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Review of ‘A Beautiful Obsession’ by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury

I read so much about eco-friendly, low maintenance gardening these days, I yearn for garden writing with more depth, for writing about the more immersive kinds of experience a garden can offer, or about the striking, experimental gardens some creative designers are exploring. I look through garden book lists and find nine out of ten titles are one-dimensional … how to make a successful compost pile, how to make a thrilling long-season flower border, or a pollinator-friendly garden. I understand such works have a good and necessary purpose, but there’s far more to a garden than that.

Attempting to read these “how to” books, I sometimes wonder if my interest in gardening may not just dry up and blow away on the next breeze.

Then I come across a book like this, one that makes me think. A Beautiful Obsession is a startling new book about Jimi Blake’s garden, Hunting Brook, at the edge of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. Jimi is an endlessly energetic garden iconoclast, a man driven to try new combinations of plants, many extremely unusual, if not almost entirely unknown in Western horticulture. The book is a joint effort of Jimi, who tells his story and explains his driving passion, and Noel Kingsbury, the expert observer and interpreter.

Anyone reading this book is likely to find a few plants to lust after. I’ve picked two I’d like to try for myself. The New Zealand Pseudopanax crassifolius (tall plant above), with tall bare stems and a bunch of extremely narrow leaves at the top, making it an ideal “see-through” plant, and Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, an airy plant, with brilliant orange, and long-flowering (sorry I don’t have a picture of it; you’ll need to buy the book). I intend to try to find these plants and give them a trial in my own garden. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen

Hunting Brook is an extraordinarily rare kind of garden that has come onto the garden scene with a splash. Seeking effects I find hard to characterize, Jimi combines hardy perennials with tropicals, desert cacti with flowery annuals. This is clearly a ‘plantsman’s garden’ but it’s far more than that. In Jimi’s seemingly endless striving for a distinctive richness of experience, he’s working with a maverick aesthetic vision.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the book almost sparkles with Jimi’s enthusiasm and personality. It’s funky design and casual organization—part horticultural family album, part garden photo spread, part exotic plant catalogue—is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. You learn about Jimi’s history, how he grew from a teenager working in a nursery to a gardener with the largest plant collection in Ireland, about his obsessive searching for new plants, about his heartfelt mission to teach (he holds regular classes in the garden). Jimi’s exuberance and friendliness are well known to visitors to the garden and to followers of his very large presence on Instagram. In fact, you may want to try his Instagram feed (jimiblake_huntingtonbrookgardens) where he posts fascinating video tours of his garden almost every day.

Photo ©Richard Murphy

I first saw Jimi Blake’s garden on a dreary, wet day in September 2018. We’d planned our stay in Dublin, knowing it would probably be the only opportunity to see Hunting Brook. I’d written Jimi, hoping to meet him. Unfortunately, the only day we could get to the garden was a scheduled teaching day. We got to speak only briefly, and were mostly on our own, so I had no guide to the unusual plantings that met my eyes. And this was like no other garden I’d ever seen.

Jimi teaching a class on the day I visited Hunting Brook. Photo ©James Golden

I needed some help understanding what Hunting Brook is about, and in this new book, I finally got the inside story. Jimi is all about planting complexity, and seeking garden experiences rich and new.

According to Noel, “the planting style he has settled on for the open sunny areas … is perhaps best thought of as a two-stage year:  perennials and bulbs until July then a handover to mostly temporary later season plants with a strong undertone of foliage … His planting has evolved … and he now prefers a more complex and visually richer look, but one which is inevitably much more labour intensive, filling in around the early-season perennials with annuals, temporary summer planting (led by dahlias and salvias) and exotic foliage. It’s a planting style that involves a big May planting out session and a big October dig-up.”

So Hunting Brook is an experimental garden, subject to constant change, and a very labor-intensive one. Noel writes that Jimi is practicing a style quite similar to the Victorian practice of bedding out annuals and other plants from disparate habitats for seasonal display. This approach to planting is rare today and is practiced almost nowhere else, except for the constant change one sees at Great Dixter. So … is Jimi Blake a man out of step with the Zeitgeist, or is he one of the first to revive an old way of garden-making, but with a highly creative spin?

Photo ©Richard Murphy

Totally different from the gardens near the house is Jimi’s Valley garden. This is an immersive garden of steep slopes, astonishingly tall trees, and lush, hearty vegetation with a small, sparkling stream down the center.

The path down into the valley garden curves away behind the house. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen

To get to it you walk down the fairly steep side of a ravine behind the house into a forested valley much larger than the upper gardens. This is my favorite part of Hunting Brook, though certainly not the part it is best known for, largely because it is a long-term project, one that will take years to bring to fruition. I personally like this kind of habitat, and Jimi has created a place of strong atmosphere and emotional power, even if the final project completion (is a garden ever complete?) is a long way off.

Hunting Brook flows down the bottom of the valley. Photo ©Giacomo Guzzon

Jimi is constantly planting in this rather immense area, so you have to look closely to see what is going on. The final chapters of A Beautiful Obsession are devoted to the Valley garden and an extensive directory of some of Jimi’s favorite plants, organized by type.

