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MEETING REPORT: Gardenlust with Chris Woods

By Jeannine Romero.

Introducing Chris Woods

For Chris Woods, wanderlust is garden lust. After a successful career spent working at, restoring, and designing famous gardens, both formal and wild, including England’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Rudyard Kipling’s private garden, and Chanticleer Gardens in Pennsylvania, Woods recently garden hopped the world to find the most intriguing modern garden designs.

The resulting short list of his top 50 gardens is chronicled in his recent book Gardenlust (Timber Press). He shared several favorite gardens as well as his own design philosophy with SDHS members at the March meeting.

The Development of a Garden Designer

Woods said he has always had “one foot in the formal garden and one foot in the wild garden,” but finds himself getting wilder as he gets older. Growing up in England in the 1960’s, he first joined a band but soon realized he couldn’t play an instrument. So, “I decided to become a gardener instead,” and he took an apprenticeship at Kew Gardens where he “learned to work” as he neatly edged the garden for six months (that, not growing roses, is basic gardening in England, he said).

As a result of this apprenticeship, Woods realized that he didn’t care for being the worker bee in a garden, but he did get hooked on gardening after smelling a fragrant clematis and, according to him, like an addict, “once you do it, you need more.”

Garden design became his goal, but “England was too small.” English gardens, he explained, are usually Italianate, and England's biggest horticultural contribution is the wide herbaceous border. Woods said that in his gardens, he has been influenced more by North America, noting that he loves the “natural world” of the United States, especially California.

Designing Chanticleer and thoughts on garden design

Woods spent 20 years as the director and chief designer at Chanticleer Gardens, “where I wrote the book, so to speak.” “I wanted to make something beautiful,” without a botanical feel, he said. “I wanted a garden with an incredible feel of design.”

In the design world, the mantra is form follows function, but Woods prefers to use the modern day philosophy that form follows feeling. Gardens can feel both soft and gritty, as well romantic or even cultural, reflecting the population surrounding it.

California’s Huntington Botanical Garden’s Chinese garden is an example of this philosophy, according to Woods, noting the large Asian population in the state.

Notable Gardens and Landscapes in America, Europe and Asia

In Seattle, Woods described Chihuly Garden and Glass as “brilliant” and said it has “great subtlety.” And, although he is generally not a fan of children’s gardens, he makes an exception with the Mordecai Children’s Garden at the Denver Botanic Garden. In his opinion, it is a “highly sophisticated, pleasing garden” providing a hands-on experience with nature for children.

In Ireland, Woods noted the garden designs of Mary Reynolds (a gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show) that replicate surrounding natural features, such as a meandering river. He describes her philosophy as an “eco-feminist” and calls her an “eco-warrior” who, he said, now even suggests that “gardening is an offense on the land.”

In Tokyo, Woods found a landscape at a corporate center in the city that is considered “an urban forest.” This swath of land features trees and loose, untamed native plants that surround workers as they walk daily to and from the entrance of their place of work.

More atypical and controversial gardens can be found in his book, Gardenlust.

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