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October Garden Edition:
Movers and Shakers of Garden Design

by Linda Coyner

Many garden but few gardeners have the power to reach into the future to shape landscape style and fashion. Gertrude Jekyll, Mien Ruys, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Church, Roberto Burle Max, and Edwin Lutyens are just some of the extraordinary gardeners from the last century who influence today’s garden design.

Andrew Wilson introduces 56 of them in Influential Gardeners; The Designers Who Shaped 20th-Century Garden Style (Clarkson Potter, 2003), transporting readers through photographs and scholarly text into the designers’ ideas and gardens.

Wilson has the perfect background for the task: He teaches the professional diploma course in Garden Design Studies at the world-famous Ichbald School of Design in London and was the chairman of the Society of Garden Designers. Wilson tackled this daunting task by organizing the designers by their primary focus — color and decoration, plants, concept, form, structure, texture, and materials. An introduction to each section provides an overview of the times. More detailed essays about the individual designers follow, providing just enough information to whet one’s appetite. The result is an encyclopedic reference to garden design.

Color and decoration was the focus of Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, and Penelope Hobhouse. These designers saw themselves as decorators, filling beds with planting color and texture. Gertrude Jekyll, of course, is the undisputed master of color and decoration. Inspired by Michel Eugene Chevreul’s The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their applications to the Arts, Jekyll applied color theory to large-scale borders.

Her collaboration with architect Edwin Lutyens resulted in their most successful projects. Jekyll supplied the planting design and Lutyens, the structure and hardscape. “Their schemes were not for the faint-hearted, “ according to Wilson. Jekyll “took her ideas from the cottage gardens she saw near her home and applied them on a grand scale and in carefully ordered color sequences.”

Those who focused on plants — either in the sense of trophies, a carryover from the Victorian period, or to create a design — opened the door to the naturalistic school. The author includes Piet Oudolph, famous for brightly colored herbaceous perennials and grasses, and Jens Jensen, whose “prairie style” captured the qualities of the wider landscape.

Mien Ruys’ color plantings also focused on plant form. Breaking with another tradition, she pursued professional training in landscape architecture. The author describes her as “a major link between the plant-orientated gardening of Britain, the horticultural traditions of the Netherlands, and the modernism of the wider continent of Europe.”

Beth Chatto’s focus on plants emphasized working with nature and only growing plants adapted to suit local conditions. Wilson describes her work as a mixture of art and science, researching which plants worked best in a given area and which associations thrived and under what circumstances.

Pioneer designers focused on concept or an overriding theme “blurred the line between garden and sculpture,” according to the author, opening the proverbial garden gate to abstract sculpture. Geoffrey Jellicoe, Isamu Noguchi, Martha Schwarz, and Peter Walker are a few of the designers who fall into this group.

The use of three-dimensional form in design is expressed in architectural and planted elements, the author explains. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Christopher Tunnard, and Fletcher Steele have design styles associated with form. Wright struggled to accommodate natural and man-made forms. The house in Fallingwater, Pennsylvania is a “rare example of harmony achieved through the direct contrast of forms,” according to Wilson.

The author explains “structural emphasis” as the contrasting of geometry and form of a garden’s structure with the irregular, organic shapes of found in nature. Proponents of this approach included Thomas Church, Russell Page, and Dan Kiley. Church’s El Novillero garden illustrates his style: “Perched on the side of the Sonoma Valley, California, looking out to the Pacific beyond, this garden has a structure that comes from the regular grid in decking and paving that underpins the entire design and from the sinuous curves of lawn and swimming pool that counter this regularity.”

Roberto Burle Marx, Anthony Paul, and Vladimir Sitta are three designers who focused on texture, which included the tactile experience as well as the arrangement of foliage. Marx applied his background in art to landscape, applying richly textured plant materials in “huge swathes and drifting color and patterns of light and shade....”

Designers famous for their use of materials include Edwin Lutyens, partner to Gertrude Jekyll. Lutyens, the author says, took pride in using local stone. French designer Gilles Clément stands out as one whose sensitive handling of plants is balanced by a bold use of hard materials. Wilson describes him as “a champion of biodiversity, sustainability and ecological prudence.” His Jardin Planetaire project, the author explains, attempts to demonstrate how we can continue to consume, exploit, and develop without exhausting the planet’s resources.

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