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Forget the perfect trophy garden: Today's finest landscapes are positively wild

By: Adrian Higgins The Washington Post
April 7, 2018 Updated: April 7, 2018 at 8:49 am
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The Mount Macedon garden in Victoria, Australia, embraces the dynamic look of contemporary herbaceous plantings. MUST CREDIT: Claire Takacs/From "Dreamscapes"/ Hardie Grant Books

New gardening books still come thick and fast in the digital age. The titles tend to interest millennials and embrace such matters as caring for succulents and houseplants, growing edibles in urban spaces, and planting gardens as ecological oases.

What you don't see so much are photo-rich books that luxuriate in the images of top-tier private gardens. But at their best, such books get to the essential quality of garden-making. A garden is a place where we connect our senses to beauty, to pleasure. Gardens heighten the experience of living.

Such collections of personal Edens are welcome if they are correctly focused. They go wrong when they present trophy gardens built for wealthy people who don't know their hummus from their humus. On the page and in person, these flash gardens lack authenticity.

Claire Takacs is a garden photographer who understands this. Based in Australia and Britain, she has had the enviable task of photographing some of the finest private gardens on four continents. Sixty-nine are presented in her new book, "Dreamscapes: Inspiration and Beauty in Gardens Near and Far." Although I don't warm to every featured space, they all are driven by their owners' passions and skills or by gardeners loyal to the owner's ambitions, and that makes Takacs' book worthy of attention.

Takacs has a rare global perspective on garden-making in the early 21st century. The viewer is drawn to the common elements that bind our contemporary ambitions. As a rule, gardens are looser and more natural than ever. Perhaps because I love the extravagant use of perennials and grasses, I found myself drawn to gardens where the so-called New Perennial Movement, with its emphasis on using the right plant in the right spot, is fully expressed.

These gardens may be a world apart, but in their artful use of herbaceous plants, they are kindred spirits. At the grand neoclassical Hopetown House estate in Scotland, the owner has turned an old walled vegetable garden into a frothy incoming tide of perennials and grasses, including such beauties as Mexican feather grass, astilbes, echinops, echinaceas and joe-pye weed. (Those I discern from the pictures; readers may be frustrated by the lack of plant identification in the text.)

In Victoria, Australia, we see a plant palette attuned to a hotter, drier climate. In eastern France, Monique and Thierry Dronet have spent decades turning an old quarry and conifer plantation into a constantly expanding, perennial-rich landscape. While she was at the Dronets', Takacs favored the Bohemian Meadow, a field of purple asters and grasses.

Some of the gardens are lower-key but no less naturalistic or reflective of gentle artistry. In the Welsh hills of Carmarthenshire, Julian and Fiona Wormald have spent 24 years creating a densely planted, multilayered garden of bulbs, perennials and shrubs around their 17th-century Welsh longhouse.

At Bryan's Ground, in western England, David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell have softened the formality of an Arts and Crafts garden with mowed paths through meadowlike beds, including blocks of 20,000 blue Siberian irises.

Twenty-two of the featured gardens are in the U.S., including Windcliff, the Indianola, Wash., garden of plantsman Dan Hinkley; Skylands, Martha Stewart's mossy, sylvan garden on Mount Desert Island, Maine; and Ferry Cove, the erstwhile Chesapeake Bay garden of the late landscape architect James van Sweden.

Like many garden photographers, Takacs likes to take pictures when the sun is low, at dawn and dusk. This is when the flower heads of grasses catch the light. Collectively, her images demonstrate how important grasses have become in bringing life and sparkle to a garden. The gardens devoid of grasses seem duller for their absence, with the exception of those Takacs photographed in Japan, which have a separate quality.

A good example of this need for grass is the picture of a garden in Spain with blobs of clipped shrubbery and lavender. The seed heads of giant stipa grass grab the golden sunlight and elevate and lighten the scene.

One or two gardens point to what I see as a pitfall with ornamental grasses. If you plant them monolithically in huge blocks of the same variety, they lose the structural coherence and piquancy that make them so valuable mixed with other plants.

I asked Takacs, via email, whether gardens were becoming globalized to the point of homogeneity. The answer was an emphatic no.

"Gardens to me are often works of art, so they are as a result and at best a reflection of the people who made them," she wrote. "This is why they are unique and special, regardless of whether they are using a similar planting style or plant palette."

And, she noted, the quality of light varies much by locale.

"I see great beauty in all of them, and I use light to attempt to show them at their most beautiful," she wrote. "It's my greatest reward when a garden owner says I see what they see."

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