Now Reading
Off the Shelf
Dark Light

Off the Shelf

I recently began work on a design for clients who live in a historic home just south of Rochester, N.Y. They’ve asked me to incorporate a pool, entertainment areas, a fireplace and a combined pool house/garage into the available space and make certain it all complements the architecture of the home and its only current outbuilding – a 150-year-old storage shed.

Sitting at my drafting table, I was thinking how easy this one would be, conceptually at least. All I needed was there, from the home’s architecture and an existing (and much beloved) 100-year-old pergola to the old shed, so the main challenge would come in drawing the details rather than in deciding what to do.

Usually, of course, it’s the other way around and

the concept is the thing that sometimes doesn’t come too easily. As I was thinking about this reversal of the ordinary pattern, my eyes drifted to shelves of books that live near my drafting table and my mind to thoughts of all the times I’ve used them to find inspiration, ideas and the spark I need to get my design work on track and keep it that way.

I didn’t need them on this occasion, but it’s such a rare situation that it inspired me to share a dozen titles I see as being a designer’s best friends.


For years now, my fellow WaterShapes contributing editor Mike Farley has provided commentaries on books he finds interesting and/or useful in his “Book Notes” column at the end of each issue. He’s covered some of my Big 12 but not all of them, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to join Mike in his campaign of directing you to resources I think can be hugely helpful.

[ ] Gardens by Design: Expert Advice from the World’s Leading Garden Designers (by Noel Kingsbury, Timber Press, 2005). This book offers a smorgasbord of projects from some of the best garden designers in the world, including Julie Moir Messervy, Piet Oudolf, Steve Martino, James van Sweden, Isabelle Green, Ted Smyth and more. The featured projects cover a wide variety of styles, climates and geographies in the United States and abroad, and I dare say that there’s not a design genre that isn’t covered to some degree. I love just flipping through this book, marveling at projects and lamenting, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

[ ] Architecture in the Garden (by James van Sweden, Francis Lincoln Publishers, 2003). A personal hero of mine, James van Sweden single-handedly redefined garden design in collaboration with his partner, Wolfgang Oehme. We can all thank him, for example, for the sweeping, now-familiar vistas of grasses intermingled with masses of perennials; for his mastery of large-scale meadows; and for work on scales as grand as Evening Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden and as intimate as all those pocket gardens he’s placed behind historic townhomes in Georgetown. This book covers a sampling of his projects and offers encouraging words about proper scale in architecturally driven designs.

[ ] Ten Landscapes (by Topher Delaney, Rockport Books, 2001). Topher Delaney’s work runs far beyond just about anything you’ll find in standard landscape design. Indeed, she thinks so far “outside the box” that her work is unparalleled. She doesn’t stop at designing a garden, for example; instead, she becomes the garden, incorporating the characters of her clients into the design and developing details that stir the soul. Through the years, her use of colored walls, minimalist plantings, sculptures and perfect, subdued lighting has put Delaney head and shoulders above just about every other designer out there – and I see bits of her work in just about every project I’ve been designing lately as I play with colors and delve more deeply into my clients’ psyches. I never tire of looking through this book and rely on it to encourage me join her somewhere beyond the box.

[ ] Designing With Plants (by Piet Oudolf, Timber Press, 1990). The Dutch designer Piet Oudolf specializes in using perennials in the landscape. His philosophy is that plants should contribute to a garden at all times, not just when they are in bloom, and admonishes us to consider the post-flowering perennial as an ornament, not an eyesore. In addition, his method of combining plants demonstrates ways gardens can look stunning in all seasons, including winter. I keep this book right next to me when designing with perennials, constantly seeking to expand my repertoire. Most helpful is the list of perennials at the back of the book: It also lists companion plants for those perennials, giving all of us the keys to magical design combinations.

[ ] Influential Gardeners: The Designers Who Shaped 20th Century Garden Style (by Andrew Wilson, Octopus Publishing, 2002). This wonderful book is yet another treasure trove featuring a range of designers and their projects. The roster includes just about every well-known practitioner from the last century along with a fascinating array of the not-so-well-known, and what I like most about this book is the way it ranges through all styles, from the most formal to the most naturalistic. As such, it suits my every mood – and is so full of projects that you can look through it monthly and notice something you didn’t ever spot before.

