Some of the most striking parts of your garden cost you absolutely nothing.

These assets are what professional landscape designers call the borrowed landscape. Regular gardeners are more likely to call them the view or the existing features of the property.

Several speakers at the Landscape Design School offered by the Garden Club Federation of Maine earlier this month discussed the principle.

“You should think about the borrowed landscape,” David Maynes of Todd Richardson & Associates in Saco told the group. “This is not about adding to the landscape, but is editing.”

This kind of design, in which what is on the neighboring property or already exists on your own property helps you decide how to design your own garden, has a couple of advantages, Maynes said. First, you aren’t spending part of the budget on things you don’t need. Next, you know these borrowed items are durable because they’ve been there forever. He is, of course, referring to those streaks of ledge going through your gardens or the giant oak tree in your neighbor’s backyard.

Lucinda Brockway, owner of the Past Designs landscape design company in Kennebunk, offered a striking, public example of a design that takes advantage of the borrowed landscape: the Camden Amphitheater, one of the few public spaces designed by landscape architect Fletcher Steele, a leader in the mid-20th century modern style of design. The amphitheater makes use of Maine granite and birch trees to take full advantage of the views of Camden Harbor, Brockway said. The simple, bold design is considered one of Steele’s best works.

Andrew Jackson Downing, who practiced landscape architecture from the 1830s until his death in 1852, was an early American proponent of such design. “He thought landscapers should take the best of Mother Nature and enhance it,” Brockway said.

Kent Cooper, a landscape architect with the Maine Department of Transportation, described a number of public projects he has worked on around the state.

“I feel like I am making a picture for an audience,” he said. “It’s a bit like journalism in that it is who, what, where, when and how.”

When the state replaced the Gut Bridge in South Bristol, neighbors were concerned that the replacement fit in. They wanted the building that would house bridge equipment to look like the neighboring houses, and they wanted the generator covered. They did not want pointy bushes.

“We put in some 8- to 10-foot bayberries and lilacs, and it worked,” Cooper said. “The audience wanted that picture” and were pleased when the project was completed, he said.

To illustrate the concept of using what exists in the landscape, Maynes showed photographs of a private wilderness retreat his company designed in Orland. A guest house perched on existing boulders in one area. Large stones that matched the existing stones were brought in to support a different building in another area.

“Along the driveway, a 20-foot erratic was covered in vegetation,” Maynes said, using a geological term for an unusual-for-the-area-stone moved in by a glacier. “All we did was uncover it.”

You may not have boulders to work with on your own property, but you probably do have snow, and Maynes said that snow removal relates to landscape design in a couple of ways.

“You can design a beautiful landscape, but if a snowplow comes in and blows it up every year,” he said, ” it is not successful.” Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: plant herbaceous perennials next to the driveway or parking lot. The perennials, which die back to the ground every winter, won’t be hurt by plows pushing the snow around.

Maynes went beyond that sound, practical advice to suggesting that gardeners consider “how the snowbanks the plow creates integrate with other things to create things that are interesting year-round.”

Reflecting on the borrowed landscapes that these professionals discussed got me thinking about what my wife Nancy and I have “borrowed” over the years to create our small suburban lot. And while we had no instruction in landscape design when we started gardening, we did a pretty good job of taking advantage of the site and the surrounding landscape – I admit it might have been luck rather than innate wisdom.

The best view from our house is toward the west, where we often enjoy stunning sunsets. The ground slopes down on the westerly side of the property, so in winter, once the oaks have dropped their leaves, we can see a hill that is about a mile away. We grow our vegetables on the west side of the house, which means the plants are down low and don’t interfere with the views of the horizon in the summer.

We also have some ledge that shows in the small, wooded section of our property. Although it’s not a dominant feature, we have extended it by adding to the stone walls that existed on our property when we built the house.

We both appreciate our borrowed landscape.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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