Q&A: Gary Smith

by | Nov 1, 2004 | People

GARY SMITH LIKES TO SHARE success stories that help him espouse the virtues of designing with native plants. Among them is a story of how a mass planting of Rhododendron austrinums at an Eastern U.S. garden profoundly impacted one visitor.

“We’d planted 200 or more R. austrinums along a narrow pathway, hoping that passersby would be completely enveloped in the richness of their collective smell,” Smith says.

“One afternoon I overheard a blind woman say as she walked along with some friends, ‘What is that beautiful smell?!’ Her companions were surprised. They hadn’t noticed at all.”

Smith says this story exemplifies the subtleties – like shape, texture, and fragrance – of native plants that he has worked to emphasize over 25 years as an ecological designer.

Recognized for marrying art and nature in his work, in 2002 the Association of Professional Landscape Designers presented Smith with its Award of Excellence, citing three projects in the Pennsylvania/Delaware region — Enchanted Woods at Winterthur, Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens, and the Stopford Family Meadow Maze at Tyler Arboretum. The new Naples Botanical Garden in Naples, Florida and a redesign of The John A. Sibley Horticultural Center at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia also are among his projects.

This fall Smith began leading the Wildflower Center in its master planning process for the redesign of its gardens. To each unique project Smith brings a guiding principle of gardens “as outdoor rooms in which to live” rather than “places just to look at on the way to somewhere else.”

Q. You have said that every garden requires that its designer begin by redefining the word “native.” What does this mean?

A. All ecology is local. As a gardener, it’s important to determine what “native” means to you. If your interest extends to local genetics of a plant or to provenance (where the plant came from specifically) then your definition of native is narrower than if you want your garden to reflect regional sense of place. While planning your garden, you should ask “Why do I like natives and why do I want them in my garden?” Everyone’s answer and definition is different.

Q. You have said that certain of your creations don’t seek to recreate natural ecosystems but to “borrow visual ideas from nature, abstracting them and exaggerating them to make a bold statement?” Why is this a more effective approach for a public garden than trying to re-create nature?

A. I like to focus on the subtle beauties of native plants and exaggerate them to appeal to the visitors’ senses. For example, in nature you might have 50 different species whereas in a garden you have five of those species that because they are growing in big, bold sweeps and in varying sizes and shapes create a dramatic composition. This is how in some cases we’ve taken elements of a native ecosystem and rearranged them so that they are more visually striking. As with the R. austrinums above, it’s unlikely you’d see 200 of these growing by themselves in nature. Planting them as we did made possible the dramatic scent.

Q. There is a misconception that it is more difficult to make bold visual statements with native plants than with some more commonly known showier exotics. How do you dispel the myth with your designs?

A. Native plants can be as visually powerful as non-natives. They can be as colorful too – although you’re not likely to see the lasting color you do with some exotics with native plants. Native plants have other attributes, however, like strong structural form, shape, and texture. Form is visually significant if you use it in repetition; texture in big, broad sweeps or by arranging together plants of a fine texture with those that are coarse. All of these help make statements in native plant gardens that are just as visually powerful as gardens with exotic plants.

Q. What kinds of visual ideas will you borrow from the Texas Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau in helping facilitate the gardens master planning process for the Wildflower Center?

A. Garden design isn’t about a plant list but about the patterns created by groupings of native plants or by the spaces native plants form like trees making a canopy or wildflowers carpeting the ground. If our goal is for the garden to reflect these natural landscapes, we should look at native places in the Hill Country and see what the special patterns are in this region.

Q. As a designer of public gardens working with native plants, what do you feel you need to convey to visitors about the natural world?

A. Designers should provide opportunities to connect with the deeper meaning that is present in the natural landscape. Visitors should experience beauty that connects them to the local sense of place and have an opportunity to inspire themselves and refresh their souls.

In my designs, I seek to create an emotional education for a garden’s visitors. I’m always looking to create places that you can relax within. If it’s a grotto, it won’t be designed to merely be looked at but as a grotto that you can go inside. The garden that is a series of plant beds to look at does not create an emotional response to help connect visitors with the natural world. That is not a garden, but a corsage. The garden as the room outdoors to live in is the garden I work to help create. – interview by Christina Kosta