THERE ARE THOSE for whom the garden is a playground, or a pantry, or a stage set for a seasonal performance. Then there are those who approach the landscape with a spirit of experimentation, a plot of land to push and pull to make room for discovery and even risk failure.
While the landscape-as-laboratory approach is hardly unique to designers, their antics, more than most, have much to teach us.
“American Roots: Lessons and Inspiration from the Designers Reimagining Our Home Gardens,” by Nick McCullough, Allison McCullough and Teresa Woodard (Timber Press, 2022), provides an intimate look at the personal growing spaces of more than two dozen working American gardeners when left to pursue their favorite plants and passions.
The authors buck typical “American” landscape tropes, like manicured lawns and cookie-cutter suburbs, to uncover contemporary vernacular gardens rooted in the climate, plants, stones and soils of each region. The result is a refreshing look at American gardens held up to history but seen through a regional lens, a cross-section of diversity, geography, people and the plants they tend.
Numerous garden and design books focus on coastal gardens, historic public landscapes, ambitious private estates and natural landscapes of this country, with but a nod toward those vast spaces of the “flyover” states. In contrast, “American Roots” opens with a celebration of the heartland with a perspective the authors have branded Midwestern Modern.
Appropriately, the book begins in the McCulloughs’ Columbus, Ohio, home garden, where a series of formal garden rooms, a familiar staple of English design, surrounds their modern black and white farmhouse. Enclosed by hedging, individual gardens and gathering spaces furnished with road-trip finds and familiar agricultural materials function as spaces for experimentation and expression, continually changing but especially so when a pandemic grounds travel plans.
Gardeners in Nebraska and Wisconsin cultivate a designed pocket prairie in suburbia and install experimental and eco-friendly gravel gardens. In Indiana, a container collection of choice plants populating a covered porch reveals a plant-loving heart. Beds and borders surrounding a late 19th-century home on a double lot also have been “zoned” for experimentation and delight.
Heading east, we get a glimpse of the personal garden of professional city-based designers-turned-country weekend warriors intent on creating an immersive and dramatic environment filled with plants, art and collections. Plantsmen John Gwynne and his partner, Mikel Folcarelli, tend Sakonnet Garden around their Rhode Island home. “The garden is a folly,” Gwynne says. “It’s really all about the fun of it.”
To an idiosyncratic list that includes pocket prairies and gravel gardens, add an alpine crevice garden; congenial seating areas furnished with repurposed and upcycled materials; a landscape, once the literal set for a gardening television series, furnished with meticulously clipped forms; and numerous passionate spaces that serve their creators with a stylish vegetable garden or a productive and nourishing flower farm in New Orleans.
On a practical level, each profile includes a list of favorite plants as well as a “Learn from [the gardener]” section in case you, too, want tips on scouting for vintage garden finds, designing with annuals, gravel garden basics, styling vignettes, cultivating a container garden, introducing landscape drama or creating a climate-resilient garden, among other hardworking topics. “American Roots” serves up inspiration and experience from talented designers along with a gentle nudge to express yourself and your place in the garden.