Landscape designer Deborah Nevins conceives some of the most beautiful outdoor spaces in the world. She designs everything from townhouse gardens to baronial estates, and her high-powered clients include David Geffen and Ian Schrager. Her latest project: a 40-acre park she is creating with Renzo Piano for a new cultural center in Athens, Greece. Nevins prides herself on landscapes that are in tune with their surroundings. “The best compliment one can pay me,” she says, “is to think I didn’t do a thing.”
At Home Outdoors
• People love intimate landscapes: simple but contained areas that act as a gathering point. A grid of trees, or a less-formal grove, can almost feel like a house, but one that is open to the sky and surrounding world. Even in a small townhouse garden I’ll often add a platform for people to sit and gather.
• I love flowers, but landscaping isn’t about decorating with flowers. What’s vital is to create a sense of structure. A garden should relate to the space around it—to the architecture of a house or a distant view.
• One of my favorite “sports” in a garden is staring. It’s like meditation or looking at art. You go to a garden to be still, to look at beautiful things, to be with people outside. There is a sense of freedom—that you’re outside, you’ve been let out of prison.
• With a garden, it’s important to tell a story. Think about your goal: Are you interested in privacy? Do you like eating outdoors? If you travel, visit gardens, but don’t come back from Italy wanting a Tuscan garden. The thing to take away is how the Italians use their outdoor space.
• A garden should resonate psychologically. Don’t think it has to match the style of your house. If you have a historic home, you might want a more modern garden. The important thing is that the house and garden relate. The only thing I wouldn’t do is a Japanese garden unless you have a traditional Japanese-style house.
• My own property in the Hamptons isn’t that big. It affords a lot of experience in just two acres. I designed my house with triple-hung windows, like at Monticello, so I could bring my Meyer lemon trees inside. I’ve grown hundreds of lemons—lemon soufflé is my specialty.
• I’ve done a number of organic potagers, from Connecticut to Chicago to Bel Air. In Bel Air, they get four crops of corn a year. The owner told me she feels like she is in the country.
• I try to talk people out of a lawn in California. But in other places, if you’re careful, you don’t have to water much. I advise clients to not have the perfect lawn, which requires chemicals. I read that Harvard Yard is going organic, and organic compost is used on the National Mall.
• I’m doing a green roof right now for a Renzo Piano project in Greece. If your roof is flat, you can easily retrofit a green roof, and it has tremendous cooling effects for the building.
• I don’t like gardens that have a lot of color. Maybe I’m too tied to nature. But if you think about it, nature does have a color palette. In May and June, wildflowers are pale pink and blue; in August, they’re bright orange and yellow, hot pink and purple.
• I encourage the planting of cutting gardens. People think they are spoiling a garden if they cut plants to bring inside, but actually it’s the best way to get to know them better. Even if you don’t have a cutting garden, snip branches or small flowers and put them in a vase. You can even cut judiciously from a perennial border—just not too much.
• I love species flowers—those found in nature that haven’t been hybridized—like Hellebores, which are hardy. Some of my favorites: Rosa ‘primula,’ which scents the air like incense; Yulan magnolia; Hoop Petticoat daffodil; Snow Goose flowering cherry trees.