Mario Nievera

Smart garden design means thoughtfully integrating the landscape with the home

Growing up in a Glencoe, Illinois, bedroom community, you mowed the lawn and planted shrubs. How did that lead to landscape design? I always loved design, and in college I realized landscape architecture was a profession—you could earn a living. After graduation, I was hired as a draughtsman at Morgan Wheelock in Boston. Within four to five years, I was a partner—it was pretty quick. What makes the field especially gratifying to a would-be architect? It’s about tying the building to the ground. No matter what style the structure is, you want it to evolve out of the landscape. How do you compensate for extreme visual changes from season to season? You try really hard to create a framework that looks good all the time. This means making the paving, terraces and driveways interesting too. Snowfall patterns on a cobblestone driveway or branches silhouetted in snow can be very cool. How do you avoid feeling restricted by nature’s palette of green? I like the challenge of combining different greens and textures. And I love plants that are interesting, even without their leaves. You call driveways a blight. How do you tackle them? The scale has to be appropriate to the surroundings. I particularly like driveways that are a little too narrow; it slows you down so you experience the property, and it makes the landscape look larger than it is. When it’s time to park the car, the space should be small—you don’t need to create a parking lot on your property. What is the biggest budget strain in landscape design? There are a lot of sensitive unseen expenses—drainage, soil, grading. It’s frustrating for people to spend 25 to 40 percent of their money on things hidden beneath the plants. Chicago-area Olmsted designs influenced you. What was it like revamping an Olmsted design at a New Jersey estate? Over time things don’t last—maybe there has been a lack of maintenance, views might have changed. I think the key is to try to understand the philosophy of what was done. You have to adapt, while still paying respect to what was originally there. What makes Connecticut a place you say you dream about? It has incredible topography, trees, shoreline, plus communities that are well put together. I love the little rock outcroppings, the roads lined with maples and beeches. You can have really wonderful gardens and landscaping. What’s your key to successfully working with clients? Everyone has strong opinions about interiors and buildings, but landscape is very objective. It’s often hard for people to articulate, so I have to listen very hard to what they’re trying to describe and learn to extrapolate and manipulate to achieve what to me is the big payoff: the sheer joy I get out of seeing their faces when we’ve met and exceeded their expectations.