San Francisco Peninsula based Verdance Landscape Design focuses on creating outdoor spaces for living. John Black, the firm’s Principal, designs outdoor spaces to guide garden visitors on an emotional journey, stirring up feelings of relaxation, connection with the environment and awe of nature’s beauty.
Black has appeared on HGTV’s “Landscape Smart” and won HGTV’s Landscapers’ Challenge, for just one of his many award-winning landscape designs. In the following Q&A, Black discusses his creative process, how he incorporates relaxation into his designs and ways landscapes encourage visits from family, friends and local wildlife.
Do you have any go-to features that you like to incorporate in a landscape design when you can?
I do, many of our projects include some sort of a pergola or an overhead structure. One feature that defines a room is a ceiling, and we designed landscapes that can use tree canopy to create that sort of a feeling, but it takes a while to get there from scratch so a pergola can be the next best thing plus it can also allow for amenities like heaters, speakers or curtains.
I tend to use seat walls or benches because they act as boundaries for these outdoor rooms and often they’re maybe 18 inches tall, so they’re subtle but provide a sense of enclosure. Then, of course, they have a very functional aspect that increases the flexibility of the space. We’re not filling it up with seating like chairs, but there’s plenty of seating options, and in some ways, it’s even better than chairs because people can sit by themselves or they can congregate in groups of two or three.
How do you design landscapes to invite the birds and bees?
That’s the fun part. We spend heaps of time learning about plants that attract birds and bees and provide food. A lot of times those are native plants. We look at the other elements that make a habitat, shelter from predators, fresh water, plants that host not only adults but juveniles so not only the nectar plants for the adult butterflies but also plants like milkweed for the baby caterpillars to chew up and eat. Also, things like learning how to attract and use natural predators instead of sprays to control aphids. Making sure you have a diversity of plants, flowers, foliage, seed-producing plants, berry-producing plants, to make sure the garden is offering something every season of the year.
What point in the landscape design process does your creativity kick in and how is creativity expressed in your designs?
My creative juices start flowing the moment a prospective client contacts us. I take in everything about what their needs, wishes, and priorities are and let my imagination run on how we could create a setting that will create all of it in unique and then perhaps surprising ways.
I think even budgeting is an act of creativity. My philosophy is that creativity thrives on limits, so I always like it when a client can tell me “My budget is X.” Even if X is unrealistic, that keeps the creative juices flowing because I’m thinking “Well could we do that? How could we do that?”
Once a project is underway the creativity is expressed through how the spaces are used and how they’re created. Plants will come and go, but the layout is going to live forever. So we think three things, circulation routes, lines of sight, and nodes where different uses will intersect. It is an act of creativity to distill the design down to its essence and say “OK, how do we capture that and how do we reflect that even in the little details of the design?”
When relaxation is a priority for a client, do you have creative solutions to incorporate relaxation into your landscape designs?
Yes, although they vary, different people find different things relaxing. Often I think the most important thing is to ask the right questions and make sure we’re listening well at the outset of the project. Some people are relaxed by sounds like running water; others are relaxed by colors or the way light and shadow plays across the ground, while other people find breezes relaxing.
If we can create a worry-free place, that’s effortless to enjoy, has low maintenance plants, systems like lighting and irrigation are automated, we include conveniences and amenities, we insist on quality materials that will endure that’s the right start to creating an inherently relaxing space because it doesn’t place demands on the homeowner.
What landscape design features do you commonly install to promote relaxation?
Something like a recirculating fountain can create a relaxing environment. Actually having a hammock or a chaise lounge is a queue to say this is a space to just chill out in. Other times outdoor speakers or space heaters communicate this is a place to slow down and spend time and not a space to pass through. Sometimes even more than the features, it’s the materials themselves that have a relaxing effect. Using natural materials like stone or wood which are more relaxing than plastic or metal, produces a sense of calm in a space even if you’re not using it to take a nap.
What kinds of challenges do you face when designing small outdoor spaces and how do you get the most out of a small yard?
The greatest attribute of a small space is also its greatest challenge which is in a small space everything matters. There is nowhere for mediocre choices to hide. Planning a small space has to be much more intentional, and there has to be more ingenuity to make the spaces function efficiently. The ingenuity requires time and effort, which is sort of the same for any minimalist design. It takes a lot of skill to pare a design down to just essentials, identify and strip away all those superfluous elements that aren’t integral to the design. The key to getting the most out of a small yard is to have a really clear understanding of the uses that’ll be required and then make design choices that are either going to facilitate those uses.
Can small yards achieve the same sanctuary feeling of a large yard?
It sort of depends on how the spaces are developed, but I think small yards can lend themselves even more to feeling like a retreat than a large yard does. A large yard can actually be too large to be experienced, so it needs to be subdivided into spaces that are smaller or more approachable. A small yard can create a sense of comfort by creating an intimacy that produces a sense of ease, and that’s very comforting. Within a large space, if you’re not quite sure where you are in a large space, it can be a little disorienting.
We designed a property that was completed last year on an acre and a third, and if you tried to take in the entire property all at once, you would be overwhelmed. We created a design to take the user on a journey through different experiences, and each of those spaces has its own identity, it evokes its own feeling in a way that you just wouldn’t get from an acre.
When you’re home, how much time do you spend in your garden and what do you enjoy the most out there?
I spend a couple of hours a week outdoors. I have a very complex relationship with my own landscape. I love cooking outdoors. I love eating outdoors. I love sitting by the fire with a glass of wine. But when I get out there, I get very busy so I’ll go out to do one thing, and I’ll wind up pruning. So I’m kind of conscious of that, and so I manage my time very carefully when I get home because I know I’ll get caught up. But at the same time, even if I’m not outside in it, I know pretty much everything that’s going on in our landscape. I become attuned to its seasons, what’s blooming when, or what needs a little bit more water, or what’s sick.
So like now in the winter when it’s raining, I’ll check the detention basin to see how much rainwater is collected and this gives me a sense of pride. In the spring, I’m watching the buds on our apple trees swell and then burst into bloom. Then the summer time comes along, and I’m aware of what needs more water and take note of how the landscape is performing. In the autumn there’s a week in October when the crepe myrtle trees turn this brilliant orange and red. They bounce the sunlight into the rooms of the house and change the quality of the light indoors. So even if I am only outdoors a couple of hours a week, it’s almost like I’m outdoors every minute that I’m home in some way.