Art / Lifestyle September 30, 2021

Cultivating Well-Being Through Gardening | An Interview With Landscape Designer Steven Mackler

Photo courtesy of The Landscape Group (TLG Design)

A lot has changed over the course of Steven Mackler’s 45-year career in gardening—and much of it has been for the better. “There’s been a tremendous increase in beautiful new plant varieties and cultivars, and the ability for both professional and lay gardeners to access them,” he explains. That’s why he encourages every homeowner to get better acquainted with their gardens, whether indoor or outdoor.

Mackler’s company, The Landscape Group LTD (and also known as TLG Design), has created award-winning gardens for both residential and commercial properties since 1978, with a focus on high-end single-family homes. But as the founder and principal of the firm, Mackler is adamant that anyone can enhance their quality of life, and the aesthetics of their space, by nurturing a green environment of their own. Here, he offers advice on how to do just that, no matter what kind of property you have.

Think Deep, and Start Small

Photo courtesy of The Landscape Group (TLG Design)

“The first suggestion I would give to a DIY home gardener is this: don’t take on more than you can handle,” says Mackler. “Start with a small space that really matters to you and needs improvement, and get control of it.” Once you have a defined area to focus on, it can become a personal passion project to decide what will bring joy and beauty to your life.

He suggests selecting the primary space, and primary view, that you want your garden to complement, and start building around it.  “Is it the front walkway you want to highlight, or the backyard, or rather is it from the moment you pull into your driveway?” asks Mackler. “What do you want to see? Is it a grove of trees that will provide shade, such as a flowering crape myrtle or dogwood? Or do you want to see a wonderful, wild collection of year-round colorful flowers that bring new interest and happiness every day?”

For city dwellers, gardening areas may be limited by the available space on your balcony or roof, but this shouldn’t discourage budding greenthumbs. “The important thing for the terrace garden is to work in different leaf textures and height, and maybe even incorporate some vegetables,” instructs Mackler. “Some have beautiful foliage: swiss chard, kales, and the brassica family all have terrific color and texture. You can include an underplanting of annual herbs such as curly parsley, or perennial ones like thyme, oregano, and rosemary. All these plants are useful from a culinary perspective, but they’re ornamental as well. Above all, they’re fun.”

Build Around the Hardscape

Photo courtesy of The Landscape Group (TLG Design)

All homes have outdoor and indoor features that define the shape and space of the garden. For landscape professionals like Mackler, these fixed, non-natural areas are known as the hardscape.

“My profession has always concentrated first on the hardscape, which all gardens must follow,” he says. He notes that today’s hardscapes are often much more interesting and dynamic, adopting materials such as stone, wood, and ceramic, along with traditional cement and concrete, to integrate with the natural surroundings in an organic and authentic way.

Along with the plants themselves, you can add new paving patterns, colorful planters in any shape and size, distinctive or intimate water features that add movement and sound to the space, and of course comfortable outdoor furniture to help bring the built environment to life. But all of this should serve to elevate the architecture of the home. “It’s very important that the garden is a reflection of the house, so you can walk up to the front door or drive through the gates and immediately perceive a consistent vibe. You want to create harmony with the site.”

Houseplants can complement indoor architecture as well. “It’s all about texture and size,” says Mackler. “They can be a great accent that adds greenery to a dull corner. There are many good, intuitive plants for indoor gardens; you just need to make an inquiry with a local nursery to see what will thrive in different lighting and climatic conditions.”

As you plan your own garden, consider the hardscape and architectural details that characterize the physical setting. “When people do complete home renovations, they often want to update their aged gardens as well,” notes Mackler, “and while it’s always good to do something new, those basic design themes hold true. How can we make this place sing, based on the architecture of the house, and the soul of the space?”

Prioritize All of Your Senses

Photo courtesy of The Landscape Group (TLG Design)

Natural spaces are inherently good for mental health. Colors such as blue and green, which mirror the sky, water, and trees, are relaxing on an instinctual level, and studies show that time spent in nature helps to reduce blood pressure, improve cognitive function, and decrease the stress hormone cortisol in the body.

But as Mackler explains, it’s essential that gardens are a holistic experience—after all, beauty isn’t just perceived through the eyes. “I’ve always tried to play upon the five senses in the garden,” he says—and the science backs him up. Phytoncides, a chemical produced by plants and trees, is great for the immune system, and is likely responsible for several benefits of shinrin-yoku—or “forest bathing”—an age-old Japanese practice that has recently gained immense popularity in the contemporary world.

“Gardening has been a great release and retreat during the pandemic,” says Mackler. “Being able to spend more time in my garden has given me a chance to get reacquainted with the plants in my own yard, even though I’ve known them for years. My wife and I have raised our eyebrows a couple times, saying, ‘Wow, look at that!’ about familiar shrubs and trees.”

There’s also a lot to be said for rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. “I’d encourage every person to work with plants and put their hands in the soil,” says Mackler. “It connects you physically, intimately, and immediately to the planet. With everything happening in the world right now, the Earth has become something that we need to understand more than ever. We have to understand our place here, and how we can each help in our own little way to make it a better, cleaner, and safer place.”

Creating and caring for your garden is a great way to make a difference, no matter how small. “I’m lucky,” says Mackler. “I have a big yard and an even bigger flower garden with a lot of land to tend to, and in the 42 years I’ve spent in my home, I’ve seen so many of my favorite ornamental trees grow from my height to over 40 or 50 feet tall. It’s humbling, just to see what’s happened in the course of my life.”


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