The size of a garden has very little to do with its merit. It is merely an accident relating to the circumstance of the owner. It is the size of his heart and brain and goodwill that make his garden either delightful or dull, as the case may be, and either leave it at the monotonous dead level, or raise it, in whatever degree he may, towards that of a work of art.
Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden
Many of us forget that we are saying something about ourselves when we embark on this journey called gardening. The best garden is made by someone who has wrestled his or her creation to the ground and tried to say something beyond the obvious statement: “Aren’t these beautiful plants, and lovely paving, and a well-crafted fence?” Style can merge with theme to reflect the heart and soul of the owner to such a degree that, after we have visited a garden, we know that person better.
Style should respect the architecture of the home. To diverge drastically from such dominant cues spells disaster; discord will be the result if you ignore this basic tenet. Three gardens come to mind that are distinct, but whose underlying style and ideas come shining through. I think first of Heronswood, on the Kitsap Peninsula in western Washington State, the home of Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones and their renowned nursery. Their modest home sits demurely in the midst of a garden that is all about the beauty and wonder of plants, executed with an enthusiasm that is unrivaled. The building is sited at the back half of a three-acre garden, nearly disappearing behind the lush vegetation.
The quiet architecture of their home serves as an accommodating backdrop, allowing plants to reign supreme here. They are arranged in a naturalistic style that recalls the English cottage garden and the work of Gertrude Jekyll; Dan does this with drama and a flair that would elicit accolades from a master like Jekyll. Color, texture, and sheer variety abound in a rich, almost baroque, manner. Spaces within the garden are simply laid out in a way that does not compete with the plantings but complements the beautiful combinations. The garden is a tour de force that borders on overwhelming in its staggering complexity. It is the ultimate plant lover’s paradise, as beautiful as the plants are varied.
Brian Coleman’s and Howard Cohen’s garden on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle is similar in the diversity and abundance of its plantings, but distinctive in its own right. They have rebuilt their house to reflect Victorian tastes; I doubt the Victorians could have executed the project so supremely. Their home sits on a lot of a typical size for its neighborhood, probably less than a quarter of an acre. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in impact. The house and garden are inextricable, both dense with details that are characteristic of the Victorian age. It is dizzying to see the front garden against the backdrop of the home’s opulent architecture. Griffins flanking the front stairs and a lamp‑blacked, gold-trimmed iron fountain are hallmarks of the period. The plantings are saturated with color, complementing the house’s rich color scheme and high contrasts of form and texture. The house and garden are a fantasy that leaps from the style pages of the late nineteenth century.
Last is a garden in El Paso, Texas, owned by Ann and Sam Davis and designed by Boston landscape architect Martha Schwartz. The hot, dry climate of southwest Texas was the perfect place to use stucco, inspired by the late Mexican architect, Luis Barragan, whose spare modernist style has become familiar in modern architecture and landscape design in the desert Southwest. Ann loves design that is clean and spare but distinctive, with loads of personality. She wanted a garden that would reflect this desire—that would make a statement. It does. With its architectural references, there is no doubt that it is in the Southwest; the few plants in the garden are all cacti. The garden is a series of cubes, each painted a different color inside and out, and each with a different focus. Small windows are cut to form sight lines down passages and through the walls that define the rooms. You cannot help but be drawn to these “Alice-in-Wonderland” views. The windows are not at eye level, so you find yourself bending or crouching slightly to get the perfect view. They are fun, whimsical; they draw you into the maze.
My favorite room is painted pink on the interior; one wall is set with a grid of large nails—both horrifying and wondrous. The light patterns are captivating, and you find yourself returning to this garden room just to see how the shadows have changed. Each room is equally spare, some more unsettling than others. It is not a garden of pretty things, but more like the house of wonders at an amusement park—beautiful in an eerie way that leaves you wondering what the maker intended. I think Ann wanted to be a provocateur, because the effect is shocking. I find the garden hauntingly beautiful and think back on my visit often. Such a garden is daring and playful—perfect in its hot, dry climate. The intensity of the colored walls defies the relentless sun of El Paso in August.
Each of these gardens presents a clear vision that is bold and thoughtful, that demonstrates passion and an indomitable pursuit of that vision. I admire the owners’ willingness to say something about who they are—making gardens that reflect their values. Gardening is about being clear-minded in your goals and having a dogged determination to realize them. These are the kinds of gardens I want to see, experience, and learn from.
Adapted and reprinted, with permission, from an inspiring and gloriously illustrated new book by Richard Hartlage, Bold Visions for the Garden: Basics, Magic, and Inspiration, published by Fulcrum Press in fall 2001.