Passionate cultivator cuts his roots and wanders the globe

By Adrian Higgins

The skills of the actor and musician are wholly portable. Sculptors may place their work around the world but are tied to their studios. Gardeners, working in the trickiest medium of them all – life – are by definition rooted to one place.

That doesn’t mean they can’t go to see other gardens; such visits are essential to keep the creative juices flowing. But to pour your soul into gardening, you need your own garden and you have to shepherd it over many years. You’re stuck. That is the price of paradise.

If you are passionate about gardens but have wanderlust, that seems like a curse of mythological proportion. This might turn you into a plant explorer, a landscape photographer or, if you are Christopher Woods, into a horticultural sojourner and writer.

It was not always thus. I first met him almost 20 years ago at Chanticleer, the garden in Pennsylvania, where he was the founding director of an enchanting place. It was – and is – one of the sweetest gardens around, and Woods was by the time I met him already established as a non-conformist and a creative beacon to the team of gardeners he led. But I should have guessed he was seeking change – as he greeted me wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a straw hat.

He left soon afterward, to run one garden on the West Coast and then another, and then I lost track of his wayfaring. “I am a restless man at heart,” he announces, by way of his latest creation, a book named Gardenlust: A Botanical Tour of the World’s Best New Gardens.

Cerebral types (such as myself) have to be reminded that a garden, at base, is about attending to the senses, about creating an emotional response to esthetic stimulation. Woods has always espoused this, as his book attests.

Over a span of three years, he visited approximately 50 gardens on six continents, viewing such landscapes as botanical gardens, parks, residential gardens, and commercial and civic landscapes. There is astonishing variety, such as the Naples Botanical Garden, whose creators are seeking to hold back the destructive forces of development in Florida; and the dramatic cliffside home and garden of Chilean architect Juan Grimm. There is the 568-acre (230-hectare) Landschaftspark in Germany, where designed gardens grow amid the ruins of an abandoned ironworks in the Ruhr Valley. Here, a fern growing in a crease of rusted metal, Woods writes, “is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Until the next beautiful thing.”

All these places, though, have one thing in common: They were established since the beginning of the century, even if as part of existing landscapes. The imagination and effort that has gone into them must encourage anyone who thinks significant gardens are stuck in the past or, worse, fading from our distracted world.

At Alnwick Castle in England, the Duchess of Northumberland raised and spent millions to create unorthodox garden elements that left parts of the English horticultural establishment clutching their pearls. This included a US$10-million tree house and a grandiose water cascade. Woods likes its radicalism and the fact that many of the features are designed for people dealing with life in a depressed, post-industrial part of Britain.

One place I’d like to see is a private, 990-acre (401-hectare) sculpture garden on New Zealand’s North Island created by owner Alan Gibbs. Gibbs, an entrepreneur and serious art collector, shaped the land and created wide paths, using heavy equipment. “On occasion, he would blow things up,” writes Woods, “partly to remove them and partly for the fun of it.”

I would like to follow in Woods’s footsteps to coastal Argentina, where Rolando Uria has created a display garden for his collection of salvias, a genus that is much richer than most gardeners realize. Would the 12-foot-high (3.66-metre-high) Salvia foveolata grow in a summer garden in Washington? It would be worth putting it to the test.

Woods, who, speaks of his early affinity for plants but, just as important, for kindred spirits who continue to define their own visions of a garden without being shackled to the past. The garden is a human artifice, he writes, but it connects to the rest of nature and stops us from thinking of other life forms as being separate.

“Gardens are to our hands what language is to our social structure: a constructed, artificial mechanism we’ve devised so we can explain things we see around us.”

Woods was on the other side of the world when I tried to reach him recently. He emailed me from New Zealand and a couple of days later from the South Pacific. “I am now on a beach in New Caledonia looking at Araucaria columnaris. A lot of it,” he wrote. That would be the New Caledonian pine.

In a subsequent email from Sydney, he addressed my question about garden sameness around the world. “While there is a great deal of homogenization, particularly in corporate and government landscapes, there is an abundance of individual creativity and even esthetic eccentricity in contemporary garden design,” he responded. “The individual has not been consumed.”

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