A review of “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer” by R. William Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners

Art of Gardening COVER 3D-1

“The entrance to the Chanticleer garden, in a wooded countryside just outside Philadelphia, could be described as a portal into a horticultural parallel universe … The brief is simple: innovate, innovate, innovate. There are more ideas at Chanticleer than any one garden could reasonably be expected to accommodate, and visiting is an intense experience for those with the ability and desire to ‘read’ these plantings.”

– Tim Richardson, Great Gardens of America


“Ten Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’, please.”

I ordered these beautifully named dahlias immediately after reading The Art of Gardening. When I plant them, they will surely die without some extraordinary intervention.

This book is intended to inspire gardener makers and, evidenced by my recent purchase, it does that very well. But The Art of Gardening, written by executive director William Thomas and the garden staff of Chanticleer, and extravagantly illustrated with photographs by Rob Cardillo, perhaps isn’t a book you should read in the worst of winter, at plant ordering time. You too may do unexpected things.

Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’

I had thought I was immune. You see, I have a naturalistic garden, a wet prairie (I call it) that has never seen such an alien thing as Dahlia. But this book set me thinking. No … when I saw Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ on page 247, I was in the grip of irrational desire induced by a photograph and a memory, a potent duo. Not thought at all.

I live not a great distance from Chanticleer and have come to know it rather well. I remember going on a twilight tour led by gardener Jonathan Wright two years ago. And I remember most clearly pausing to admire the colors and varied forms of a virtual wall of dahlias planted at the far end of Chanticleer house, a luxurious collection made to tantalize the dahlia prone. (I didn’t know I was one of those at the time.) Then, just as the sun dropped below the horizon and it became too dark to see clearly, we went behind the house to the Chanticleer Terraces, where Jonathan had done something astonishing. He had replanted what was formerly a lawn with a highly horticultural simulation of a meadow, long turf and flowers, small orange Dahlia coccinea chief among them, mixed in with a small, bright orange Mexican tassel flower called Emilia coccinea, Verbena bonariensis, Bronze fennel, and some other things I’m sure I can’t remember. The word “meadow” usually connotes an informal, relaxed, bucolic image, but this was a highly charged horticultural manifestation, a sophisticated emulation of meadow. Of course no meadow at all … floral magic I’d call it.

A highly horticultural “take” on a meadow

So this new book on Chanticleer and its meticulous horticultural practices had acted on me as a kind of glorified plant catalogue, appealing to the opposite of my own ecological (not notably horticultural) leanings. I should not have liked Jonathan’s imitation meadow. It violated my principles. But I loved it and have never forgotten it.

Admittedly, part of this is plant obsession, a condition I’ve mostly resisted for the past ten years. But far more significant, it is a deeply felt response to the artistry and freedom in which the garden makers of Chanticleer live and work. They each care for their own parts of the garden, and have generous budgets as well as ample access to labor. That some parts of the garden are replanted two or more times each season is no issue. They’re used to it, and they have the resources and energy to do that. A gift of the Rosengarten family through Adolph Rosengarten Jr., the gardener in the family, whose wealth came from a business that became part of Merck, Chanticleer is clearly well endowed, and can support a large staff of seven full-time horticulturists and gardeners, as well as executive director and administrative staff, and grounds management staff.

Art of Gardening AUTHORS by Rob Cardillo-2-1
The executive director and garden staff who wrote the book

Far more than most public gardens, Chanticleer is able to take risks, and that’s a blessed state to be in these days. Its gardeners are encouraged to take risks, like acrobats, to maintain competitive spirit, hone their skills, explore new plants, creating a garden with continuous interest through all seasons and achieving unique, startling effects.

The Teacup Garden in spring

“Our garden exists to inspire and is filled with ideas to try at home,” Thomas writes. “Chanticleer is our research laboratory where we try new plants, designs, and techniques all in the public view. Our guests see our successes and our failures, although we try to rush the losers to the compost pile. Horticulturist Dan Benarcik calls what we do ‘gardening without a net’. You might want to do the same in your own garden. Try. And try again. Continue what you like. Move on to something else if you are displeased.” This challenging, nigh onto rebellious spirit was established in the garden’s early days when Chris Woods, Chanticleer’s first executive director, proposed the unimaginable: tearing down Adolph Rosengarten Jr.’s house, high on a hill, and replacing it with a grand folly, which today we call the Ruin.

The Ruin

This new book on Chanticleer will pull you into a garden of delights. Start by looking at Rob Cardillo’s gorgeous photography. Read the captions. Read the text, but not from cover to cover. Browse. Let the photographs pull you in. Though the book is ostensibly divided into only two major sections— Design and Plants—it was a wise and practical decision to break it up into short, easily readable segments, in many different voices.

