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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Designing a Garden: The Green Garden Spot

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's organic gardening expert Evelyn Tully Costa and host Steve Curwood discuss the art of making a statement or realizing a vision through garden design.


CURWOOD: To many of us, the urge to clip, mow, weed, and dig, is more than just another item in the weekly checklist of chores to do. It's an act of passion. How we shape the bit of nature we call a garden can be as exciting or soothing as any painting, sculpture, or memoir we leave behind. And it's an entree into our moods, our state of minds and heart. Here to discuss the creative side of gardening is our very own garden designer Evelyn Tully Costa. She's out in the Green Garden Spot as usual. Welcome, Evelyn.


CURWOOD: So, let's get right to the heart of the matter. For weeks we've been fussing over technique, you know, the soil, how to and how to dig. And all the mechanics of gardening. But you're saying there's a deeper issue here?

TULLY COSTA: Yeah. Really the main issue. I really think people should know the basics of how to garden, but what I really do for a living when I'm not talking to you is to help others realizing their visions through plants, through cobblestones and soil. It really boils down to design.

CURWOOD: So what if I don't know anything about, you know, designing? I mean, do I need some expert or do I have to go through these slick magazines that have these beautiful pictures in them?

TULLY COSTA: No. I mean, I'm not saying you shouldn't look at those. But just like clothes or jewelry or houses, garden designing is a total manifestation of our personalities, and there's no right or wrong here, Steve. What's interesting is how our state of mind gets played out through the living landscape or the garden. We develop relationships with plants, attachments, since they're living and we have to nurture them to varying degrees. And they're like children. I mean, we even have expectations of how they're supposed to turn out. But often, the best gardens in my opinion happen despite our rigid notions of what's expected from a particular design.

CURWOOD: I thought you weren't going to tell people about my garden here today, Evelyn. [Evelyn laughs] But seriously, I mean, it's hard not to think that, you know, the great garden designers in Japan or in Europe, and especially go to England, you see these perfect little gardens by these perfect brick walls. Can we really compete with that?

TULLY COSTA: Well, I think that we really need to acknowledge the influences. I mean it's just like food or culture or music or anything else. We really need to acknowledge the history. But we also need to come to grips, and this is especially true of gardening, we really need to come to grips with the fact that we're not in Europe. We should look here in the United States at our own incredible landscapes, and we should look there for ideas for inspirations. Suzanne Lipschutz is a featured designer in the most recent issue of Garden Design magazine, and she had a great little quote. She says anyone can do a perfectly gorgeous landscape, but it's the insanity, the abnormal gardens, that inspire. It takes guts, but people should always do their own thing.

CURWOOD: Oh well, I guess I can feel better with that. Tell me, Evelyn, what are your inspirations for this kind of thing?

TULLY COSTA: That's a trade secret, Steve. Of course, I do read and collect design books by the box load, I visit gardens, I talk to other landscapers. But there are really two people whose garden, and their lifestyle, have inspired me over the last 10 years. Noah Baen and Karen Shmeckpeper have a cottage and a garden in Galilee, Pennsylvania, that always gives me pause to think. And what I think in their case is that I'll never have the breadth of knowledge, vision, and skill to pull things together quite the way these 2 have. Now, Noah and Karen have surrounded their 1870s farmhouse with a wonderful combination of native plants, roses, exotics, and annuals, that cause people to slam on the brakes when they drive past.


TULLY COSTA: Karen has, on top of just what's around the house, she's built a maze across the road from their house. And Noah recreated a working Stonehenge using bales of hay further back in the field.

CURWOOD: Oh, okay. So what you've got here are some fine artists who are using the landscape as, like, a canvas.

TULLY COSTA: Yes. But it's also very inviting. In fact, Karen named it the Galilee Gathering Garden. She actually cuts and sells flowers right out of her living painting. And wonderfully enough, people actually use Hay Henge and the Garden Maze as a gathering place. So it's really a stunning example of making the most out of a location. In this particular case, and I think this is probably one of the most important things about designing where you are, we're talking about sky meeting fields that slip into this woodland which is bordered by a stream. The plants blend in and they pop out at you in very refreshing and unusual ways. Noah and Karen have also managed to attract at least a dozen different types of butterfly species, many more birds, and also local residents, who are an interesting mix of farmers, professionals, artists and transplants from other places. Like Brooklyn.

CURWOOD: Aha, so that's where you go when you want to get away from it all.

TULLY COSTA: That's right.

CURWOOD: But now, what about the rest of us if we're not all that artistically inclined or think we're not, anyway. Where do we start?

TULLY COSTA: Well, I would very much recommend any book by garden designer, writer, and photographer Ken Druse. He's one of this country's leading designers and a well-known advocate of the native plant movement. Now, if you really want to learn something about plants that belong in the United States, in settings that are as stunning as anything you'll see in Europe, go out and get a copy of The Natural Garden or The Natural Habitat Garden. Now, I consider both of these books bibles for the work that I do.

CURWOOD: Okay, so those books are by Ken Druse and they are The Natural Garden and The Natural Habitat Garden. And I'll check them out in the library and we'll talk in a few weeks.

TULLY COSTA: Great. Well, good luck, Steve, at the drawing board.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Evelyn. Evelyn Tully Costa designs and builds gardens in Brooklyn. She comes to us from WNYC, New York.



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