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Gardens Unleashed

W. Gary Smith has designed the soon-to-be-built Family Garden at the Wildflower Center. He is a celebrated landscape artist and architect whose work creating public gardens involves using regional native plants to make dramatic statements that take their cues from nature's patterns and processes. Photo by Bryan Fox.

One of America's leading landscape architects, W. Gary Smith, uses an artist's intuition and eye as well as a knowledge of plants and nature to make magical public gardens like the Wildflower Center's Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin Family Garden, for which construction will begin in 2013. We talked with Smith about his new book "From Art to Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design," which teaches even the least artistically inclined to enhance their garden design skills by learning to think like an artist.

WF: Why is it important to design a garden like an artist, by bringing personal story into the physical environment?

GS: If you want to have a garden just like one you saw in a glossy magazine, go ahead and make one. All you need for that is some money, and you can hire someone who has the know-how.

But if you want something that is nurturing and inspiring to your own true self, then you have to start to think like an artist. Even if you hire a garden designer or horticulturist to help you, the design process has to be mostly about you.

We're talking about your own garden here, a place that could end up being a personal sanctuary deeper and more nurturing than any sacred space you've ever been to before. And you don't have to fly to Europe to find it or pack up all your camping gear and drive six hours to a big national park. You're making a sacred space you can get to by stepping outside your door, a place where you can sit and have a cup of tea and a bit of spiritual renewal on a whim.

The best way to do that is to begin by finding out what moves you, what are the stories that are most meaningful to you. And the best way to find them is to practice being like an artist.

Near the entrance of Wildflower Center Advisory Council Member Mary Wallace's Texas ranch, a big sweep of century plants (Agave americana) and narrow-leaved Buckley's yucca (Yucca constricta) represent a carefully designed naturalistic drift pattern.

The Roads Water-Smart Garden, designed by Lauren Springer Ogden, at the Denver Botanic Garden features native and drought-tolerant plants in an exaggerated mosaic pattern for a dramatic display.

WF: What can creators of native plant gardens take from this book?

GS: You can plant a thousand native plants and still end up with a garden that is as dry as toast. It's not about the plant list. It's about the way the plants relate to each other, and the opportunities for us to connect with them. All plants have stories to tell, and native plants can tell stories that connect us to the patterns and processes of nature in our own region.

A big part of this book is about learning how to recognize simple patterns in the native landscape. The book suggests only nine: scattered, mosaic, naturalistic drift, serpentine, spiral, circle, radial, dendritic and fractured.

In any given landscape, each of these patterns is a result of some sort of natural process. For example, the naturalistic drift of red cedars in a mature meadow comes from birds eating berries and dropping the seeds as they fly from tree to tree. The mosaic pattern of wildflowers and grasses in a native meadow evolves from the push and pull of species consuming the available resources and occupying space.

This book not only gives you a vocabulary to use in describing nature's patterns and processes, it shows you how using that vocabulary helps you make a garden that connects you to nature.

Smith spent about two hours on this watercolor that records observations at the Wildflower Center. This gave him time to pay careful attention to the quality of dappled light that is common in Central Texas woodlands. This "sense of place" study was part of a series of exercises leading up to the design of the new Family Garden.

WF: Many of the book's readers will be professional garden designers, but why is the book important for the home gardener designing his own garden?

GS: You are who you are, and your own way of being in the world is worth celebrating in your garden. It doesn't take a lot of money, it doesn't take a lot of fancy materials, and it doesn't take a huge amount of skill. What it takes is engagement. Most people begin designing their own garden by buying books and magazines and looking at pictures. This is why they invented Post-its™, I'm sure. But, really, sticking Post-its™ on pages is pretty passive stuff. It's really not much more than shopping, and I think it actually separates you from what is really most important in a garden, which is engagement with the site and with your inner self.

I'm hoping this book will help people begin the garden-making process a different way. I'm hoping this book will give you tools for understanding why we make gardens, and how your own garden will express and nurture your innermost self.

These two paintings record the two most dramatic destinations in Peirce's Woods at Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens, the Carpinus Walk (left) and The Waterfalls (right). Gary Smith's design for Peirce's Woods has been called an "art-form garden of mid-Atlantic native plants."

WF: How can someone who thinks they are without artistic talent draw or paint to inform garden design?

GS: First of all they can forget about making art and take a lesson from what kids do when they draw or paint. There's a lot to learn from that sort of unfettered creative expression, even if it leads to something totally unrecognizable that makes us wonder what you are trying to say. Take risks. Look at the landscape in front of you and just start making marks on the paper.

You can use artistic tools to hone your skills of observation particularly about the natural world. A lot of the decisions we make in designing gardens are intuitive, and this kind of artistic process helps train that intuition and influence how we design gardens.

So you need to let go. Make a sketch and rather than worry about creating a work of art to show other people, simply record ideas for yourself. If you develop that as a regular practice then eventually you learn to draw. It's a personal thing. You don't have to share it with anyone else.

If you are intimidated by the materials and techniques artists use, pretend you are five again. Use a cheap crayon. Grab a glue stick. Play. Have fun.

WF: You talk about spontaneity and serendipity in garden design. Why is this important?

GS: Spontaneity is something you can train yourself in, and the book shows you how. Serendipity is when you get a garden up and going and don't try to control everything. It occurs when a bird drops a red cedar seed where you hadn't intended to plant a tree. Have the flexibility to let that grow there. If you really can't stand it, take it out. Keep an open mind and allow your garden to do its thing.

Make a Collage

An easy art project explained in Smith's book helps you learn to record projects in nature and is so easy a kindergartner could do it. Make a collage with cheap construction paper and a glue stick. Assemble the following: a ten-inch square of cardboard, five colors of construction paper, a glue stick, and at least 40 feet of string. Go out into a meadow and use the string to mark out a square, ten feet by ten feet. Pretend you are hovering above the square and looking down. Make a visual recording of the mosaic pattern by tearing pieces of construction paper with your fingers and attaching them to the cardboard with the glue stick. You're making a map of the meadow, a plan view. Don't use more than five colors, even though the meadow may have far more than five species of plants. The idea is to make an abstraction of the mosaic pattern, not to record it in all its detail. This is an exercise in whittling down all the information into one simple pattern.

A student makes a collage to represent the pattern in a native meadow.   The student who made this collage needed an extra color, and since she only had been given four colors of construction paper, she used some newspaper that she had on hand exactly the kind of spontaneous creativity this exercise is designed to promote.

Interview by Wildflower magazine editor Christina Procopiou. All photos and illustrations by W. Gary Smith.

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center