You may do unexpected things – a book review by James Golden

March 24, 2016

in Articles, Book Reviews, From the USA, Reviews

This looks like an unusually exciting book. (It’s on order..) I’m begining to wonder if America has all the best gardens now?

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham

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A review of The Art of Gardening:  Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer by R. William Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners

“The entrance to the Chanticleer garden, in a wooded countryside just outside Philadelphia, could be described as a portal into a horticultural parallel universe … The brief is simple:  innovate, innovate, innovate. There are more ideas at Chanticleer than any one garden could reasonably be expected to accommodate, and visiting is an intense experience for those with the ability and desire to ‘read’ these plantings.”

Tim Richardson, Great Gardens of America

James Golden:

“Ten Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’, please.”

I ordered these beautifully named dahlias immediately after reading The Art of Gardening. When I plant them, they will surely die without some extraordinary intervention.

This book is intended to inspire gardener makers and, evidenced by my recent purchase, it does that very well. But The Art of Gardening, written by executive director William Thomas and the garden staff of Chanticleer, and extravagantly illustrated with photographs by Rob Cardillo, perhaps isn’t a book you should read in the worst of winter, at plant ordering time. You too may do unexpected things.

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I had thought I was immune. You see, I have a naturalistic garden, a wet prairie (I call it) that has never seen such an alien thing as Dahlia. But this book set me thinking. No … when I saw Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ on page 247, I was in the grip of irrational desire induced by a photograph and a memory, a potent duo. Not thought at all.

I live not a great distance from Chanticleer and have come to know it rather well. I remember going on a twilight tour led by gardener Jonathan Wright two years ago. And I remember most clearly pausing to admire the colors and varied forms of a virtual wall of dahlias planted at the far end of Chanticleer house, a luxurious collection made to tantalize the dahlia prone. (I didn’t know I was one of those at the time.) Then, just as the sun dropped below the horizon and it became too dark to see clearly, we went behind the house to the Chanticleer Terraces, where Jonathan had done something astonishing. He had replanted what was formerly a lawn with a highly horticultural simulation of a meadow, long turf and flowers, small orange Dahlia coccinea chief among them, mixed in with a small, bright orange Mexican tassel flower called Emilia coccinea, Verbena bonariensis, Bronze fennel, and some other things I’m sure I can’t remember. The word “meadow” usually connotes an informal, relaxed, bucolic image, but this was a highly charged horticultural manifestation, a sophisticated emulation of meadow. Of course no meadow at all … floral magic I’d call it.

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So this new book on Chanticleer and its meticulous horticultural practices had acted on me as a kind of glorified plant catalogue, appealing to the opposite of my own ecological (not notably horticultural) leanings. I should not have liked Jonathan’s imitation meadow. It violated my principles. But I loved it and have never forgotten it.

Admittedly, part of this is plant obsession, a condition I’ve mostly resisted for the past ten years. But far more significant, it is a deeply felt response to the artistry and freedom in which the garden makers of Chanticleer live and work. They each care for their own parts of the garden, and have generous budgets as well as ample access to labor. That some parts of the garden are replanted two or more times each season is no issue. They’re used to it, and they have the resources and energy to do that. A gift of the Rosengarten family through Adolf Rosengarten Jr., the gardener in the family, whose wealth came from a business that became part of Merck, Chanticleer is clearly well endowed, and can support a large staff of seven full-time horticulturists and gardeners, as well as executive director and administrative staff, and grounds management staff.

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Far more than most public gardens, Chanticleer is able to take risks, and that’s a blessed state to be in these days. Its gardeners are encouraged to take risks, like acrobats, to maintain competitive spirit, hone their skills, explore new plants, creating a garden with continuous interest through all seasons and achieving unique, startling effects.

“Our garden exists to inspire and is filled with ideas to try at home,” Thomas writes. “Chanticleer is our research laboratory where we try new plants, designs, and techniques all in the public view. Our guests see our successes and our failures, although we try to rush the losers to the compost pile. Horticulturist Dan Benarcik calls what we do ‘gardening without a net’. You might want to do the same in your own garden. Try. And try again. Continue what you like. Move on to something else if you are displeased.” This challenging, nigh onto rebellious spirit was established in the garden’s early days when Chris Woods, Chanticleer’s first executive director, proposed the unimaginable:  tearing down Adolf Rosengarten Jr.’s house, high on a hill, and replacing it with a grand folly, which today we call the Ruin.

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This new book on Chanticleer will pull you into a garden of delights. Start by looking at Rob Cardillo’s gorgeous photography. Read the captions. Read the text, but not from cover to cover. Browse. Let the photographs pull you in. Though the book is ostensibly divided into only two major sections— Design and Plants—it was a wise and practical decision to break it up into short, easily readable segments, in many different voices.

