, a forest will deliver a higher concentration of oxygen than on a typical city street. It does more than just make the air smell good. And while we might not associate the forest with chemicals, one of the healthful benefits of the forest comes phytoncides, chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against insects, bacteria and fungi. Exposure to phytoncides improve the human immune system by increasing our natural cell activity (human natural killer cell activity to be more precise) with other benefits including a reduction of blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones. The benefits of a walk in the forest can last up to 30 days.
We can’t all live near enough to a forest to routinely enjoy Shinrin-yoku, but we can spend more time outside. The number of homeowners increasing use of their outdoor space has been steadily increasing, and 2020 accelerated this trend. The more we stay at home, the more we feel the need for space, and the outdoor areas that surround the house are becoming more than ever new “rooms” of the home. And as with any rooms in the home, to deliver the ultimate experience these new outdoor spaces need to be imagined, designed, planned and built with precision.
meet the landscape designer
Whether it’s a new home, a major interior-exterior remodel, or a rethinking of the home’s exterior spaces, the landscape designer is an essential partner of the home’s outdoor vision, and even a key influence on the interior (more on that later).
Landscape designer or landscape architect? Many readers of this article will know more than the writer on the distinctions and overlaps between the two: While the landscape architect is more involved in the site’s grading, drainage, hardscape etc., the landscape designer introduces the planting plan. We started by talking about gardening, so we’ll focus our attention on the landscape designer. And of the two, it’s the designer who seems likely to be more in tune with the concept of Shinrin-yoku.
“My focus has always been native and adaptive planting. More than just style, it creates habitat for birds and wildlife and it requires no more water than is naturally available.”Lauren Lautner
inspiring and sustainable
Our outdoor spaces need to inspire, but they also need to address our changing environment. While storm surge is impacting how coastal properties are addressing architecture and landscape design on the East Coast, drought and fire are impacting these decisions in the West. One landscape designer who practices on both coasts is Lauren Lautner, Founder and Principal Designer at For Seasons Ecological Landscape Design. With offices in Marblehead, Massachusetts (on the coast north of Boston) and Petaluma, California (serving Sonoma and Napa Valley wine country), she helps clients “connect to their properties,” enabling the outdoor lifestyles with design and planting that respects the land and the environment.
“My focus has always been native and adaptive planting,” said Lautner. “More than just style, it creates habitat for birds and wildlife and it requires no more water than is naturally available.” We spoke with Lautner in April 2021 from her Petaluma office. The following week, on the eve of Earth Day, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in Sonoma County and Mendocino County to its north. Marin Country, immediately to the south implemented mandatory water conservation measures and most of the state is preparing for water shortages. With water scarcity becoming more common in the west, planting that does “not require more water than is naturally available” makes perfect sense.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast the challenge is not too little water, but potentially too much. The warming ocean and a long-term projected increase in storm surge events are threatening coastal homes and placing restrictions on building near the coast. In Marblehead where Lautner’s projects are centered, all new building and significant remodels (more than 50 percent of the value of the home) in the coastal area’s FEMA Zones needs conservation commission approval and must adhere to the FEMA building restrictions. This can include building (lifting) the living area and all services significantly above grade (think stilts with breakaway walls). For the landscape designer, this means incorporating a sufficient number of permeable surfaces and bio-retention areas—shallow, landscaped depressions—that will receive runoff from non-permeable surfaces. As many properties extend into the coastal resource area, creative landscaping lets this “no build” zone be useful outdoor space, while extending the feeling of space when viewed from the home.
enjoyable outdoor space
Let’s circle back to that notion of the landscape designer as a key partner in the outdoor vision, part of “team client” working with the architect, builder/contractor and integrator to ensure the outdoor space exceeds the vision. With technology more and more a part of the outdoor experience, the landscape designer is working more frequently with the technology designer. One area of common interface is in the outdoor lighting. While the homeowner might think outdoor lighting needs an electrician, modern outdoor lighting systems are low voltage and ideal for integrating into the home control system.
“The goal of outdoor lighting is to be welcoming, subtle and beautiful,” says Lautner, suggesting that the combination of an outdoor lighting expert and the landscape designer delivers the best experience, and emphasizing, “it’s a different skill set than indoor lighting, particularly to not ‘over-light’ the space.” She says she often partners with a lighting designer to create outdoor demos — post lights, path lights, down-lights — to let the client experience the potential. Her advice to technology designers asked to do the outdoor lighting? “Work with a landscape designer.” After all, the technology designer is not likely to be an expert in how the plants being lit will grow and how their foliage changes throughout the year. Thus, the lighting fixture locations should not be set in stone, so that as the plants grow the fixtures can adjust with them to give the best result.
While some newer low voltage lighting systems enable individual lights to be turned on or off via the low voltage wire, most homeowners want everything on at once — again, think “welcoming, subtle and beautiful.” Lautner reminds us that all transformers have astronomical timers to turn on in the evening hours and can be set to turn off at bedtime.
For outdoor audio, the landscape designer’s role is a little simpler. The pre-laying of conduit enables cabling for 8 ohm and 70 volt systems under the hardscape. The landscape designer can help ensure that the planting plan and speaker placement work together, for example avoiding too much buried cable in ground that will frequently be turned by the gardener’s spade.
The landscape designer is closely involved with the irrigation plan and thus with the integrator who is automating the irrigation system into the home control system. “Modern irrigation systems are incredible,” enthuses Lautner. “They are excellent for water conservation and control, delivering the water directly to the base of the plant on the right schedule.” And for ongoing plant care in larger projects, integration with the home control system enables a homeowner to give their landscaper limited camera access to monitor watering and plant health.
the outdoor kitchen
While the kitchen garden has been a must-have for serious chefs, COVID has helped fuel a growing demand for outdoor kitchens as families want to take their lifestyle outside and spend more time in fresh air. Homeowners are finding how special the outdoor space can be. In the southern regions, it can be an almost year-round experience. “In the Northeast,” as Lautner points out, “the window in which you can enjoy your outdoor space is only several months,” so homeowners want to get the most out of this time.
The landscape designer can help plan the kitchen garden and related fruit tree planting but is also an expert in something critical to outdoor spaces — shade. As the shade expert, the landscape designer can help with the outdoor space’s “fun factor.” Outdoor TVs are becoming more common, so the combination of structural and tree shade is essential to minimize glare. Lautner says, “When you bring all of this activity outside, shade becomes a huge factor, we’re outside but still exposed and need to be comfortable in summer.” Some shade is created by architectural elements—the patio overhang, the pergola—but trees are an essential, natural, and sustainable component of a good shade plan, not to mention a back yard mimic of the walk in the forest. Placement of trees requires strategic and longer-term thinking: How fast will they grow? How much pruning will they require? How much shade will they produce? And of course, when are they producing that shade? Deciduous trees are ideal for creating summer shade but also allowing the sunlight through in the winter months.
We can’t all live in a forest, but if we create the right outdoor spaces with a mix of native planting and welcoming lighting, we can enjoy the benefits of spending more time outdoors .
And as the outdoor space expert, the landscape designers can even influence choices that affect the architecture. Lautner uses as an example of a client on the East Coast who wanted an updated outdoor experience to go with a minor remodel. “The client wasn’t sure what they wanted,” she said, “other than to get away from the dramatic elevation difference between deck and yard.” Lautner developed a plan of multi-level terraces, connecting the individual spaces. While the client loved the idea of the beautiful and inviting spaces, Lautner could see the underlying issue that would keep the new landscaping and layout from delivering its maximum effect—the door was in the wrong place and would have to move to enable the best indoor-outdoor flow. She presented her idea to the contractor and homeowner and it proved to be a game changer for both the indoor and the outdoor space. Now they have a wall of windows and French doors visually connecting the spaces, extending the indoor sightlines to the (beautifully lit of course) outdoor space and creating an indoor-outdoor flow that lets the home live up to its potential.
We can’t all live in a forest, but if we create the right outdoor spaces with a mix of native planting and welcoming lighting, we can enjoy the benefits of spending more time outdoors, whether we are actively gardening, or just hanging out in the outdoor kitchen. The landscape designer can help make this a reality.