Read This: 3 garden design books for your holiday giving (or getting)

I read a lot of gardening books, especially those about design. Three books stand out for me this year as particularly worthy of being on your favorite gardener’s wish list — or your own. Aside from their focus on garden design, they couldn’t be more different, covering topics as diverse as modern designs from around the world, how other arts can influence a garden’s design, and the symbolism of Zen temple gardens in Japan. Two were published this year, the other appeared in 2011, and all are available in hardback for that hefty, impressive presentation when the wrapping paper is ripped off.

Gardens in Detail

Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs (2014) by Emma Reuss. At more than 400 pages and 3.5 pounds, this tome gives you your money’s worth and then some. Despite its size, however, it never bogs down in technical language or esoteric discussion as it dissects the design elements of 100 contemporary gardens. Mainly from the U.K. and the U.S. but also, refreshingly, countries as disparate as Iran, Australia, Japan, Brazil, India, France, and China, each garden is showcased across four pages and a half-dozen photographs. An insightful overview covering the designer’s approach and site challenges is followed by concise descriptions of 4 or 5 design techniques used in each garden. The gardens are organized in 10 chapters with broad headings like Art, Composition, Lifestyle, Colour, and Atmosphere. The 4-page-per-garden format makes it an easy book to pick up and put down, especially as you’ll want to digest what you’ve learned about each garden before turning the page to read about the next.

Author and garden designer Emma Reuss lives in London, and her book has a definite English slant. But I love that she includes gardens from all over the world and writes about them with confidence and an accessibility that makes design less of a mystery. Gardens in Detail is smart without being dense, with just enough detail to give you a sense of each garden and help you understand what makes it captivating.

The Artful Garden

The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design (2011) by James van Sweden, with Tom Christopher. A pioneer of the New American Garden style, which popularized mass plantings of grasses and perennials in naturalistic, meadow-inspired designs and rejected the stiff regularity of lawns and foundation shrubs, landscape architect James van Sweden, who died last year at age 78, was a proselytizer who often spoke publicly and authored several books about design.

Published in 2011, The Artful Garden, co-authored with Tom Christopher, is his final book. Just as his design style embraced plants and ecology over mere architecture, so too does his book speak to gardeners, to fellow plant lovers. Here, in his cheerful, accessible prose, he urges gardeners to explore and embrace other art forms — music, dance, painting — as sources of inspiration for garden design. “Few of us,” he writes, “whether professional or amateur, would, if asked, deny that garden design is a fine art. Yet, with rare exceptions, we do not treat it as such. We take our inspiration from nursery catalogs or gardens that we have visited. Maybe we think it would be pretentious to compare what we do to what we might find on the wall of a gallery or on a pedestal in the Louvre. The truth is, though, by failing to make this connection, we rob ourselves of what should be the designer’s most powerful tool and guide.”

For gardeners interested in design, this book will broaden your ideas of what a garden can be. Using examples of gardens designed by his firm, Van Sweden urges us to both expand our sources of inspiration and use what touches us to make deeply personal and artistic gardens.

Japanese Zen Gardens

Japanese Zen Gardens (2014) by Yoko Kawaguchi. For a long time, Japanese gardens puzzled me. The tranquility of koi-filled ponds, expanses of moss, and artfully pruned Japanese maples were often overshadowed, to my eye, by a certain rigidity of style, expressed in tightly shorn shrubs, extreme restraint in plant choices, and, most perplexing of all, courtyards of raked gravel and boulders with no plants at all. Were these rock-and-gravel spaces even gardens, I wondered? I knew I was missing something crucial, but what?

Japanese Zen Gardens, a new book by Yoko Kawaguchi, explains the symbolism and philosophy behind the Japanese dry garden, what Westerners call a Zen garden, giving me a better appreciation of this enigmatic style. Each carefully placed stone represents a larger natural feature — an island, mountain, or waterfall — as well as, perhaps, an allegorical figure from the Buddhist tradition. In the first half of the book, Kawaguchi features a dozen or so Zen temple gardens, delving deeply into the founding of each garden and the political climate at the time — timelines that, for many of these ancient gardens, span hundreds of years, with the result that the text sometimes bogs down in historical minutiae. In the second half, she helpfully explores the motifs and symbols incorporated into the design. Throughout this oversized volume, you’re treated to breathtaking photographs of the gardens in every season, by photographer Alex Ramsay. This is a gorgeous coffee table book, perfect for the garden-loving traveler or anyone who wants to understand these spiritual, highly symbolic gardens a little better.

Disclosure: The Monacelli Press sent me a copy of Gardens in Detail and Aurum Publishing Group sent me Japanese Zen Gardens for review. I purchased The Artful Garden myself. I reviewed all three at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Design

Steel walls and soft grasses in travel-influenced Mirador Garden


A week ago I enjoyed the opportunity to photograph another of landscape architect Curt Arnette‘s gardens. Frothy, rose-colored clouds of Gulf muhly, tawny spikes of Lindheimer muhly, and a chartreuse Habiturf lawn wrap the large front garden in a cozy quilt of softness that counterbalances the flat planes and sharp angles of this contemporary Southwest Austin home.


