Garden Designers Roundtable: Horticultural Idols

Plants are a particular passion of mine, but what fascinates me most is the way we design with plants. I’ve dedicated my professional life to the study of how we arrange and compose living plants. Planting design is not just about the plant as a horticultural or ornamental object; instead, it is a window into our culture, our beliefs about beauty, and perhaps most importantly, our relationship with nature.

For several years now, I’ve wrestled with what it means to develop my own style as a designer. I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of a decade working for Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, apprenticing and learning their iconic New American Garden style. Since leaving the firm in 2009, I’ve wondered how to adapt what I learned there and make my own contribution to the development of a uniquely American garden style, one rooted in the patterns of the American landscape.

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

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

Why Robinson Matters Today: The Wild Garden still reads like a manifesto written for today. Rick Darke’s recent republication of the book was perfectly timed. No one has yet written in such rich detail about how to create naturalistic plantings. Robinson’s ideas are fresh, original, and inspiring. Open any page in the book and you’ll find dozens of mind-blowing planting ideas. The rest of the Icons on this list owe much to Robinson.

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

Why Jekyll Matters Today: No one did color better than Gertrude Jekyll. While the importance of color in the garden may have lost ground to structure and seedheads, it still matters immensely. Color is light, and no one understood how to manipulate color associations as well as Jekyll. I recently read a few of her detailed articles on design; the depth of thought and brilliance amazed me. As a naturalistic designer, I had too long ignored color, but my designs have already improved because I have used some of her design insights.

Christopher Lloyd was one of the most innovative, interesting, and masterful gardeners of the 20th Century. Lloyd lived from birth to death in a single home: Great Dixter, a 15th century house renovated by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early twentieth century. The garden at Great Dixter was a canvas for Lloyd’s garden experimentation. Lloyd, a prolific and witty writer, revolutionized the English border by mixing tropicals, shrubs, and all kinds of unexpected combinations. Lloyd kept Great Dixter open to the public, and lived his life as one great dinner party. He was both hospitable and grumpy, but always one of the keenest horticultural minds of our time. All of Lloyd’s books are excellent, but his classic, The Well Tempered Garden might be some of the best planting advice I’ve ever read. That one book is better than 50 glossy coffee table books.

Why Lloyd Matters: Lloyd was the supreme master of the mixed border, perhaps one of the finest plantsmen of the century. His magnum opus was a 200 foot long border that he kept blooming from April to November. Lloyd’s border was legendary because of his skill in mixing plants from different habitats in the same space. Lloyd mixed large-leafed tropicals with woodland ephemerals and dry meadow grasses. What elevated this border from all other flowering borders was the way it exploited one’s associations of plants. Lloyd manipulated one’s association of a natural landscape by recalling a memory of feeling of nature, only to shatter it by adding an unexpected plant. The intentional incongruity of his plantings made you see each plant in a new and unexpected way.

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

Why Chatto Matters Today: Though not the first naturalistic gardener, Chatto nonetheless is the pioneer—the first garden structuralist—who blazed the way for brilliant plantsmen like Dan Pearson and Piet Oudolf. “Success depends on knowledge of plant provenance and on an understanding of natural plant associations,” writes Chatto in her book The Dry Garden. Her most famous and influential garden is the Gravel Garden. Begun in 1991 as a horticultural experiment, the Gravel Garden was converted from a former parking lot. The garden has never once been artificially watered—impressive especially considering it is a beautifully blooming perennial garden in the driest part of England. While her Gravel Garden rightfully deserves the attention it has received for its sustainable approach, it is her artistry in plant combination and natural association that makes her my idol. Chatto orchestrates an international ensemble of plants into combinations that have the same resonance and harmony of a native palette. Like no one else before, Chatto understands form, color, and texture not as abstract design principles, but as an extension of a particular place.

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

Why Ruys Matters Today: If you like Piet Oudolf, you need to know Mien Ruys.  While Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto were transforming the British garden, Ruys' work is the key to understanding much of what happened in continental Europe during the 20th century.  Ruys’ designs were known for their simplicity and clarity, a combination of Dutch pragmatism, Japanese stylization, and modernism. She combined this clarity with an exuberant use of perennials and grasses. For Ruys, the large use of herbaceous plants was not merely decorative, but an essential way to experience nature in a garden.  In this way, Ruys showed how planting is not just for ornament, but a way to experience space.  Ruys is considered the spiritual founder of the New Perennial Movement.

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

Why Oudolf Matters:  The work of Piet Oudolf reinforces perhaps the most powerful quality of great planting design: not an imitation of nature, but an artistic evocation of nature.  Oudolf says, "All my work is related to trying to recreate spontaneous feeling of plants in nature. The idea is not to copy nature, but to give a feeling of nature."  In an interview with The New York Times, Oudolf gave one of my favorite quotes.  Looking out over his perennial meadow, Mr. Oudolf articulated it this way: “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.”  Oudolf's goal is not merely to please the eye, but to reconnect our primal selves back to a natural world that we barely remember. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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