Understanding Garden Design by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, reviewed by Sarah Wilson

October 10, 2011

in Book Reviews, Reviews

A book with a title suggesting a very modest agenda – will it really be useful and engaging for amateur and professional alike? An excellent book review from a reviewer new to thinkingardens. I should really let her get on with it, but the design of the website means that if I do that too soon my message runs seamlessly and incomprehensibly into the main text – this is a WordPress shortcoming. Expect more waffle from me in the future..

Anne Wareham, editor


Understanding Garden Design cover photo Copyright Sarah Wilson

Given the title of this book, I finished reading it with the same unresolved question I had when I started: Who is this book written for? The author claims it is written for you “whether you are a novice gardener, are launching a career as a landscape designer, or install gardens”. The publisher recommends it is also for garden owners that having employed a designer wish to gain an insight into the design process. It seems to fall between two stools in terms of audience appeal, being slightly too technical for all but the most dedicated amateur and not in-depth enough for the gardening professional.

It immediately becomes apparent (if you hadn’t already read the author’s bio) that the book is written for an American audience. There are words and concepts that are specific to the US gardener, but it is not too difficult to translate these into their UK equivalents with a little commonsense. If you are a staunch supporter of the Imperial measurement system you will be positively overjoyed as measurements are only given in this format. If you work to metric, you may find it slightly less straightforward to visualise the distances being discussed.

Gardner Nagel aspires to write a book about garden design that starts at the beginning rather than “in the middle” and follows the process through to conclusion. She opens with an interesting debate about the purpose of design which encompasses more familiar concepts such as use and form, but also touches on the health and spiritual benefits of well-designed outdoor spaces. The book covers all aspects of the process in an easy to follow style, for instance surveying techniques are outlined in a practical, clear fashion. It certainly manages to cover all topics without going into any of them in any particular depth.

In fact, the author’s determination to create a totally comprehensive text has resulted in a lack of references to external texts and resources, which in view of the author’s obviously considerable experience in the field of design could have provided the reader with some interesting springboards to further research.  The inclusion of some more thought-provoking ideas to balance the wealth of practical information may have provided the reader with a little more inspiration. I suspect the author would feel her message was being detracted from or diluted, but perhaps it would have been interesting to see the inclusion of some case studies of actual gardens the author has worked on to see examples of her problem-solving in real life situations and also to bring to life the concepts she discusses in the text.

Plant geeks prepare to recoil in horror, only 22 pages of the text properly relate to the plants used within a design. Anyone who feels plants play a major role in garden design will be sadly disappointed with the lack of discussion on the topic, however when considering the brevity with which all other aspects of design are treated throughout the book, this should not really come as a surprise. Whether it is a result of the author’s background in interior rather than garden design, or her attempt to keep things uncomplicated, the plant examples given to illustrate concepts such as form and foliar texture are fairly uninspired and unsophisticated. She uses a ‘plants as punctuation’ metaphor that she perhaps stretches too far to convey the idea of plant placement which ensures each one contributes to the overall design. The metaphor is good in principle but it would prove too simplistic for anybody trying to apply the idea in a practical situation.

My final gripe with the Plants chapter (do you think I may be one of the aforementioned horrified plant geeks?) is that no mention is made of different planting styles, it seems to be supposed that all planting schemes will contain a mixture of plant types and the concept of specially designated areas such as an herbaceous border or meadow is ignored.

One thing Gardner Nagel must be applauded for her is her effort to keep environmental concerns at the forefront of our minds. She reminds us at every turn throughout this book that we should be ethical in our choice of materials during the design process and her interest in the eco-friendly deserves recognition.

Understanding Garden Design will not replace the need for proper training for a gardening professional wishing to provide a design service but it may be useful supplementary reading for those studying this or a related subject. The very keen amateur will no doubt find the book useful but my feeling is that all but the most die-hard will find it too dry to read cover to cover. For those looking purely for an overview this book is perfect, however it should have introduced the subject rather than aiming to be so comprehensive as to suggest you don’t need to look any further to understand it.

By Sarah Wilson website Galanthus Gardening Services

Sarah Wilson, portrait






Understanding Garden Design is published by and available from Timber Press


Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Vanessa Gardner Nagel October 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm

You may be disappointed in the next book, Sarah. It will be a guide to garden furnishings. I’m not sure if this is an issue in the UK, but in the US many landscape designers stop at the plants. They fail to fully furnish the outdoor environment. As a designer, I expect to inspire my clients to actually go out into the garden and have a seat. Can you imagine returning to a garden you designed to find the owner put out white plastic chairs? Or, in my opinion, the equivalent would be Adirondack chairs in the garden of a a lovely French home and so on.


Sarah Wilson October 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Thank you for commenting, Vanessa. I hope that between us we have given prospective purchasers an idea of whether or not the book is for them.
There are undeniably a lot of books already written that are concerned with planting design. I look forward to seeing how your upcoming book for garden designers deals with the subject from a different perspective.
With regards,


Vanessa Gardner Nagel October 12, 2011 at 1:29 am

“Who is this book written for?” Sarah asks. Not for experts, but precisely as I stated in the book: home gardeners, beginning garden designers and landscape contractors who provide design services (but who have never had a design class). Timber Press implies that garden owners who are interested in hiring a garden designer may benefit from knowledge about the design process. In fact, this has proven true. Many of my clients have purchased the book and found it to be very helpful during the course of their project.

Reference books are listed in the back of the book.

I developed the hypothetical garden because I want readers to visualize their own garden, no another person’s garden. I refuse to apologize to plant geeks. I am one, as anyone who has ever seen my garden will attest. I intentionally kept the plant chapter confined to a structural perspective. There are already so many books on plant design that cover much more than I had space to do in my book. Honestly, I did not feel we needed yet another book on planting design. The mistake I typically see gardeners (and some professionals) make, is not having sufficient plant structure. I also wanted to create a metaphor for very unsophisticated gardeners to be able to place plants more easily. I ran the concept by my daughter who is a fairly new gardener and who requested just such a chapter. She told me this was exactly what she needed. After running the idea by a number of other inexperienced and experienced gardeners and receiving a green light, I used the concept in the book.

Sarah is correct that my book will not replace proper training. No book could. This book is comprehensive for the audience it is intended to serve and in its approach to the big picture of garden design, knowing that a book three times its size could still not do justice to the expanse of knowledge required for the trade. But stay tuned. I am writing a book for garden designers.


Susan in the Pink Hat October 10, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Then I guess I’m among the diehards, as I thumbed through this book and gave it a pass.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: