Tag Archives: Thomas Rainer

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 (https://ced.berkeley.edu/events-media/events/laep-symposium-the-aesthetics-of-planting-design).

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAaWGYh7QP8). 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 (https://www.dezeen.com/2018/09/05/opinion-charles-a-birnbaum-landscape-architecture-recognition-promotion/).

Resilient planting design for public urban spaces by Giacomo Guzzon

Sloterdijk intermodal station, the site of one of Ton Muller’s major public planting designs in Amsterdam (described below).

Resilient and sustainable planting design has become a subject of major interest in the world of landscape architecture, particularly for urban parks and public horticulture. Significantly, Marc Treib has organized a major symposium on the importance of planting design in landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley for February 2018 (The Aesthetics of Planting Design). Such a major international conference devoted to this subject is rather epochal in the world of landscape architecture, particularly in the United States, where landscape architects are assumed to care and know little about plants, though this seems to be changing. One who clearly does is Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose work I have had the opportunity to see a lot of, living in New York City. In 2013 Van Valkenburgh said in Landscape Architecture magazine:
Continue reading Resilient planting design for public urban spaces by Giacomo Guzzon

June 17 – Garden Conservancy Open Day at Federal Twist

Federal Twist will open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days on June 17 this year–earlier than ever before–and you are welcome to come. For information and driving directions, click on this link.

It’s been a rainy spring and I’m just back from almost a month in Spain and France. Over the next two weeks I’ll be busy “editing” the plants and pondering how to turn their profuse spring growth to best advantage.

The images in this post were taken on June 1 last year, so they are as close as I can come to showing what’s likely to be here on 17 June 2017 (a Saturday). I expect the daylilies will be in flower, the Japanese irises and Iris ‘Gerald Darby’, the Baptisias. Perhaps the Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ will be in bud. It all depends on the warmth of the coming days.

Come with an eye for detail. My garden is very much in the spirit of the layered plantings advocated so eloquently in Thomas Rainer’s and Claudia West’s book, Planting in a Post Wild World. Plant form and structure, and the interplay of shapes and textures, are the main thing in late spring and early summer here at Federal Twist.

Here is the Garden Conservancy description of the garden:  ‘When we moved into a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I immediately knew only a naturalistic, informal garden would be appropriate to the place. The garden is hidden. You enter through the house, where you first glimpse the landscape, a sunny glade, through a wall of windows. Huge perennials and grasses evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling (many plants are taller than you). The garden is in the New Perennial tradition: plants are massed in interwoven communities, and emphasize structure, shape, and form—which are long lasting—rather than flower.

Begun as an experiment to explore garden making in the challenging conditions of unimproved, heavy, wet clay, the garden is ecologically similar to a wet prairie, and is maintained by cutting and burning. Much of the garden peaks in mid-July, when plants reach mature height and flower, then a second peak occurs in October when low sunlight makes the grasses glow in yellows, russets, and golds.

Two small ponds attract hundreds of frogs, insects, and wildlife. Many gravel paths open the plantings to extensive exploration. The garden has been featured in The New York Times, Horticulture magazine, and in two books, Gardens of the Garden State (2014) and Planting in a Post-Wild World (2015). Recently, it appeared in the Garden Design Journal, the magazine of the Society of Garden Designers (UK) in January 2016, in the September 2016 in Gardens Illustrated, and the October issue of Better Homes & Gardens.’

Please consider visiting on June 17. Tickets, available at the door, are $7, fully in support of the work of the Garden Conservancy.


I’ve recently started a small garden design business on retirement from my full-time work. To visit my garden design website, click on the link below:


Creating nature … at the Chelsea Flower Show

(I visited the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 2015, as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Chelsea Garden Tour, given by CarexTours. Carolyn is now offering a special price on this year’s tour, but the offer expires March 15th. You can check it out here. This year’s line up of gardens looks really exciting. I’ve been on two of Carolyn’s tours and I recommend them highly.)