Noel writes “what Jimi is doing here is quite rare … There is a tradition going back to the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of landowners planting rhododendrons and other exotica in woodland, but Jimi has used another range of plants entirely … Most of these are woodland-edge species which have never been used much in cultivation, and certainly not on such an ambitious scale.” Noel calls attention to Jimi’s special focus on “the Araliaceae:  Fatsia, Kalopanax, Metapanax, Pseudopanax, Schefflera. This planting of so many Araliaceae,” he continues, “is one of Jimi’s most important contributions to contemporary horticulture …”

Atmospheric wooden table and log seats in the valley (Phoro ©James Golden)

A long moss-laden wooden table with mossy log seats is a beautiful and imaginative set piece you encounter as you near the valley bottom. This is a kind of wonderland place. The bottom trail takes you from this spot through big, hefty plantings of lush, large-leaved plants, then up a stairway to the rim of the opposite side of the valley, where you enter a native meadow garden with a view of the Wicklow Mountains.

The valley pathway passes through characterful plantings of Rheum, Rodgersia, Astilboides, Darmera, and ferns. Photo ©Giacomo Guzzon

You can become immersed in the experience of walking along the valley floor, brushing against the oversized leaves of Rodgersias, Astilboides, Darmera, and many different ferns. For me, this is the part of the garden with the most powerful sense of place.

Foliage detail. Photo ©James Golden

I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Beautiful Obsession. The opening, with Jimi’s life story, how he got where he is today, is engaging and enjoyable, and a quick read. I couldn’t put it down. The book’s design is unusual, combining formal page layouts using lavish, full-bleed, color photographs of high quality, with complementary sections of “from life” photos resembling a photo album, and showing Jimi with family members and other people in his life. This unusual book captures Jimi Blake’s informal, restless, friendly spirit, shows us the person in the midst of his daily routine and, most importantly, introduces and explains his unique gardening style, and his high aspirations for the future of Hunting Brook.

A view of the Wicklow Mountains at the top of the valley. Photo ©James Golden

There’s much more to the story of Jimi Blake and his gardens. I think you’ll enjoy exploring his unique world in A Beautiful Obsession.

Jimi Blake in action. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen



Planten un Blomen, a remarkable and little known park – by Giacomo Guzzon

My friend Giacomo Guzzon has become a regular guest writer on View from Federal Twist. Several months ago, Giacomo told me he was planning a trip to Hamburg, Germany, to revisit Planten un Blomen, a park he remembered from a visit there many years ago. Unlike New York City’s Central Park, which emerged from a unified vision of Olmsted and Vaux, Planten un Blomen was created in several bursts of activity over many years. The result is an extraordinary park, clearly very popular with the public, but one relatively little known outside Germany. I hope the photographs and words in this post will make you want to visit, possibly even make a pilgrimage to see Planten un Blomen.

Giacomo is fortunately fluent in German, so he has been able to make use of sources of information on the park, such as Plomin’s book, Der vollendete Garten: die Kunst, mit Pflanzen umzugehen, that are not available in English translation. An Italian landscape architect working in London, Giacomo is Head of Planting Design for Gillespies, a large landscape design firm. He has a deep interest in plants and their use in landscape architecture to create meaningful places with emotional power, and he teaches and lectures on the importance of planting design in landscape architecture.

James Golden


View of the water-cascades in the distance from the deciduous conifer grove. These areas, which gently slope down to the water, are planted with a rich array of shade-loving plants.
The water cascades, shown in the distance in the image above.

Planten un Blomen, a little-known park located in Hamburg, Germany, is a remarkable place that deserves to be far better known. It is a model for the use of landscape and planting design to create places with strong identity and character. The park extends across several neighbourhoods in the city centre, offering a green and diverse urban space to the public. The name means ‘Plants and Flowers’ in low German.

Because the park is L-shaped with two roughly narrow, linear parts, it is easily accessible through many entrances scattered around its perimeter and it ties in with the urban fabric well. The shape and multiple entry points make the park easy to reach and use.

Planten un Blomen is L-shaped and offers many points of entry.

This park has been a favourite of mine since my first visit several years ago, and I’ve been surprised that it is still not as well-known as it should be. There is little information online or in books about this urban space. Perhaps that’s the reason it hasn’t become more well-known. In any case, I believe that it deserves to be given more attention by the profession of landscape architecture. It is a particularly outstanding example of how to create a characterful urban space with a strong identity.

The water cascades at the north-western end of the park. This area is the oldest part of the park, which was previously a zoo and a cemetery. These cascades were built in 1935 for the ‘Low German’ Garden Show, under the direction of  Hans Meding and Karl Plomin, and today remain a very popular area with a strong and unique feeling.

The park is especially interesting because of its peculiar character; it is an unusual mixture of garden-like and park-like elements. Probably the best term to describe it is ‘landscape garden,’ or ‘public garden’; it is difficult to assign it to a definite category because it feels intimate yet public, it is gardenesque yet many aspects of it are park-like. It has a special combination of elements that you would encounter in a large public park—such as generous lawn areas, playgrounds, and large waterbodies—and others that are typical of smaller, private gardens—such as rich and well-maintained plantings, botanical collections, and sophisticated and movable furniture.

