Cover Story Design Notebook Plant Life Sunday Punch Now & Then


First, Make Good Dirt
Dan Borroff's landscaping bywords are stewardship and sanctuary

The first in an occasional series profiling garden designers
Dan Borroff is a garden designer who starts with the big question: How can we, in our ornamental gardens, actively promote stewardship of the Earth? He takes on the answer in design projects ranging from small residential gardens to large-scale ecological-restoration projects.

Borroff points out that, by code, a suburban home can take up only 35 percent of the lot, often leaving nearly two-thirds underused. This isn't true of a Borroff design, whose hallmarks are exuberance and diversity of planting, as well as an orchestrated progression from smaller into larger spaces, lending a sense of sanctuary. He sees this opening out of spaces, one into the other, as a metaphor for the phases we all move through in our spiritual growth. "Kids know very well that we relate best to small spaces," says Borroff, baffled at the American preference for wide-open spaces, which he feels contributes nothing to our sense of comfort in the garden.

"Kids know very well that we relate best to small spaces," says garden designer Dan Borroff.

Since 1985 when he started his company, Dan Borroff Landscape, Borroff has found the grading and shaping of the earth, and the subsequent amendment of the soil, to be the most satisfying component of his profession. If you get that part of a garden right, everything else that follows goes well. "I learned horticulture from the ground up," says Borroff of his education at Edmonds Community College. "The most fascinating course for me was soils, what is held in the least regard and is the basis for everything." Estimating that 95 percent of our soils are deficient in air and organic amendments, he typically begins work there, blowing in a quantity of bark mixed with a slow-release fertilizer, then tilling it into the soil.

Architecture was Borroff's first fascination. He grew up in northern Ohio (not an appealing outdoor climate, he emphasizes) with parents who hoped to commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home. This plan was squashed when his father visited one of the master's houses only to find that at 6 feet, he was much too tall for a Wright design. His mother had a degree in music and his father was a research chemist; both loved art and were operatic singers. All these influences come together in Borroff's designs. He uses trees not only as shade providers but as space-shaping architectural elements, thinking they give a different sense of boundary through their movement and semi-transparency. He creates walls and ceilings with plants, overlapping and interlocking elements such as rocks, trees and fences.

The drama of classical and modern music remains a design inspiration. Borroff relishes the parallels between the rhythm and complexity of music and that of gardens. "We just have to listen," he says. He has also been influenced by the designs of Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx, known for using native plants to flamboyant effect. (For examples of Marx's work, check out "The Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx," by Sima Eliovson, Timber Press, 1991.) When Marx started designing, Brazilians wanted European gardens with imported lilacs, boxwood and roses, which of course struggled and died in their climate. Through his designs, Marx showed the beauty and utility of their own native flora.

Borroff likens this lesson to one we need to learn here in the Northwest, where we cultivate many plants greedy for supplemental summer water. Borroff thinks that, through paving and tree cutting, we've created an urban climate more sunny Mediterranean than the shady, mossy and cool landscape that Native Americans knew. This is why Borroff isn't a purist about native plants: Most won't thrive in our denuded city and suburban gardens.

When Borroff looks toward the future, he remains challenged by working with proportions and the shaping of garden spaces. While he worries about the strong tide toward traditionalism, he is heartened by our growing environmental awareness and the strong Asian design influence here in the Northwest. Before he started his business, Borroff traveled to England several times, and was amazed to find that although the British Isles are roughly the size of the state of Oregon, they grow thousands of different plants (this year's PlantFinder lists more than 70,000 kinds available in British nurseries). We aren't close in the number of plants we have available to us; Borroff thinks we have plenty of room for growth.

As reflected in the gardens he designs, Borroff is a fascinating mix of scientist and artist, idealist and pragmatist. One minute he'll speak of the spirituality inherent in interlocking garden elements, the next of soil amendments. The boundaries of the garden mix with the boundaries of our lives and the limits of our imaginations. He loves the colors and textures of individual plants, but refuses to name favorites, insisting that a plant's virtues are important only in relationship to each other and their environment. Despite the complexity of his design influences and philosophies, Borroff's goal is simply stated:

"I like to make a garden that, if you live there every day, you want to go out and be involved in it. For me, that's the beginning of stewardship of the Earth."

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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