Monday, November 21, 2011

Garden Designers Roundtable: Horticultural Idols

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.

It was this quest that led me to a study of the great plantsmen, designers who changed the way we think about plants. I teach a class in planting design for George Washington University, and in preparation for a lecture, I sought to select a list of groundbreaking plantsmen. Of course, one could spend an entire year studying all the great planting designers of history, but I wanted to focus on those who have most influenced the current moment. I wanted to share my personal list of ten great plantsmen, a mix of past and current designers whose designs are, in my opinion, the most relevant for today. This list includes both iconic designers of the past, brilliant contemporary plantsmen, and even emerging talent that has not been fully recognized.

William Robinson may be the most influential gardener and writer of the past two centuries. While working at a Botanical Garden, the Irish gardener and writer spent time in the wild British landscapes to collect and study wildflowers. It was in these landscapes that Robinson developed his ideas about plant composition. His iconic book, The Wild Garden, proposed startling new ideas that exploded the garden beyond bedding plants. The book gives detailed instruction about mixing hardy perennials into wild meadows, woodlands, and wet areas. The Wild Garden was not about letting a garden go, but about creating a new aesthetic that inserted tough ornamentals into wild settings.

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.

Jekyll, a contemporary and colleague of William Robinson, was the other great British planting designer of the early twentieth century. Jekyll is best known for her collaborations with English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. This partnership produced some of the finest examples of the Arts and Craft movement, a movement that celebrated authentic materials and craft in design. Jekyll’s background in painting strongly influenced her design style. Her borders were meticulously crafted. Using lessons she learned from Impressionistic painters, Jekyll often used subtle gradients between warm and cool flowers to effect the mood of the planting. In addition to being a garden designer, Jekyll was a prolific writer, penning 15 books that are a testament to her genius.

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.

Beth Chatto is the grand dame of English gardeners, the reigning heir of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and painter-gardener Sir Cedris Morris.  Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex, England, is perhaps the single most influential garden of the last century. The rather modest gardener with a unique flair for underappreciated plants stirred the waters of British gardening, and as a result, sent ripples throughout the world. Begun in 1960 on a farm property that was a wasteland of "starved gravel and soggy bog,” Beth Chatto transformed the site by creating a string of contrasting yet complementary gardens. Chatto embraced the site’s difficult features and matched plants to fit the inhospitable terrain. Her garden has become a mecca for gardeners all over the world.

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.

The Dutch landscape architect Mien Ruys (1904-1999) is better known for the people she influenced (Piet Oudolf, James van Sweden, West 8) than for her own work. This is unfortunate. Ruys is the Bob Dylan of garden design. Like Dylan, Ruys’ work is distinctive, stylized, and strikingly original. Ruys grew up on her father’s perennial nursery, one of the sought after nurseries in Europe. Ruys studied landscape architecture and began experimenting by transforming her father’s land into a series of garden rooms. She went on to become one of the country’s most famous landscape designers.

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.

If Mien Ruys is Bob Dylan of garden design, Piet Oudolf is one of The Beatles.  The quiet plantsman from The Netherlands has become an international celebrity, and for good reason.  Oudolf is quite simply one of the best plantsman of our time.  His intricate use of perennials and grasses has captivated the world with rich tapestries of plants that are beautiful year round.  If you haven't had a chance to see some of his American work such as The Highline in Manhattan or The Lurie Garden in Chicago, don't miss it. 

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. 

Almost two decades before Piet Oudolf was on the map, James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme were pioneering the New American Garden style out of their office in Washington, D.C.  The architecturally-trained James van Sweden teamed with German plantsman Wolfgang Oehme to create gardens richly layered in perennials and grasses.  The New American Garden takes its inspiration from the American Prairie, with spontaneous, loose, and exuberant plantings that offer an alternative to the American lawn and clipped hedges. OvS continues to do some of its best work under the leadership of its next generation of partners.