The south-facing terraces with movable chairs and, to the left, the Johan van Valckenburgh Bridge. These areas were built for the 1963 International Garden Exhibition (IGA) under the direction of Mr. G. Schulze, Mr. H. Raderschall and Karl Plomin. The site was further expanded to 76 hectares, including the old botanic garden and the large and small Wallanlagen, meaning walls, which were fortifications built in the 17th century under the direction of the Dutch Engineer Johan van Valckenburgh. Several pedestrian underpasses were built underneath carriageways to connect the different sections of the park.
In Planten un Blomen the use of common and unusual plants combined in rich and habitat-specific compositions adds sophistication and beauty to the park.

After my last visit in August, I wanted to learn more about the park’s history and design influences, so I made private inquires to the Friends of Planten un Blomen (see endnotes below). The history of Planten un Blomen is rather complicated since its development is connected with many events and the park, as it is now, is the result of several German National Garden Shows.

Until the 70s the name Planten un Blomen was used to identify only the oldest part of the park. The other three areas were called: Old Botanic Garden, and small and large Wallanlagen. The name proposed by the city council for all four areas was “Wallringpark” and the alternative option was to use the name Planten un Blomen for the whole park. Only after the vote by the Hamburg Mitte district assembly in 1986 was the park officially re-named Planten un Blomen.

Different areas of the park were at times a zoo, a botanic garden, and a cemetery; principally from 1935 the land was gradually redesigned in phases into what we can see today.

In 1935 the ‘Lower German Garden Show’ took place in the park, and in 1953, 1963 and 1973 three International Garden Shows (IGA) were held.

View of the lake in the middle of the park, which in the summer it holds daily water and light concerts after dawn. For the IGA 1973 the lake was extended and the lakeshore enriched with plants. Karl Plomin and his son were responsible for several planting schemes throughout the park.

These garden shows expanded the overall parkland size, repeatedly reshaped the land, and enriched the look and character of the garden with new follies, water features, buildings, and landscapes. In more recent years a few design competitions were held to re-design specific areas.

For the IGA 1963 several water steps and other water bodies were designed in the new expanded area of the former Wallanlagen.
Small cascades and a large pool, with integrated planting and Taxodium trees, extend below the pedestrian stepped-bridge that connects a low area of the park with one of the entrances dotted along its perimeter.
The elegant simplicity of a water feature completely integrated within the surrounding landscape. I enjoyed listening to the pleasing sound of the water splashing down. Places like this, which evoke contemplation and enable us to go far away with our thoughts, are a notable achievement of the designers of Planten un Blomen.

In 1985 a competition for the creation of the Japanese Garden was won by landscape architect Yoshikuni Araki, and in 2008 a competition for the re-design of the western park entrance was won by the Berlin studio a24_landschaft.

The Waterlily ponds, which are located where the old botanic garden was once situated. In 1970 the botanical garden moved from Planten un Blomen to Klein Flottbek, allowing the area to be better integrated into the park.
View of the Tea House in the middle of the Japanese Garden.
The Japanese Landscape Garden with an idyllic creek unfolding among boulders and topiary plants.
The water cascades within the Japanese Garden, where people can find relief and escape from the busy city life.

Among the many people who were involved in the design of the park during the several garden shows, the recurrence of the name Karl Plomin really stands out. He was a landscape architect and garden designer from Hamburg who designed several areas of the park and had an important and leading influence in all garden shows.

An enclosed area of the park characterized by the columnar forms of the evergreen trees. This area shows how plants can be used to give a distinctive identity to a space.

It is interesting to note that Plomin’s drawing below shows a similar use of columnar evergreens to create a spatial identity similar to the one in the photograph above.

In the 1935 show Plomin had a significant role in using exotic plants from all over the world and mixing them with native species, an approach that was definitely not in line with the Nazi propaganda of those years in favour of German native themes.

He wrote a book in 1975 titled Der vollendete Garten: die Kunst, mit Pflanzen umzugehen, which can be translated as The consummate garden: the art of dealing with plants. Vollendete is not an easy term to translate from German to English since it has a special almost ‘magical‘ connotation in German. Reading this book has revealed intangible aspects of the park that I couldn’t quite put into words but that I somehow felt while visiting. Plomin writes from the very beginning about how a certain combination of plants can create a very distinctive atmosphere that is a result of the site and all the influences that define and characterize a certain space. The spirit of a place, he writes, will then be ‘visible’.

He explains in the preface that the sense of his book is to detect the genius loci of a place and to find the right ‘melody‘ for it. The ambitious term ‘vollendete’ (‘consummate’) has been chosen only to describe the search for the right approach for a garden, since there are no perfect or completed gardens. (They are dynamic entities and not static objects.) The charm in a garden is revealed by the constant change and evolution of the vegetation.

The art of planting for Plomin is the ability to find a synthesis between the visual qualities of different species and their relationships with specific habitats or ecologies, and to combine them with ‘phantasy’ into a meaningful composition.

The powerful composition of shade-loving plants gives a strong character to this place.

There are several vegetation compositions, illustrated in sketches throughout the book, offering a possible design solution for a certain location with an envisioned character.

His approach of selecting plants that are related to each other and the site, with the ultimate goal of creating a composition that gives atmosphere to a place, is very exciting. Giving atmosphere and identity to a place should be the mission of every designer.

Appealing composition of perennials and shrubs along the steps to a viewpoint on top of a small hill above the central lake. In Planten un Blomen the use of landform is skillfully used to create enclosed spaces, frame views, divide the park into different sections, provide a visual and acoustic buffer from the surrounding busy streets and add drama and interest to the park.

I believe Planten un Blomen has maintained Plomin’s legacy. It is a large park composed of many different areas, but most of them have a clearly identifiable identity which I found palpable when visiting (I hope the accompanying photographs will show this clearly.) This park is an important precedent because it celebrates in a very humble way the power of plants for creating public spaces of beauty, escape and inspiration.

The level of maintenance throughout the park is excellent. The garden is maintained by the city: the park has 13 gardeners, 4 craftsmen (locksmith, carpenter, plumber and workshop manager) and 7 gardener trainees. Larger tasks such as tree-cutting and soil improvement works are undertaken by external garden construction firms.

Anyone who would like to make a donation to the park’s upkeep may do so at this link.


* I contacted Mr. Jörg Kuhbier, the director of the ‘Friends of Planten un Blomen’, requesting more information about the park. Mr. Kuhbier kindly sent me a booklet, published in 2013 for 75th anniversary of the park, which is my major source of historical information about the park.

* Germany has a long tradition of garden shows that celebrate the horticultural-nursery and landscape design professions, as well as transform and regenerate derelict or new urban and suburban areas. Normally, at the end of the shows some areas are re-designed for permanent use but the main structures and interventions are left for public use by the hosting city. There are three kinds of garden shows in Germany: 1) The IGA – International garden show (International Garten Ausstellung), which has been held every 10 years since 1865; 2) The BUGA – Bundesgertenschau, the German garden show, which has been held every 2 years since 1951; and 3) The LAGA – Landesgartenschau, the regional garden show, which is held almost every year in each region of Germany.



Rediscovering the value of plants in landscape architecture by Giacomo Guzzon

This guest post is the third in a series on planting design by my friend Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in London for Gillespies, a large landscape design firm. He has always had a deep interest in plants and their use in landscape architecture to create meaningful places with emotional power.

I first met Giacomo just before the Chelsea Flower Show, several years ago, as he was giving some friends a tour of the south bank of the Thames. I’ve always remembered his taking me aside on entering the Jubilee Gardens to show me a gracefully rounded seating edge on a low granite wall. I was impressed, first, that Giacomo was so observant of subtle design details and, second, that he wanted to share what he saw. Giacomo’s passionate interest in plants and well-executed design, and his desire to share ideas are continuously expressed in his writing and in his teaching. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich in London.

Giacomo will continue to write about his findings and insights on various plant and landscape topics on this site from time to time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        James Golden

Is change in the air?

Planting design has not been a priority in the profession of landscape architecture for many decades. Fortunately, this period of neglect appears to be changing, as evidenced by several prominent practitioners in the field who are writing about the importance of innovative planting design in landscape architecture and using plants as an intrinsic part of their work. Landscape architects such as James Hitchmough (UK), Thomas Rainer (USA), Christine Ten Eyck (USA), Nigel Dunnett (UK), Ton Muller (NL) and Cassian Schmidt (Germany) all show a deep interest in plants and seek to find sustainable and resilient ways to create plantings that require low inputs while achieving appealing compositions. Marc Treib, noted professor, writer, architect, and architectural historian and critic, organised a major Symposium dedicated to the exploration of planting design in landscape architecture last year at the University of California, Berkeley. Treib argues that the interest in planting design as an essential element of study, and research has been sidelined in the profession of landscape architecture due to issues such as sustainability, resilience and social justice (

Yet another landscape architect, Australian Julian Raxworthy, in his recent book, Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening, criticises the discipline of landscape architecture for distancing itself from gardening, and proposes a new way forward that integrates garden and planting design with landscape architecture. In the Foreword to Raxworthy’s book, Fiona Harrisson writes that landscape architects should engage more with plants by “getting up close and dirty rather than flying above the landscape we seek to transform” (Raxworthy 2018, p xi, foreword by F. Harrisson).

As a landscape architect, I believe plants are necessary for creating characterful and meaningful landscapes and I’ve been concerned that many landscape architects continue to show indifference toward the use of plants. Are plants not given sufficient attention because landscape architects have a need to distance themselves from gardeners? Why are so few landscape architects writing about their experience with plants? This undervaluing of the importance of plants in landscape design demonstrates a lack of interest in elements that can be extraordinarily important to making landscapes of power, landscapes that appeal to emotions.

One example: Paley Park

Let’s consider the example of Paley Park in New York City.

The waterfall wall at the back of Paley Park in Midtown, Manhattan.

What would this park be without the careful selection of the Gleditsia spp. trees, a species with a very light canopy that filters the light and with slender trunks creating a delicate, vertical element within the pocket park? There is no doubt that the firm Zion Breen Richardson Associates must have known the qualities of this particular tree species when designing this public space in the 1960s, and it would be interesting to speculate whether the designers anticipated that the light conditions in the park would cause the trees to develop the narrow and elongated forms that have helped to create a tranquil, almost chapel-like atmosphere.

