To be passionate about gardens but have wanderlust seems like a curse of mythological proportion. It might turn you into a plant explorer, a landscape photographer or, if you are Christopher Woods, into a horticultural sojourner and writer.
It was not always thus. I first met him almost 20 years ago at Chanticleer, the garden in Wayne, Pa., where he was the founding director of an enchanting place. It was — and is — one of the sweetest gardens around, and Woods was, by the time I met him, already established as a nonconformist and a creative beacon to the team of gardeners he led. But I should have guessed he was seeking change, possibly a warmer place close to a beach: He greeted me wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a straw hat.
He left soon afterward, to run one garden on the West Coast and then another, and then I lost track of his wayfaring. “I am a restless man at heart,” he announces, by way of his latest creation, a book named “Gardenlust: A Botanical Tour of the World’s Best New Gardens.”
Cerebral types (such as myself) have to be reminded that a garden, at base, is about attending to the senses, about creating an emotional response to aesthetic stimulation. Woods has always espoused this, as his book attests.
Over a span of three years, he visited approximately 50 gardens on six continents, viewing such landscapes as botanical gardens, parks, residential gardens, and commercial and civic landscapes. There is astonishing variety, such as the Naples Botanical Garden, whose creators are seeking to hold back the destructive forces of development in Florida; and the dramatic cliffside home and garden of Chilean architect Juan Grimm. There is the 568-acre Landschaftspark in Germany, where designed gardens grow amid the ruins of an abandoned ironworks in the Ruhr Valley. Here, a fern growing in a crease of rusted metal, Woods writes, “is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Until the next beautiful thing.”
All these places, though, have one thing in common: They were established since the beginning of the century, even if as part of existing landscapes. The imagination and effort that has gone into them must encourage anyone who thinks significant gardens are stuck in the past or, worse, fading from our distracted world.
At Alnwick Castle in England, the Duchess of Northumberland raised and spent millions to create unorthodox garden elements that left parts of the English horticultural establishment clutching their pearls. This included a $10 million treehouse and a grandiose water cascade. Woods likes its radicalism and the fact that many of the features are designed for people dealing with life in a depressed, postindustrial part of Britain.
I have no desire to see the Miracle Garden in Dubai, which seems to be the antithesis of contemporary garden sensibilities. It disregards its own desert environs and is a place groaning under 45 million exotic and thirsty petunias and geraniums. It seems as kitschy as it is environmentally unsustainable. Woods is a fan. However wrong this garden is to purists, it provides visitors a place to have fun, he points out, and to take children who have “such little access to truly green space.”
One place I’d like to see is a private, 990-acre sculpture garden on New Zealand’s North Island created by owner Alan Gibbs. Gibbs, an entrepreneur and serious art collector, shaped the land and created wide paths, using heavy equipment. “On occasion, he would blow things up,” writes Woods, “partly to remove them and partly for the fun of it.”
I also would like to follow in Woods’s footsteps to coastal Argentina, where Rolando Uria has created a display garden for his collection of salvias, a genus that is much richer than most gardeners realize. Would the 12-foot-high Salvia foveolata grow in a summer garden in Washington? It would be worth putting it to the test.
Woods, who resides near Berkeley, Calif., speaks of his early affinity for plants but, just as important, for kindred spirits who continue to define their own visions of a garden without being shackled to the past. The garden is a human artifice, he writes, but it connects to the rest of nature and stops us from thinking of other life-forms as being separate.
“Gardens are to our hands what language is to our social structure: a constructed, artificial mechanism we’ve devised so we can explain things we see around us.”
Woods was on the other side of the world when I tried to reach him recently. He emailed me from New Zealand and a couple of days later from the South Pacific. “I am now on a beach in New Caledonia looking at Araucaria columnaris. A lot of it,” he wrote. That would be the New Caledonian pine.
In a subsequent email from Sydney, he addressed my question about garden sameness around the world. “While there is a great deal of homogenization, particularly in corporate and government landscapes, there is an abundance of individual creativity and even aesthetic eccentricity in contemporary garden design,” he responded. “The individual has not been consumed.”
He tells readers that he is at a point in life when “I have more or less replaced constant resettlement with near-constant travel. I continue to fall in love with this extraordinary world and its botanical marvels.” I wonder, is he running from his own mortality? Should we join him?
In the 18th century, the critic Horace Walpole spoke of the pastoral landscape movement transforming grand estates such as Alnwick. Of the landscape designer William Kent, Walpole wrote: “He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden.” He might have been speaking of Chris Woods, a gardener who has always embraced the idiosyncratic world of avant-garde horticulture. “The only thing I really fear,” he told me, “is shopping malls.”
Tip of the Week
One way to protect bulbs from squirrels is to plant them deeply. The bulbs, that is. Bury tulips and crocuses at seven inches instead of three or four. A mulch of pea gravel will also serve to outfox the creatures.
— Adrian Higgins
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