Gardening Magazine

Garden Designer Interview: Jan Johnsen

By Notcuttsuk @notcuttsuk

In our series of interviews with garden designers, we’re proud to share with you the thoughts of Jan Johnsen who has been able to travel the world with her passion.

Garden Designer Interview: Jan Johnsen
Jan JohnsenFor 40 years Jan Johnsen has been offering her advice and experience in the planning, landscape design and teaching professions, which have taken her across the globe. From Kenya to Japan, New Orleans to Hawaii, it’s safe to say that Jan has seen how many different cultures are portrayed in the gardens we yearn to relax and entertain in.

From teaching at Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden, to managing a successful landscape and pools business that aims to create outdoor spaces that exude serenity and tranquillity, Jan has a wealth of knowledge we’re sure everyone wants a piece of.

At Notcutts we’re curious as to how Jan can balance such a busy working life with the upkeep of her own garden, as well as taking the time to see friends and family. We thought it best to have a chat with the passionate gardener to see if she has any advice that we could incorporate into our own outdoor spaces.

Not only do you teach at two institutions and manage your business, but you’ve also found the time to write several books and attend numerous speaking events. What is your secret to balancing a busy schedule with a social life? Have you found time to do some gardening for yourself?

If there was one thing I feel anxious about it is TIME. I read something years ago that made a big impression on me – it was to manage your time wisely and to get up an hour earlier than you normally do. This hour is yours to do what you want with. And so I get up early and run to the computer to write my blog, my book or something similar. I must admit that I juggle a little too much but somehow it works! And yes, I do garden – in my small yard and also on my clients’ properties. I can’t help myself.

Landscape design is obviously a passion of yours; you’ve built a business on this passion. What drew you into landscape design and how have you got to where you are today?

My parents were both artists in NY City. I grew up in the modern art world. But I loved plants, even if they were on an apartment windowsill or fire escape. My high school guidance counselor told me that since I loved plants and art I should be a botanical illustrator. Back then, no one in New York knew about landscape design. I then went to Japan (on a scholarship) to work as a student intern in an architecture office. I lived in Kyoto and visited the Japanese gardens. That was it! Love at first sight. I decided right then I wanted to make gardens and went to work at a Japanese landscape architecture office.

Garden Designer Interview: Jan Johnsen
Your work has taken you around the world. How have you found gardens to compare in different countries? Are there any aspects of these gardens that you’d love to incorporate into your own garden, or already have?

I admire the way people relate to the earth differently in various cultures. The high aesthetic of Japan contrasts greatly with the tropical gardens I got to know when I studied landscape architecture in Hawaii. And from there I studied with a French gardener who had trained at Versailles - talk about opposites! But the overarching theme is that we all love working with the green world, in all its glory. It’s the love for the ever-changing world of plants, rocks, water and trees that unite us.

And I have created a Japanese inspired ‘dry stream’ in my small garden. It is very soothing.

Where do you draw ideas from when thinking of new landscape design concepts?

Ah, inspiration. It’s the mother’s milk of designers. First – the land tells me what to do. I listen to the land and the vegetation. I realize it sounds odd, but I simply sit and look and listen. Then I measure the site, locating the significant elements like trees, rock outcrops, etc. And then I ‘shoot the grades’ with a laser level. This exercise may seem cumbersome to some but it brings me in close contact with the site and the ideas start to flow.

I also get ideas from travel. You must visit many gardens, big and small, grand and funky. You never know what ideas will strike you!

What do you enjoy most about gardening?

Connecting with the earth. It grounds me and relaxes me. I love soil and plants.  And rocks.  I also love the process of ‘transformation’. Gardening is co-creating with nature to transform a place, no matter how small, into a paradise!  How fulfilling.

You speak a lot about plants on your blog, Are there any specific plants that you can’t garden without?

I love yellow Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra aureola). It adds a tropical feel to any site. It has an exuberance that makes me happy. I also love Red leafed Smokebush (Cotinus) and also depend on Knock Out Roses for their constant blooming. But there are so so many! Siberian Iris for their blades, Gardenias for the fragrance, Japanese Maples for their grace.

If you had one piece of advice for gardeners seeking to revitalise the look of their garden, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to change the levels! Create a mound, make a small swale, add some steps. Looking up a slope can draw the eye and create interest even if it is only two feet higher than the surrounding area.

Garden Designer Interview: Jan Johnsen
Are there any tricks of the trade we should know about when wanting to make the most of the space we have?

I love illusion in a garden. The Japanese were masters of this. I write a lot about this in my upcoming book, ‘Heaven is a Garden – Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection’ (published by St. Lynn’s Press). It will be out in mid-March 2014. For example, they used the technique of hiding something from view to entice visitors onward. You can do this with a well placed shrub, bending a walk, shading the destination, etc. I also like the illusion of making a space look larger by having a walk get narrower as it moves away, creating a false perspective.

For you, what would be the easiest and most affordable way to create an outdoor living area?

People want to be on a hard surface so I would say for an affordable area, excavate an area and add small, angular gravel and compact it firmly. Focus on creating a shape for this gravel area that is well defined and compelling – who says it has to be a rectangle? Use the soil generated to create plant beds around. Plant up with just two or three plants….less is more.

What does the magic of gardening mean to you?

My favorite quote is by Rudyard Kipling: ‘The glory of the garden lies in more than meets the eye’ .  I agree! The magic of gardening is the unseen effects - to me it offers serenity. I love the early morning when the plants are singing and I have my hands (and feet!) in the earth.

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