This aspect of Paley Park also brings up another significant issue. The growth of plants in a landscape is difficult to anticipate decades in the future. Landscape architects need to be aware that changes in growth pattern might introduce unanticipated spatial changes in relationships between plants and other landscape features. Such changes can create serendipitous effects, as in Paley Park. Regardless, they must be foreseen, attended to, and managed.

The Gleditsia in Paley Park have grown extremely tall reaching up for light, creating the high canopy that contributes so much to the park’s light, airy atmosphere.
The work of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

To demonstrate why plants are essential to landscape architecture, I have chosen to focus on the work of one landscape architectural firm whose work I have been observing for several years, going back to my time as a student in the MLA program at the University of Greenwich, when I became interested in the Tahari Courtyards by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). I was particularly intrigued by how plants and materials were used to simplify and amplify an ecology that creates a specific experience for human users.

The Tahari Courtyards are two small rectangular courtyards of less than 100 square metres each within a warehouse complex in Millburn, New Jersey, commissioned by fashion designer Elie Tahari.

The Tahari Courtyards are partially paved in slabs of algae-covered Black Locust, a durable and long-lasting wood.

They were created by subtracting two volumes from the building footprint in order to bring light into the indoor space. These courtyards show that a limited palette of hard and soft materials, namely Betula nigra, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, Dryopteris erythrosora, Helleborus orientalis, a carpet of moss Plagiomnium spp. and a path of black locust slabs can create a strong atmosphere and an elegant look.

All these elements are carefully selected to achieve a calm, moist, woodland setting, bringing light and a feeling of nature into a dark, windowless space.

Last November, while visiting the Princeton University Campus in New Jersey on a beautiful sunny autumn day, I was again reminded of my desire to write about the importance of planting design in landscape architecture. As a friend and I were walking through the Wilson College we smelt from a distance the sweet scent of the trees planted along the Lourie-Love Walk.

Lourie-Love Walk in summer and autumn at Princeton University. Trees are very important to the creation of atmosphere and character.

Although we both knew the walk was planted with Cercidiphyllum japonicum, a species known to smell like burnt sugar in the autumn, we were surprised by the pleasant intensity of this scent and its effect at a distance. This experience was full of emotional power.

It made clear that the intent of the landscape architects in choosing this species went beyond the aesthetic materiality of the trees. It was also about creating an emotional experience. This project is one of several at Princeton University by MVVA, which I’ll discuss briefly below.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to visit several projects by MVVA in the northeast US. Clearly, as a practice, the firm highly values the use of plants for creating public spaces and shows a strong commitment to planting design. In a lecture Van Valkenburgh gave in 2012 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, he spoke about his love for plants and his interest in materiality and how materials make people feel, which is a defining aspect of MVVA’s work (available at Their projects are emblematic examples of the importance of plants in landscape architecture.

A look at several MVVA Projects

I will look at several examples of projects by MVVA that demonstrate how plants can be used to create character and sense of place.

The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton is a relatively new building complex, consisting of several architectural forms varying in size and height, with a number of integrated courtyards and open spaces nestled around and within the buildings.

The Andliger Center is largely below grade and consists of several architectural forms separated by courtyards.

The open spaces bring light inside while providing settings for outdoor activities. The Center was completed in 2015 and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

“The wall seemed to hold a secret,” says Billie Tsien. “We wanted to make it feel as if you were coming into a hidden garden.”

It is sheltered on two sides by tall brick walls, part of a former building designed by McKim, Meade and White, that partially hide, and expose, the landscape surrounding the Center.

The planting along the western edge of the largest sunken courtyard features multi-stem trees and shade-tolerant perennials and grasses.

The plantings within these spaces are simple and highly varied at the same time, giving a different character to each of them. In this project, architecture and landscape are not disconnected entities but they work together, in dialogue.

The juxtaposition between the exposed aggregate concrete and the vegetation creates a graceful composition.

In the largest sunken courtyard weeping Fagus sylvatica trees are juxtaposed with evergreen Cryptomeria japonica and exposed aggregate concrete walls; the combinations are appealing because they show how vegetation juxtaposed to hard materials can create a subtle drama and interest.

Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’ and Cryptomeria japonica are unusual species and create unexpected views.

The low plane is planted with Polystichum acrostichoides, Dryopteris spp., Vinca and Panchysandra terminalis, which convey a fresh, simple, modern look that contrasts sharply with the straight lines of the high-tech academic buildings.

Amelanchier lamarckii, a small multi-stem tree, is perfect for bringing autumnal color and stature in small spaces.
In the largest sunken courtyard Parthenocisus tricuspidata provides dramatic color contrast in autumn.
Dryopteris spp. is used in large blocks under the Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula Purpurea’.
Seasonal color change: view of the largest sunken courtyard in July and November 2018.

At ground level above this courtyard is an informal garden characterised by a sinuous path unfolding among areas extensively planted with Liriope spicata and Hemerocallis fulva as ground-cover species, topped with multi-stem Amelanchier lamarckii, Rhododendron spp., Hamamelis x hybrida, Ilex verticillata and Fothergilla gardenii.