It may have been with intentional irony that Dan Pearson chose the most problematic site at Chelsea for his 2015 Chatsworth garden–a roughly triangular plot surrounded on all sides by broad, paved walkways and completely open to its surroundings. The image above shows the garden as I first saw it, in the midst of a moving crowd. There was so much visual distraction, at first I couldn’t see it. That is …

… until I got up close.

Quite a debate was sparked by Dan’s Chatsworth garden at the time. Media coverage focused on the the actual transport of a piece of the Chatsworth estate’s landscape, including trees and huge boulders, from the north of England to London. (This hyped media story “had legs,” at least in the British media.)  Some said this wasn’t a garden at all, that it was simply a natural piece of landscape moved to a new and novel place. Others said it certainly was a garden, not just a page torn from nature. In fact, it was both, and it was most definitely a designed garden.

In recently re-reading Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, I came across this passage, which set me thinking about Dan Pearson’s garden again:

“The irony of creating plantings that evince a sense of nature is that it requires a high degree of artifice. Literally transposing thirty square meters of a forest into an urban courtyard may not create the feeling of a forest at all … Exaggeration is at the heart of this process. Natural landscapes have impact because of their massive scale and the repetition of key patterns and processes over hundreds of acres. By comparison, our urban and suburban sites lack the size and context of their wild counterparts. In the wild, all of the details— sky, rock, soil, water, and plant— work together to create a rich sense of place. In contrast, buildings, roads, and cars often surround our designed landscapes. Our towns and cities are visually complex. In fact, our gardens are more likely to be surrounded by streetlights and power lines than waterfalls or boulder outcroppings. So in order to immerse a visitor in the feeling of a forest or grassland, we have to turn up the volume, creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.” *

So in this “visually complex” site full of crowds and movement and distraction, I found perhaps one of the most peaceful gardens ever made. Once I focused my attention on the details of the garden, though the crowd didn’t fade away, I felt I was a participant in another world. Dan is noted for his sensitivity to sense of place, and here, in the turmoil of a busy day at Chelsea, his garden existed as a separate place, “creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.”

Dan created pools of water, silent streams, miniature vignettes that, though they look entirely natural, combined plants from at least three continents. The plant selections were most definitely “exaggerated” in the sense that they intensified the experience of Chatsworth’s “nature.” Below, at left a Mahonia, a native of North America (‘Soft Caress” I believe) and at right a delicate Disporum, a native of China.

One might call this a garden of extreme artfulness, or exaggerated subtlety (irony abounds). Specially planted wildflower turf was grown on a thin substrate, brought to the site, and carefully adhered to the natural rocks. Below you can see the edge of the wildflower turf exposed slightly by the beating rain on the day I visited.

And here, American camassias with native British plants.

Creation of this artificial stream took great skill and knowledge.

This intriguing walkway, which goes nowhere, evokes many associations with the British past (some religious, some cultural).

I’ve read that some wept seeing this garden.

I was trying to take photos in the rain, with crowds buffeting against me; conditions could have been better.

If you want to see some fabulous images, just look at the main page of the Dan Pearson Studio website, where you will see a selection of full-screen images (without the crowds).

Of course the garden won “Best in Show.”


*Rainer, Thomas; West, Claudia (2016-02-04). Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (p. 146). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.

Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.)

Planting in a Post-Wild World COVER 3D

“The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, promised that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world.’ The presumption was that the wilderness was out there, somewhere … and that it would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society. But of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden… The wilderness, after all, does not locate itself, does not name itself… Nor could the wilderness venerate itself. It needed hallowing visitations from New England preachers…, photographers…, painters in oil…, and painters in prose… to represent it as … holy …”

–from Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory

  Continue reading Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

Thomas Rainer: Interpreting nature

This 500-year-old watercolor by Albrecht Durer is a masterpiece of realism, based on close observation of nature, but a nature interpreted and amplified.

I’m too close to the subject of this post, so it hasn’t come easily. My intent has been to write about Thomas Rainer’s lecture at New York Botanical Garden in March, but I’m in such complete agreement with him, I find it hard to distinguish my own thoughts from my memory of Thomas’s presentation. That said, I’ll give this a try. I do hope I don’t put any unattributable words in his mouth.

The native plant movement has produced some extraordinarily beautiful landscapes … and some appallingly ugly gardens. Many native-only gardens fail because they are created with too few plants, a lot of mulch, and abstract concepts of sustainability and conservation–all very unnatural conditions. Too often a native garden or a rain garden looks just the opposite of what it should be–a dry expanse of bark mulch punctuated by a few scattered plants struggling for life.

Continue reading Thomas Rainer: Interpreting nature

Straightening trees, opening voids

My previous post showed the Sunburst honey locusts in my Brooklyn garden bent over into a mass of drooping foliage at the center of the garden.


When Kerry Hand, who planted the same trees on his land in New Zealand, commented “Don’t think I would like that,” that really got under my skin. So late Wednesday I tied the trees back, anchoring them by thin cords to the fence. It makes quite a difference, and unfortunately opened the unattractive view to the houses opposite us.

Continue reading Straightening trees, opening voids

No visitors allowed: plant communities emerging

Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’

Most of the garden is missing.

I have to say “No” when people want to visit Federal Twist at this time of year.  Though some interesting things are happening, my garden depends on the structure of large plants for much of its effect. By late June–when it’s open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days–it’s ready to be seen.

But not now.

Here’s why … looking across the main area of the garden, the plant layer is low and, from a distance, lacking in interest. Many of these plants will grow to five or ten feet, creating a completely different landscape in a few more weeks.


One thing you may be able to see is this:  the plants are growing in a thick mat. Over the years, they have formed plant communities and, though there is constant change, the overall planting is self-sustaining–with some input from me, editing here and there, and engaging in occasional battle against annual weeds such as Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegeum vimenium).

But to find interest at this time of year, you need to observe details, get close up. Here, a cutleaf Japanese maple, and two plants endemic to this site, Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and a small Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). The Equisetum looks like a problem, but it isn’t. It doesn’t seem to have much effect at all on the other garden plants, it forms a very effective ground cover layer, and it makes a beautiful textured background. A winner in my book.


More Sensitive fern and Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), an introduced plant, along the long stone wall.


Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’, often reviled by British gardeners as unacceptably invasive. In my soil, it’s really tame. It’s taken five or six years to get it to cover this small four-foot circle. This import has become a favorite. Regardless of place of origin, its made for the conditions in my garden.


Here is another favorite, Ligularia japonica, an extraordinarily beautiful plant (I have several). The background is an expanse of Equisetum, dotted with rapidly growing self-seeded Filipendula ulmaria, Sanguisorba canadensis (which I encouraged by spreading seed), and two large clumps of self-seeded Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a classic prairie native, at the back.


At a path edge, more Sensitive fern, a native iris, and self-seeded Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and the large-leaved Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’. Both the Ironweed and Inula will shoot up to great heights by summer’s end, totally dominating this little plant community. Change here will be rapid. I’ll keep watch and intervene if necessary.


An edge-on view of a massive grouping of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, which was planted in one forty-foot-long swath about six years ago. It’s now developed into four or five masses, living in successful competition with the tall Joe Pye Weed, asters, Rudbeckia maxima, and many other plants. The change has been rather dramatic as stable plant communities have formed, but the effect when the Filipendula is mature and in bloom still reads as a single mass. I  much prefer the structural form and foliage of this plant to the rather garish blossom, which fortunately quickly fades to a beautiful bronze seed head. This plant community is a real success story. After my initial placement, the plants have worked out their own living arrangements through competition and mutual adjustment, and altered their distribution to grow most successfully.


And here another edge-on view showing an Astilbe ‘Purple Lance’ at front and a Euphorbia palustris beside Marc Rosenquist’s bronze sculpture, which serves as the metaphorical center of the garden.


