“Plants and design have always played a central role in my life,” says Matthew Cunningham, founding principal of Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design LLC (MCLD, matthewcunningham.com) and educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “I was born and raised in rural Maine, and my connection to the land is very strong.” is bond to the earth is likely behind his expert designs that transform the average backyard garden into a serene and dreamy oasis. “A well-curated garden, when combined with carefully choreographed interior and exterior spaces, can make an enormous di erence in one’s life. It has been proven over and over again that having connections to green space can reduce cortisol levels and positively impact people’s emotional well-being,” he explains. And from small ower pots on a city terrace to an expansive suburban backyard, there’s no boundaries to what a bit of greenery can accomplish.
Each one of Cunningham’s projects evokes a Zen-like feeling thanks to the specially curated native plants and other lush surroundings.
What are the building blocks to making a great garden? For me, a good garden is one that is thoroughly rooted to its context and that blends high function and environmentally sincere thinking with beautifully crafted details. MCLD’s landscapes utilize native plants whenever possible—the intent is to use plants to connect people to place and to create plant communities that nourish the surrounding ora and fauna, exhibit excellent drought and disease tolerance and require less maintenance than conventional ornamental species. I believe a good garden will provide multiseasonal interest, combine materials that satisfy the eye and, most importantly, be arranged in ways to support our modern lifestyles.
What are some of your favorite plants or owers? I have lots of personal favorites—both native and indigenous trees, shrubs and perennials, as well as hybrid and domesticated species that have high ornamental value as well as signi cant ecological value. For far too long, native plants have been viewed as ‘weedy,’ and I work hard to push a vastly di erent narrative. Our landscapes can still support life, be far healthier and resilient, and still be ‘chic.’ We’re seeing a major switch in how people want to live on their land, and I am so excited about where we are headed.
Blooming hydrangeas take the forefront in one garden area that overlooks the water
LET’S BREAK IT DOWN. WHAT ARE YOUR TOP TIPS FOR CREATING A BEAUTIFUL GARDEN?
1. STUDY YOUR SURROUNDINGS.
First and foremost, any garden my firm creates must be connected to its surrounding context. We do this by thoroughly studying the topography, soils, exposure, hydrology and various neighborhood patterns that surround any site. We see the first meeting with our clients as an important time and place to share with them the inherent opportunities and constraints of their land—this informs all aspects of a project, from start to finish.
2. REUSE AND RECLAIM.
We utilize a lot of reclaimed and salvaged stone in our work—this allows our landscapes to feel quickly established and weathered. There are numerous benefits to working with reclaimed materials—from reductions in carbon footprints to the preservation of important resources.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SOIL!
Any time you can add organic materials such as compost and leaf litter, do so. It will benefit the mycorrhizae and fungal conditions of your soils, and you’ll be amazed by how lush and healthy your plants will be.
A combination of hardscaping and landscaping leaves clients with whimsical green spaces.
4. CONSIDER A CLOVER LAWN.
Clover lawns exhibit excellent drought tolerance, require little to no added fertilizers, can be mown about 50% less than a conventional lawn, and they are beautiful too. Leave the golf course-style turf at the country club and embrace something that is more sustainable and ecologically friendly. You won’t regret it.
5. LET THE LAND THRIVE.
Gardens evolve. Embrace this notion and stop trying to tame every single inch of your land.Fighting nature is futile and, frankly, counterproductive. Once we switch into a land management mindset, rather than a conventional landscape maintenance one, the opportunities to reduce our dependence on petroleum are vast. We can and should live more lightly with the land.
Use hardscape thoughtfully and artistically. I’d much rather spend time in a garden that uses stone purposefully than in one that feels overdone and rigid.
7. DETAILS, DETAILS.
Any time you can integrate garden ornamentation into your landscape, you’ll find that these embellishments will create a personalized connection that builds important layers of personal history and emotion to your land.