The sinuous ground-level path with colored Amelanchiers.
Amelanchier underplanted with a shrub layer.

Between the buildings is a small and shady cul-de-sac, which is almost hidden, and which you enter through a narrow, constricted space.

Hidden cul-de-sac in summer and autumn.

It is planted with Fagus grandifolia for structure and predominantly Carex pennsylvanica filling the ground level. In the summer the space provides a welcome, sheltered and shady oasis. This little garden shows how fruitful the collaboration between the architects and landscape architects can be in maximising the opportunities for natural light and meditative outdoor space surrounded by planting.

Within this complex two sunken courtyards can be accessed only from the inside, creating a feeling of anticipation because you have to discover a way to enter them. These have a similar design, with a central paving area of gravel surrounded by plantings, which create a buffer between the enclosing building walls and the open internal spaces.

Multi-stem Stewartia pseudocamelia define the character of the first secluded courtyard.
Large leaves of Hosta sieboldiana contrast with the fine chiaroscuro background cast by the trees.

Although similar, these two spaces feel very different because of the distinctive atmospheres created by the plantings. The first one is defined by large multi-stem Stewartia pseudocamelia trees underplanted with Vinca, Polystichum acrostichoides and blue-leaved Hosta sieboldiana.

View of the Stewartia courtyard from above in November.
The second sunken courtyard is exposed to afternoon light.

The second courtyard is characterised by large multi-stem Hammamelis x hybrida, Parrotia persica and Nyssa sylvatica. Because these two courtyards have different exposition, the first one being more surrounded by the buildings and therefore more shaded and the second west-facing and catching more afternoon sun, they have very different feelings, the first, secluded and cool, the second, sunny and warm.

At street level, near the main entrance to the Center, is a garden with a sinuous path of gravel, a long bench and an unexpected planting featuring a large number of Buxus shrubs in different sizes with masses of Liriope spicata planted among them.

The contrast in forms and textures and the simplicity of the planting make this composition utterly refreshing and unconventional.


While walking across another part of the Princeton campus, I encountered a sunny square filled with the noise of skateboarders. Because there was minimal vegetation, my attention was drawn to the dramatic pool at the centre of the square called the Fountain of Freedom and the Robertson Hall building by Minoru Yamasaki across the water. Passing through, I glimpsed a small green courtyard to the left side, which surprised me because it was so green and different from the adjacent square. This courtyard garden is located between the Shapiro Walk and the Department of Economics. It is open to one side, to the south, and surrounded by buildings on the other three. It has a central path which descends from the walkway level trough the garden and connects it to the building entrance.

Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shephard’ with its white flowers adds light and color to this shaded courtyard.

This garden is planted in a naturalistic way. Several multi-stem trees and shrubs such as Amelanchier lamarckii, Magnolia virginiana, Exbury Azalea hybrids and Viburnum nudum are underplanted with a herbaceous palette composed of a matrix of Sesleria autumnalis with groups of Carex muskingumensis and Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shepard’, which with their white flowers bring light into the space.



Deciduous Azalea among Anemone and Carex muskingumensis injects an unexpected shot of color.

The feeling of isolation in this little courtyard, of moving into a space different in character from surrounding spaces, recalls a similar feeling I also encountered in the Monk’s Garden in Boston. I visited the Monk’s Garden, outside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, two years ago in late October on a warm sunny day.

Single stem Betulas create a woodland feeling.

The garden is located between a tall boundary brick wall to one side and the main museum building to the other, creating a feeling of shelter and seclusion. Although the museum was rather busy on the day of my visit, the garden was not crowded at all; in fact it felt like a peaceful oasis far away from the crowd. The garden unfolds along sinuous winding paths that allow users to meander, and explore the space in different ways without a defined trajectory.

These walkways also evoke the paths that monks might walk in a medieval cloister while meditating and praying. The paths are paved in dark grey, shiny, and opaque tiles that contrast with the fallen leaves and adjacent plants.

The planting features several multi-stem and single-stem trees that add stature to the composition, create a setting for people to stop, escape and observe nature, and divide the garden into many small intimate rooms.

The tree layer features deciduous species such as Betula populifolia, Stewartia pseudocamelia and Acer griseum, and evergreen Thuja occidentalis and Camelia oleifera. The ground plane is covered with a rich selection of woodland floor perennials and grasses. Asarum canadense, Dryopteris , Polystichum, Helleborus, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Hosta and Cimicifuga spp. are some of the most prominent members of this shade plant community.

The garden has an elegant simplicity appropriate for the museum and it offers a welcoming alternative to the interior experience.

Brick paving detail.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is an extensive, long waterfront park along the Brooklyn shore facing Manhattan. It was formerly the site of large shipping piers, most of which were demolished and repurposed for the park. The park offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn side of the East River just as it widens into New York Harbor and it extends northward beneath the historic Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. It was redeveloped into a park in the past two decades.

Long view to Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan in summer and in autumn (below).

