Southern Home (SH): What is your first memory of being in a garden or loving the outdoors?
John Howard (JH): I was born in Savannah, and as a very young child, I remember going to Forsyth Park, which has a beautiful Victorian-era cast-iron fountain, big live oak trees, azaleas, bulbs, all kinds of things like that. We had lots of fun playing there. And then my family moved to Atlanta when I was four. Our house was pretty modest, but we had a garden with blooming shrubs and borders. As I got older, I cut the grass and enjoyed doing yard work. That probably had a big influence on me, although funny enough, I don’t like to do that stuff now.
SH: When did your true aha career moment come?
JH: I didn’t even know landscape architects existed until I researched college curriculums as a junior in high school. It fascinated me because it combined a lot of different interests…drawing, design, horticulture, engineering…so that’s what I studied at the University of Georgia. After college, I worked for a couple of firms that specialized in commercial work. When I began making a little bit of money, I thought it was time for me to expand my horizons, and instead of buying my first house, I started traveling, collecting art, and seeing great estate gardens and museums in Europe. That really opened my eyes and made me realize I wanted to pursue a residential focus.
SH: How do you describe your style?
JH: Although I work with a lot of traditional houses, I’m personally more of a modernist. There is a geometry to my work. I like clean lines and a minimal plant palette. I use traditional concepts, but firmly believe in editing.
SH: What do you consider your design signatures?
JH: Structure and hardscape. Plants have a life span. They grow; they die; they have to be replaced, and what holds gardens together through time is the structure. The plants support that. Another thing is simplicity—a central idea or a lot of one thing is peaceful and calming, at least for me. And simple isn’t easy, actually. You have to know where that line is between too much and not enough.
SH: We’ve heard it said that the most successful garden design looks as beautiful in winter as it does in peak season, because of the structure in place.
JH: I totally agree, and it’s something we consider right out of the gate. Having good evergreen structure is critical. We use a lot of clipped dwarf boxwood hedging. There may be deciduous things behind it, but the border is what’s pulling you through when a lot of plants are dormant. Hardscaping plays into that too, because, of course, it never goes away.
SH: Given your penchant for simplicity and geometry, is there ever room in a Howard landscape for a riotous herbaceous border or plants that tend to misbehave?
JH: I like herbaceous borders with perennial flowers, but they’re the higher maintenance parts of a garden, and if they don’t get the care they need, they can look really messy. It has to be for a client who is personally willing to invest the time or has a maintenance team that knows how to handle them. And there’s absolutely room for the wild in the right spot, which is usually further away from the house, so things don’t get too overgrown and overwhelm the architecture.
SH: Where and when does color most come into play for you?
JH: I’m known for a lot of green and white, but as I always remind people, green is a color, too, with so many variations and interesting textures to work with. In a warm climate such as Atlanta, I prefer soft colors like blues and blushes, along with white, because they’re cooling to the eye. It’s not that I don’t appreciate bright reds, yellows, and oranges—they look great in English gardens—but they don’t always translate to a hot environment.
SH: Although you’ve become well known for estate gardens, how does your approach differ when working with a smaller footprint?
JH: If someone wants really high-quality, detailed design, the size doesn’t matter. The same principles apply. A small garden can be more difficult because every square inch counts, and the challenge is making it feel bigger than it may actually be.
SH: How do you make a small garden feel larger?
JH: One way is to have a part of the space that is more expansive than the rest. If you have a small backyard, I might scale the panel of lawn up, and the patio or terrace the same width, but not as deep. The contrast of the lawn to the furniture zone will make it feel more generous.
SH: Regardless of size, what should no Southern garden be without?
JH: Shade. We love our sunshine in the South, but we know how important shade is in August. It would be impossible to enjoy being outdoors without it.
SH: That’s a great reminder: A garden is about more than aesthetics; it’s about how it makes us feel.
JH: Life is chaotic. We need quiet spaces. Being in a garden settles us down—it’s the sound of birds, the calming effect of water, the feel of a breeze, the joy in seeing something bloom. I want the spaces I create for my clients to not only look beautiful, but also positively impact their lives by giving them a little peace and balance.
SH: Peace and balance sound quite wonderful right now. Before we wrap up, we’d love to hear about your own garden.
JH: I have hundreds—I just don’t happen to own them! People are often surprised to hear I live in a high-rise in Midtown Atlanta that has a terrace with hedging. I consider my garden to be wherever I am at the time, whether it’s one I’ve personally designed or one I’m touring when I travel. I’m fortunate to be in a garden every day.