Gardens can be artful, but are they art?


Vansweden3Here's my newest review for the Kirkus Blogger Network, of a book I could hardly resist – as a long-time fan of James van Sweden's gardens and Tom Christopher's writing.   Also Kirkus-related, see Amy's new piece about "Tropical Plant Lust."

If there’s one landscape architect on the radar screens of American gardeners, it’s probably James van Sweden. His firm famously pioneered the New American Garden style in the '80s, and it’s still winning new fans for its low-maintenance, naturalistic sweeps of color and little or no use of lawn. Helping to spread his influence both here and abroad are his seven widely admired books, including the just-released Artful Garden, with horticulturalist Tom Christopher.


Van Sweden is a natural to tackle the subject of the juncture of gardening and art, having first approached landscapes by painting them as a high schooler in Michigan. By the time he studied architecture in college he was already collecting art. That was followed by three years of total immersion in the Dutch art scene while working as a city planner in Delft. Later, in his 40s, he studied ballet at the Washington School of Ballet, and he’s long been a major opera buff. 

OK we get it—he’s ridiculously qualified to write this book.

Plus, he seems to know everybody, so he can show us some of the world’s most artful gardens and interview some of the world’s best artists.  (“So Yo-Yo, tell us how your cello-playing is expressed in your garden,” I imagine the conversation going.)  He can take us along on a visit to Brazilian design superstar Roberto Burle Marx, whose gardens use tropical plants in huge, bold and abstract ways that most of us marvel at but could never, ever replicate.

More super-artful gardens in the book are those of painter Robert Dash on Long Island and the California garden of the late landscape architect Lawrence Halperin and his dancer wife, Anna.  Halperin is famous for many designs, but the one I’m most familiar with is the FDR Memorial in D.C., a favorite with locals and a radical departure from the grand but plant-free monuments we’re used to.  Van Sweden told me that Halperin’s own garden on the edge of the Pacific is very natural yet very dramatic. I just bet.

Then there’s Van Sweden’s personal garden on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, which he supposedly wanted to be an “ugly garden” of native plants that wouldn’t compete with views of the water.  But I’ve seen the garden, and it’s stunning, so does he think he succeeded in his plan?  “I think it’s beautiful,” he admits. And so, I imagine, does any lover of beauty or nature.

Van Sweden1

But ARE gardens art?

Clearly there are artful gardens, but do we really think of gardening as an art form? Not in this country, with our crazy obsession over lawns, but most of us can cite some pretty artsy examples in Europe—like Monet’s Giverny or Gertrude Jekyll’s White Garden, with its impressionistic use of color (no surprise, since Jekyll started out as a painter). But van Sweden makes the case that the principles of art—like composition, rhythm and pattern—are used in designing outdoor spaces, which is no doubt true of the best ones.  Most amateurs, like myself, create gardens using exactly none of those principles, and I’m not sure that this book will change that one iota. But The Artful Garden, jam-packed with artful ideas and inspiring photographs, encourages us to give more expression to our creativity in the garden, and that’s music to this gardener’s ears.  

Photos of the van Sweden garden at Ferry Cove on the Chesapeake Bay by Susan Harris.


  1. I think Pearl Fryar’s topiary garden is art. Culivated gardens -even the wild type – are commonly thought “unnecessary”, just like art is considered by many a frill. I believe art is in fact a necessary human endeavor, essential to the survival of the species-just as gardens are.

  2. I love the snake handrail. I wish more people could afford such details for their gardens. When I went to Longwoods and Chanticleer I left very inspired by all the special details that they created. Unfortunately I can not afford to have a custom metal handrail created for my front step.

    The gardens are spectacular too.

  3. Well, if art is the applied expression of human creativity and craft in an intentional way, then I say gardens CAN be art (although they don’t have to be). Any garden that is purposefully arranged to be aesthetically pleasing to the senses or visually, sensually meaningful is a work of art. Like the performing arts, gardens are seasonal and go through changes–some of them planned, some not–and we each experience them differently. They can be formal and part of a specific “school” (knot gardens, Japanese gardens) or informal and “expressionist” (English cottage gardens, “naturalized” gardens), or purposefully surreal and weird, with art features that stand alone used within the garden. They can be a form of architecture (itself an art form) that houses works of art. But I would go with “yes, gardens can be art”.

  4. We can categorize reality in any number of ways. When astronomers decided to clarify their definition of “planets”, it turned out that Pluto was no longer a planet – but none of them were disputing its *nature, only whether they should use a meaning for “planet” that included it.

    So too with gardening. Whatever definition of art you use will not change the nature of my garden, nor yours. If I *had to categorize, I’d call gardening folk art. Folk art is most often something ordinary people do, folks who don’t consider themselves artists. Yet they will do some things with an intent to create beauty, often by making something that would have to be made anyway – a yard (or garden), a chair, a dress, a tool shed. Some folks fare better than others, but I would never tell anyone that they have to leave dresses, chairs, or gardens to the “professionals”.

    Nothing to stop a professional or gifted person from gardening, and more power to him/her. But I think there is more of the homestead ambience in gardening than a master painter.

  5. Lisa you’d be surprised at how affordable simple designs can be. Here we had local blacksmith make two curved iron brackets to hold up a stone counter and it was $60.00 for the pair. Ask around.

  6. “But are gardens art?” Some are. Some are ever-changing laboratories, some are regimented, anal-compulsive exercises in control, some are overstuffed, god-awful messes. A garden is (or can be) a medium, just like canvas and paint or a block of marble; but it’s an extremely complex medium that involves a huge number of materials and is subject to uncontrollable external (and internal) conditions and pressures. When a person of extraordinary talent takes up gardening as a medium, the result is art. But most of us just stumble along, having a good time. But occasionally–usually by accident–even those of us who have about as much artistic talent as a doorknob create brief moments, or vignettes, that qualify as art. Which is one of the reasons why gardening is so cool.

    (Btw Susan–did you mean Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden?)

  7. Are gardens works of art ?
    Some are and some are not.
    It depends on the eye and the hand that created them.

    BTW, Roberto Burle Marx passed away several years ago and Halprins Sea Ranch garden is a dramatic study of working with nature on the edge of the world. ( The property dramatically drops off the steep cliffs of Pacific ocean – breathless views )

  8. When I dropped out of art school because I realized that I didn’t want to be an illustration major I started gardening as an artistic outlet and stopped drawing and painting.

    I think all gardens are art. But just like more conventional methods some are bad art and some are good art.

  9. I believe that most gardens take the form of art. Not all of can paint a perfect master piece of art but we can paint something on a canvas. This also goes for gardens , if you put love and hard work into your garden it should take some shape of art.

  10. I saw a quote on a sign in the Atlanta Botanical Garden that says it for me:

    Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts.


  11. I love that quote, Bev. Gardening a performing art? In many ways, it is. After all, art is simply an outward expression of the artist’s inner imagination. Is that not a description of a garden? The gardener has a picture of what they want their garden to look like, and they bring it to life on the canvas of the soil, over many months and even years.

    Stan Horst

  12. A Philosophy of Gardens by David E. Cooper has chapters titled, “Taking Gardening Seriously,” “Art or Nature?,” “Art-and-Nature?, and “The Meanings of Gardens.” The whole book is worth reading!

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