10 Question for . . . Julie Moir Messervy, Landscape Designer

Consumer Reports News: March 10, 2009 12:09 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for..., Senior Editor Daniel DiClerico speaks with Julie Moir Messervy, landscape designer and author of Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love. Here Messervy talks about her landscaping philosophy, details how to create an energy-efficient yard, and offers tips for a few inexpensive upgrades that you can do as spring approaches.

What's so great about the great outdoors?
Going back to nature gets the blood going and gets you away from the stale air of your house, whether you're outside exploring, maintaining the yard, or just swinging in a hammock. Then there's the whole curb-appeal component of improving the exterior of your house. I've seen property values increase by as much as 20 percent.

Even in this market?
You can move shrubs around and dig beds and lay bulbs. You can even lay a brick terrace, although that requires more labor and know-how. You may not see quite the same return on the investment today, but all these activities are an opportunity to get back outside, which is my underlying desire, to get everybody back out onto the land.

Julie Moir Messervy Landscape DesignWhat's the message of your new book?
The land around your house is just as much home as what's inside its walls. We just forget it sometimes.

There's a good deal of Eastern philosophy in the book. Where does that come from?
I lived in Japan for a year and a half in grad school and fell in love with Japanese gardens and worked closely with a garden master. All my books are deeply influenced by the design principles I learned there. For example, chapter five is all about the placement of objects in a landscape, which has to do with focal points and frames. That's not talked about in garden books, but it's so important to creating a beautiful journey throughout the property.

Sounds interesting, but what about the nitty-gritty, get-your-hands aspect of yard work?
On the one hand, there's an underlying philosophy to the book, but I stripped it down to the bare essentials so that you don't need to have studied philosophy to be able to get a lot of great tips. There are a lot of before and after shots, and I also included a lot of diagrams, plans, and case studies.

Why did you decide to include a personality test?
The personality test is meant to help readers figure out what kind of landscaping designer they are. You can be a reserved or expressive; practical or conceptual; principled or personal; orderly or relaxed. The test also asks about aesthetic preferences: formal or informal; symmetrical or asymmetrical; representational or abstract. In my role as a designer, my job is to get all that into the design I create. My goal with this book is to make the process simple enough for people to do on their own.

How much does it cost to start sprucing up a landscape?
The beauty of plants is they're very inexpensive. If people are willing to dig their own beds and plant their own trees, they can get huge impact for just a few hundred dollars. An even simpler project is to put out a bird feeder, near a bush so that the birds have cover and in front of a window that you look out of a lot. Right there you've created a vignette that's inexpensive, helpful to nature, and in constant flux. Another simple project is to add a freestanding fireplace with a couple of Adirondack chairs around it. You don't need a big expensive built-in fireplace to sing songs and roast marshmallows.

You talk a lot about zones in your book. Can you elaborate?
One of my professors used to say that people long for a front door that opens onto a vibrant cityscape. But the back door should open onto nature so that we can have that quieter, more contemplative place in our lives. This is what I mean by zones. The front yard is a welcoming zone. The backyard is a private-living zone, ideally with a gathering area close to the home for dining and entertaining and a getaway space father away, say a hammock under a tree. Even if you don't go there very often, the fact that you have it will make a difference in your life.

Can landscape design make a home more energy efficient?
Planting trees can help block the sun and wind, which might lower utility bills and prevent erosion. In this sense, feng shui is a really wise philosophy because it talks about protecting the east, west, and north sides of a house and keeping the south side open to light and breezes. It's actually a very green way to live.

Do you make specific plant recommendations in the book?
I talk about some individual plants, but since the audience covers all of North America, it's hard to get too specific. I tell people to go to their nursery or garden center four or five times a year to see what's in bloom at different seasons. Find out what you love. Remember, you can't have too many plants. Too often people are afraid to kill a plant or put one in the wrong place. The beauty of landscape design is it's malleable.

Essential information: Visit our lawn and yard guide for DIY advice for planting trees and shrubs, pruning hedges, and fixing common lawn problems. Messervy photo by Randy O'Rourke; house photo by Matthew Benson/Taunton Press.

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