Gardentopia book offers inspiration and practical design advice for landscape professionals

Updated Apr 22, 2019
Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape CarePhoto: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

Jan Johnsen, co-principal and owner of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools based in Westchester County, New York, has written her third book Gardentopia, and this time she is focusing on sharing basic design principles professional landscapers can put in practice.

Johnsen says she decided on the topic because when she studied landscape architecture, she had always wished she had a book similar to Gardentopia.

“I wrote something I wish that I had had when I was in school,” she says.

Johnsen has been involved in landscape design since 1970 and has taught landscape design classes for a number of years. She says that invariably in all of her classes, her students would ask, ‘What are the rules in terms of landscape design?’

Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape CarePhoto: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

“I would say, ‘There are no rules,’” she says. “You have to know about proportion, scale, the best plants, drainage and that wouldn’t satisfy them. They wanted rules. And then when I’d be out on the jobsite, I’d be doing something, and I’d say to myself, ‘Oh I could teach them this as a guideline.’ I hate the word ‘rules’.”

After gathering around 40 of these guidelines that she taught to her students, Johnsen realized that she should be sharing these ideas with a larger audience. Her book features 135 design guidelines across 283 pages, along with photos of Johnsen’s own projects and public gardens illustrating the ideas.

“Everything I show, I’ve done,” Johnsen says. “Part of the allure of this book is, ‘Hey, I’ve done it.’ My aim as I wrote in my introduction is I want people to read this and say, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. I can do that.’ Rather than these beautiful landscapes that seem to be out of people’s reach.”

The book is divided into five sections: Garden Design and Artful Accent Tips; Walls, Patios, Walks and Steps; Theme Gardens; Color in the Garden; and Plants and Planting.

Some of the topics include creating repetition in the landscape, installing stepping stones, designing a cottage garden, how red plants can work in a space and the uses of a certain plant species in a landscape.

“I decided that I had to have a little bit of dessert as well as the main course,” she says. “So, I realized dessert for the plant lovers would be the plants and for the people who are into design, it might be the color and for people who might be into gardening, it might be the theme gardens. So, I was trying to think of things that would attract attention but still be very informational, and I put the hardcore stuff, the garden design concepts and the hardscape ideas in the front and put all the fun stuff at the end.”

None of the topics are long-winded and Johnsen makes an effort to get straight to the point on each design tip. She explains that she wrote the book this way because of her own personal reading habits.

“I’ve found lately as I’ve gotten older, I get these wonderful, beautiful garden books and what I invariably do is go straight to the photo, read the caption and then if it interests me, I might read the text,” she says. “We live now in a Twitter society where we don’t really read more than 140 characters, so I decided why buck the trend? I’ll just do it the way we all really read books these days, which is in short snippets.”

Johnsen says that although the information is packaged in small amounts, it is dense in value and is easy to grasp.

“I feel that somebody who’s a landscaper this would really help them a lot because they could use one or five or eight of my design basics or my tips in a property or project,” she says. “It’s the ease of use and the way the information is formatted that makes it a very great reference book for landscapers.”

Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape CarePhoto: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

She also made a point to list plant names in all of the photo captions.

“I didn’t want it to just be a book of brief tips,” she says. “I wanted it to be meaty, so I aimed to give people names of plants and things so they can actually do it, and I hope that I succeeded in that.”

When it came time to decide which plants made the cut for the fifth section of her book, Johnsen says this was the hardest part for her. In the end, she says she focused on picking plants that were both easy to grow and easy to get.

“I didn’t want to start telling people to get something that they can’t even find,” she says. “That’s not fair and the other thing was as I said in my intro is I’m from the northeast, so my plant choices are mostly in the upper half of the USDA hardiness zones.”

Johnsen says it took her several years to write this book, which she was working on during the same time as she was writing her other two books, Heaven is a Garden and The Spirit of Stone.

“People who are in the profession can use it as a way to inspire their own efforts,” Johnsen says. “They can have it in their pickup truck and then they take it out and show their clients, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ If that happens, that would mean I’ve succeeded.”

Gardentopia is now available for purchase.

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