How would you like to visit the 50 most different and inspiring gardens created worldwide since the start of the 21st century? And what if you could visit those gardens with one of the world’s most accomplished and respected garden directors?
Unlike many things that sound too good to be true, this one isn’t.
Christopher Woods offers gardeners this unusual opportunity through his book "Gardenlust, A Botanical Tour of the World’s Best New Gardens" (Timber Press, September 2018). Woods wrote the lavishly illustrated coffee-table-style book filled with what he considers to be the world’s 50 best contemporary gardens by trading a life of constant resettlement in managing gardens for three years of almost non-stop travel. Those trips took him in person or through extensive research to 120 gardens on six contents. From those, he chose the 50 he found the most inspiring, of which he visited all but three.
Interestingly, Woods says the book isn’t a book at all. Instead, he call it a long love letter to the planet and its people, particularly gardeners who have created beauty and devoted their lives to helping others see that beauty. A self-described globalist, he considers the book a love letter, he said, because he is "a romantic fool and fundamentally at this point in my life I wanted to write a love letter about the world that we are in." He wrote it for gardeners because he believes that gardeners of any culture are people who, like him, fall in love repeatedly. "There’s not a plant person, or a person interested in plants, who doesn’t fall in love again and again, either with an individual plant, a design, a garden, a landscape or a natural landscape," said Woods from his home in the Bay Area of California.
Falling in love with plants
Woods is uniquely qualified to write a book of such a daunting global scope. Born in London in 1953 while Britain was still recovering from World War II, his father introduced him to plants as a child during visits to a small village in Northamptonshire where they would go on walks picking and eating mushrooms and blackberries. That introduction became a plant addiction that led him to his first gardening job as an apprentice gardener at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He fell in love with growing things after leaving Kew and taking a series of jobs at English nurseries where he learned about the fascinating history of gardens and the bureaucratic drudgery of garden management.
Woods loved his work but, recognizing that he was born with a restless nature, began to find Britain too confining. That combination prompted him to move to the United States in 1981 where he discovered a new world of plants — not to mention sunshine! — and took a position as a gardener at Chanticleer Gardens near Philadelphia. Two decades later, during which he was promoted to executive director and transformed Chanticleer’s 35 acres into what Garden Design magazine called America’s most inspiring garden, the restless nature resurfaced. In 2003, he moved to California to what he describes as a two-room shack on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest to take on a project with the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. Some years and a few jobs later, he once again gave in to his restless nature and was drawn in another direction.
"I was for most of my life a gardener, and then I got promoted and promoted and started to move towards administration and away from the things that I really loved," explained Woods. "So, I decided after having managed gardens and having been the executive director at a number of gardens to get away from that and be a writer, which is what I wanted to do for years. And, so, I wrote this book to really turn people onto what is out there in the big world on this planet."
What makes a contemporary garden different
What is out there that most interests him are gardens created in the new millennium that he finds different and inspiring. An internationalist with a strong interest in bio- and cultural diversity, he said the book is "very personal for me and how I see the world." Accordingly, he refuses to be pinned down to what he calls "a concise and succinct sound bite" about how he defines a contemporary garden and what makes them “different and inspiring” from traditional or classic cottage or estate gardens. Instead he talked about four things he thinks make new gardens different and inspiring.
One that clearly emerges is that the term "contemporary garden" doesn’t mean that the entire garden or, in fact, any portion of the garden was created in the new millennium. The Huntington Botanical Gardens and Library in San Marino, California, is an example of a long-established garden that added a new garden to its landscape. That garden is a classical Chinese garden that was created to recognize the profound influence the large Chinese population in Los Angeles has had on the cultural life of the region.
The Grand Cascade in Ainwick Garden, designed by Wirtz International, clearly builds on great estate garden tradition but updates it with clean lines that suggest ornamentation rather than slavishly including it. (Photo: Christopher Woods)
The Ainwick Garden in Northumberland, England is an example of a garden that is hundreds of years old that Woods considers to be contemporary because it has adopted a contemporary use with a strong social message. "One of the gardens I found most inspiring was one of the oldest in England, which is the second-largest occupied castle in Britain, and it goes back 700 years," he said. "The history of the family of the Northumberlands is basically the history of England, but the Dutchess of Northumberland has been instituting social programs in the garden such as programs for early onset dementia and programs for youth so that young people can get discipline and be inspired during a time of high unemployment."
Another way he thinks of a contemporary garden is in landscape and architectural designs that use plants in ways that aren’t intended to be a garden in the traditional sense of a garden. Public parks, such as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, Parc Clichy-Batignolles/Martin Luther King in Paris and Xi’an Expo Park in Xi’an, China, do this. There's architecture that features living walls, such as One Central Park in Sydney, Australia, that consists of two buildings, 16- and 33-stories high, draped in hydroponic gardens of tens of thousands of plants, many of them native to Australia, that constitute the world’s largest vertical garden. And there are plant nurseries like The Aloe Farm in Hartbeespoort, South Africa.
A third theme is how a garden bridges the past and the future. The origins of the Chinese garden at The Huntington, for example, go back 3,000 years, and the gardens at the castle of the Northumberlands, as Woods said, reflect the history of England. Each of these gardens has adapted its use in different ways to meet the needs of the 21st century, as have others in the book such as Orpheus at Boughton House, U.K. One of the grand estates of England that dates to the 17th century, it has added with the aid of computers and laser-sights an inverted pyramid as a symbolic opposite to Mount Olympus. The landscape architect who created this interesting feature named it Orpheus, after the Greek mythical figure who descended into Hades in an attempt to bring back Eurydice, his wife.
Woods also looked for how people use gardens when he was paring down his initial "long list" of 120 gardens to 50. One that stood out to him was Landschaftspark in the Rhur Valley in Duisburg-Nord, Germany. He was drawn to this garden by how he saw people using the park by attending concerts or walking their dogs there. The park is also an example of a bridge to the past as it is built among the rusting skeletons of an iron smelting plant that once turned out munitions for the Third Reich. To Woods, these metal hulks from another era provide a contemporary backdrop as giant pieces of garden art.
In each of these broad areas, Woods looked for five specific themes: beauty, nature, plants and people, nativity and urbanization. All the gardens he included in the book had more than one of these themes and most had them all. These gardens range in scale from private gardens not open to the public — such as Rose Bay, a tiny residential patio looking out on Sydney Harbor — to botanic gardens to an ornamental and research garden in Mar de Plata, Argentina, that specializes in breeding salvias to attract hummingbirds, to a forest that has been planted in the middle of Tokyo. Here is how Woods defines each theme and an example of gardens he found most inspiring that fit them.
Woods’s approach to beauty is arguably the most contemporary message in the book. He believes the key feature of any garden is aesthetic beauty, something he thinks people the world over tend to devalue or undervalue as a benefit of the human condition in what he sees as an increasingly technologically fraught world. "Beauty stands on its own, but beauty for us humans produces all kinds of good things … it makes us feel better and it makes us happier." He thinks the beauty of a garden also makes people quieter because when they are surrounded by so much beauty there’s simply not much left to say.
"So, I think beauty is a very powerful force, and if a garden isn’t beautiful what is it for?" he asked. "Even if you don’t like the garden, all gardens are beautiful in their own way." And there are some gardens in the book that Woods doesn’t particularly like — such as Olympic Park in London because it has what he considers an institutional feel. He included it, he said, because like other parks it provides a place to play, to be outside and to escape from the incessant demands of the electronic world.
And where he finds beauty, he confirms the saying that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. He calls a fern growing in the rusted metal of Landschaftspark, for example, the most beautiful thing he has ever seen — "until the next most beautiful thing."
Some other modern gardens he finds beautiful are the Golden Rock Inn in Nevis, West Indies, which he calls one of the most botanically enthusiastic small hotels in the world; Sunnylands Center and Gardens in Rancho Mirage, California, in the Sonora Desert at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, which features a contemporary, sustainable and colorful desert garden he likens to a painting because of the way the natural light of sunrises and sunsets falls on cactuses, agaves, ocotillo, mesquite and palo verde in a landscape that has earned a LEED Gold Certification; and the Vallarta Botanical Garden in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which he describes as "like going to your grandmother’s house with really good food and guacamole because its beauty creates a feeling of just being in a place that is life preserving and supportive of good thoughts."
"Government agencies and others debate what percentage of plants are in danger of disappearing, but it’s substantial," said Woods, who writes in the introduction to the book that the Center for Biological Diversity estimates 68 percent of the approximately 300,000 species we know are threatened with extinction. "So, in terms of plant conservation, that is a very strong theme in the book."
Even though much of the natural world is being destroyed, he believes botanical gardens and gardeners in general are getting better at being good gardeners and good stewards of the plant world. "Gardeners are an evangelical force for plant conservation and sustainable design, and I think that’s really crucial."
Gardens that impressed him with their efforts at plant conservation, ecological design, smart uses of resources such as water and an awareness of putting the right plant in the right place are Vallarta Botanical Garden, Parque Explorador Quilapilún in Colina, Chile; Oman Botanic Garden in Al Khoud, Oman; and Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Plants and people
Patrick Blanc installed plants on every balcony of One Central Park in Sydney, as well as large mosaic panels of more complicated arrangements at rhythmic intervals on the buildings’ surface. (Photo: Christopher Woods)
Woods defines gardening as the interaction between plants and people, so it’s easy to understand why he would include plant and human diversity as a central theme of the book. And being a person who sees himself as a globalist, it’s also easy to understand why he would seek out the best examples of human and plant interaction in contemporary gardens among what he calls the "international family of garden people."
His favorite examples of gardens that emphasize human-plant interaction include A Garden of Shape and Light in Marrakech, Morrocco, which was designed for a New Zealand couple who live all over the world by an Italian who works in London; One Central Park in Sydney, the tallest vertical garden in the world, which was designed by a French botanist; two 21st-century gardens in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay which is one of the most visited public gardens in the world; and the Parkroyal Hotel, where an extraordinary street-side facade of intensive and innovative plantings contribute to the greening of the city, half of which is recognized as a green space; and Ichigaya Forest, the urban forest in Tokyo, designed by an American to change the environment of people who live and work among the huge crowds in Central Tokyo.
His theme is particularly special to Woods because it led to one of his favorite moments during his three years of travel to research the book. That occurred during a trip to the Oman Botanic Garden in Al Khoud, Oman, which he includes because of its role in plant conservation. He had trekked 2,000 meters up into the mountains to Wakan Village where he recalled “sitting in a little room with three elderly men and an ethnobotanist from the Oman Botanic Garden talking about lentils. I felt like I was actually stepping back 2,000 years. One of the elderly men pulled out a cellphone that looked like it was from the Stone Age and was discussing with a farmer some miles away the specifics of a rare variety of lentils. Lentils, of course, have been grown for thousands of years. And this young man, the ethnobotanist, was so excited he just barely could control himself. He said he was going to come back the next week to meet the farmer with the lentils and get seed for this new botanic garden. So, there we have something brand new and modern, this Oman Botanic Garden that steps back two or three thousand years. That excited me. That was one of the best days.”
Poor Knights lily (Xeronema callistemon) at Paripuma in Blenheim, South Island, New Zealand, is endemic to the tiny group of eponymous islands off the coast of northern New Zealand. (Photo: Michal Wells)
"I think our understanding and knowledge of native plants is something that has come up in the last 20 years, and it’s absolutely essential," said Woods. "We need to know much more. In the tropics where the climate diversity is so much larger than in the temperate world, we still have areas of the tropics that haven’t been explored. We are still discovering plants on a weekly if not daily basis that are new to science, to horticulture and to plant design."
Two gardens that he includes in the book that he especially admires for their use of native plants are The Australian Garden, a part of the Royal Botanic Garden, in Cranbourne south of Melbourne, which is a garden that he said tries to encapsulate and promote an entire continent’s worth of native plants in a clever, aesthetic and beautiful way; and Paripuma in Blenheim, South Island, New Zealand, a private garden that combines native flora with a very formal 18th century European design that crosses the boundaries of the idea that native plants should be used in an untamed way with the formality of design that Woods said, "I find just tremendous."
"The world’s population is exploding and most of us live in cities," said Woods, adding that "an increasing number will live in cities in the next 10 to 20 years." Because of that, be believes that urban parks as an extension of the urban landscape are crucial to the well-being of city residents.
One that he really likes in this regard is Parc Clichy-Batignolles/Martin Luther King Park in Paris. He describes it as a kind of city center because a good portion of the population lives near it, the area has been redeveloped with apartment buildings, and Parisians use this park almost in the way that people in other cultures use the village green or the town square. "That’s where the interaction is, on the ground. Lovers tell lies to each other, lawyers tell lies to each other when they get together! I really like that interaction, and it is a pleasing garden design as well."
Another example of an urban park in the book is Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. He expects it will service several million people a year at some point because, "it’s an extremely crucial place to do what we do, which is to go for a walk, to walk the dog, where you go with the kids or the grand kids or where you go and sit under a tree and read a book … all of those fundamental needs we have as human beings."
Which garden should you visit first?
"That’s an easy question to answer," said Woods. "Locally! It’s amazing what we don’t see in our backyards, in our towns, villages and cities. Start in your own neighborhood. Go for a walk and then branch outwards."
Then, he suggests, pick gardens in the book that are easiest for you to get to. Be aware, though, that the book is not a tour guide. "I don’t tell you how to get there or when a garden is open. You have to figure that out for yourself. And some gardens are not open to the public. You will never see them. You can go to Sydney Australia, and see the largest vertical garden in the world, but you can’t go to Rose Bay, the tiny little minimalist garden in Sydney, because it’s a terrace in somebody’s backyard."
Even if you will never see the private gardens in person, you can visit them in the book and learn about and be inspired by them. Woods thinks that’s important because he believes they have something to say and, "hopefully I have something to say about what they have to say."
Love letters are like that.