For garden perfection, she looks 'inside'

Julie Messervy is an internationally known garden designer. The best gardens, she says, come from the ideas the owner gets when he or she looks within.

The small yard in front of garden designer Julie Moir Messervy's house in Wellesley, Mass., looks surprisingly normal; no exotic species, no fancy trellises, or beds brimming with trendy annuals. True, she's lived here only three years, but most people in Ms. Messervy's line of work would find it impossible to resist showing off.

Messervy's work is quieter, more understated, and draws on the principles of Japanese design.

A better clue to her aesthetic can be seen in her backyard, which flows from the house across a small arc of lawn to eight free-standing columns. In this suburban setting, such formality might seem out of place - as if a neighbor had replaced the swimming pool with a Greek temple. But not in Messervy's garden. Here the five-foot-high columns form a semicircle that marks the transition from lawn to woods, from deliberate and contained to natural and untamed.

The ancient-ruin effect is both calming and intriguing. It's a juxtaposition that Messervy loves, and one that recurs in her work.

The designer is best known for the Toronto Music Garden, a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in which the six movements of a Bach cello suite are translated into spiraling garden forms. Messervy's work in the Boston area includes such clients as the Arnold Arboretum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the Museum of Fine Arts. She recently completed a children's garden at Elm Bank, the headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and she writes a monthly column for Fine Gardening magazine.

As an internationally known lecturer and teacher, and head of her own design company, Messervy exudes confidence and authority tempered with openness to new ideas and a generous sense of humor. With her warm, deep voice and infectious laugh, she could make gravel sound interesting. Even people who care little about gardening find her a passionate motivational speaker.

What allows Messervy to reach people in different disciplines is her ability to shed light on the creative process. In her case, it's the process of designing a garden, but the ideas are relevant to nearly any project. When a commission comes in for a public space, for example, Messervy says she tries to be open to "the big idea" - the main concept around which all other ideas will coalesce. This isn't easy when many parties are involved, including city officials, construction bosses, finance committees, and donors.

"It's different from consensus building," she says of the process. "It's more of a vision thing. The big idea becomes the central metaphor. It filters down into every part of the project, from the placement of rocks all the way to marketing and publicity."

Every gardener (and every person who is involved in brainstorming ideas) needs an overarching concept that helps him envision the complete idea, and then he can see what needs to be pared away. For gardeners, it's training oneself to see what's in the way of the ultimate goal.

"The 'big idea' becomes an organizing principle," Messervy says. "Otherwise, where do you begin? The world of plants is endless."

When Messervy works with private clients, she urges them first to define the kind of landscapes they cherished in childhood. As part of the process, she asks them to read her 1995 book, "The Inward Garden," which explores what Messervy calls landscape "archetypes." These are: the sea (protected enclosure, as inside the womb), the cave (emergence), the harbor (enclosed refuge), the promontory (edge of the known world), the island (independence), the mountain (quest for solitude and spirituality), and the sky (transcendence).

These also correspond to stages in human development, as we grow from infancy to adolescence to old age until finally the body is left behind, she says..

Once clients identify the archetypal landscapes (metaphors) that ring true, she asks them to walk around their property, looking for existing features that point to the archetype. Then she adds (or subtracts) plants and landscaping to support the client's vision.

More than an intellectual exercise, the act of digging deeply into one's interior life for clues to one's ideal outer landscape requires patience and openness, two qualities associated with Zen Buddhism, which Messervy admires. While a graduate student in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she earned a fellowship to Japan to study landscape design under garden master Kinsaku Nakane. For the first part of her apprenticeship, Messervy's sole job was to visit as many gardens as she could and teach herself to look and feel.

That was 35 years ago. "That experience in Japan was pivotal to everything I do," she says. "Everywhere I've been since has just layered on top of that. I realized how the principles and patterns of design underlying Japanese gardens are universal; they apply to every garden - symmetrical or asymmetrical, natural or formal - and they can be expressed in different cultures."

While Messervy has designed Japanese gardens, her work is not strictly in that category. But she embraces Japanese-inspired ideas: the notion of the "eroded edge," the beautiful line that is interrupted by something rocky, and also the theme of opposition - huge versus tiny, solid versus fragile. Her motto is a twist on the famous line "form follows function." Messervy would restate it as "Form follows feeling."

"As a woman in this field, I've always felt that you've got to get the feeling right first, and function should be part of that," she says. "But if you're doing it right, you should be able to nail both on the head."

Access Julie Messervy's website at:

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