The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Romance



What makes for a romance?  An attraction that cannot be denied.  An attraction that evolves from the excitement generated by the hope that a relationship might lead to a steadfast commitment.  The romance suggested and generated by the possibility of love-who hasn’t experienced it?  Gardeners romance their gardens-meaning they seek to establish a  relationship with their environment, their love of plants,  and their property to a mutually satisfying end.  I never met a gardener that was not committed to the long term.  However, mutually satisfying outcomes are rare.  Things go wrong.  Plants die.  Taste’s change.  More than rare, garden outcomes that stir the heart are short lived.  Ephemeral.  This makes the possibility of true romance all the more desirable.


Nature-the object of every gardener’s sincere affection.  On occasion, that love is returned.  Sometimes I am face to face with it in such a way that takes my breath away.  But more often than not, nature has another idea in mind.  I have had my hopes dashed more often than I care to recall.  The weather here last spring was anything but.  All of the efforts made to protect the spring flower buds-spurned.  There are less dramatic challenges to one’s love for the garden.  A lack of rain-or too much.  The neighbor’s kid or the neighborhood rabbit who snaps all the lily buds off.  The specimen evergreen that is not so happy where you have planted it.  The effort it takes to improve the organic content of the soil.  I suppose the spring will eventually come when I think I’ve had enough-but it hasn’t happened yet. 


Anyone who gardens long enough realizes that a romance has its ups and downs.  There are on occasion those perfect moments. An hour or a day or a season that enchants and utterly satisfies.  They could be very simple, and not so readily apparent to a casual observer.  The sun emerging after a spring rain.  A quiet hour spent weeding.  Watching a hummingbird feed.  How the roses look just before they bloom.   


That June day several years when the roses were blooming like I had never seen them before-heart stoppingly romantic.  That summer day when all is good enough in the garden such there is time to take time to enjoy it.  There are those perfect moments that come when you least expect them, and are over before you know it.  That fairly accurately describes my relationship with nature.  Never easy, and often times irritating and disappointing.  Despite all that does not work,  a life without a serious relationship with nature has no appeal to me. 


This cold windy and snowy February moment that Milo and I shared in the garden-satisfying indeed.  I am sure the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable have an equally personal romance with nature-be sure to read on.


Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Inspiring

inspiration 009

I bought this poster of an 1805 pen/ink/watercolor and graphite work by William Blake at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in 1968. I was 18, and in New York to see the Broadway production of  ”Hair”-if you don’t know what that was, you’re just too young. The poster has been in my possession for 42 years; I look at it more often than you might think. Why?  I am inspired by it.  “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” has stormy weather, the interaction of opposing forces, a winged and horned creature hovering, the sun woman with the wings of an angel perched on a craggy outcrop no bigger than she-a landscape. The color relationships are exquisite.  Some days I think it is about good and evil.   Other days I think it is about the beauty of tension, like that moment just before a drop of water falls from a branch after a rain.  Other days yet I think it is about the power of a relationship.  The similar shape and expression of the four hands dramatically encloses the space between them. The composition is astonishing; I never tire of it.  Did I know I would be a gardenmaker at 18?  Absolutely not. But I did have an instinct to collect images that spoke to me like this one does.  The instinct to be inspired is a strong one.

inspiration 015

Inspiration is any image, thought, exchange or lightening bolt that has the power to move me to invent.  That said, I have no need to immediately understand why images move me-I just need to collect them.  The reason I chose to select it will make itself known, sooner or later.  This is not an unusual activity-I have lots of clients who rip pages from magazines, and show me pictures of family events-something in each image moves them. Brides in particular are very good at folders stuffed with images of this bouquet and that cake. The words that adequately explain being moved to invent can be complicated.  An image that expresses the entire idea in a stirring way-an inspiration.  All of the pictures in this essay-images that have inspired me.  The above pictured landscape from a magazine is natural, graceful and subtle.  A path barely visible moves the eye from the foreground to the background-to that place where the almost horizontal line of sunny grass directs your eye to the break in the trees.  Through the break, a stout tree trunk which is the furthest object from my eye. The landscape is composed to encourage you to go to that stout tree trunk; do you see it?  This image inspired me to design in a way that strongly describes the depth of the space.