Unlike the previous projects, this park offers many opportunities for observing planting schemes in larger and more public projects. The park is more than 2 km long and it consists of many different uses and habitats. Nevertheless, the richness of the planting is ubiquitous throughout.

A small area within the park in front of Pier 3 captures in a small space the importance of plants for creating a refuge in the city. This space is surrounded by trees, which are planted to frame the view of the Manhattan skyline, using the concept of prospect and refuge.

A high, secluded area offering both prospect and refuge in summer (above) and autumn (below).

The planting features several conifer trees and some deciduous shrubs such as Rosa spp., Lindera angustifolia and several Carex species to fill the ground plane. This terrace is elevated above the surroundings so it provides a vantage point to observe the Manhattan skyline and the river. The soft and hard material palettes are simple but at the same time robust and appropriate for a public space.

Beautiful reclaimed granite slabs are used to pave the space and large granite blocks are used to create a seating wall, helping to create a feeling of seclusion and intimacy.

Reclaimed granite blocks are used to create both seclusion and a seating area, a sort of amphitheater for people to gather.

Throughout the park are many varied features such as viewing platforms, lawn areas, beaches, playfields on top of the recovered piers, kids playgrounds, all amid an array of different designed plant communities.

A beach giving access to the East River, one of many recreational areas and viewing opportunities provided throughout the park. Across the inlet, a carousel in a structure designed by Jean Nouvel.

Particularly toward the north end of the park, near the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, are many more intimate areas, such as the Max Family Garden in front of the St. Ann’s Warehouse Theatre.

The Max Family Garden, with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.


Entrance to St. Ann’s Warehouse theatre in autumn and summer (below).

Further south, on Pier 6, is a perennial meadow that attracts many insects and wildlife in the middle of the summer, while providing a very colourful background for park activities and a stunning view of the lower Manhattan skyline above the naturalistic vegetation of the meadow, a striking juxtaposition.


Teardrop Park is the last project I will discuss. This park evoked a strong emotional response in me the first time I visited and it continues to do so every time I return. I have made many visits in the last few years, observing the park’s users and trying to understand how it functions. I only want to mention a few important elements.

Rocks and plants define the character and feeling of Teardrop Park.

The park is a relatively small space surrounded by tall buildings and located in lower Manhattan, in Battery Park City. Teardrop Park embodies an important lesson:  how careful design can bring character and atmosphere to a featureless landscape lacking any views out.


Planting wraps around the buildings, and entrances are carved into the landscape.

The park is divided by a large, artificial stone wall which runs diagonally across the middle with a south facing lawn to the north and playgrounds to the south. This stone wall, literally cut apart, imported from the Catskill Mountains north of the City, and reassembled in the park, is the ‘tour de force’ feature that largely creates a sense of place within Teardrop Park.

Plants are used here to bring a feeling of nature in this very dense part of the city and to give users a green stage for their activities, helping them turn away from the city to the centre of this calm green space. Tree species within the park are arranged in a naturalistic way, often in groups to create little groves. Betula nigra next to the stone wall, Sassafras albidum at the edge of the lawn, Rhus typhina close to the playground, and Hamamelis virginiana on the side of the lawn, are all placed in specific areas and they define a particular character within each small vignette.

Apart from these species that define the mood of certain areas, other species are used throughout to connect and unify the park, species such as Viburnum sieboldii, Hydrangea quercifolia, Corylopsis glabrescens, Asarum canadense, Mertensia virginica, Mitella diphylla, Iris cristata, Carex eburnea, Carex appalachica, Juncus tenuis, Carex pennsylvanica, Aquilegia canadensis, Lilium canadense, Deschampsia flexuosa, Danthonia spicata, Chasmantium latifolium, Waldstenia fragarioides, Liriope spicata, Hosta sieboldiana and Heuchera americana.

Vegetation can be also an important element of playgrounds with less prescriptive play features, where kids can discover the landscape and use their imaginations with the help of such natural materials as sand, water, timber, rocks, and plants.

The large stone wall and the vegetation, and their changes throughout the year, give visitors an opportunity to witness seasonal change in the city. In the summer, lush green foliage and water dripping from the wall convey a feeling of vitality and growth, while in the winter the ice oozing from the wall and barren trees amplify a sense of winter stillness, strongly evoking a natural, wild landscape.

These gardens and landscapes show that landscape architecture can be far more than an aesthetically appealing means to meet such utilitarian needs as space for sport, play, movement in complex areas, sustainable infrastructure, and stormwater management. Plants are a key to moving beyond the utilitarian to make places people need and respond to emotionally. The intrinsic characteristics of plants can define the essence of a space—a wetland, meadow, or other ecological type, for example, or a certain kind of setting for human interaction, social engagement, or even for solitude. I think that knowing plants and their appearance and characteristics is fundamental to creating meaningful spaces for people. One could argue that one of the most important goals for landscape architects is to create spaces, gardens and landscapes where people want to be and where they can experience the full range of human emotions.

What do we ultimately want to do by using plants? I offer a quote by Dean Hole from Rory Stuart’s What are gardens for:

“… For visions of the invisible, for grasping the intangible, for hearing the inaudible, for exaltations…above the miserable dullness of common life into the splendid regions of imagination and romance.”

. . . . . . . . . . . .