Why OvS Matters:  I had worked for OvS for three years at the time I visited the Feldman garden in Martha's Vineyard, a garden whose planting was designed by Wolfgang almost a decade earlier.  It was like walking through some kind of dreamscape.  I remember calling my wife and telling her I had just seen the most beautiful garden I had ever been to.  Wolfgang is a natural plantsman.  When I would ask him about his design process, he had a hard time explaining what was so intuitive for him.  But to witness Wolfgang in the field laying out thousands of perennials was to see a genius at his craft.  Oehme, van Sweden is known for their huge, quilted masses of perennials and grasses, an artful expression and celebration of the ground-plane.  If you have a chance to visit Chicago Botanic Garden, the work of current principals Sheila Brady and Lisa Delplace, go see Evening Island and the Gardens of the Great Basin. You will not be disappointed. 

If any designer epitomizes the best of the contemporary moment, it is British gardener Tom Stuart-Smith.  Stuart-Smith started doing landscape design for mostly historical properties.  But starting in 1998, Stuart-Smith became a gardening rock star with a string of six gold winning gardens in just nine years, including four Best in Shows.  Stuart-Smith is the link between the British border tradition of Gertrude Jekyll and Christopher Lloyd with the contintental New Wave Perennial movement of Ruys and Oudolf. If I had my choice of any designer in the world, past or present, to design my own garden, Tom Stuart-Smith would likely be on top of that list.

Why Stuart-Smith Matters:  Stuart-Smith may be as gifted a plantsman as Piet Oudolf.  Like Oudolf, Tom Stuart-Smith uses strongly sculptural hedges and perennials, but unlike Oudolf, Stuart-Smith continues the uniquely British emphasis on color, creating spectacular carpets of plants.  No one can do moments of sheer flair like Stuart-Smith, but what impresses me more are the rich sense of place his more restrained gardens have.  His 2010 Laurent-Perrier garden is at once modern and romantic.  The planting feels like you stepped into a woodland glade in some fairy tale.  Pure evocative power.

Andrea Cochran might be one of the best landscape architects of our time.  The California landscape architect designs minimalist landscapes with maximal emotional impact. Her landscapes are inspired by modernism and by minimalist artists such as Robert Irwin who reinterpret our perception of space. Cochran's brilliant use of materials and cleanly demarcated spaces create what Mary Myers calls "a forceful sense of volumetric space."  While her designs may include only a handful of plant species, this restraint creates marvelous effects.  Her use of Japanese Anemones in this design  or her use of native grasses in this design show what a mastery she has of materials. 

My final horticultural icon goes to an emerging talent whose small but impressive body of work shows her bright future.  Los Angeles landscape designer Judy Kameon creates gardens that look like Hollywood sets.  Every one of her gardens is unmistakably Californian.  Kameon arranges plants where each is a dramatic piece of sculpture.  Lush grasses are set against sapphire blue lavenders which are then punctuated with sword-like phormiums.  Most impressive is Kameon's ability to work with steeply sloping hillsides.  No one in my mind can do hillsides like Kameon.  She turns the vertical landscapes into sensual and expressive canvases that beckon one to explore. 

What's most remarkable to me is Kameon's ability to take an international ensemble of plants--tropicals, Mediterranean herbs, desert succulents, and meadow grasses--and weave them into a palette that looks like it had evolved together for 10,000 years.  Kameon's talent has drawn the attention of  fashion designers, actors, and entertainers. Vogue Magazine named her one of "The Next Establishment".  Her career may just be getting going, but her gift for planting is unmistakable. 

This post is included in this months' Garden Designers Roundtable.  To view other posts on this subject, please check out the website: And please check out the other members thought about Horticultural Idols.


  1. Thomas,
    It's great to see you back after a two-month interregnum. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. And what a difficult task you started with. How interesting to see who you choose for your list, particularly as you near the present. Wish I could take your course.

  2. Well done, Thomas Rainer! Just yesterday I was actively lamenting your mysterious absence here and lucky for me (and us all) here you are with a particularly satisfying post. Thanks much for emphasizing the strangely under-appreciated genius of Mien Ruys. And thanks VERY much for introducing me to the work of Andrea Cochran and Judy Kameon - I can't tell you how keen I am to learn more about their work. Welcome back to your good, generous cyber work, Thomas!

