BOSTON — When a married couple moved from Manhattan to the Washington area a few years back they bought a piece of history as they saw it: an 1806 Federal-style row house in neighboring Georgetown.
At the time it was a little dilapidated but structurally sound and most important, in the couple's view, previous owners had not "messed around" with the basic design. The history was intact.
The house had been built, along with others at the time, specifically to attract wealthy residents of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., to the new capital, which was then little more than a mosquito-ridden swamp.
But while restoring the house and adding such improvements as up-to-date plumbing was relatively straightforward, bringing some sense of order and design to the yard at the back was anything but simple. It was a tangled mess of undisciplined growth, including weeds and poison ivy, "not worthy of the term yard," according to the husband. (For privacy reasons, the couple asked that their names not be used.)
With regard to the backyard, however, there was no attempt to restore history. Little is on record about Georgetown yards and gardens of two centuries ago. They would have been work areas and nothing more - a place to hang out the washing, chop wood for the fireplace, and house a few chickens. The couple wanted more than that so they hired a landscape architect, Samuel Williamson of Cambridge, Mass., to restore order and design a yard that would complement the home.
When Mr. Williamson first saw the lot, a mere 20 feet wide by 120 feet long, he realized he had two options: to somehow break up and hide the alley-like geometry of the place or use the length as a strength. He chose the latter.
The result is a garden that is contemporary in design but traditional in feel. Brick patios adjacent to the formal dining and breakfast rooms add pleasing outdoor living space to the L-shaped house. A sunken water canal, flanked by two brick paths, draws the eyes, and frequently the feet, to a raised brick woodland terrace at the bottom. A black walnut tree and mature dogwood remain from the original growth. They are complemented by other flowering trees and shrubs and a variety of ferns and textured ground covers so that the overall sense, even in densely populated Georgetown, is that of a forested glade.
The couple chose a landscape architect to make over their yard; they might also have chosen a professional landscape designer. The two professions are similar, and often their work and qualifications overlap.
Harry Schuster of Chicago is one of few professionals registered as both a landscape architect and a landscape designer. In simple terms, he says that where landscape architects tend to handle major projects such as parks, housing subdivisions, golf courses, college campuses, and the like, landscape designers work in more intimate settings.
Landscape architects are trained in land use, drainage, and engineering; they design roadways as well as pathways, and are qualified to erect major retaining walls. As Mr. Schuster puts it, architects "are more likely to produce the land plan than the planting plan."
While landscape architects are products of architectural schools, designers are likely to come from schools of horticulture. While the landscape architect will tell a prospective homeowner where on a plot of land to site his house, the designer will ask him where the house is to be sited and take it from there.
But the separate skills of the two professions are by no means clear cut. Some landscape architects are trained in botany and, as Williamson did with the Georgetown house, will select the plant material as well as design the layout. And many designers are skilled at laying paths, irrigation systems, and building walls.
So how does an individual find the help needed on a landscaping project? Look around, is the general advice. If you see a landscape project you like, ask who did it.
Many landscaping services listed in the yellow pages have designers and architects on staff. Ask to see portfolios, get the names of clients, and ask those clients how satisfied they are with the work.
Finally, take your ideas, your hopes, fears, even your dreams to the professional of your choice. The landscaper will feed ideas back to you, tell you what is possible and what is not.
"It becomes a partnership," Williamson says.
For individuals who want help with their gardens but cannot afford to hire a professional, a visit to the library's gardening section can turn up a number of books on how to get started. Or knowledgeable staff members at a local nursery can offer advice on plantings. However it's done, the most important thing is the enjoyment and satisfaction good landscaping gives to homeowners.
The Georgetown couple love their backyard retreat, and so do guests who are often informally entertained there. The wife says: "From the house, the garden looks beautiful; from the garden the house looks elegant and it's always so peaceful."
What more could anyone want from a garden?