The book itself is a beauty, bound tall and narrow, lavish with appealing and useful photographs. On first viewing it, I had wanted it to be a different book—a large, horizontal format, a coffee table book with huge “fall into me” pictures, but that would have been difficult to use, and this book wants to be used, not put on display. The vertical format works much better for casual browsing. It’s easier to hold for one thing, whether you’re a couch potato, a proper person sitting upright at table, or taking a few minutes of pleasure in bed before dropping off to sleep. As a book that will probably be used as a go-to resource, this format is altogether suitable, almost perfect. I can imagine pulling it off my bookshelf for years to come.

In fact, since I finished it, I find myself picking it up repeatedly, wondering, for example, if those beautifully backlit Taxodium disticum var. imbricatum standing straight and lean and so gracefully by the Ruin might work at the back of my garden. This book can fill your day with such moments.

Taxodium disticum var. imbricatum

Located in Wayne, on Philadelphia’s Main Line, so-named because the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad became the home of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families, the area still carries that whiff of well-heeled social prominence we remember from the cinematic antics of Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. That is where Chanticleer is.

But times have changed and all are welcome now. As the book makes clear, Chanticleer has been successful in maintaining the feeling of a private residence and garden, yet a private garden open to all. Even the entrance is low-key, and the parking lot is a garden too.

The book’s subtitle, Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, is accurate, but this is not an easy “how to” instruction book for making a beautiful garden. What Chanticleer does is not “easy.” Their methods are labor-intensive and their horticulture is serious. Yes, you will find an abundance of inspiration here, a plentitude of new ideas you may want to try in your own garden, but you may have to challenge yourself if you hope to achieve similar results.

So my takeaway? Where I expected only a paean to a remarkable garden, I found more. The Art of Gardening, though about a garden vastly different from mine, both in appearance and underlying concept, has gotten under my skin, convinced me to try something totally unexpected and likely to fail (the Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ may die). But risk taking is part of the joy of garden making, isn’t it? That’s the point of this book.

I’ll be exploring a new horticultural challenge this spring. If you read The Art of Gardening, you may too. I recommend it for your pleasure, your entertainment, and perhaps the betterment of your garden.


Photos taken from The Art of Gardening© Copyright 2015 by the Chanticleer Foundation. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

29 thoughts on “A review of “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer” by R. William Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners

  1. Your book reviews always inspire me and I have acquired many books because of them. I have not been disappointed yet. Good luck with your dahlias!–I remember when you first saw them and wondered about including them at Federal Twist. Since then, I’ve also been thinking that I could find a place for some of the more graceful and smaller-flowered varieties. Sarah Raven has some pretty ones, but finding them for sale in the US has been a challenge.

  2. I had been wondering if this book could at all live up to the experience of Chanticleer. Thanks for the nudge- I just ordered it. Dahlias for everyone!

    1. Pat, I did have Dahlia Bishop of Landaff in my previous garden, but that garden had decent soil. I’ll have to really experiment here with heavy wet clay. They certainly can’t survive in that.

  3. Much of Henry Mitchell’s writing is wry commentary, but his column ‘Dalliances with the Dahlia’ is several pages of pure horticultural instruction. [p.65, Henry Mitchell on Gardening, a 1998 collection with foreword by the late Allen Lacy.] Worth a look, especially for how to get the most plants per tuber.

    Came across the above dahlia how-to while seeking (in vain) a different, more typical column in which Mitchell compared them to a good, healthy beagle, and recommends treating them as you do tomatoes. That seemed to work fine for me during the several years I grew (and even winter-stored!) ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and a single white, about a foot shorter, that my godfather swapped me for a start of the Bishop.

    Last winter for the first time in decades I dived back into some of the specialist dahlia catalogs. Pinterest is so convenient for assembling wishlists, so dangerously vivid for reviewing… I’m a fan of the waterlily types, and dark stems. And pale yellows in most forms. And…


    1. I’ll look up that column. Thanks for the direction. I tend to like the smaller dahlias. Grew Bishop of Llandaff in my former garden and would have continued if we hadn’t moved to another house. Here they will be alien creatures, but if I can work out a growing regimen for them, I’ll experiment for a few years. Who knows?

  4. James, do you have any growing space now devoted to edibles or herbs? If I were in your situation I’d start with dahlias near the house and away from your big garden with a small, highly amended, raised bed — in as much sun as possible. (On the tomato model.) A wholly different garden, in scale and intent. But I don’t know whether any such space is available out of sight of the big “useless” garden…

    1. Hi, Nell. No, all my garden is “useless.” I don’t think I could live with a raised bed in my garden. I know you’re suggesting it be out of sight, but there’s no place to do that. I have an idea, though, using gravel beds.

