An artist’s take on over-the-top gardening



Here’s another man about gardening, but he’s not a plant expert or designer. Buffalo resident John Pfahl is known far and wide for his landscape photography, particularly of Niagara Falls and other waterfalls and rivers. He’s also done several series that are of special interest to gardeners. The photographs are exhibited through Janet Borden Gallery in New York and Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo; Pfahl has also published several books.

My favorite, Extreme Horticulture, (Frances Lincoln, 2003) is an out-of-the-ordinary book for any gardener’s coffee table. Pfahl traveled throughout the United States to find the most striking, far-out, amazing, and spectacular examples of botanical wonders (most created or encouraged by humans). Shown above is a banyan tree (planted from a sprig in 1937) at Cypress Gardens in Florida.

Pfahl spends plenty of time at the usual suspects—Cypress, Longwood, the Getty, Lotusland—but he was also able to find intriguing cultivations is less obvious locations. Here is a radically pruned maple in Chatauqua (much of it was diseased)

and here’s a highway interchange planting in Carlsbad, California.

I’d love to see—just once—this fairy tale scene from Lotusland, which is featured on the cover.

I am also a huge fan of The Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile, a series that documents moments in Pfahl’s own compost heap. Yes, Pfahl is also a gardener, and a regular visitor to my garden during Garden Walk.

I know there are a lot of photographers out there—indeed, we’re all the photo-historians of our own gardens—but I like the incisive, controlled romance of Pfahl’s viewfinder. He loves to find and document the extremes, but he never goes over the edge himself.

Finally, here’s the man himself, poised at the brink of the Niagara Falls rapids.Pfahl2

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. It’s ice plant and geraniums. The ice plant is the pink. The light has to hit it a certain way, I guess, according to the brief text that accompanies that image.

  2. That maple is fascinating! It’s interesting how the one branch grew into a maple tree shape even though it’s off the main trunk. Trees are so resilient.

  3. A long time ago I was a model for a student in Uelsmann’s photography class. I am much more of a horticultural wonder now with that aged patina.

    When an artist turns their eye to a subject, the ordinary can become extreme.

    I just entered a photo contest for Microsofts new Vista software promo. It is called Show us your Wow. The entries are dominated by pictures of the natural world. We often lament our dying connection to the natural world, but it is always there inspiring mankind despite ourselves.

  4. I remember visiting my grandparents in Florida at about age 10 and seeing that banyan tree at Cypress Gardens. It’s my first recollection of thinking plants might be cool.

  5. The freeways of San Diego County are covered with that pink ice plant. In Early spring the sides of the freeway are a riot of color and bees.

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