Even at curbside, you know this garden is going to be big on ornamental grasses. No stiffly pruned topiary shrubs here, and definitely no overused, faux-Tuscan spires of Italian cypress.


Instead, native grasses grouped in contemporary blocks of color and texture keep the garden organized, even as it blends into the surrounding landscape.


But the big surprise in the front garden is a tiered arrangement of rusty steel walls that comes into view as you enter the driveway. Inspired by the adventurous homeowner, who had admired a similarly terraced garden on her world travels, Curt’s design replaced an existing stone retaining wall with slim panels of steel that trace the contours of the sloping lot.


Native and adapted dryland plants fill the terraces and broad ramps that provide gardening access.


At one end, bristling heads of Yucca rostrata shimmer atop a wedding-cake tier of steel curves.


From the house, it’s a dramatic amphitheater filled with an audience of native and adopted Texans.


The Habiturf lawn, which carpets the slope from the steel walls down to the driveway, is the first residential use I’ve seen in person. I like its tufted, shaggy texture. An ecological lawn developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Habiturf is a low-mow, low-water alternative for the U.S. Southwest and Southern Plains.


The Habiturf lawn is allowed to spread naturalistically under and around yuccas, ornamental grasses, and other plants rather than being kept separate, which must make mowing a challenge. But then again, Habiturf rarely needs mowing. Curt told me that native wildflowers are seeded in the lawn for a meadowy spring display.


A line of native Lindheimer muhly grasses edges the driveway and glows against the red steel.


Gulf muhly and blue grama grasses catch the light atop a retaining wall next to the house.


Every view of the front of the house is softened by grasses, including this scrim of Lindheimer muhly.


At the front gate, a raised bed of agave and prostrate rosemary greets you. I didn’t enter here, however…


…but walked down the driveway to another gate set between head-high steel planter boxes.


These are filled with gopher plant, red yucca, and other highly drought-tolerant plants. The blocky walls create privacy for the courtyard garden within.


Fencing panels between the boxes admit light and frame views.


Another fence panel, this one in a stone wall along the driveway, offers a view of a see-through outdoor fireplace.


Entering the courtyard garden, you see a guest house or studio overlooking a board-formed concrete trough.


This rectangular, negative-edge pool is the focal point of a raised-bed vegetable and cutting garden.


It’s a spectacular water feature that reminds me of a similar one in Christine Ten Eyck’s courtyard garden (click and scroll for pics).


At the corner of the guest house/studio, rainwater is collected and stored in a silo-like cistern, which must be handy for watering the raised beds.


Roses, iris, and zinnias give this space a cheery, casual vibe, but it steers clear of cottage style with an open layout and the precise lines of the steel-edged beds.


Monarchs were nectaring on zinnias this morning, making a temporary, red-orange color echo.


A wider courtyard view


It’s not all edibles and cutting flowers in the courtyard. This planter contains succulents and spiny dyckias.


An inside view of one of the steel planter walls that enclose this garden


There are a lot of elevation changes here, bridged by a white, stone path that appears to float over wooden decking and an L-shaped dry stream that cuts through the courtyard.


The path leads like a conveyor belt to the sheltered front door. Large windows admit views of the garden to those inside.


Looking back from the entry, you enjoy this view of the courtyard garden, which, like the garden out front, is terraced with steel retaining walls. Frothy blue Russian sage fills one terrace; dwarf pomegranates underplanted with silver ponyfoot fill another.


I’m not sure how you’d reach the pomegranates to harvest the fruit, but they make for a pretty view from above, especially against the icy-blue ponyfoot groundcover.


Along one side of the house, where runoff from the neighbor’s uphill lot once eroded the slope and threatened the foundation of the house, a naturalistic terraced dry stream safely moves water downhill and serves as a rugged path when the weather is dry.


The water flows out to a grassy meadow behind the house. You can see a hint of their nice view of the hills.


Midway along the narrow side yard, a garden porch offers pretty views from inside and a quiet place to sit. As in the courtyard, steel planters display color-blocks of plants, including variegated flax lily, ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, and canna.


Heading around back of the house, you climb back up from a meadowy lawn. Rusty steel retaining walls again set the tone and contrast with the creamy whites of the house and paths.


Here’s a wide view of the sunny rear terrace. The lawn here is drought-tolerant zoysia, which has been allowed to grow long.


At the edge of the terrace a steel-edged swimming pool reflects the sky, and a rain chain hanging from the eave adds a vertical punctuation mark. Walls of windows must make the garden and pool seem part of the interior.


The terrace offers views of a pergola-shaded dining area and surrounding garden that Curt designed.


Koosh-ball Yucca rostratas cluster near the entrance to the space, and creamy flowering lantana attracts butterflies.


As does blue mistflower, seen in the background.


The homeowner is training figs up the steel posts of the pergola to recreate a garden arbor she admired on her travels. It’ll be a leafy bower hung with figs in a few years.


Spotted manfreda and a blue-green ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave add evergreen color and structure amid billowing white roses and blue mistflower.