  3. Hi James,

    Thanks for the comment. It's been a busy few months, so I'm happy to focus once again on the blog. The post was indulgently long for a blog, but I had such a hard time picking a top ten. Wish I could have done 20!


  4. Hi Peter,

    Yes, it's been a particularly busy (and productive) time professionally for me, so I've neglected the blog, but plan to pick it up more with plenty of new obnoxious rants and raves. Your seaside garden is looking fabulous by the way. Love your plant selections!


  5. So happy you could join us today and love, love, love your picks! I wasn't familiar with Judy Kameon's work so thank you for the introduction!

  6. Many thanks, Susan. It was a real treat to be invited. Thomas

  7. I can't wait to read up on the inspirations you have found. So important to remain inspired, especially from places foreign to one's own. I know only a few, and those minimally. I guess I have my assignment!

  8. Thanks, David. Curious who inspires your wonderful desert creations? Do you have particular idols?

  9. Thomas,
    This post was worth the wait -- I'm going to bookmark it. Also, I have started my own garden-themed blog -- I hope you don't mind if I reference this post in it. :o)

  10. Thanks, Mary! So delighted you've started your own blog. What you've started is great. Can't wait to read more.

  11. A wonderful essay, Thomas. Thank you for focusing on planting design, in particular, and introducing me to sources of inspiration, too!
    I'll be bookmarking this post for future reference and passing it along...

  12. Great to see plants spotlighted and what a fantastic and detailed overview of your key idols and their importance! In Uk it sometimes seems to me frustratingly like plants are now with certain exceptions a dirty word and as for plantsmanship.....As with others I didn't know Judy Kameon. I do now! Thanks

  13. Many thanks, Jocelyn.

    Robert, it's great to e-meet you. I look forward to following your work. As you can see from my list, I'm a bit fan of British garden design (5 out of 10 were Brits). So I look forward to seeing how you progress that great tradition.

  14. Wonderful post (and I echo many of the above...good to hear from you again!) I've become more and more aware of things in my garden and even things I'd consider "my taste" that are strongly influenced by many of those you've listed. In the recent few years, I've become more and more obsessed with Oudolf...something about his style (and philosophy) just rings true to me. I can honestly go through your list, however, and think of at least one thing that each designer has done that I can say has inspired me...or more importantly, opened my eyes to something new or unexpected.

  15. Thomas, an excellent contribution to The Roundtable! I was scribbling names and titles as I read each bio. Some reside on my bookshelf currently, and some will find themselves there soon. What a treat it must have been to apprentice with O v S, as you know now, I am a huge fan. I cannot imagine the immeasurable value of a start with such a firm. I've been enjoying your blog for some time now, and am delighted you can find the time to further enlighten us.

  16. Thanks for contributing, Thomas! Wow, what a great rundown of inspiration here--I'm more familiar with some than others, and I was not aware of Judy Kameon's work at all. Definitely will be looking her up! Thanks again.

  17. Thomas, reading your post was an absolute treat for me and we're all so honored you joined us today at the Roundtable! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your favorite Top 10, and especially why they're pertinent today. Thank you for your insightful contribution!

  18. Scott Weber--it's wonderful to be inspired right. I do landscape design for a living everyday, and some aspects of it can become rote. What's great about exploring the work of other brilliant designers is to be reminded once again of the potential of landscapes.

    Scott Hokunson--It was a real pleasure to be invited to be part of your Roundtable. Yes, working for OvS was a great apprenticeship. I can honestly say I would not be who I am without that time both designing and in the field to make it work. IT was transformative.

    Jenny and Rebecca, thank you! One of the real treats of writing for the Roundtable was getting to know your blogs and others on the Roundtable.

  19. Another excellent post, Thomas. I was happy to be introduced to Judy Kameon and Andrea Cochran. Mien Ruys is the designer who currently intrigues me the most. Her work was ground breaking and still feels very contemporary. I understand she had written a book and many articles. I wish her they were translated into English.

