October 4, 2022

THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Shared paths

The sinuous curves of the lawn at Naumkeag lead visitors forward into a collection of disparate spaces while seemingly unifying the garden. Photo courtesy of Naumkeag

I was delighted to read that Chanticleer’s Executive Director, Bill Thomas, is coming to speak at Naumkeag on Sept. 18 (and then was subsequently disappointed that I am not free to attend the lecture due to another commitment.) However, I have the good fortune of having known Bill ever since he became the director of Chanticleer, a self-proclaimed “pleasure garden” in Wayne, Pennsylvania, known for its artful plantings and its high level of horticulture, so I can simply be grateful that others will have the opportunity to hear him talk about the garden.

Gravel garden at Chanticleer
The gravel garden overlooks the pond garden at Chanticleer and artful planting has helped to connect them together. Photo courtesy of Chanticleer

I had been to Chanticleer before it was under Bill’s stewardship and it was a wonderful garden filled with plants that I coveted in the worst way, but it was not until Bill took over that the overall landscape, in my opinion, demonstrated another aspect of good garden design that often goes unrecognized and which makes his talk at Naumkeag all the more appropriate: an ability to connect disparate spaces and gardens together. Not unlike at Naumkeag, the individual spaces at Chanticleer have unique personalities; in the case of Chanticleer, each of these gardens is under the stewardship of an individual gardener or curator who oversees the space’s design, as well as its planting and maintenance. The curation was, and is, at a high level, and each space has an artfulness that contributes to Chanticleer’s overall reputation. And, of course, the organization’s director has involvement in all these designs.

Staircase at Naumkeag
The staircase at Naumkeag mimicks the curves of the grass paths. Photo courtesy of Naumkeag

The director functions like an editor, shaping the voice of the creator of each space. The result is a landscape that expresses the personality of each of the gardeners. The gravel garden, the ruin, the Asian woods, the pondside garden, a cutting garden and a potager, as well as the gardens surrounding the pool by the original house, each has a unique style attached to it. Tropical plantings define the pool garden in most seasons, whereas drought-tolerant plants define the graveled hillside leading down to the pond garden. Before Bill’s tenure, they all felt connected in their high-level of horticulture, but in some sense they also felt separate from one another. Space separated them from one another, but in some vague way something else seemed to hold them apart. These transitions between spaces are complex in gardens of any size – it is nice to be surprised by something unexpected as one turns a corner, but just like in the work of a great novel, a little foreshadowing of what is to come raises the artfulness of the work overall.

Cup garden at Chanticleer
The cup garden at Chanticleer always delights the eye as one heads down the path towards its entrance. Photo courtesy of Chanticleer

This is where Bill, and Naumkeag’s designer Fletcher Steele, stepped in and brought their gardens to a new level. They saw something that others did not, that there is an artfulness to the transition between spaces that is as critical as the spaces themselves. At Naumkeag, Steele’s sinuous curves and modernist patterning connect garden spaces that range from a walled Chinese garden to a formalistic Venetian fountain border and an Olmsteadian woodland at the end of an allee of clipped trees. This inflection of personality into the spaces between gave the garden a cohesion that welcomed the visitor more warmly and straightforwardly, while still allowing for a few surprises as one stepped into each garden space. The work of Bill Thomas and Fletcher Steele is the design equivalent of a gracious host leading you through a party and introducing you to the other guests in a manner that was seemingly effortless.

Elevated walkway at Chanticleer
The undulating path of the elevated walkway at Chanticleer serves as an ideal transition between garden spaces. Photo courtesy of Chanticleer

At Chanticleer, under Bill’s guidance, pathways and connections between each space somehow welcome visitors to move forward and enjoy the party. The addition of an elevated walkway leads visitors to Chanticleer from the terraced hillside of the pool garden and the house into the larger landscape, and its curvaceous pathway and rails call to mind the work of Bill Steele. I have had the good fortune and pleasure of being welcomed to Chanticleer by Bill in person many times in my life, and I realize that Bill’s welcoming gestures are imprinted on the landscape in the same manner as those of Fletcher Steele at Naumkeag. It turns out that transitions are not short and inconsequential but connect things together for more than a lifetime, and I have no doubt that the spirit of Fletcher Steele will welcome Bill Thomas to the garden and recognize in Bill a kindred spirit.

I wish I were going to be there to see them meet.

Chinese garden at Naumkeag
The Chinese Garden at Naumkeag has a character that is unique unto itself but is part of a larger landscape.  Photo courtesy of Naumkeag

____________________________________
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Shared paths