Gardens, Art, and Travel

An interview with Pacific Northwest gardener Daniel Mount

Daniel Mount is a botanist, a writer, a photographer, an artist, a teacher, and above all a gardener. At home in the Pacific Northwest, as a professional gardener, he creates and manages private gardens around Puget Sound, consults on others, and together with his partner, tends a small farm in the Snoqualmie River Valley. Daniel is active in the local horticulture community and is a regular contributor to Pacific Horticulture.


A conversation between editor Lorene Edwards Forkner and garden professional Daniel Mount.

LEF: Daniel, you’re a horticultural polymath—your expertise in a broad range of subjects informs everything you do in a garden. Does this ring true?

DM: I often describe myself as a “collagist”—a blend of my background in fine art and botany. Garden design involves balancing shape and color and, like so many other art forms, typically begins in two dimensions on paper. But actually creating and tending a garden means managing relationships between plants as they develop over time. In fact, I think of myself as more of a “gardener” than a “designer.”

LEF: Where did you grow up and how did you come to the work you do today?

I’m a little bit of everywhere. I was raised in the Midwest—I think that’s where my love for open prairies comes from. In 1984 I moved to St. Louis where I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Later I arrived in Seattle to study Landscape Architecture but decided instead to pursue gardening.

The entrance to the Orto dei Semplici Elbano at Santa Caterina. Photo: Daniel Mount

The entrance to the Orto dei Semplici Elbano at Santa Caterina. Photo: Daniel Mount

I moved to Europe in 1996. For the next 3 years I worked for the Ethel Rae Perkins Garten Gestaltung in Cologne, Germany and in a botanical garden on the Island of Elba. [Ed: see “A Garden on a Mountain on an Island in the Sea” Pacific Horticulture, fall 2009] Gardening in Germany and Italy taught me to appreciate formal landscape design but also to embrace looseness. Europeans accept a few weeds—they call them “wildflowers.” They taught me to lessen my grasp on tidiness. Ultimately I returned to the Pacific Northwest for its legendary gardening climate and began my business in late 1999.

LEF: How do you approach designing a garden?

DM: I’m like a shrink! I try to engage my clients, tease out their emotional connection to the garden, and lure them into a relationship with the finished landscape. My gardens don’t have a particular look; I want the finished project to depict each individual in garden form.

I begin by asking a lot of questions, like what’s their favorite time of year in the garden? I get them to describe memories of their favorite plants and how they plan to use the finished landscape. From that almost dream state beginning I move on to assessing the site’s growing conditions factoring in light, soil, and budget. My goal is to marry the ideal garden of my client’s imagination with existing landscape conditions.

A good design starts with a strong concept that is a good fit with the garden’s owner. But a garden is never static. Over the life of the gardens I tend I’m constantly editing and making changes as the garden matures. Gardens change—so do clients.

Dahlia 'Urchin' Photo: Daniel Mount

Dahlia ‘Urchin’ Photo: Daniel Mount

LEF: A few years ago you wrote several articles for Pacific Horticulture on using color in the garden. We called the series “Over and Under the Rainbow.” The Garden Writers Association even awarded you a gold medal for “A Gardener Comes to Terms with Red,” the first in the six-piece series. Tell us about your thinking with that project.

DM: That series really struck a chord with people. Working with color in the garden is really about seeing and becoming aware of the many variations inherent in each hue. For instance, in that first piece I wrote:

“… I would say the problem with red in the garden isn’t red but green. Greens dominate gardens and green is red’s opposite, or complement. As red’s complementary color, green makes red angry—makes it “redder” if you will, isolated. Red needs to be invited in, coaxed into harmonious relationship with the rest of the garden. Pure red is rare in plants, and that works to our advantage as gardeners. More often, one finds cool red tinged with blue: cerise, crimson, and maroon. Or warm red livened with yellow: scarlet, cinnabar, and vermillion. These two directions of red are the key to its use, and they should never be mixed.”

Nicotiana alata 'Lime Green' Photo: Daniel Mount

Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ Photo: Daniel Mount

These days I’m actually using less color but am more aware of how colors change over the course of the day with the shifting light. And I’m more and more drawn to green gardens filled with texture.