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Let Your Garden Dance

When was it that we lost sight of the intrinsic connection of garden-making with the other arts?
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The pen and ink ("Portrait of a Child" by Richard Wilt) cost me all of $30; the lithograph ("Triton and Psyche" by Emil Weddige) went for $35. It was 1958, I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and my decision to buy these two artworks was a momentous one for me, a declaration of sorts of what would become a lifetime involvement with the arts. Needless to say, I was careful not to reveal my extravagance to my Dutch Calvinist parents.

I suspect I underestimated my mother and father. That's why the book I'm working on now with Tom Christopher -- The Arts and the Garden -- should begin in part with an apology to my parents. But more fundamentally with a question: as someone who has devoted decades to designing and creating garden spaces, I wonder when was it that we lost sight of the intrinsic connection of garden-making with the other arts?

When Pope Clement VII wanted a truly divine garden for the villa he was building at the edge of Rome, he turned naturally to the artist who was painting frescos on the walls of the Vatican, Raphael. Why not? The genius for color, composition and perspective, the understanding of human nature the artist had already demonstrated in his painting were just as important in the design of a garden. For centuries thereafter, garden-design remained one of the media in which artists routinely practiced. Gertrude Jekyll was a painter until failing eye sight forced her to work with the broader brush of trowel and spade. When not creating sets for movie classics such as Gone With the Wind and How Green Was My Valley, Florence Yoch was designing the landscapes in which the actors and moguls lived and relaxed.

Yet I find that even the clients with whom I work, an accomplished and talented group, are surprised (albeit pleasantly) when I explain some concept or detail in terms of a painting we both may know, the works of a sculptor, or the rhythms, harmonies, and discords of a musical composition.

This tactic may sound elitist, but in fact I've found that it's most effective in freeing the would-be gardeners most intimidated by the design process. The same person who panics when confronted with the designer's vocabulary of "movement" and "line" may well be a dedicated dancer who understands perfectly the need to make a garden swing or jump when it is presented in those terms. Anyone who has matched shoes and dress or suit and tie has more grasp of texture and color than they perhaps realize. The music to which a gardener listens can tell them most of what they need to know about the style that will suit them in their own private paradise.

Thirty years ago, my partner Wolfgang Oehme and I created the "New American Garden" style to free this nation's gardeners from the tyranny of foundation plantings and endless lawn. What we need now is a personal revolution. With The Arts and the Garden, I'm encouraging gardeners to turn away from the boring, landscape by rule of thumb style so many still practice. The garden is the most visible opportunity for self-expression in most of our lives. Why waste this on suburban sameness when it can dance and sing?