Northwest Regional Reports

Designing From the Top Down in the Northwest

What does your garden look like from a deck or upper window?

The symmetry of this patio’s hardscaping is best appreciated from the deck above. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Designers talk about sight lines, which lead the eye through gardens and pathways with a destination. In the Pacific Northwest we have another viewpoint to consider. Many of our houses now have different levels, with patios on the ground but also decks at a higher level. Gardeners in these homes should consider what their gardens look like from above.

When viewing a garden from an upper level, it is important to consider what it looks like from a bird’s perspective. The pattern that the pathways and plantings make are two areas that add visual interest. With the following snapshots from a nearby garden, I’ll explain more about how to design from the top down.

garden path leading to firepit
Hardscaping elements like the bridge, gravel connector, and flagstone path seem more unified and part of the design from above. Photo: Susan Calhoun

A winding, rocky path ties together a woodsy garden

In the top-down view above, you can see a firepit, a pathway, and a deck to the side. At ground level, however, these destinations can’t be seen right away. On the ground, you would go down a path with a sense of discovery drawing you to explore further. From higher on the deck, though, you can see the destinations and plantings all at once. Large rocks near small, evergreen mountain hemlocks (Tsuga mertensiana, Zones 5–8) give you the feeling of being in an alpine region. This site is perfect for this native, which prefers moist air and cool summers. The flagstone has a unified texture and color, and the pattern is clearly visible from above.

garden bed full of ferns seen from above
From the deck, you can see that the ferns below are circular in their splayed forms, which adds a new dimension to the design of the bed. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Textured foliage has added depth amid more-visible bed borders

The ferns in this scene above are planted en masse, with the quilt-like pattern of greens creating the feeling of a forest canopy from above. It reminds me of viewing tree ferns from high mountain hikes in Hawaii. Other views of this garden reveal patterns made with plants amid the large native trees on the fringes. In this more traditional garden bed, the use of pattern and hardscape are evident at ground level but are also important from above. Being immersed in the garden as you wander through is wonderful; it has a bit of lush chaos and exuberance. From above, however, the restrictions of pavers, pathways, and raised beds show the order amid the chaotic beds.

A bird’s-eye view lets you focus in on each section of the garden

drone photo of full garden from above
A wide shot of the entire garden provides the full effect of the garden’s design at once, allowing you to look at separate sections but also see the greater design connections between them. Photo: Susan Calhoun

You can see the full impact of this garden from above in this shot. Each pocket of the garden boasts its own vantage point to relax in. Here are just a few of them.

shady sitting area
Photo: Susan Calhoun

A shady sitting area

The sitting area is secluded and shady in an otherwise very open and sunny garden. It’s a welcome respite after a long day of puttering around in the garden.

path leading to sunny garden patio
Photo: Susan Calhoun

A sunny patio

This spot is a welcoming gathering place to watch the sunset with family and friends, surrounded by tropical foliage and flowers.

summer border garden in bloom
Photo: Susan Calhoun

A summer border

At the edge of the garden, the summer border leads you along a drainage swale that collects excess water and diverts it into a catch basin. Each of these areas continues to delight when seen from above.

These examples can help you consider viewpoints and planting schemes in your garden. As great as it is to be immersed in the garden, it is also very satisfying to see a different perspective from the deck, upper floor, balcony, or stairway. Plan for both on-the-ground and from-above viewpoints when you have the opportunity.

—Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

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