Design Principles from Augusta National


For folks in the green industry, masters golf weekend is an important benchmark. Its occurrence on the first week of April (usually) coincides with genuine spring weather, the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons seen at Augusta can indicate how successfully our trees and shrubs will bloom this year (although it’s rumored that ice is used around plants that threaten to bloom early there) , and, more to the point of this blog, viewing scenes of these beautiful grounds on TV gives some major design inspiration.

While watching the masters today, I’ve been adding to my list of Design Principles to Follow. These principles are more-or-less universal and can be applied to any garden and its design. Using principles such as these are what separates great design from a mish-mash of plantings. As we start writing more faithfully in this garden log (glog?), you’ll soon find more posts under this design principles heading.

So what makes Augusta National Golf course so beautiful? I offer these 3 principles…

1. Lawn is a design feature

The first thing you’ll notice when you turn on the masters is the unblemished carpet of green. Then you’ll notice the green against the red pine straw - a contrasting color that they intentionally use to make the green greener and the red redder. And if you watch long enough, you’ll see the most beautiful hole in golf – #13, “azalea.” The combination of green grass, bleach-white dogwoods and sand, spires of loblolly pine trunks, and fuchsia-colored azaleas is breathtaking. It speaks for itself, but note how it's all set off by the subtle shades of green.

In garden design, a lawn functions similarly to a massive, manicured hedge. When you place flowing, painterly perennials and flowers next to a strikingly monochromatic, sheared hedge or lawn, the contrast creates depth and an intentional-feeling sense of space. Without a bit of lawn or hedge (or some other similar feature) a planting of perennials gets lost. Instead, use the hard lines and monocolor that a lawn can give to draw out the plants that are most interesting – perennial flowers.

How to apply this in your garden design

Spend as much effort designing the voids in your garden as you would spend designing the solids. Solids are those things you add to a garden – the beds and plantings. Usually, a lawn is a void. That void can be beautiful if used in right proportion. A good guide is to use 1/3 lawn and 2/3 bedding. For most of us, this means reducing our lawn size and escaping the idea that a garden is only for that space 8' in front of our home's foundation.

Another guide is to consider making your lawn/garden edges perfectly strait instead of curvy and to cut your edges deep (and never use plastic edging!). Strait edges are dramatic and in style (for a modern home look). If you use curves, use as the fewest curves possible to get from point A to point B (avoid switching back from concave to convex more than absolutely necessary). Making an edge sweep slowly back and forth over a long distance is more dramatic.

What about lawn care? If you want to know what’s possible in terms of gardening and maintenance, you look at what the British do. In England, maintenance of the lawn is not separate from maintenance of the garden. They tend to do it themselves or hire someone who also specializes in gardening. One day, we hope to offer cylinder mowing for small, dedicated garden lawn areas. In the meantime, if you have a lawn care company that offers aeration, dethatching, mowing, and fertilizer that you think we should recommend, please let us know.

2. Simple is Beautiful

Augusta’s beauty is found in restraint. The club have the financial resources and expertise to accomplish any number of architectural and design feats, yet you see the same 70s bi-color umbrellas and astroturf around the clubhouse, the same garden gnome style and plastic outdoor furniture around the buildings, and the same color pallet you saw decades ago. They stubbornly stick to a very narrow style that’s utterly theirs, and it works.How to apply this in your garden design

This could be the most important design principle for amateur garden designers. This is because, when searching for ideas on style and design for any project, they get on google, Pinterest, houzz, etc., and are inundated with photos of the most amazing designs they've ever seen– hundreds of thousands of them. Temptation to use inspiration from each and every one of them is irresistible and leads to tragic results.

Consider this - The greatest moments of design inspiration come at times when you’re furthest from a computer or garden design magazine. They happen at the end of the day when work is done and you can leisurely appreciate a garden you’ve worked on all day. You notice a pattern, color, shape, or line and a resulting theme pops into your head. As you hold the thought of that theme in your head, you can use your imagination to instantiate it in different playful ways in your garden. Sticking to this theme and holding yourself to it as a strict rule allows you to be creative and playful. You use this theme in the same way that the great composers used a 3-note theme to create an entire symphony.

The garden that results from a restrained design is not less interesting - it's more intelligible. You want visitors to your garden to get your theme. You want to carry on a color pallet or repeat an idea that they can see. What this allows you to do is to direct their attention and add a few dramatic flourishes that will stand out more strikingly because you were restrained elsewhere. Such flourishes would be lost in a busy garden.

3. Enhance Existing Beauty

The rolling hills, some of them with their lids removed to expose brilliant white sand traps, is the greatest feature of the course. Their have been many changes to the land at Augusta, including the undulations of the greens and fairways, but the course is typified by its larger rolling elevation changes. It’s the one thing that has not been heavily manipulated at Augusta. The maintenance of the property is brilliant because it lets the land and its history speak for itself.

How to apply this in your garden design

I’m a believer in the idea that to do something meaningful in design, you must be ruthless. If existing features get in the way of an overall goal, it’s got to go. That said, you can't get rid of everything, and you’ll be kicking against the goads if you fail to take in and enhance the surrounding landscape, home, and their features.

By way of example, we recently designed a garden area that included two large silver maples. By themselves, they were uninteresting trees, but their trunks were massive and beautiful. The trees also shade the home from sun in the summer but allow sun through to heat the home in the winter. So we will keep them and likely plant a third, ornamental maple (acer pseudoplatanus eskimo sunset) as part of a pathway and perennial planting. The new maple will be planted equidistant from the two mature maples, drawing them into the design.

Enjoy the last day of the tournament tomorrow, and let me know if you come up with principles to add to my list!

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