Back up on the terrace, here’s a parting view of the framing hills, rounded yucca heads, meadow-lawn, and sky-reflecting pool.


My thanks to the homeowner for allowing me to share her lovely garden here, and to Curt for introducing me to another of his plant-centric garden designs. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

The High Line park in NYC, a skyline promenade, part 2


At the end of Part 1 of my post about visiting the High Line in New York City last weekend, we’d just entered Chelsea Market Passage. After the dimness of the passageway, you exit into bright sunlight on the aptly named Sun Deck.


Wooden lounge chairs resembling stacked pallets are surely the most popular seats on the High Line.


If someone stands up, a passerby darts over to snag a seat.


Some of the chairs have wheels that roll along rails, allowing you to cozy up to your neighbor.


A water feature across the path puddles water on the paving edge. A bog garden makes use of the overflow.


Sparrows were enjoying baths here when we passed by.


Nice views of the Hudson River can be glimpsed from benches and lounge chairs on the Sun Deck.


Bistro tables offer additional places to relax and enjoy the view.


While peak fall color was still a week or two away, we saw some reds and yellows on the High Line, in addition to the golden grasses.


‘Sinonome’ toad lily was in full bloom…


…as were asters and persicaria.


In the early 1900s, grand ocean liners docked at Pier 54. Today it’s used for concerts and other public events.


Just south of 13th Street you pass under the Standard Hotel.


Once again, a dim passageway segues into an open, brilliantly lit plaza and the Washington Grasslands. Earlier in the year, when the grasses are still small, the Grasslands look like this — very different, with rail lines visible amid the plants.


Farther along, you can see rail lines even amid the lush growth of late-season.


I love how the plants seem to have sprung up on their own in the rail bed — all a carefully planned illusion.


Moving on, with mellow fall color showing on either side of the path.


Turning around for a look at the Standard, I remembered reading that occasionally hotel guests give peepshow views to park-strollers below. Our view was entirely G-rated, however.


At the southern end of the High Line, you enter the Gansevoort Woodland.


The silvery trunks of gray birches gleam as they appear to spring from the railroad tracks.


A metal sculpture rises from the tracks as well.


Now we’d reached the end of the High Line, so we got off and took the subway to the 9/11 Memorial. Afterward, we made our way back to Gansevoort Street and scored an outdoor table at Bubby’s, a cafe my friend Rebecca Sweet had recommended and which is overlooked by the High Line. We enjoyed a delicious early dinner and stayed to people watch for a while before walking back up the High Line stairs.


Now the light was low in the west, and the grasses and fading perennials had a golden glow.


I noticed a perfect color echo between the Hudson River and these blue shutters.


Plank paving with “colonizing” Mexican feathergrass


Back at the Tenth Avenue Amphitheater, we saw that the traffic-watching crowd had grown. Everyone wanted to pose for a photo in front of the windows overlooking the street.


These two women “sat” against the window, which created an illusion of sitting in midair, and which must have provided an interesting rear view for pedestrians below.


We stood on the path above, leaning against the railing, and watched two artists drawing the same architectural scene.


The people-watching here was excellent, not only on the bleachers below but on the main path as people passed us. While my daughter watched the artists with rapt attention, I turned around and watched the throngs of people passing by. Young and old, fashionable and casual, tourists and locals, every nationality you might think of — as they passed I looked each person in the face, and they looked back. It was so different from the streets below, where everyone puts on blank stares as they rush by. It was a High Line connection.


Moving on, I admired this narrow planting bed with heuchera and sedge mulched with charcoal gravel.


A pretty combo


Surrounding buildings were bathed in afternoon light.


The Lawn was in shadow though.


A drummer had set up on one of the benches, and his rhythms made for a good walking beat, if you were in a hurry. We sat down to listen for a while.


By this time the streets were in shadow, with only the tops of buildings still glowing.


It was getting late, after a full day on the High Line and surrounding areas.


As the sun dipped toward the river we made our way along the rail path on the northern end.


Here we saw not just peel-up benches but peel-up tables too.


Children were playing in the Pershing Square Beams, where the underlying steel beams of the High Line have been exposed and coated in silicone for safety. Here, children are allowed to do all the things they want to do in other parts of the park but can’t, like climb and balance and jump and explore grassy planting beds up close.


An underground passage leads to a “gopher hole,” where kids can pop up to get a prairie dog’s view.


The northern end of the High Line is a curving arc with views open to the Hudson River and across a rail yard where commuter trains are stored between rush hours.

I neglected to take a picture of the rail yard, which is too bad because that industrial view will be long gone by the time I return to New York. The planned Hudson Yards redevelopment project will build a floating foundation over the trains and stack skyscrapers, parks, and a public plaza atop it. It’s a massive private development project that will transform the skyline, and the High Line will be right there alongside it.

For now, though, it’s a serene, less crowded part of the park. The gardens here are meant to look even more like the self-seeded wildscape amid the rails that people worked so hard to save.


What a loss had they not. And what a triumph of imaginative reuse the High Line turned out to be.

Up next: My visit to Wave Hill, a public estate garden in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades. For a look back at Part 1 of my High Line visit, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.