A well-designed building can be a work of art, and a thoughtfully planned landscape around it that incorporates the appropriate forms, lines, textures and colors can significantly enhance the aesthetic character of a place. Marla Gagnum of English Landscape Design in East Hampton, NY has been doing just that for over two decades, and like a magician of nature, Ms. Gagnum has transformed many a plain lawn or barren piece of property into a living, blossoming masterpiece.
The first step of the design process is a meeting to discuss the client's needs and ideas. "When I meet a new client, I show them lots of pictures and we discuss what sort of thing they are looking for. They may be looking for a cottage garden where you have a strong shape of a bed, for example, with lots of things going on within it, which are always colors and shapes that are repeated and develop a rhythm through the whole design. It may be a more formal planting they're looking for, it may be a shrub planting or a foundation planting around the house. It may be patio plantings, or pool plantings. We go through lots of pictures and ideas and talk about the palette of colors the client prefers and how they use their property, because that will determine how we design the landscape. If they have children and need lots of area to play, or if they entertain a lot, all of those things determine exactly how we custom design it to the client's needs. If a client doesn't have a vision of what they want, one can determine from their lifestyle an idea of what they want. Sometimes it's more sculptural and dealing with texture and not so much flowers and color, but more textures of shrubs and all. And the beautiful thing with English landscape design is that there's such a breadth of possibilities. You can go from a very formal landscape to something that's a meadow of wildflowers. So there is a lot of variation there and getting to know the client is the key."
After meeting with the client, the next step is to measure the property. Photographs are then taken to develop a site analysis, which takes into consideration the orientation of the land, the type of soil, the exposure and drainage, as well as the existing plants on the property. A Master Plan is produced using a specialized landscape graphic computer program, then a Detailed Planting Plan which defines the type and quantities of plants and structural features to be included in each area of the property.
English Landscape Design covers all aspects of the installation of a garden, including grading and soil preparation. Ms. Gagnum explains, "I have a crew of people who deal with trees, shrubs, flowers. Our mason does the masonry side of it, and I am involved in it mostly in a supervisory position. I am on site to make sure everything is laid out properly and I do a lot of the buying and ordering of the plants to get exactly what we want for a particular job."
Having worked in England as a landscape designer, Ms. Gagnum brought her sense of style here to the U.S., a style she defines as having "very strong structure and very strong lines, but within that structure we can let things be very voluptuous, on the edge of wild. People do say they recognize my work when they see it. They'll see a particular property and they'll say Marla must have designed this. I would say that in terms of cottage flower gardens, that is something that I think people associate with me quite a lot, and also in terms of water features. We do a lot of fountains, ponds and waterfalls and we're very proud that when people see our ponds and waterfalls they think that nature put them there. There's not anything that suggests that they were constructed by man, so we're very proud of that. My favorite thing to do for swimming pools is to do a natural looking swimming pool, one that you might feel as if you're swimming in a pond, for example. It's really a filtered water swimming pool and those can have their challenges because you're often dealing with boulders on one side and plantings among the boulders and maybe a waterfall coming into the pool, but they're rewarding as well."
As anyone would expect in landscape design, the use of stone plays an important role. "We use a lot of bluestone around swimming pools and I like to use big pieces of bluestone that look much more natural, that is a favorite look of mine. So there are the bluestone patios, pools surrounds, walkways and pathways. Then I also love river rock for stepping stones and we do a lot of stone walls as retaining walls or free standing walls. For those we often use Pennsylvania wall stone. I like a natural look, I like the look of something that is very in keeping with nature rather than something that has a very manmade look. We also use a lot of big boulders and sometimes they are the indigenous boulders to the east end of Long Island which is sort of a beige granite. We also use moss rock which doesn't come from here, but from Pennsylvania and other places, and it grows moss on it and looks as if it's been there for a long time. We use that in rock gardens and on hillsides, such as on one side of a swimming pool, or for dramatic accents in a landscape."
Color is a significant design element, and nature in particular lends a variety of palettes that can be incorporated into any landscape. Ms. Gagnum explains, "A few years ago there was a big trend toward crab orchard stone, but I'd much rather use something like bluestone and then build color around it, rather than have the color of the stone stand out because I like the neutral grayness of the bluestone."
"In terms of the palette for the plants, I've noticed that twenty years ago people didn't think a whole lot about palette, they wanted a nice lawn and some color. Then it changed and people were into pastels, such as the pale pinks, blues, whites and purple. And now people are becoming much more daring and like the oranges and reds and much more vibrant color schemes. We do a lot at the moment with what we call the vibrant pastels, which are the bright pink and blue and white, and a splash of yellow. It's somewhere in between the really hot red-orange and the pale pinks. We talk to the client and the palette of colors is what we do, and I love it all, I like working in any of the palettes."
When asked what types of projects she enjoys doing most, Ms. Gagnum responds, "I like doing a property that has a new house and you start with just a clean slate, working with different grades or lack thereof, and the variation in the topography. Starting with a clean slate is challenging and quite fun to do. And then on the other side, I also really enjoy renovation, when you take a property that's been established but needs to be reworked and perhaps developed in a different direction. Sometimes there will be a property where things have become quite overgrown and you have to shift things all about and that is fun because you have mature plant material and have to make it work in a new picture. If there is a beautiful shrub, rhododendron or yew that is in front of the house and it's become too big for that space, then I would not want to just cut it down and get rid of it, I would very much recommend moving it to someplace else on the property or selling it. Plants are living things and I really cherish them. As long as they still have life in them, I want to keep them."
"I've always used only organic materials because I've always been an environmentalist and I don't think anyone that cares for the earth is responsible if they don't use earth friendly products. I'm so pleased that people have finally come to the realization that it's important to be environmentally conscious. We use a lot of compost as fertilizer, and we add rock trace minerals to it if necessary. We don't use chemical fertilizers at all. We use Deer Stopper which is an organic product for deer control which is made of rosemary, garlic and mint, and it's been quite effective in deer control. We also use safe insecticidal soap."
When asked what she likes most about being a landscape designer, she replies, "I love going to the nurseries stomping around in the mud and I love going to the building site, where things are happening, big machines are moving trees or moving earth. I love all that. And of course I love it when one of my gardens is on a garden tour and my client is really excited."
"Often clients ask me if I am an artist as well, and I say my palette is the plants - I'm a landscape designer."