How do you express yourself through your garden? What is your garden style? This is the subject of Rochelle Greayer’s book Cultivating Garden Style: Inspired Ideas and Practical Advice to Unleash Your Garden Personality, published by Timber Press last year.
I’ve looked forward to digging into this beautiful book for some time, and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. Cultivating Garden Style is an encyclopedia, really, analyzing over 23 styles with creative, playful names like Retro Rockery, Tropical Noir, Forest Temple, and Playful Pop. The photography is exquisite, the ideas abundant. You could linger over this book for hours (I did). Each section goes into what you might include in, for example, a “Playful Pop” garden. In this style of garden you’d find bold colors, geometric shapes, and a fun attitude expressed in such suggested elements as chicken sculptures, colorful floor cushions, an electric-pink birdhouse, and a mix of chair styles from contemporary Adirondack to a bright green rocking chair that looks like it came from The Jetsons, But what, you may ask, if you’re more into a more earthy style? In Greayer’s book, a Cottage Au Courant garden may be what you are looking for. It’s still the cottage garden of yesteryear, but with 21st century adaptations. There’s the white picket fence, wooden arbor, and traditional flowers, the kitchen garden (potager), and the lush plantings, yet new twists abound: modern fabric on the outdoor furniture (why not try a leopard print?), a checkerboard planting for your lawn (tile alternating with groundcovers or grass), and a bright blue modern bistro chair that fits in just fine.
Graeyer was educated in London’s English Gardening School, and she has designed gardens for many international clients and hotels. She was even awarded a medal by the Royal Horticultural Society for her garden at the Hampton Court Palace Flower show. While it’s clear that this über-stylist is passionate about her subject matter, both gardens and style, Graeyer’s prose exudes a down-to-earth friendly encouragement on every page.
While I adore the concept of diversity in garden styles—in the 21st century we can borrow from any period, any country, any tradition, and that is thrilling!—at the same time I worried that this book might prove a little bewildering to a new gardener. There’s a level of sophistication here that’s off the charts, and I puzzled over some of the style subheadings. When two people read “eclectic private paradise” or “summer party” the same visual will probably not spring to mind. That was my only issue; that there were so many styles and accompanying terms, Greayer’s overall message might be unnecessarily muddied. (Actually, I feel that her expertise and enthusiasm calls for a series of style books, not just one.) That stated, it’s understandable that she wanted to put everything in her first book, and gardeners, if anyone, should appreciate abundance.
For me, this book brought up the question of how style develops for a gardener. I remember when I began my first garden. It was in the early ’90s, and I had grown up in traditional suburbia (a neighborhood where identical trees and shrubs and lawns stretched out as far as the eye could see). Although I had developed an aesthetic in art and design, I was anxious about putting my mark on the landscape. To me, and I’m guessing most feel the same, designing an outdoor space is serious business. In our historic neighborhood, I knew I was altering a landscape that had been around for decades. Now I would create a landscape that reflected my values, my interests. It didn’t help that one of the first things I wanted to do was to tear out the lawn, something that was anything but standard at that time.
At this beginning point, every gardener must have some idea of style for guidance. I remember checking out every book I could find on the subject at the library. I knew I was the cottage garden type. There were only several popular styles back then and I connected to the freedom, history, abundance, utility, and, well, chaos. I wanted everything: vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, shrubs, trees, a water feature. But, I wondered, what about style? For instance, should I incorporate a plant color scheme? You may laugh, but many books of that period pushed a color palette. I remember reading how a gardener’s addition of a single “jarring color” in a flower bed could throw everything out of balance. (Yikes?) I brought this question up to my mentor. Victoria was a horticulturalist, and a seasoned cottage gardener (she’d created the first cottage garden I fell in love with). “Should I stick with certain color groups with flowers?” I asked her. “Warm tones? Cool tones? I can’t decide—I like them all!” She told me, “Plant whatever you like. It’ll be a bouquet!” That’s all I needed. Her green light encouraged me to let the fun begin. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my garden (oh, the poor plants that have been sacrificed for my education), and I continue to make mistakes, but it’s come together into what is an expression of my values, interests, and aesthetics . . . in other words, me.
An interesting side note is that in the last couple of decades I’ve discovered that everyone has their own inherent garden style. This became apparent when friends moved from one home to another. Their new gardens were almost identical in style to what they’d had before, even in very different climates. Ah-ha! I thought, the gardens we create reflect who we are, no matter where we are! I like that. It’s only when you get too serious, too worried about what the neighbors think, that you lose your individuality.
Books like Cultivating Garden Style can help you discover your personal style and hone it into something extraordinary. It can bring up your level of garden design sophistication. My advice? Relax. Just go into the garden, summon your ideas, and set them free. Don’t be intimidated, don’t feel you have to pick a certain style and use only those elements. Greayer doesn’t. She describes herself as a Colorado native whose own garden is a combination of Handsome Prairie, Sacred Meadow, Forest Temple, and Homegrown Rock ‘n’ Roll.
There were many things to admire about this book, but I think what I loved most was the multitude of practical tips and how-tos that go hand-in-hand with creating a garden. You will find many important basic gardening questions covered: the abc’s on soil, composts, and mulch; how to lay out plants in your garden beds; primers on lighting, trellises, fountains; even how to hang a tree swing. There are fun crafts, like making planters out of recycled items or concrete, oilcloth (waterproof) placemats or a rug, plant hangers. There are helpful, but not overwhelming, plant lists—an example of two are “creepers, cushions, and rosettes” and “ornamental vegetables.” Educational pages about permaculture, xeriscaping, and bees, even one on the fundamentals of “fire scaping” (so very important as wildfires have increased 400% in the last few decades) round out the offerings.
I gave my copy of this book to my friend Denise this month. She is getting married this summer. She has just bought her first home, and she will start her first garden this year. She’s excited, and I’m excited for her. I know she’ll find much in this book to inspire and guide her.
Those of us obsessed with gardening will recognize author Rochelle Greayer as the publisher of the new and notable quarterly garden journal Pith + Vigor. Before that she co-edited Leaf Magazine and was a weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy. (She also had a popular blog, “Studio ‘g’.) It’s clear that she’s obsessed too—in that wonderful, happy way that gardeners share. The thought thrills me there will be more books from Greayer to come.