Book Review: Understanding Garden Design


Understanding Garden Design by Vanessa Gardner Nagel is billed as the “complete handbook for aspiring designers”, and that’s pretty accurate. Whether you’re a homeowner with a passion for gardening, or an aspiring pro, this book clarifies a number of professional tricks that Nagel uses to great success in her own landscape design business.

So many professionals are greedy with their knowledge, afraid to share the unique understanding they have that makes their work great. Yet Nagel is so genuinely enthused about her topic that you can feel her desire to share good design on every page. She shares simple ways of measuring tough sites, rules of thumb for how much square footage you need for different garden elements, and ways of thinking about designing that differentiate her work from that of so many lackluster designers.

Now, the kind of knowledge she’s sharing isn’t something you can absorb casually. In fact, I confess when I opened the book, I sighed when I realized that I’d need to buckle down and read every word. I’m used to skimming most garden books; I generally read the most exciting bits and get inspiration from the photos. This book, by contrast, is one of those books where you get out what you put in.

That said, Nagel makes all that learning a pleasure with her wry sense of humor and warm guidance. I loved this missive early in the book, where she urges us to stop trying to fit in:

“Gardens can and should be a personal statement. Why would we want to have the same grinning garden gnome as our neighbor when there is so much that is unique to us? Does it make sense to duplicate that garden bauble that is so irresistible if it has nothing to do with our own personal experience and background?

We need to get over our fear of doing something original because the design police might come after us. If we follow sound planning practices and tried-and-true design principles, we can be confident that what we create will work. Then give the raspberries to disapproving critics. Creating a garden brings a tremendous amount of satisfaction when it is not only full of a gratifying collection of plants but also enriched with our own philosophy and memories.”

I also loved her keen attentiveness to design elements that most people miss. For example, human psychology. On page 59, she says:

“Well-thought-out spaces not only provide for essential physical elements but also consider the psychology of space. How comfortable would you be with your back to a door or gate? Physically the arrangement may work, but our basic human instinct is always to watch our back. It is much easier, and more comfortable for us, to glance up rather than turning around to see who is entering our space.”

She also discusses the effects of color, like how we perceive color differently as we age, and how paint colors or different tones of lighting can affect how we experience a space. She gives a compelling grounding in the basics of color before moving on to discuss how to break the rules and have it work. Any well-read designer has seen a lot of info about color theory, but Nagel manages to bring fresh insights to the topic.

Then, her discussion of plants, lighting and furnishings clearly show the design talent that has made her so successful. Nagel is not only a skilled designer, but she is thoughtful enough to be able to carefully analyze WHY she selects the materials, plants, and placement she does. Her explanations are clear and to-the-point, and the photographs clearly illustrate the design concepts she’s sharing.

Bottom line – Understanding Garden Design is the type of design primer that any aspiring designer, whether professional or homeowner, will want to read thoroughly and understand before embarking on their first project. It’s a thorough, friendly book that will hopefully replace a lot of stuffy texts on the topic in college landscape design classes.


  1. says

    Great review! I’ve been looking for a really solid, thorough book on garden design. So many artists work by instinct that they can’t articulate clearly why they make the design choices they do — but she sounds like an exception! I’m looking forward to reading it now!

    • says

      Yay! Yes, she’s excellent at articulating WHY she makes the design choices she does. If you’re hoping to put your knowledge into practice as a pro, I’d recommend this one first, then Love Albrecht Howard’s book So You Want to Become a Landscape Designer, which was a fun read too, but much more about the business of designing, though she does share some designing strategies and how-to.

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