In the first millennium, a wealthy Roman family would most likely have had a garden surrounding their home. In it, you might find an open-air palazzo, pergola-style structures dripping with vines and blooming flowers, a dining area with couches for relaxation, water features such as an outdoor water fountain or wall fountain, and walkways that led out into the garden proper, perhaps to a prized rosebush or into an olive grove. These are some of the elements characterizing what is now called classical landscape design, also known as traditional landscape design.
Classical landscape design is a subset of formal landscape design that uses linear, clean lines to develop an uncluttered look. These lines can be drawn with rows of trees and well-trimmed hedges, perfect plantings for the classical landscape design. Or perhaps a seat wall made of regimented terra cotta tiles can do double-duty. Here and there, vines, such as ivy or wisteria, can soften any harshness. In this regard, this style is similar to the Mediterranean landscape design with its Roman and Greek influences.
The History of Classical Landscape Design
Borrowing influences from previous civilizations, classical landscape design solidified in Rome and the surrounding countryside. Villas were built with comfortable courtyards, sparkling with the sound of water, shaded by large trees, fragrant with rosemary and citrus fruits. It was from this setting that we got the term “pleasure garden.”
In England of the late 1700s, property owners started looking backwards, past the Baroque period and the Renaissance, to the beginnings of western civilization. There, they found classical landscapes making use of woods, water, indigenous plants and small temples. These elements were incorporated into the gardens of that day, further defining the principles of traditional landscape design.
By the way, when Rome fell to the barbarians, the gardens had become so exquisite that the barbarians chose not to ransack them. Instead they kept them up and learned from them. This development is one of the early examples of how we, as humans, learned that beauty can change the world: it can stop violence. This principle is now being used to good effect in gardens started as rehabilitation projects in prisons, inner cities and ghettos.
Choices in Classical Landscape Design
As with all landscape design, the architecture of the house needs to be considered when using a traditional landscape design. For this style, the home and landscape can be tied together through the subtle placement of a hardscape feature, such as the use of tumbled travertine for the courtyard flooring.
Because of the formal principles inherent in this style, you want to strike a balance when choosing materials between boring blandness and baroque lavishness. Think instead in terms of interesting variety. For instance, well-contained decorative gravel can provide color and texture. Courtyards, pool decking and patios should use materials that are symmetrical, in keeping with the formal style. Stone, terra cotta tiles and flagstone are appropriate choices. Granite benches, concrete grottoes and marble urns add sturdiness and reference antiquities.
Your preference for classical landscape design can also be demonstrated in the plants you choose. Your residential garden will be enhanced by fruit trees and other dwarf trees-or perhaps a stand of cypress, mulberry or fig trees. The cheery colors of marigolds, hyacinths and roses are well suited for the classical landscape design. Herbs planted in terra cotta pots scent the air and provide fresh flavor in your outdoor kitchen cooking.
Hardscapes in Classical Landscape Design
Color, form, line, scale, and texture are your means of expressing classical landscape design preferences just as they are with modern landscape design.
Hardscapes to include:
Outdoor rooms for outdoor living. These living areas, in effect, make your home bigger. They also serve to create transition areas that connect the indoor and outdoor spaces. Plus, they further the notion that a garden is a place of rejuvenation. In particular, outdoor kitchens are important to the traditional landscape design.
Outdoor water fountains. If you remember your ancient world history classes, you know that the Romans perfected the aqueduct. So water is prized within classical landscape design and nothing showcases it like a picture-perfect outdoor water fountain. Look for fountains in formal, Romanesque, Italianate, Mediterranean and rustic styles. Those made of tile, cast stone, cast iron and concrete work particularly well with this style.
Swimming pools. When placed within a classical landscape design, the shape of your swimming pool should tend towards basic geometric shapes like rectangles and ovals. Thus, the shape of the pool frames the water and turns it into a classical design element of the landscape. It is often efficient to combine the pool with an outdoor water fountain to eliminate some maintenance redundancies.
Landscape lighting. Landscape lighting is another important element of traditional landscape design as it creates ambiance and lets you enjoy the outdoors, night and day.
Classical Landscape Design: A Houston Setting
”We implemented a classical landscape design for one of our Houston clients, whose home was French Country. For the garden, we chose a design that closely resembles a famous garden in Florence,” says Jeff Halper with Exterior Worlds. “The landscape design makes good use of gravel and limestone, which looks very natural in a Houston garden. And we planted boxwoods, which we trim and shape regularly as part of a well-thought-out residential landscape maintenance plan. It is a lovely and relaxing space.”