The book itself is a beauty, bound tall and narrow, lavish with appealing and useful photographs. On first viewing it, I had wanted it to be a different book—a large, horizontal format, a coffee table book with huge “fall into me” pictures, but that would have been difficult to use, and this book wants to be used, not put on display. The vertical format works much better for casual browsing. It’s easier to hold for one thing, whether you’re a couch potato, a proper person sitting upright at table, or taking a few minutes of pleasure in bed before dropping off to sleep. As a book that will probably be used as a go-to resource, this format is altogether suitable, almost perfect. I can imagine pulling it off my bookshelf for years to come.

In fact, since I finished it, I find myself picking it up repeatedly, wondering, for example, if those beautifully backlit Taxodium disticum var. imbricatum standing straight and lean and so gracefully by the Ruin might work at the back of my garden. This book can fill your day with such moments.

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Located in Wayne, on Philadelphia’s Main Line, so-named because the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad became the home of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families, the area still carries that whiff of well-heeled social prominence we remember from the cinematic antics of Kathryn Hepburn in The Philadelphia StoryThat is where Chanticleer is.

But times have changed and all are welcome now. As the book makes clear, Chanticleer has been successful in maintaining the feeling of a private residence and garden, yet a private garden open to all. Even the entrance is low-key, and the parking lot is a garden too.

The book’s subtitle, Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, is accurate, but this is not an easy “how to” instruction book for making a beautiful garden. What Chanticleer does is not “easy.” Their methods are labor-intensive and their horticulture is serious. Yes, you will find an abundance of inspiration here, a plentitude of new ideas you may want to try in your own garden, but you may have to challenge yourself if you hope to achieve similar results.

So my takeaway? Where I expected only a paean to a remarkable garden, I found more. The Art of Gardening, though about a garden vastly different from mine, both in appearance and underlying concept, has gotten under my skin, convinced me to try something totally unexpected and likely to fail (the Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ may die). But risk taking is part of the joy of garden making, isn’t it? That’s the point of this book.

I’ll be exploring a new horticultural challenge this spring.  If you read The Art of Gardening, you may too. I recommend it for your pleasure, your entertainment, and perhaps the betterment of your garden.

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James Golden 

Website

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Photos taken from The Art of Gardening© Copyright 2015 by the Chanticleer Foundation. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

charles hawes March 31, 2016 at 9:45 am

I am picky but I am rather disappointed with this review. I am left with neither a sense of what this garden is like, nor what they are actually doing that would be inspiring me to do something different or innovative. I get that their method of engaging those working in the garden is novel. And that they have plenty of money to spend (which would normally lead to dreadful things – think the Cascade at Alnwick). But all James seems to have taken away from the place is a Dahlia. And I agree it’s a lovely thing. But what of the bigger picture? What of the whole? What is about how they are gardening that makes the place so special? What is the feel of the place? More please?

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Jane March 25, 2016 at 5:48 pm

I have visited Chanticleer at least six times and always enjoy it. As I recall it’s not that cheap to go in and I never saw many people there. There are some innovative things, but the garden is American; things grow differently there, the light is stronger, the grass is coarser, prairie plants love it – heat, light and moisture, followed by a serious winter. The ruin is amazing, but strangely redolent of dollars with nowhere to go. The stone furniture is rather wonderfully large, the winding stream at the lower end entirely encased in elaborate stonework, There is, or was, a curvy area of agricultural grasses interspersed with silver willows (if I remember rightly) which was interesting and new. Then there is a rather underpowered vegetable garden, some rather meaningless spaces and some coloured furniture pulling things together. Near the house the tropical stuff is overwrought and enjoyable, but again smells of the careless rapture of having no restrictions on the budget. The whole garden has that feeling; such freedom can be as problematic as having too little and having to make the best of what you have. The verandah area is very much class and old money, with a wonderful view.

Then you go outside the garden and see that this whole suburban paradise can look like the most amazingly beautiful parkland – azaleas, cornus, weeping cherries,beautiful acers, liriodendons as the basic background tree.

I have visited many other American gardens in the East and Chanticleer looks less extraordinary once you’ve got your eye in, But it is lovely. Still I’d rather have the variety, ubiquity, cheapness of entrance and chanciness of our Open Gardens especially if we could also have our truly public gardens well looked after. And Chanticleer is not so very far from Rosemoor or Wisley in conception. There are arty areas, and lovely plants, but it’s a series of different spaces, treated differently. And it’s fine.

