As author Richard Hartlage states in the introduction to The Authentic Garden, “Garden designers all stand on the tilled ground of the practitioners that came before us.” This respect for the vision and experience of landscape professionals—both of the past and today’s creators—is at the heart of this ambitious, lavishly illustrated coffee table-sized book.
The book is organized into thematic chapters that survey six different approaches to garden design—well, actually seven, but I’ll get to that later. And plants are central to them all beginning with “Plants as Architecture.” From the romantic parklands of “Capability” Brown to formal clipped topiaries and avant hedges, the authors examine ways in which designers structure space with woody plants. “Artfully Naturalistic Gardens” covers familiar, even comfortable, content. Although, as they point out, a closer look at cottage gardens, lavish perennial beds, and mixed borders, reveals intricate compositions and a generosity of spirit and pocketbook. “Graphic Planting Design” is defined as using plants in a way that Hartlage and Fischer suggest has more to do with art than traditional planting. Massed, often monocultural, plantings create a strong impression and read well on a large scale. While a limited plant palette, efficient when it comes to labor and maintenance, provides an approach that’s well suited to public spaces.
The chapter on “Meadow Gardens” is delightful. This style of landscape is popular and when well executed, glorious; these expansive and seemingly loose compositions seem to embody the very bloodline of our young nation. But the authors’ succinct discussion of what is involved with artfully interpreting this complex ecosystem, to say nothing of the necessary investment of time and resources, introduces a dose of realism while honoring designers successfully working in this tradition today.
“Ecological Planting Approaches” advocates for grouping plants according to their native ecology; an idea that scales to gardens of any size and taps into a growing desire to cooperate with natural systems. While this perspective is gaining traction in the U.S. today, and is perhaps more accessible than installing a “meadow” in your suburban backyard, the book is quick to laud the work of European designers who adopted this approach generations ago.
And that seventh chapter I mentioned earlier? Hartlage and Fischer include “Seasonal and Temporary Plantings” on equal footing with other design traditions. “People love color and plants with color make architecture and urban spaces more humane: it’s that simple.” Not only do compositions of colorful annuals, tender perennials, herbs, and even vegetables, delight and move people, but the authors make a compelling case for the economic good sense of seasonal color installations in commercial plantings.
The Authentic Garden looks at 60 contemporary gardens created by professional designers and landscape architects. The mix includes public and private landscapes both large and not so large; small space gardeners will have to look to vignettes for takeaways. The vast majority of the book’s 250 photos are environmental garden shots that clearly underscore design principles covered in the text. The book’s production value is excellent; photos are crisp and large enough to read clearly.
More than just another inspirational tome filled with pretty gardens, The Authentic Garden is a valuable resource for anyone involved in the art, science, and craft of tending a garden. As the authors point out, design trends and traditions are not discreet but stages in a continuum shaped by social and economic factors; and it’s often in the “messy overlaps” along that pathway that new ideas emerge to become lasting movements in history. And it’s nice to remember those who came before us.
Editor, Lorene Edwards Forkner