  20. Michael,

    Yes, I tried to find some English translations of her work, but no luck yet. She published her own quarterly magazine for years that is still active. I understand it was a blend of an arthouse/horticultural type publication. I'm eager to get my hands on it.

  21. Thank you for blogging about some of my favorite garden designers. In the hands of a less talented communicator this might have become a heavy piece. You made it relevant and refreshing. I intend to revisit it regularly to drink from the well.

    Congratulation, also, for attracting such an illustrious group of followers. I have found several blogs [that are new to me] that I added to my Google Reader.

    Finally, I am curious to know in which of her writings might I find Jekyll's detailed article's on design?

  22. Hi Allan,

    Thanks as always for your warm feedback. Of course, this WAS a heavy article. I clearly have a problem writing light pieces. Seems like its just not in my nature. Unfortunate for the rest of you.

    The book I spent the most time with was Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden. The entire book is actually online for free. Just Google that title and you should find some links to the book. For a great colorist like yourself, I'm sure you would find some good pointers in there.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you, friend!

  23. Thomas, This is a wonderful post. While I have heard of most of these garden designers, my reading in this area has been mostly hit or miss, and I didn't have any clue how their work was related. This post made me feel like I had just attended a fabulous class with a gifted teacher -- and one who provided notes and a bibliography of recommended reading, to boot! Thank you for this contribution to my education; I can't wait to dig into the recommended books and articles. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. -Jean

  24. Thomas, Your post is a wonderful addition to the Roundtable this month, thanks so much for joining us. It's interesting to see the influence your Idols had on each other and are continuing to have on future generations of garden designers. As others have mentioned, some of the Idols you've highlightd are new to me so I've added some titles to my winter reading list.

  25. As a Landscape Designer, I’m familiar with all your choices, except for the last two women from Los Angeles, the only nominees from the U.S. , albeit with a tropical climate. You have grievously left out the 20th Century’s most influential landscape designer, plantsman, and conservationist, Jens Jensen. Jens Jensen, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, practiced his art from 1905 through 1951. While Jensen was known as a the designer of the Chicago West Side Parks, he also designed residential landscapes, mostly among the elite of the Chicago suburban North Shore.

    Unlike the formal designs of the period, Jensen created informal, naturalistic designs, using Midwestern native trees, shrubs, and flowers, augmented with pools, paths, and his signature council rings (now making a comeback as “fire circles”). He literally went into woods, savannas, and prairies to dig material for his designs. A typical backyard design would be a “clearing” surrounded by native trees and shrubs, underplanted with native forbs, grasses and sedges.

    In his eloquent book, Siftings, he writes, “Art must come from within, and the only source from which the art of landscaping can come from is our native landscape. It cannot be imported from foreign shores and be our own.”

    Jensen believed that if peple had native plants in their gardens, they would be more respectful of those in the wild. He believed conservation was a sacred responsibility as a human being.

    Why Jensen matters today: His philosophy today is as relevant as it was when he was practicing. Using native plants in naturalistic designs, enhanced by his other design elements mentioned above, will produce not only gorgeous gardens, but save the planet, as well.

    Sources: Siftings Jens Jensen
    Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, Jens Jensen Robert E. Grese
    The Prairie Spirit of Landscape Gardening Wilhelm Miller

  26. Jean,

    It is fascinating reading. Much better than the coffee table books that dominate the garden press now. Happy holidays to you! Thomas

  27. Hi Pat,

    Thanks for the detailed addition with Jens Jensen. He is, of course, an idol of mine as well. I've spent time reading Siftings--a poetic tome--and lots of time studying his planting plans. While Jensen's early advocacy and use of natives makes him important, his actual compositions strike me as more imitative of nature, less interpretive. His project seemed to be in using native plants. I don't get a strong sense of HOW he distilled, abstracted, and artfully reinterpreted the native landscape into human landscapes. For me, simply using native plants does not constitute great plantsmanship just as using native materials on a house does not--by itself--constitute great architecture. The artistry in planting is in how well one interprets, abstracts, and evokes the natural landscape into an artificial landscape (parks, gardens, etc.). That's not to say that Jensen did not do these things. I think he did this at a macro-level such as a park scale (much like Olmsted), but not terribly impressive at a more detailed level.