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Caleb Melchior March 25, 2016 at 2:23 am

Anne…don’t get your hopes up too high. “The Art of Gardening” is a beautiful coffee-table book that celebrates the best moments of a really lovely well-endowed garden with some fantastic horticulturists. However, you could shoot similar images at one of any UK (or US) gardens and get a similar result. While a few of the plants are uncommon cultivars/varieties and a there are a few unusual horticultural treatments, I’m not sure that the book is really innovative. James, to me the book really did feel like just a “paean to a remarkable garden” – how did it inspire you beyond just nudging you to try a new dahlia cultivar?

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annewareham March 25, 2016 at 9:34 am

I find I must have a quite desperate appetite for something fresh and truly original, Caleb. (I remember the joy of discovering ‘Bold Romantic Gardens’) Thank you for the warning…..

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Naomi Brooks March 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Anne, if I could have picked one book that made me wide-eyed with possibility, it would also have been Bold Romantic Gardens, so much so that I jumped at the chance to work for OvS in the early 2000’s. Having seen both that firm’s work and Chanticleer numerous times, I would say I am equally inspired by the landscape designs and plantings at Chanticleer. This garden of deep resources has many ideas encouraged here that spark my imagination; I am challenged to interpret them for my lowlier circumstances. It is most definitely worth a visit.

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Caleb Melchior April 1, 2016 at 4:47 am

Being a youngster, only coming truly into gardens after the likes of OvS’s Bold Romantic Gardens and Piet Oudolf’s colorful meadows were already turning fashionable, it’s hard for me to understand how truly revolutionary their projects were. The closest to that sort of moment I’ve had with a gardening book is probably with Keith Wiley’s “On the Wild Side” – I still get something new from it every time I reopen it…however he seems to be somewhat looked down on in the UK, from snide remarks I’ve heard in a few lectures. I haven’t been to his gardens – maybe the books are better than the actual gardens themselves. Ann and others, I welcome your thoughts and experiences? Sarah Price also seems to be exploring some interesting ideas – especially in this lecture at NYBG which, thanks to James Golden, is now up online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtES-LORe3Y

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Edward Flaherty March 25, 2016 at 11:31 am

Fair question, Caleb.

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Paul Steer March 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm

The philosophy of a public garden created to encourage, challenge and educate is one that is shared by British gardens such as RHS Wisely for example. I doubt however that any gardener or garden is complete – not even St. Monty or Wisley for that matter.

I like the idea that Chanticleer is a place where mistakes are allowed and recognized.

Finally, I would suggest that as James has taken his own photographs of this garden – which are inspiring – to go visit his website and read more – before buy ing the book.

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Martin March 24, 2016 at 5:42 pm

I found this frustrating to read because I couldn’t see what it was that was so innovative either from the photos or the words (though I should say it is well written!). It looks like a jolly good garden that would be nice to visit, but saying “innovate, innovate, innovate” a lot doesn’t make something innovative. Bronze fennel and Verbena bonariensis together is hardly cutting edge planting, is it? In fact the images make it look like the sort of place where a nice middle-class fairly wealthy gardener would come back from visiting, with some nice ideas for their garden and go out to buy some nice new plants to try their own version. Is that what we mean by innovative in gardening? A few different plants in the border? And with all that wealth to play with?

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Edward Flaherty March 25, 2016 at 11:37 am

The plant photos of the garden are all enlivened by a gorgeous energy from the late afternoon low angle sun. And Martin, like yourself, I would appreciate a bit more than innovate x3.

But I do keep going back to those photos…beautiful…yet looking…for the innovation…and leaving unfulfilled.

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Paul Steer March 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Have a look at James Golden’s website – and you will find his own photographs of the garden – seen through his eyes – which I found much more interesting than the photographs shown in the book.

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John Lord March 24, 2016 at 4:49 pm

I would really like to see this garden. The article is honest about the labour intensive nature (and expense and craft skill) of top end gardening, even for the so called naturalistic bits.
Talking about celebrity gardening books, Monty Don’s big fat ‘complete’ gardening book gives about a page to weed control. And the priceless observation, that if you can’t get the better of really tough weeds, well just look the other way.
I have a feeling this would not be a favoured well thumbed text book in Chanticleer

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Claire Austin March 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Regarding the comment “I’m begining to wonder if America has all the best gardens now?” – can I just say that British book publishers don’t ‘do’ gardening books any more – not unless the author is a celebrity.

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annewareham March 24, 2016 at 4:13 pm

There’s a topic!

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Naomi Uhlig March 27, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Much enjoyed Paradise and Plenty about Rothschild Garden by Mary Keen. Photographs by Tim Hatton published by Pimpernel Press.

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