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The Garden for the Trees

Scott Calhoun reviews The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest by Rick Darke

The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous ForestBefore I review Rick Darke’s The American Woodland Garden Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest, I should confess that almost everything I know about the eastern forest I learned from watching The Last of the Mohicans and reading Robert Frost poems. Although I am a professional plantsman and spend many hours a week designing, planting, and reading about gardens, I have almost no experience with the eastern deciduous forest. My garden in Arizona is filled with strange succulent plants and small thorny trees with green trunks. To me, a forest of giant saguaro cacti is more familiar and comprehensible than a grove of river birches. In southern Arizona, we have no maples, no birch, no hemlock or dogwood. What few trees we have seldom reach heights over 20 feet. The sum total of my experience east of the Mississippi river consists a three-day trip to Louisville, Kentucky, for a gardening conference in February. On the way from the airport to the hotel I admired several stands of tall frozen hardwood trees.

Needless to say, my journey into Rick Darke’s The American Woodland Garden was my first journey into the Eastern deciduous forest, and it was quite a journey indeed. In a book that is part design book, part reference and part subtle ecological stump speech (pun intended), I became happily lost.

I had always imagined that most Eastern yards were manicured lawns with beds of impatiens. I assumed Eastern gardens were civilized in a manner that prohibited much regional character. Wrongly, I thought that the western U.S. had the patent on innovative, native landscapes. The American Woodland Garden set me straight. Darke articulates a forest garden aesthetic that straddles the difficult middle ground between control and wildness. As Darke says in the chapter “A Forest Aesthetic”—“The challenge is perhaps to adopt an ethic that promotes a healthy balance in the forest community and the designed landscape, and to adopt an aesthetic that recognizes the charm and fascination of the familiar.”

In a time when Americans have lost their heads for flowering herbaceous plants, Darke illuminates a side of native gardening that has been has been previously unconsidered or maligned. The idea that trees, especially a forest of trees, should be used to create gardens is somewhat of a radical idea in the gardening world. Who would have thought that book about forests would be so ground breaking?

As the venerable Henry Mitchell says:

It’s only a step—and this nation has taken it—to saying that trees are sacrosanct things. The result is that the entire eastern part of the continent is becoming overrun with trees, at least in gardens, and the work our forefathers accomplished with so great pain and sweat is set at naught. The first thing they did on arriving in America was start cutting down trees, and the gardens of this seaboard would be vastly improved if this good work had been kept in mind.

The proper place for trees may be summarized easily. They belong in parks, which we need more of; along streets, where they relieve the monotony of bad architecture; in the country where cows may doze beneath them; and in gardens in extremely limited numbers.
     — From The Essential Earthman, Mariner Books 1999

Garden writer Michael Pollan also has misgivings about the forest surrounding his Connecticut home and garden. Pollan says:

The forest is so vigorous around here… that a single season of neglect would blast my garden back to meadow, and a decade would find the forest licking at my front stoop… In fifty years, a cellar pit with a sycamore rising out of it...
     — From Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991

In advocating for the forest garden aesthetic, Darke bucks this conventional wisdom about the incompatibility of trees and gardens:

I’m sometimes inclined to believe horticulturists are involved in an unwitting conspiracy against big trees. Though gardening books often extol their virtues, the final recommendation is often to plant them somewhere else than in your own garden, or to leave their planting entirely to others. Surely trees like American beech, Fagus grandifolia, can be superb choices for large parks and public spaces, but with care and a little imagination, they can also contribute mightily to the more intimate landscapes in which so many of us make our homes.

The most interesting and frustrating chapter in the book, “Designing the Woodland Garden,” features beautiful seasonal photos of public and private landscapes that utilize woodland design principles. Of these photos, I found that the most captivating were or Darke’s own home garden. As is often the case in a book that features several gardens including the author’s, Darke’s narrative about his own garden stands above his descriptions of the other private gardens in the text. I found the paragraphs about his Pennsylvania garden among the most compelling pages in the book. Unlike most of the other residences featured, Darke’s house and garden are modest in scale. This garden is the only garden featured that dramatically illustrates the stunning affects of incorporating woodland plants in somewhat limited space. Even so, at 1 and ½ acres, by most standards Darke’s garden is large. Herein lies my frustration. The majority of photos in this chapter are of large public landscapes, botanical gardens, and wild forestlands. More time could be spent on smaller gardens, or perhaps, as Henry Mitchell suggests, the woodland garden is not practical in these small spaces? Although Darke argues that the small garden can be a woodland garden, we don’t get many photographic examples. With the average lot size of new homes getting smaller and smaller, more attention to woodland gardening in restricted spaces would be welcome in a future Darke text.

The second half the book is a remarkable encyclopedia of forest plants narrated with Darke’s personal insights and horticultural tips. Because of my regional handicap, I cannot verify the accuracy of the information; I can assure you that it is as entertaining a plant catalog as any and the descriptions seem to come from first-hand experience with each species.

All in all, The American Woodland Garden seems destined to become a classic gardening text. Darke has articulated an intricate and diverse new garden aesthetic based on the native plants of the Eastern U.S. Darke treats American trees and forests in all their permutations with care and detail. The photos, which were all shot by Darke without filters or flash, meticulously catalog the seasonal changes in forest landscapes. Through the exceptional photos and explanatory captions, I’ve become a fan of the flowering dogwood and towering tulip tree. And if I ever live east of the Mississippi, I’m sure to plant a pagoda dogwood and paw paws somewhere in my garden. On a hot summer afternoon, which is when we read gardening books in Arizona, Darke’s woodland photos make me feel like Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans—crouched between a mossy stone and the peeling bark of a river birch. It’s a good place to be.


A self-described “desert plant fiend,” Scott Calhoun enjoys exploring the deserts of Arizona and Mexico seeking interesting plants, gardens, and transcendent fish tacos. He gets much of his design inspiration from badlands and taco stands, a style which Sunset magazine dubbed “Taqueria Chic.” Scott writes, lectures, and designs gardens in Tucson, Arizona. His first book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand, has been awarded the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award. His newest book is Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens. Catch up with Scott at www.zonagardens.com.
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The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest

by Rick Darke

   Timber Press
   August 2002
   ISBN 0881925454


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