Sunday, February 28, 2010

Perennial Plant Symposium in Atlanta

I spent most of yesterday at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, attending the annual Perennial Plant Symposium that is co-hosted by Georgia Perennial Plant Association.  (Is that a ridiculous number of very long words in one sentence, or what?)

Anyway, the first speaker of the morning (who turned out to be my favorite of the five speakers, I think) was Claire Sawyers, who is the director of the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College.  I was fortunate to meet Claire at a small dinner the night before, so we had a chance to chat then, as well.

Much of Claire's program came from her book, The Authentic Garden, which was published in 2007.  Fortunately Claire's program was not an infomercial for her book, which is so often the case. 

The focus of Claire's presentation can be summarized in a quote from the dustjacket on her book, which starts, "American gardeners have tended to turn to other national traditions - such as Italy's, Japan's, or England's - for inspiration.  The unhappy result of this piecemeal stylistic borrowing has been the creation of gardens that bear no relationship to local landscapes and history, and that have no connection with our daily lives."  Claire elaborated in her presentation the need for American gardeners to emphasize our own styles, rather than creating (for example) a Japanese garden in Georgia.

Claire Sawyer's recommendations (that she goes into great depth about in the book), are:
1. Capture the sense of place. Have a garden that is appropriate to your locale.
2.  Derive beauty from function.  A driveway is a part of the garden at this point, so why do we ignore it as a necessary evil and treat it as an afterthought?
3.  Use humble or indigenous materials.  Gravel paths are appropriate for my humble Georgia garden;       marble is not!
4.  Marry the inside of the house to the outside.
5.  Involve the visitor!  When our garden is perfect and museum like for the visitors, they miss the  experience of the garden.

If you haven't seen Claire's book, check it out of your local library or go to TimberPress or Amazon and buy yourself a gift during this never-ending winter we're experiencing!  The incredible photos will remind you this spring really is coming!


  1. Dear Tim, This is a most informative posting and, from what you write, I think that I should have been most interested to have heard Claire Sawyers. Too often, as you say, authors use these occasions to promote their own books and fail to talk more generally. This was obviously not the case. Her ideas seem very practical and make a great deal of sense. I shall look out for this book which, I assume, will be available in the UK.

  2. I think that the whole problem with naturalised garden design isn't only American.
    Time and again I have visited gardens where the owners have simply tried too hard and ended up with a Japanese style herbaceous water park or other such mix of styles that may work as individual features but put them all together and whoa!....bad experience all round.

  3. Tim,

    That is a great book. Check out the chapter on Joanna Reed and Longview Farm. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 85 and was a generous and inspirational mentor. Her garden certainly illustrates the author's five principles for cultivating a sence of place.

  4. Everybody's awake today! Edith, the book is definitely available through Timberpress in the UK, as well. Gary, another of the speakers (who I'll write about later) spent most of his time talking about "right plant, right place," and pulling all the pieces together. It was a great presentation, as well. Michael, the chapter on Joanna Reed was one of the first I read. She sounds like she was a great (and brilliant) lady.

  5. My favorite gardens are always the one you can see the hand of the gardener, not necessarily the hands of a design firm. Now I have something else to add a birthday or Christmas list, if I can wait that long.

  6. The sense of place is the heart of a garden. Take it away and the shell isn't so pretty after all.