Cultivating Connections

A landscape architect talks up “conversation gardens.”

Lynn Kuhn designs outdoor spaces that invite and encourage people to linger. Photo: Kristi Cobb

Writer: Mathany Ahmed

Lynn Kuhn. Photo: Ivory House Photography

Sometimes, gardens can yield a lot more than flowers and vegetables.

“In the dictionary, a garden is defined as ‘a rich, well-cultivated region.’ It’s any space where things grow,” said Lynn Kuhn, a landscape architect. “If we create spaces where relationships grow, those are gardens, too.”

Kuhn worked at the Brenton Arboretum, near Dallas Center, before setting out on her own. Her company, Conversation Gardens, designs outdoor areas meant to deepen her clients’ connections with friends and family. That goes way beyond choosing the right plants or patio furniture.

“Our world needs connection,” she said. “It’s all about creating spaces that are not just beautiful; they need to be conversational, too.”

Design influences our behavior in more ways than we often realize. As an example, Kuhn suggested how a space could promote quality time between parents and their teenage kid. “I might make the furniture really casual,” she said. “Give him a place to put his feet up, maybe set out a plate of cookies as a focal point.”

Just as designers consider colors, textures and scale in built environments, Kuhn believes nature is another element of design that can be used to influence how we think, feel and act.

And science backs her up. Spending time in nature lowers blood pressure and heart rates, promotes better sleep and boosts feelings of connectedness among family members, according to a 2022 study from Deakin University in Australia. The notion of “biophilia” suggests that humans are genetically wired to harmonize with nature, wherever we’re planted.

Sit a spell: Lynn Kuhn designed this tranquil space to help the homeowners and their guests enjoy the natural world. Photo: Invictus Media

Five tips to create a conversation garden

Define your “why.”
Set an intention for the space before buying products or materials. “Someone might say, ‘I need to have a brick patio,’” Lynn Kuhn said. “But isn’t the point of a patio to have a place to gather? It doesn’t have to be brick to do that.” Once you nail down your “why,” you’ll know how to spend your time and money.

Add something that welcomes guests.
It doesn’t have to be over the top. “It could be any number of things — a pop of color, a strong point of entry, like a gate or an arbor, or a winding path,” Kuhn said. Food can also do the trick, even though it’s temporary. The idea is to grab guests’ attention and to pull them in.

Photo: Kristi Cobb

Keep size in mind.
Conversation gardens should be on the smaller side to create a cozy feel, which can be tricky to accomplish outdoors. “In order to feel intimate, you don’t want it to feel too large or too spacious,” Kuhn said. “The objects within the space need to be on an appropriate scale to feel comfortable.”

Use nature to define spaces.
Just like inside the house, where you’ve got walls, floors and ceilings, it’s important to establish clear boundaries outdoors. “That ceiling might be a clear blue sky or the canopy of a tree,” Kuhn said. “The floor might be grass or an outdoor rug or brick pavers.”

Find balance with nature.
“It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too windy, there are bugs,” Kuhn said. “There are all sorts of excuses why you aren’t going to want to spend time outdoors.” Recognize your specific challenges and be proactive about tackling them, like snagging a ceiling fan to stay cool and fend off bugs at the same time.

Photo: Kristi Cobb

To learn more about Lynn Kuhn and her outdoor design philosophy, check out conversationgardens.com.

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