    Where Jensen really blows me away is overall landscape designs that blends traditional garden forms with more naturalistic ones. All of his plans move from formal design (usually around a piece of architecture) to informal and naturalistic designs remarkably well.

    I rather enjoyed your spirited defense of Jensen. He may make my top ten landscape architects list, but as a pure plantsman, for me, it's a bit too imitative of nature.

  28. Hi Debbie,

    Thanks so much for inviting me to join you this month. I had a great time with the subject. Thomas

  29. Finally getting around to reading everyone's posts, and VERY glad you picked this one to be a part of. What an excellently comprehensive primer on hort idols, AND the thing about it I appreciate most is how clearly you're pointing out why they're still relevant today. It's so hard to choose a favorite... Fantastic job!

  30. Thank you for your long and thoughtful reply.

    As for the others: I have a 1994 facsimile of a deluxe limited edition of The Wild Garden, published in 1895, which, of couse, I have read cover to cover. William Robinson was certainly ahead of his time then and still is.

    I was stunned at the photo of Vita Sackville-West--I had always pictured her as looking something like Penelope Hobhouse and the reality was shocking to me. I have an anthology of hers, published in 1989, which I enjoyed so much, I began writing about gardens myself, with some success (a few magazine articles and a book Design Your Natural Midwest Garden) I enjoy her style--both writing and gardening--and I have been inspired by both, particularly in my weekly blog

    Oehme and van Sweden’s Bold Romatic Gardens was indeed a bold departure from conventional gardens and I loved it. Midwestern native prairie grasses and forbs had long been popular in Germany and Holland and they now became the centerpiece of “The New American Garden” planted up and down the eastern seaboard. (It took the midwest more time to realize that our very own indigenous plants were special.)

    And then came Piet. I caught glimpses of his gardens in various gardening magazines, before I actually saw the Lurie Gardens in Millennium Park in Chicago. He also designed a garden at a growers’ nursery within 10 minutes of where I live. He uses even more Midwestern native plants than do Oehme and von Sweden. He uses them in unconventional spectacular ways in large areas that could remind one of ---well, a prairie.

  31. Great list Thomas. I have had the pleasure of meeting both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Lloyd and touring their home gardens. Two other Brits are Adrian and Allen Bloom the father/son duowho both have done some interesting designs.

  32. OMG I'm glad you're back. I was worried that you were gone for good. I too love this post. Good to see some of my favorites getting props and thanks for the intro to Judy Kameon. I just got lost on her site.

  33. This post is absolutely great! As a student, I've been looking for direction in terms of understanding planting design and reading up on these works is going to be of great help. Thanks a ton for sharing this!

  34. Brilliant, Thomas!
    Even just scanning the list, you captivated me, from the pantheon of the 'greats' to the present day.
    I was mesmerized by a garden Tom Stuart-Smith designed for Chelsea a few years ago, my introduction to his work. In many ways the design seemed to be so totally on the mark in expressing the tempo of the time.
    Being drawn to minimal landscapes, I'm a fan of Andie Cochran's work - I find I'm equally beguiled by beautiful plantings like Oudolf's.
    Stuart-Smith introduced me to a perfect melding where the clarity of form/formal elements was enhanced by the choice, combination and placement of plants. You've made that clear from your writing, but it was quite a revelation for me at the time.
    Delighted to find your post while attempting to catch up with my google reader...

  35. I love all of their work, always had the perfect idea on how to make something beautiful and thrive again. AMAZING!

  36. Amazing post. Lovely! And your designs are lovely too. Hmm, gives me some ideas!

    Landscaping Virginia

  37. I visited the Feldman garden in Martha's Vineyard, a garden whose planting was designed by Wolfgang almost a decade earlier.


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