[ ] The Landscape Lighting Book (by Janet Lennox Moyer, Wiley, 2005). This book is a worthy candidate for being called the bible of landscape lighting. If you design and install lighting – or even if you just spec lights into your projects – you really should own this book, because Moyer details everything there is to know about the lighting of landscapes, from placement of fixtures and their types to the all-important voltage-drop calculations. There are also numerous photos of projects along with detailed explanations of how and why she placed fixtures where she did. There is no book on lighting more detailed or more “enlightening” than this one.

[ ] Designing Water Gardens (by Anthony Archer Wills, Conran Octopus, 1999). Readers of WaterShapes should know this man’s work fairly well by now: His name is synonymous with the magnificent ponds, waterfalls and formal waterfeatures he’s designed and installed all over the United States and Great Britain. This book is a rich compendium of Archer Wills’ work and includes details, advice and inspiration no matter how big the feature. Reading this book will inspire you to place that rock just so, put those plants right there and ever so carefully tweak that waterfall to aesthetic perfection.

[ ] The New Tech Garden (by Paul Cooper, Conran Octopus, 2001). Although my love of matching exterior designs to the architecture of the home is well documented, I thank pioneers such as Topher Delaney and England’s Christopher Bradley-Hole for making me a fan and (when allowed) a practitioner of so-called “modern” design. My own work in recent years has, for example, occasionally followed their leads in featuring such details as Chinese-red privacy walls, glass wall panels and intermingled paving materials. This book profiles those two design icons along with many others who engage in high-tech detailing, showcasing the use of glass, stainless steel, concrete and more as design keys.

[ ] Building Within Nature (by Andy Wasowski and Sally Wasowski, University of Minnesota Press, 2000). Frank Lloyd Wright did it with Fallingwater, as did Philip Johnson with his Glass House – both making the building fit the site rather than changing the site to conform to the building. The era of slash-and-burn development is over largely because of the approach described in this wonderful book, a crash course in the pursuit of nature-driven design. It’s all about preserving trees, controlling water runoff and erosion, designing for energy efficiency and using common sense in site planning – a book every architect, developer, landscape designer, landscape architect and watershaper should have near his or her drafting table.

[ ] Why Buildings Fall Down (by Mario Salvadori and Matthys Levy, W.W. Norton, 1994). This is a fascinating book on actual architectural failures and is complete validation of my contention that we learn much more from failures than successes. By documenting catastrophic failures and their causes, the authors do one thing very well: They’ve made me want to make damned certain I always build things right!

[ ] The Field Guide to American Houses (by Virginia and Lee McAlester, Knopf, 1984). Actually, this book lives in my car rather than near my drafting table, but it’s one I must include on this list of essential titles. Before I meet clients, I study this guide so I can speak intelligently about their home’s style with them. Even in an age when most new homes are “mutts,” this book is invaluable in helping me figure out what an architect or builder has done (or tried to do) – and empowers me at times to sound really smart by observing that a home is a “wonderful example of Second Empire Italianate combined with subtle traces of Greek Revival” or make some other relevant reference.

[ ] The Outdoor Stone Book (by Laurel Saville, Quarry Books, 2007). I like this book for the obvious reason that one of my company’s projects is covered from beginning to end on four of its most glorious pages. But beyond that, I value it for the fact that it’s a no-holds-barred sampler of projects and ideas revolving around stone. There are lots of books of this sort available on bookstore shelves, and what I like about all of them is that I always find at least an idea or two every time I pick one up and leaf through it – well worth keeping near the drafting table.

This list of a dozen titles is just a smattering of the literature of landscape design, construction, engineering and architecture that I surround myself with. They inspire me daily to stretch my boundaries, to consider and reconsider nature and (above all else) to build things right.

The project I mentioned at the outset of this column won’t test my design abilities or lead me to these books early in the process, because I can rely on the home itself to guide my basic approach. There is, however, the distinct possibility that as the design evolves, I may decide to throw a wrench into the works by including a detail that has nothing to do with the home’s style – maybe a bit of colored glass worked into the pool house’s façade? As with all my designs at this stage, it’s on some level a matter of standing back from time to time and seeing what happens.

If I get to that point and need a little inspiration, I know just which books I’ll be picking up and exploring.

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens. You can reach him at [email protected].

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2021 WaterShapes. All Rights Reserved. Designed Powered By GrossiWeb

Scroll To Top