I would like to acknowledge the help of Tyler Krob from MVVA who has shown me several MVVA projects and talked to me about their work in New York City, and Scott Streeb and Chris Matthews for showing me their offices in New York City and Cambridge. Thanks also to my colleague Stephen Richards, Partner at Gillespies in London, who put me in contact with MVVA, and to Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture of Brooklyn Bridge Park, for showing me practical and maintenance aspects of cultivating the park.

This essay is dedicated to all my current and previous passionate colleagues at Gillespies in London, students and colleagues at the University of Sheffield and Greenwich, and plant friends across the globe who have inspired me, shared with me their passion for plants and supported me in spreading the word, advocating and believing in our profession. – Giacomo Guzzon



In writing this post, I want to acknowledge the work of Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Birnbaum argues for the importance of writing about landscape architecture and sharing ideas to increase understanding of our work and its benefits, to gain professional standing as a highly valued discipline, and to achieve increased visibility among other allied professionals and clients (

Review of The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants by Georgina Reid

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants is a book about the many meanings of gardening, about the mysterious drive to garden, and the multitude of ways human beings go about it. It’s likely some readers will think some of the gardens Georgina Reid writes about are not gardens at all, but if that’s the case, they’ve probably missed the point.

We already have more than enough books that tell us how to make gardens for the complacent, Continue reading Review of The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants by Georgina Reid

End of year in a marginal garden

Autumn color, what little there was after a summer of rain, came late, then early snow ended the year much earlier than usual.

I’ve never written about marginal gardening–at least not using that specific term. But the concept has been background to my gardenmaking from the beginning. I first encountered the term, and some of its meanings, in a little-known book* by a Scottish scientist and poet, G.F. Dutton. The book’s title, Some Branch Against the Sky: The Practice and Principles of Marginal Gardening is “poetic” in the extreme, and the subject of the book, making a very personal garden in a wild and inhospitable part of Scotland, resonated in my consciousness for reasons I still don’t fully understand. Continue reading End of year in a marginal garden

Gardenlust by Christopher Woods – a Review

“Lust?” As in passion? sex? craving? sensuality? longing? fervor? desire?


The subject of Christopher Woods’ new book Gardenlust is the unquenchable impulse of humankind to create gardens, an impulse expressed in diverse and multitudinous ways. It is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” but to my mind it is more about the force than about the flower. In a very real sense, the book is about what happens before the garden is, before the garden becomes. And about what keeps the gardenmaker making gardens. It’s about human nature. Continue reading Gardenlust by Christopher Woods – a Review

So what’s the name of this Lindera? Glauca/Angustifolia/Salicifolia?

Variations in autumn Lindera foliage from shrubs in my garden. These are all from Lindera angustifolia var. glabra.

Confusion seems to reign in the naming of an increasingly popular, and to my eye, very beautiful, resilient, and easy shrub. Many of us have seen different variations of the name and wondered what is correct. Are there different species, or are the names simply confused?

Taxonomist Julian Shaw of the Royal Horticultural Society has at last provided the correct nomenclature. Here’s how I found out. Continue reading So what’s the name of this Lindera? Glauca/Angustifolia/Salicifolia?

A review of Dreamscapes: Inspiration and beauty in gardens near and far, by Claire Takacs


All images © Claire Takacs/Hardie Grant


Claire Takacs’ Dreamscapes: Inspiration and Beauty in Gardens Near and Far is a welcome addition to the canon of photographic garden books. This book of notable gardens, some very well known, some less so, is far more than another pretty coffee table book. Takacs (pronounced “Ta-kahsh” with a long “a” and accent on the second syllable) values light above all else, and she shoots her images in the light of early morning and at the end of day, in fog and mist, or in other singular lighting conditions. Her techniques create images that are gripping and compelling. (Her work is frequently seen in the best garden magazines.) As this new book shows, Takacs gives us a new way of seeing gardens. Continue reading A review of Dreamscapes: Inspiration and beauty in gardens near and far, by Claire Takacs

Garden memories

After another Garden Conservancy Open Day on July 14, Chester Higgins sent me a few iPhone photos of the garden. Chester isn’t just any visitor with a camera; he’s a well known and accomplished photographer with a long career at the New York Times. He even has his own Wikipedia page.

During the Open Day, Chester showed me some of his photos in black and white. Later, he sent me some of his images in color. I’ve converted them back to black and white (because they were a revelation to me) and made some edits to fit them to my blog format.

Chester said he’s interested in apertures, so here are two variations on a theme. Continue reading Garden memories

Fernando Martos: Experimental planting design in Spain by Giacomo Guzzon

Fernando Martos is experimenting with a new style of planting design, mixing the traditional formality of Mediterranean gardens with light and airy perennials and grasses not typical in this region.

This guest post is the second in a series on planting design by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He believes landscape architects need to be much more knowledgeable in planting design so that they are able to create characterful, living landscapes that meet the needs of users and reflect existing ecological conditions and sense of place. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London. He travels widely to meet designers from all over the world, observe planting projects in different climates and environments and share his passion with other professionals.
Continue reading Fernando Martos: Experimental planting design in Spain by Giacomo Guzzon