People cherish different things-many of which have roots in their own particular history or memory.  I believe this photograph of a peony was taken by my Mom-but I could be wrong.  Some images I have had for so many years I no longer remember their provenance.  The important thing is that I associate the beauty and the amazing structure of flowers with her.  We had quite the long relationship.  We had a precious relationship over flowers and gardens.  Keeping that alive is no small part of what inspires me to work.

inspiration 011

What inspires me in this picture is the story behind it.  Yew Dell Gardens is a botanical garden just outside of Louisville Kentucky.  Theodore Klein and his wife had a commercial nursery on these 33 acres, growing countless plants here until his death in 1998.  The property was purchased, and reinvented as a botanic garden.  The above pictured allee is in fact a pair of adjacent nursery rows of American holly, now very old, and very close together.  No book on proper horticultural practices would condone planting large trees or shrubs this close together-but here is the result of what would be considered poor spacing.  How these nursery rows inadvertently became a beautiful landscape feature inspires me.  I have been waiting since the first day I saw this picture for a client to come along that would be as excited reinterpeting this idea as I am.  I feel sure the time will come.

inspiration 020

This is an image from an old garden journal which now survives as a collection of images I treasure. The landscape is simple, striking, and very spatially composed.  Elements both contemporary and traditional interact in so many ways.  The abstract relationships of the shapes and colors- spare but lively.  The narrative-a table and chairs on a terrace with a mountain in the background-very traditional.  The long row of whatever is blooming white leads the eye from the foreground, to the background.  The successful integration of the abstract composition with the traditional story-this inspires me.

inspiration 014

These trees with whitewashed trunks in a garden in the south of France make a distinct reference to agriculture.  Fruit trees would sometimes have their trunks whitewashed with a kaolin compound, to deter insects.  Kaolin, the same clay which is the basis for face powder, is a benign and useful compound.  The visual appearance-gorgeous.  The gardens of others inspire me.  I encourage clients to cut and collect any image that gets their attention-even if it is not clear what attracts them.  Sooner or later some thread that connects all of them will become clear.  The relationship of agriculture to landscape design-this interests and inspires me.

inspiration 016

The maze at Hatfield-pictured in the background of this photo- is one of my favorite gardens.  It would be enough, the beautiful maze so beautifully maintained, but what truly inspires me about it is the grade.  The maze is built in a subtly sunken space.  To my eye, that simple grade change is what transforms this garden from beautiful, to incredibly beautiful.  This designer-truly inspired.  Every time I see this image, I am struck by how a single simple and sweeping design move can utterly transform a space.  Any space can be transformed -I am inspired by that thought, too.

inspiration 018

How I see this combination of poppies and grass echo repeats the feelings I have about the Hatfield maze.  Beautifully unexpected?  Unexpectedly beautiful?  This is always on my mind. This unexpected pairing of plants is a design move that delights the eye.  The nature of each plant gives life and emphasis to the other-in color, texture and pattern.  This planting, for that short time while the poppies are in bloom, is a celebration of the ephemeral beauty of nature.

Cormany Files 169

Mom Julia never tired of seeing my projects, nor did she ever stop encouraging me to be the best I could be.  Her accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and photographer inspired me to be so bold as to try things, and not be afraid to redo what didn’t work out.  Her image I keep in my heart, not in a folder.  I keep her memory close by. But the idea is the same.  There are images, relationships, memories and experiences that inspire.  Anything that inspires invention-treasure it.  Treasure them.

The first draft of this essay I wrote in 2010.  I was inspired to rewrite it for this occasion-the January post for the Garden Designers Roundtable.  Every one of them has inspired me on one occasion or another.  On the strength of this, I would invite you to read what they have to say about inspiration.

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin, TX

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

The Garden Designers Roundtable: Cheap And Chic

I am sure I have read countless articles entitled “Cheap and Chic”-as if cheap and chic were truly a believable or desirable place to be.  I favor cheap if it doesn’t look and act cheap-no further explanation is necessary here.  A vast planting of hellebores looks fancy, whether it came from seed, or from giant one gallon pots. As for chic-not the focus of any gardener.  Those magazine pages picturing gardeners is spotless clothes and shoes are about something other than gardening.  Great design has nothing to do with cost.  It is the doing that costs.  An extensive landscape project with mature plant material installed all at once-expect to spend lots.  Make it a life’s work-expect to spend lots of your time, effort and energy.  The urn pictured above with bamboo stakes glued around a circular form-cheap and chic.  Meaning properly proportioned. Scaled correctly for the space.  A garden urn and pedestal indoors?  Filled with what looks like 200 varnished natural bamboo stakes?  Satisfyingly stylish, with a dash of the unexpected.  A fireplace full of candles collected over time?  Collections beautifully or unusually displayed make a strong visual impression.  The fireplace strung with a pair of mirror garlands-chic in the fashion sense of the word.  The metal angel hair  draped over the fountain looks sumptuous as it is too far away for close inspection.  Up close, you would know it was cheap.          

