Plants are a particular passion of mine, but what fascinates me most is the way we design with plants. I’ve dedicated my professional life to the study of how we arrange and compose living plants. Planting design is not just about the plant as a horticultural or ornamental object; instead, it is a window into our culture, our beliefs about beauty, and perhaps most importantly, our relationship with nature.
For several years now, I’ve wrestled with what it means to develop my own style as a designer. I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of a decade working for Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, apprenticing and learning their iconic New American Garden style. Since leaving the firm in 2009, I’ve wondered how to adapt what I learned there and make my own contribution to the development of a uniquely American garden style, one rooted in the patterns of the American landscape.
Why Robinson Matters Today: The Wild Garden still reads like a manifesto written for today. Rick Darke’s recent republication of the book was perfectly timed. No one has yet written in such rich detail about how to create naturalistic plantings. Robinson’s ideas are fresh, original, and inspiring. Open any page in the book and you’ll find dozens of mind-blowing planting ideas. The rest of the Icons on this list owe much to Robinson.
Why Jekyll Matters Today: No one did color better than Gertrude Jekyll. While the importance of color in the garden may have lost ground to structure and seedheads, it still matters immensely. Color is light, and no one understood how to manipulate color associations as well as Jekyll. I recently read a few of her detailed articles on design; the depth of thought and brilliance amazed me. As a naturalistic designer, I had too long ignored color, but my designs have already improved because I have used some of her design insights.
Christopher Lloyd was one of the most innovative, interesting, and masterful gardeners of the 20th Century. Lloyd lived from birth to death in a single home: Great Dixter, a 15th century house renovated by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early twentieth century. The garden at Great Dixter was a canvas for Lloyd’s garden experimentation. Lloyd, a prolific and witty writer, revolutionized the English border by mixing tropicals, shrubs, and all kinds of unexpected combinations. Lloyd kept Great Dixter open to the public, and lived his life as one great dinner party. He was both hospitable and grumpy, but always one of the keenest horticultural minds of our time. All of Lloyd’s books are excellent, but his classic, The Well Tempered Garden might be some of the best planting advice I’ve ever read. That one book is better than 50 glossy coffee table books.
Why Lloyd Matters: Lloyd was the supreme master of the mixed border, perhaps one of the finest plantsmen of the century. His magnum opus was a 200 foot long border that he kept blooming from April to November. Lloyd’s border was legendary because of his skill in mixing plants from different habitats in the same space. Lloyd mixed large-leafed tropicals with woodland ephemerals and dry meadow grasses. What elevated this border from all other flowering borders was the way it exploited one’s associations of plants. Lloyd manipulated one’s association of a natural landscape by recalling a memory of feeling of nature, only to shatter it by adding an unexpected plant. The intentional incongruity of his plantings made you see each plant in a new and unexpected way.
Why Chatto Matters Today: Though not the first naturalistic gardener, Chatto nonetheless is the pioneer—the first garden structuralist—who blazed the way for brilliant plantsmen like Dan Pearson and Piet Oudolf. “Success depends on knowledge of plant provenance and on an understanding of natural plant associations,” writes Chatto in her book The Dry Garden. Her most famous and influential garden is the Gravel Garden. Begun in 1991 as a horticultural experiment, the Gravel Garden was converted from a former parking lot. The garden has never once been artificially watered—impressive especially considering it is a beautifully blooming perennial garden in the driest part of England. While her Gravel Garden rightfully deserves the attention it has received for its sustainable approach, it is her artistry in plant combination and natural association that makes her my idol. Chatto orchestrates an international ensemble of plants into combinations that have the same resonance and harmony of a native palette. Like no one else before, Chatto understands form, color, and texture not as abstract design principles, but as an extension of a particular place.
Why Ruys Matters Today: If you like Piet Oudolf, you need to know Mien Ruys. While Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto were transforming the British garden, Ruys' work is the key to understanding much of what happened in continental Europe during the 20th century. Ruys’ designs were known for their simplicity and clarity, a combination of Dutch pragmatism, Japanese stylization, and modernism. She combined this clarity with an exuberant use of perennials and grasses. For Ruys, the large use of herbaceous plants was not merely decorative, but an essential way to experience nature in a garden. In this way, Ruys showed how planting is not just for ornament, but a way to experience space. Ruys is considered the spiritual founder of the New Perennial Movement.
Why Oudolf Matters: The work of Piet Oudolf reinforces perhaps the most powerful quality of great planting design: not an imitation of nature, but an artistic evocation of nature. Oudolf says, "All my work is related to trying to recreate spontaneous feeling of plants in nature. The idea is not to copy nature, but to give a feeling of nature." In an interview with The New York Times, Oudolf gave one of my favorite quotes. Looking out over his perennial meadow, Mr. Oudolf articulated it this way: “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.” Oudolf's goal is not merely to please the eye, but to reconnect our primal selves back to a natural world that we barely remember.
This post is included in this months' Garden Designers Roundtable. To view other posts on this subject, please check out the website: http://gdrt.wordpress.com/. And please check out the other members thought about Horticultural Idols.