The Self-Taught Gardener: Tableside gardening

According to our Self-Taught Gardener, gardening, like a good conversation, needs to keep moving forward.

Sometimes I feel so fortunate about the company I keep. Last night found me at a dinner table with some of my favorite gardeners and landscape designers, after a day at the Garden Writers Association conference and the Independent Garden Center show in Chicago. After hours spent in an exhibit hall with some plants (but really filled more by containers of every shape and size and the other sundry things that people buy at nurseries and garden centers, often to my dismay), you would think I would have had enough of gardening. But for those of us who love plants, getting together and talking about gardens is more than a profession — it is an addiction.

This photo of me at our Seed Savers booth at the Independent Garden Center shows my own lack of refinement, but at least the plant at hand has worthwhile qualities in its jewel-like kernels.

While I loved catching up with master gardener Sally Ferguson and food and garden writer Ellen Ecker Ogden, the conversation that most held my attention was with the director of Chanticleer, Bill Thomas, and with Dutch garden designer Jacquelyn van der Kloet. The conversation at the table was fast and furious in its pace, as people shared stories of friends and the gossip that always ensues after a convention. But what captured my imagination most was the work that Jacquelyn and Bill have continued to do throughout their illustrious careers, and that is to continue to refine and move gardens forward over their own lifetimes and the lifetime of the garden.

Chanticleer may well be one of the most beautiful gardens in America, and it certainly has evolved over the time of Bill’s tenure, taking on a sophistication that matches his own personal style. Its greatest refinements, so often lacking in public gardens, are the transitions that Bill has created between the various areas of this property, which was once the Main Line Philadephia estate of the Rosengarten family. Sitting with Bill last night, I realized the art of the transition was evident not only in his work at Chanticleer, but in the way he moved conversation forward smoothly from topic to topic, making the path forward clear and approachable. It was just what every garden — and every dinner conversation — needs.

The gardens at Chanticleer lead one forward with a confidence and refinement that are always at hand for its director, Bill Thomas, the only man I know that can eat cheese curds with style.

Just as in the conversation, this approach is evident in the walkway at Chanticleer from the house to the lower gardens. It is filled with Monarda bradburiana, flowering bulbs, grasses, and small trees that give it interest throughout the season. Bill was responsible for moving the design of this area forward, and it has made walking the garden as easy and effortless to navigate as having a conversation at dinner with an old friend.

I think I will never walk around Chanticleer again without hearing Bill’s voice in my ear, leading me from garden to garden, entertaining me the whole way not only with words but with inspiring plant combination that line the path. And I hope to hear this voice when working in my own garden, because his elegance is something that I admire and believe is at the center of good horticulture.

Jacquelyn van der Kloet’s work at Lurie Garden has a confidence and energy that reflects her own refined approach to garden style.

Talking with Jacquelyn made me think of another aspect of good gardening — the transitions from season to season and from year to year. Her work, really, is like that of a musician, setting up a temporal landscape that evolves through the season, like the bulb and perennial displays she has created at the New York Botanical Garden and, with Piet Oudulf, at Chicago’s Lurie garden. Her use of bulbs, randomly mixed into perennial beds that manage to appear casual even though their colors schemes are carefully selected, has a refinement that reminds me of the elegance of a mature woman, comfortable in her own skin and assured in the timelessness of her style. Self-assuredness is essential to good gardening, as is an occasional wardrobe change – something that Jacquelyn made me well aware of as she discussed reinvigorating the plantings at Lurie Garden. A fresh look at what is at hand is always worthwhile, and certainly makes for good conversation, and an even better garden. Something to keep in mind the next time I am in the garden or invited out for dinner.

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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.