Available everywhere, even in your own drawer or shed, are objects whose shape is as interesting as their use. Vintage augurs rusty from disuse are available for a song.  Strung with lights, and hung from a tree branch-amazingly dressy.   

One of the holiday season’s most recognizable decorations-giant rayon weatherproof bows.  The ribbon has one finished faux felt side.  The backside is most definitely the back side.  They are usually made by a bow making machine that keeps the finished side out, and the back side hidden from view.  The bright red version is common on wreaths, garlands, and car bumpers and lampposts this time of year.  The wine red version-I thought it had possibilities.     

The cloud of red curly willow in the pots in the front of the shop is remarkable given the natural shape and contours of the branches.  The cinnamon orange color-rich and vibrant as only natural color can be.  Yes, the sticks are cheap.  They are especially cheap if you grow your own.  Grow your own, create your own, repurpose and reimagine what you already own-what you spend in doing such is the most satisfying way to spend.

The wine red rayon bows take on an entirely different feeling paired with the willow.  This color takes on a jewel like look, in relationship to the color of the willow.  A 5.00 machine made cheap bow transformed a winter look into a very dressy holiday look.   

Dark and intense color is rich looking, no matter the material you use to achieve it.  I am not a bow maker, but who needs to know that?  I sure can glue loops onto a cardboard backing.  And I can glue loops big enough to disguise the emergency light installed dead center to the front door.    

Simple is always cheap.  The time you spend second guessing an idea, or revising, or agonizing over what to do can be an expensive outlay of time.  Trusting your first instinct about what to do-much cheaper.  An idea simply expressed is cheaper-less costs less.  A simple idea repeated until is makes a strong visual impact-chic.  My clients who envision 100 boxwoods in pots for their landscape-not cheap, but how chic!   

For gardeners in my zone, a little lighting outdoors can be stunning.  The snowy weather comes free of charge.   

How do other members of our Garden Designer’s Roundtable see cheap and chic?  You are free to read.  Sharing is chic.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA

The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Plants and Memory



A memory can be triggered by many things.  The smell of lilacs in the spring.  The fragrance of a rose.  A mass of daisies, blooming.  Plants that bring memories flooding back to me mostly have to do with my mother’s garden.  Roses-oh yes, so many roses.  A gingko tree, grown from seed to a spectacular size.  Tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs in pots.  Orchids, hanging from the trees. And the zinnias she grew from seed.  I never see a zinnia without thinking of her. 

But my memories of her aside, the big old evergreen trees that it has been my pleasure to meet make me feel zero at the bone.  Zero at the bone?  A feeling which is primeval.  Elemental.  For me, giant old trees evoke memories that are not tied to specific events.  They may provoke memories of which I am only dimly aware. 

I am sure this sense of belonging to the primeval forest is why it is so difficult to take down a big tree.  Even a damaged or sick old tree.  This client was very attached to a pair of old and weary Norway spruce planted just a few feet from the foundation of the house.  Taking them down was not an option.  Planting more of them at the road, a fitting tribute.  I always admired her reluctance to interfere with with a chain saw.  The landscape had an aura that would not have been possible without those old trees.     


These trees may be many years away from  evoking a memory of the primeval forest, but the impulse was there to plant them. 

Giant old trees whose life spans many gererations of people are as rare in urban areas as they are revered.  Old large properties that have never been clear cut to make way for neighborhoods provide homes for old trees.  The steward-gardener who takes great pains to look after them is a person for whom those trees evoke a memory.  In my area, there are old cemeteries whose old trees are spectacular.  Many cities have parks, and for good reason.  Exposure to an old, natural or archetypal landscape is comforting, and thought provoking.

The Estivant Pines nature sanctuary on the Kewenaw Peninsula in the upper peninsula is a protected home to many old pines.  Pictured in the Michigan Nature Association blog, this is the trunk of one of the largest and oldest of those pines. The preservation of these old trees is the result of the work, patience and determination of many-all of whom have a memory that is important to nurture. 

This post is but one of many featured at the Garden Designer’s Roundtable today on the subject of memory and plants.  My special congratulations to Andrew Keys, whose book   Why Grow That When You Can Grow This   has just been published on this very topic.  If the book is as exuberant and sassy as he is, it should be a great read!    

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA