“A Gardener Grows…” - The Making of a Garden(er), Installment 1

An Urbanist Architect in the Garden
August 04, 2015

Many people view a garden as nature incarnate. It is the opposite: a garden is an artifact created by humans for human pleasure and edification. A garden is no more “natural” than a building is, even though it uses natural plant material to create its story just as a building uses bricks, steel, and glass to explain itself.

The creation of a garden, unlike some other so-called leisure pursuits, does not simply mark time but creates a product, a place, a physical record of accomplishment. This kind of hobby — so different from golf or bridge, for instance — is something that always appealed to me. It does not “fade into the void leaving no trace” (John Updike in Toward the End of Time describing the hours each day devoted to the practice and perfection of bridge).

I want to leave a trace. To make something always was important, perhaps as an architect is compelled to make things. It is also an idea — this making of things — that grew in me over time, and became over time, the time of my life…

Bayou Bend

In my single digits I was apprentice to my maternal grandfather, a surgeon, at his 15-acre country place called Bayou Bend, between Houston and Galveston along the Texas Gulf Coast, and built over time starting in 1926. Among its many elements: a gridded rose garden of a thousand species and cultivated varieties laid out like a miniature version of the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a pecan orchard, a large strawberry field, a small fish pond with fountain and bamboo backdrop, a collection of palm trees, and the signature “sit and sip” ancient live oak under which the family gathered, bourbons in hand, every evening to watch the sunset and the swallows, one by one, dive down the seldom-used chimney for the night.

Frederick Wolrey Aves (1886-1962), with his beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Chesty

My grandfather, the son of an Episcopal rector and the nephew of a bishop, had many hobbies and Bayou Bend was his laboratory: he created separate little outbuildings for his woodworking shop, his “hot house” (no one ever said greenhouse; this is Texas and it was hot!), his boat house on the bayou to house his deep-sea fishing yacht, his kennel to house his gang of bird dogs, the “pheasantry” where he raised pheasants and quail to offset in later life the depletion caused by his earlier hunting days. This man and his magical place — a village of many buildings in a large garden — have influenced me more than I knew at the time. But at the time, it occupied fully my limited capacities but certainly set a course for me… and no small sense of wonder.

2354 Timber Lane, Houston, TX

In my teens, I was yard boy to my parents in our Houston house, located in a leafy inner neighborhood. Being the hired hand (without pay), I learned mostly about maintenance — mowing, clipping, edging — but also picked up my parent’s love of camellias, helping care for the hundred or so in their collection.

271 Dwight Street, New Haven, CT

In my early twenties, while an architecture student and newly married, I established a little backyard garden in a rented basement of a brick row house at the edge of the ghetto in New Haven. Spring break loomed that first graduate year (no trip away to escape gloomy mid-March New Haven, no cash). As a salve, I bought my first garden books, a series of Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbooks (for so long a signature of this august institution which would loom large in my future), and forsaking needed focus on my studio projects, I went to work transforming my little patch: found bricks “wanted” to make a straight border (not an arch, like Lou Kahn’s more savvy bricks), enlivened by an offset triangular vegetable patch in “contrapuntal juxtaposition” with an encompassing semi-circle. Geometry was king, but so were Robert Venturi’s theories.

Sally & Sumner Knight Crosby with Chloe Thomson Bland, 1979

During this time and in the decade to follow, I was also working for — and being heavily influenced by — my former professor, Sumner McKnight Crosby, the eminent medievalist and Professor of Art History at Yale, and his wife Sarah Townsend Crosby, called Sally. They became for my wife and me a model of how to live (although with their General Mills fortune, the aspiration would always be imperfect): luncheons served by the Scottish cook in the overflowing greenhouse in snowstorms; birthdays and anniversary celebrations, always at home, always in black tie, always with dinner toasts by all guests en Francais, and always followed by dancing to a 5-person ensemble. Their very elegant mid-century modern house in rural Connecticut and spectacular 18-acre garden were to be very significant influences.

Morley Bland in Crosby Garden, 1977

In fact, after my grandfather, the Crosbys were my most important early garden influences. In some ways, they were like grandparents who lived nearby, as ours did not. Later, when we moved to Brooklyn Heights (and feeling a bit sorry for ourselves for not being able to afford Manhattan; we were to learn over time this was no hardship!), it was Sally who said, well, if you live anywhere near BBG (the first time I heard it called that), you will be lucky indeed. Prophetically she spoke!

Bay Harbor Island, Miami, FL, 1976

In my early thirties — exiled for work, but happily so, to Miami — and now with a baby daughter, I tended a tiny tropical jungle surrounding our rented mid-century modern cottage and its twenty varieties of hibiscus, a gigantic house-consuming Ficus benjamina, a key lime tree, and scores of crotons, all a mere three blocks from the soft Atlantic Ocean breeze.

Fairchild Tropical Garden, 2015

The world of tropicals — much more exotic than I had ever known in Texas —opened up and I could hardly stay away from Fairchild Garden, a tropical paradise with axial arrangements and formally arranged vistas, a place — along with the nearby Montgomery Botanical Center — that inspires me to this day.

In my late thirties, now in Brooklyn to stay, I created another brownstone backyard retreat, this time in the dense shade of menacing tall buildings and a large “tree that grows in Brooklyn,” the Ailanthus altissima. Some rhapsodize — but not I! — about this dirty pest. Perhaps it is fitting that my only remaining photo of this dark little place is when it was under two feet of snow, thus saving me from the memory of its limited planting choices…

126 Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY, 1978

Also in my late thirties I came to establish a summer cottage garden on rented land, adjacent to a granite retaining wall which annually allowed Long Island Sound’s perigean spring tides to accumulate a foot of salt water and sand to harmfully compost my growing collection. This is where I became obsessed with perennials, partly because they were small and cheap after all, I was gardening on someone else’s property, albeit a very close family friend. Later, I realized these little plants, fortuitously, were also very portable. But for now, colors and flowers ruled. It was later when the texture of leaves began to loom larger.

Linden Point, Strong Creek, Connecticut, 1983

Finally, in a home we would occupy (and still do) longer than any of our ancestors in at least three generations, we re-colonized a worn-out 1904 Brooklyn Heights limestone townhouse, establishing perversely an English double border on a 450 SF third floor roof terrace, along with a fountain, a few trough gardens, a growing collection of boxwood spheres, and a vaguely Japanese pergola to provide some shade from the unrelenting sun on this south-facing space. As much as it fulfilled an overpowering need to establish a garden in a place I finally owned, it was twenty-five feet above terra firma, which began to beckon more and more.

26 Pierpont Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY

This succession of garden experiments prepared me, at age 48, to purchase a tiny and derelict unheated cottage on a back road in a tiny seaside village. It was built in 1949 as a 2-car garage and was encapsulated in white aluminum siding. Pushed to within six feet of the front of its little lane, it felicitously left open the back 50-ft x 250-ft space, untended and forlorn, yet a veritable estate in my terra firma-starved mind. Thus became my first opportunity, finally, to create, on land to which I actually held a deed, my life garden.

30 Wallace Road, Stony Creek, Connecticut, 1993

I would come to call this garden Uptop, a name which came to me as I laboriously relocated up a 15-foot hill, “towering” above the Long Island Sound floodplain — wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load — all my transplantables from that flood-prone land down below. It does not escape me that pretension could attach itself to the act of naming such a small property (indeed, my wife and daughter think so), but almost all gardens that I admire seem to have a name attached, so I follow suit, perhaps pretentiously.

So over the past 22 years, I have created a garden — a cottage garden with aspirations — on that part of the shoreline of Connecticut, specifically the small village of Stony Creek, known to some of my garden friends as “the banana belt,” now pretty much established as Plant Hardiness Zone 7a (along with Tennessee, Arkansas, and northern Mississippi). Many collectors are challenged to push a zone, so I have also a Zone 8 Terrace, adjacent to the heated house, sheltered from the north and west winds and facing south, where I grow, like a small miracle, the plants of my childhood on the Texas Gulf coast and some of my old tropical Fairchild friends from my earlier days in Miami.

I am a collector (sadly not a propagator, for I have neither time nor space). I am a designer and see everything during my waking hours as an arranged tableau, a lens-ready construct.

For better or worse, Uptop has a foot planted in each camp. I am unable to leave one to join the other. I am a collector who must design and a designer who is an incurable collector. So be it… And that is the nature of my garden. If not quite encyclopedic, it does have about 1500 species (in less than one acre). Probably there are few truly beautiful gardens which have such a high plant density, and I believe that many aspects of Uptop are beautiful, notwithstanding the abundance of plant varieties.

An architect in the garden might be expected to create a modern garden of highly architectonic quality and with a severely limited plant palate. This is a viable path but not mine. I wanted something where the plants themselves reigned supreme, not the hard edges of geometrical cleverness with the plants themselves relegated to bit players. I don’t share in my garden making the traditionally trained landscape architect’s urges.

Who can resist the genius of Roberto Burle-Marx? However, his call for “designer plants” leaves me with profound uneasiness. I want more. I don’t want such editing. I would prefer to be known — and strive to be — a plantsman who designs, not a landscape architect. (Never mind that is a legal term and I am not trained as a landscape architect).

This is the first of a five part series. Click here to read “Installment #2: Influences”!