  5. Dear James, a great garden (meaning a great gardener) opens its arms to every possibility. What I love so much about your garden is how you have designed open spaces that punctuate and contrast to your wild Earth in a deliberate way. I could be in your garden. I would not need to view it from afar. What I like so much about your writing is that you take every possibility to heart. Nell has a great idea-bypass that wet clay soil you have in the ground for your dahlias. Raised beds would be at odds with your garden, in my opinion. But you could grow dahlias in pots. These single dahlias grow very tall-they would need plenty of branches inserted in the pots to keep them upright. Not that I need to tell you one thing about how to garden-but I would encourage you realize that your dahlias do not need to be planted in your ground. They will not like it. If you want them, you will figure out a way to make a proper home for them. Maybe a home above ground. best, Deborah

    1. Deborah, thanks. I have considered pots, but I’m part time in the city, and I think they would dry out too quickly in the summer. Apart from that, I want the dahlias on my own terms. My thought at present comes from visiting Derry Watkins’ garden at her nursery near Bath last summer. Derry gardens in heavy clay with springs. She uses gravel, two to eight or more inches think and grows plants in that. I know dahlias won’t like gravel either, but if I make pockets of good soil in the gravel, perhaps they will grow. They will have elevation above the wetness, yet be able to get to moisture available from the clay layer. If that doesn’t work, I’ll probably forego dahlias in the future. I particularly like Verrone’s Obsidian because it’s small and, in addition to its intensity, has a wildish look about it. Here is a link to an article on her in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/11741029/Wild-American-gardening-comes-to-south-west-England.html

      1. How interesting that so many of your readers are interested in how your dahlias may (0r may not) grow. As for me, I hope you will be able to grow them amongst the wildness of your in-ground garden rather than in pots. Putting them in pots for me distracts from, or possibly denies, the original impulse. My fingers are firmly crossed that they will flourish in ground, in a natural setting. And coming from a dahlia sceptic, this is quite a leap of faith.

        1. Yes, Pat, they have to grow in the garden, though perhaps in the modified gravel/soil layer I mentioned above. If they aren’t capable of adapting to that, then the attempt to use that beautiful dahlia simply will fail. I’ll move on to something else. I’m also experimenting with seed I brought back from the UK, but I don’t coddle. I don’t have the interest or space to sew seed and grow it. I broadcast is, and if it doesn’t respond to that treatment, I move on. I do want to maintain some degrees of wildness and randomness.

  6. What a beautifully considered review of a book that I too found inspiring and delightful. I happened upon Chanticleer while on a family driving trip 8 years ago, and it was magical. I’ve never forgotten the experience of exploring the garden, and so reading this book was like getting a peek inside the magician’s cupboard.

    1. Thanks, Pam. I still remember the first time I visited Chanticleer. It was almost overwhelming emotionally. I felt an onslaught (a violent word, but the experience had a kind of violence about it) of stimulation. I felt almost like I’d eaten a whole cake instead of just one slice. Fortunately, now that I’m more familiar with the garden, my visits are more tranquil.

  7. As soon as I heard that this book was out I put it on my Christmas wish list and Santa did not disappoint. When we visited Chanticleer in October my co-workers and I came away with so much inspiration, as well as an extensive list of plants to try. Based on our visit we are already growing Salvia confertiflora in our greenhouse for next summer; I’ve got seeds of Polygonum orientale waiting to be sown; Dahlia ‘Thomas Edison’ bulbs are on order; and plugs of Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’ are due in two weeks.

  8. Did you post about Broughton Grange and then take it down? I followed a link from John Grimshaw’s blog and got a ‘page not found’ error. Looking forward to seeing it soon…

    1. Yes. I hit “Publish” when I was far from finished, and I couldn’t stop the automatic post that went out. I hope to have it out, with even more photos, in a couple of days.

    1. I’m a slow writer, Pat. Now I have to go to Las Vegas for three days (unfortunate because it’s one of the few places on the earth I never wanted to visit) so I’ll take even longer.

  9. I’ve come a little late to this, James, drawn here by my google search for Emila coccinea which I saw at the Ripley Garden on the National Mall (Janet Draper’s little piece of genius). My children gave me this book for my significant birthday this summer, and though I have written a comprehensive blog about Chanticleer, I’m looking forward to sinking into somewhere relaxing and becoming as bewitched as you while reading it. (But no dahlias)

Leave a Reply to Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *