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Understanding Garden Design: The Complete Handbook for Aspiring Designers [Hardcover]

Vanessa Gardner Nagel
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Aug. 18 2010
Designing a garden is a complex task. Where do you start? What kind of skills do you need? What are the logical steps in creating a design? How do you communicate your ideas to a client, and how do you accommodate a client’s requests while maintaining the integrity of the project? The answers to these questions, and many more, can all be found in Understanding Garden Design.

Most books on garden design focus on only one or a few aspects of garden design—choosing plants or creating a hardscape, for example. This comprehensive, accessible book lays out the entire process from start to finish in clear, precise language that avoids the pitfalls of “designspeak.” In fact, garden owners and clients of garden designers who want to understand more about the designer’s craft will be able to profit from the book’s lessons.

Among the many topics covered are how to document a site, how to determine what a client needs and wants from the garden, how to take architectural features into consideration, how to think about circulation and lay out paths, how to use basic design principles, how to work with plants, and how to create a final design. Practical aspects are clearly laid out, including working with contractors and staying on top of the various phases of construction.

This thorough handbook is profusely illustrated with helpful photographs and diagrams. A particularly interesting tool is the hypothetical garden plan that appears in each chapter to show how to apply the topics at hand.

A practical, logical approach to the planning, design, and installation of a garden, this volume will be an invaluable resource for students, landscape professionals, and garden designers.

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"Thorough and thoroughly accessible."


"An excellent guide for beginning home garden designers as well as students in the field."



"A wonderful handbook for anyone to own. Nagel's photographs and drawings clearly illustrate all the major design concepts she discusses in the text.   If you're a designer, the book will remind you about the many details you might overlook.  If you're a homeowner, it'll help you understand why you need a designer -- and how to work with one. What more could anyone ask?."



“For aspiring designers, Nagel, a commercial interior designer who became a landscape designer, details the process of garden design. Using photos and diagrams, she explains aspects like documenting the site, lighting, working with contractors, components of a garden, irrigation, finishes and furnishings, plants, and basic design principles."



“Details the process of garden design…and basic design principles.”

About the Author

Vanessa Gardner Nagel designs gardens in the Pacific Northwest and writes and speaks nationwide about garden design. She worked as a commercial interior designer for 25 years with architectural firms in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, Oregon, before taking postgraduate coursework in landscape design. She started her own design firm in 2002. She is the author of Understanding Garden Design and currently serves on the national board of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.


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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Realistic Guide and an Invaluable Handbook Jan. 13 2011
Format:Hardcover
In spite of the rise in the number of independent-minded gardeners, who care little what others think, most people expect that their garden will not only make themselves happy but will also please their visitors. To accomplish these goals, fundamental principles of design must be respected. These principles are not based upon social or aesthetic convention, as so many free-thinking gardeners believe. When planning any garden, the author suggests that people ought to understand why a landscape needs to be designed, in the first place.

In this publication, the reader will learn that design principles reflect the need to engage the brain in a pleasurable sensory experience that allows one to perceive a garden as beautiful and fulfilling. Furthermore, when a landscape layout meets people's physical and psychological needs, it helps them to function better. Sometimes it encourages an interaction with nature.

According to the author, the intelligent use of space is another benefit of proper garden design. Regardless of its size, a garden may serve very special purposes for a home owner and unless such needs are satisfied, the garden cannot be deemed to be a success. To achieve that level of satisfaction, Ms. Nagel suggests that advance planning is required before the first line of the garden can be drawn. Listed in that preparation are considerations for a play area for children, pets, outdoor work, the drying of laundry, storage, growing food, traffic patterns, entertainment, and a place to be alone.

Dealing with the topic of beauty in the garden, the author introduces the reader to basic design principles and suggests that, when they are incorporated into the planning, they are responsible for creating an aesthetically pleasing landscape.
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Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exactly the book I needed to encourage and support my love for gardening Aug. 31 2010
By Loula - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I am always looking for gardening books that provide a helpful mix of basic, practical (real life) gardening tips and ideas that I can actually follow and do. This is that book. Very helpful and easy to read! From understanding scale to pet friendly plant choices and design, this book provides well written and easy-to-follow garden design steps and methods supported by an abundance pictures. This is exactly the book I needed to encourage and support my growing love for gardening.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Realistic Guide and an Invaluable Handbook Jan. 13 2011
By allanbecker-gardenguru - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In spite of the rise in the number of independent-minded gardeners, who care little what others think, most people expect that their garden will not only make themselves happy but will also please their visitors. To accomplish these goals, fundamental principles of design must be respected. These principles are not based upon social or aesthetic convention, as so many free-thinking gardeners believe. When planning any garden, the author suggests that people ought to understand why a landscape needs to be designed, in the first place.

In this publication, the reader will learn that design principles reflect the need to engage the brain in a pleasurable sensory experience that allows one to perceive a garden as beautiful and fulfilling. Furthermore, when a landscape layout meets people's physical and psychological needs, it helps them to function better. Sometimes it encourages an interaction with nature.

According to the author, the intelligent use of space is another benefit of proper garden design. Regardless of its size, a garden may serve very special purposes for a home owner and unless such needs are satisfied, the garden cannot be deemed to be a success. To achieve that level of satisfaction, Ms. Nagel suggests that advance planning is required before the first line of the garden can be drawn. Listed in that preparation are considerations for a play area for children, pets, outdoor work, the drying of laundry, storage, growing food, traffic patterns, entertainment, and a place to be alone.

Dealing with the topic of beauty in the garden, the author introduces the reader to basic design principles and suggests that, when they are incorporated into the planning, they are responsible for creating an aesthetically pleasing landscape. These basics are color, line, shape, form, space, proportion, mass, focal point, repetition and rhythm, movement, sequence, texture, variety, contrast, balance and unity. All of these concepts are elaborated upon in sufficient detail to enhance the reader's knowledge of them.

Each of the twelve chapters of this book deals chronologically with the process of creating a successful garden. The first chapter is the eye opener. It establishes the framework for accomplishing one's goal both philosophically and realistically. First, it discusses the rationale for a well designed garden and touches on issues such as hobby, health, and personal expression. Then, it alerts the aspiring designer to preliminary projects that must be undertaken before the first shovel is dug. These include, the gathering of data about the physical property, making preliminary decisions, measuring and photographing the site, drawing base plans, developing a concept on the plan, reviewing and deciding upon plants and hardscape materials, assembling costs and budget review, preparing the final master plan, and, finally, an evaluation of contractors and their qualifications. The author suggests that this advance planning, which can take up to six weeks, will allow for better decision making throughout the construction period.

Subsequent chapters elaborate upon the master plan and extend the conversation to include topics such as finishings, irrigation, lighting, and working with contractors. In the final chapter, titled "After Construction", the author writes about completing the garden installation with garden art, furniture, containers, and outdoor entertaining. Readers will find enjoyment in the last section as it discusses such matters as creating ambience, crowd control techniques, and open garden etiquette. Here the author suggests that gardens need not be perfect or complete before visitors are invited in, as a garden in process is a learning opportunity.

Ms. Nagel reminds us that most landscaping books begin in "the middle" .i.e. with a discussion of basic design principles. The author affirms that something has to happen in the minds of gardeners before they tackle such concepts. Certain questions need to be answered first:-

Why design? What are the measurements that define the value of design? How does a landscape design benefit the homeowner?

By elaborating on these issues, prior to introducing design concepts, the author has added realism to the study of garden design. Her thoughtful guide is practical, and easy to follow. The extensive collection of photographs, selected to illustrate the text, are spot-on appropriate, surprisingly beautiful, and quite inspiring.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent resource for Aspiring Garden Lighting Designers too Oct. 10 2010
By Thomas M. Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Why Design a Garden? Think about the projects you do in your life. Sew a dress, build a house, take a trip-these activities usually succeed because of the planning you do before the experience. Planning and design are intention and purpose. They give a project significance."

And so begins one of the most useful books I've yet found for the novice, or even advanced, Landscape Lighting Designer. The author, Vanessa Gardner Nagel, has drawn on her focused study and practice of Interior Design, a later deep exploration of Landscape Design, and a particularly illuminating "light bulb" moment to guide her writing. Mrs. Nagel "saw the light" when she realized that all the books on landscape design begin with a discussion of the Principles Of Design without addressing the much deeper question, "Why Design?"

In my Amazon review of Jan Moyer's 2nd edition of the Landscape Lighting Book I noted, "Once you understand the theory behind the short cuts and rules-of-thumb that other How-To books offer, you are free to create your own. With the freedom you gain when you understand and can apply those fundamental principals and concepts to your landscape lighting, you become like the cook who ignores the printed recipe and creates a masterpiece of culinary art."

I believe UNDERSTANDING GARDEN DESIGN offers a second route into our exploration of landscape lighting design; a deeper understanding of the processes and goals of our fellow professional colleagues who visualize and create the spaces we light. In authoring a book that focused on "Understanding" the why behind landscape design, Nagel has opened a window into the processes of our closest allies in our professional endeavors. When we are able to understand and appreciate what the Landscape Designer's intentions were, we become fully informed and potentially more creative Designers of Light.

THE BONUS CHAPTER for all landscape lighting designers, experienced and novice, is Chapter 9: Garden Lighting. Her chapter on Landscape Lighting is the most lucid introduction to the craft I've found yet. During my second review of my copy of her text, I realized I had previously penciled in numerous !!s and smiley faces. There is good stuff for all of us in this book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great for homeowners and professional designers April 9 2011
By Gen of North Coast Gardening - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I loved the clear way that Nagel shared her expansive knowledge of design. She was incredibly generous in sharing her professional tips about how she thinks about space, selects plants, draws up a plan, and works with contractors to install certain elements. While she was careful not to discuss the business aspects of being a landscape designer, only the how-to, this is still a wonderfully helpful manual for pros or aspiring pros, since she shares so many shortcuts and tips that will save you time and improve your design ability.
5.0 out of 5 stars Exactly what I needed April 19 2013
By C. Most - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am not a landscape designer, I am a very methodical panning oriented person who is interested in redesigning the yard. This book is fabulous and exactly what I needed. It does detail the principles of design (Visual balance of leaves, the importance of height for single story structures etc.) but as the book says, that all starts somewhere in the middle.

The most helpful part of the book for me preceded that; it discussed how to assess the landscape and what you need from it. This is something I discovered when I tried to map out my house. It sounds stupid, you should just grab a measuring tape right? But what about slopes? How do you measure door thickness? Do you account for trim? Just how thick are my walls? Do I measure clockwise or counter clockwise around the room? Why is this not lining up? How much space should I allocate for the new tub? How about walking around the tub? All of this becomes even more difficult outside where things are no longer nice rectangular boxes.

Thumbing through the various books at the hardware store I was unsatisfied with all of them, I'm glad I went with this one first. It seems rather thin and isn't stuffed with pretty pictures but it takes you through designing a garden from before you start to after the contractors are gone in a organized, clear, and unrepetiative manner. I value the quality of a book's text above all else, and I could not be more satisfied with my purchase.
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