Another area where competitive plants are doing a slow battle dance. Within a matrix of Equisetum, Sensitive fern, Iris pseudacorus, Sanguisorba, seedling Filipendula ulmaria, a Miscanthus yet to fully emerge, and even a couple of Sagittaria, which I must pull out. Now that is a plant I consider too invasive–at least in my difficult soil–to allow free rein. I’ll eventually intervene here, after I see what the plants want to do on their own. Maybe the winners will take care of themselves, maybe not.


Darmera peltata, below, isn’t the most vigorous plant in my garden, but manages to hold its own against the more competitive Petasites. Here it’s just fine beside the pond. I may eventually have to bring in more if it succumbs to the competition, but I like it enough to do that.


Two native invaders–Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’ (Prairie cord grass) and Equisetum–are coexisting easily. The Spartina has such tough rhizomes, it’s difficult to control without wholesale digging, but so far I’ve kept it in aesthetic balance.


One of many Sanguisorbas that have seeded around the pond. This is the common Sanguisorba canadensis. I encourage it for the white candles of bloom in autumn.


Also beside the pond, a self-seeded Penstemon digitalis, also indigenous to this place.


Smilacina just coming into bloom on the bank near the pond. I went to Paxson Hill Farm to get more this afternoon only to learn that David Culp had just stopped by and purchased two of the three in stock. I should have grabbed them last week.




One of the first irises to bloom, an unidentified Siberian.


But the native irises are more interesting for the long term. The flowering is brief, but their spiky foliage adds a lot of visual interest, and it lasts all season. All of the irises settle well into whatever community of plants they are placed in, unless totally overwhelmed by height and broad foliage. They certainly would not make successful companions with the giant Inula racemosa.


This native Geranium maculatum isn’t exactly a spring ephemeral, but it has only a brief early season. It returns reliably year after year, and seems to move around almost imperceptibly. A quiet, inconspicuous plant compared to most of the highly structured plants in the garden. It lives well in community with the other plants, and fades into the background after flowering.


Here in the woodland garden, I’m using shade tolerant plants to create a community, and it’s happening piecemeal.  Most visible now is Golden ragwort (Packera aurea), with various ferns, grasses and carex. The Japanese maples are in elevated stone beds, where I’ve added a variety of shade plants that can’t tolerate the totally saturated ground in this area–Darmera peltata, Rodgersia, Disporum, Dicentra, Polygonatum, and other things–a mess of plants I’ll have to sort out later this year.


The transition to the sunlit part of the garden–from the Packera to a small sea of Petasites in broken sunlight. The composition of the plant communities changes in the foreground where there is much more light.


I’ve made no mention of the topmost layers of the garden, the upper layers that are woody and therefore present in all seasons, unlike the as yet unrealized potential of the big herbaceous perennials. Looking across the width of the garden, from the Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ to a Sunburst honey locust, a hanging mobile in red, then the forest edge, you see the boundaries and signposts that define the garden as a forest-edge community. The camera foreshortens distance, making a depth of over 200 feet appear to be flat.


A long view gives a better approximation of relative distance and height and also shows, again, that the garden’s detail, its life, disappears on such a large scale. So I await the maturing of the characterful large perennials to fill out the scene.


Next up, after this month-long interregnum in blog posting, will be a meditation on Thomas Rainer’s March lecture at the New York Botanical Garden. The subject? Designed plant communities.

Ecological disruption: Has Travis Beck been in my garden?

Fallen giant White Pines: a major ecological disturbance next to my garden

Ecological Disturbance

I’ve been thinking about the seventeen tall white pines that fell just outside my garden, casualties of Hurricane Sandy, leaving a giant, linear wood pile on the southern border. Thinking specifically about how to accommodate my garden to their fallen presence and, in the longer term, to the effects their absence will have on the garden and the surrounding woods.

The garden will certainly get more southerly light now, but other less immediately obvious and long-term ecological changes will be set in motion too.

Continue reading Ecological disruption: Has Travis Beck been in my garden?