Need Help?

Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

See my work on Pinterest at Garden Guru Montreal

Entries in Tom Christopher (1)


Garden Design May Be Inspired by Works of Art, a book review for

The Artful Garden, James Van Sweden and Tom Christopher, Random House, ISBN: 978-1-4000-6389-5

The theme of this beautifully written and breathtakingly illustrated book is that great garden design may be enriched when it references and embraces creative elements that are found in the plastic and performing arts.  

Such a phenomenon is called synergy in industry and in horticulture it is metaphorically referred to as hybrid vigor. It represents a cumulative result that is superior to the sum of its parts and explains the cross fertilization that sometimes takes place between two artistic disciplines. As composers collaborate with choreographers and sculptors are inspired by painters, the resulting works are often richer and more powerful than what might have been created alone. Extending this metaphor to garden design, the authors suggest that the inspiration derived from the arts can raise a landscape to a higher level, making it more creative, and more meaningful.

According to Mr. Van Sweden, a garden may be likened to a painting because it can be described as a two dimensional depiction. It is also similar to a sculpture because it is a space through which the eye moves. There is a third dimension to a garden because it is constantly in motion due to seasonal change and rhythmic repetition. In that respect, it is similar to music and dance. However, because nature controls the pace of that change, an element of unpredictability is inherent in any garden – and that is its mystery.

In planning landscapes of any size, the reader is boldly advised not to rely upon “horticultural rules of thumb and clichés” as these produce “passionless mediocre results”. Instead of focusing on borders and beds, or paths and meadows, the authors encourage garden designers to consciously incorporate what they have observed, or experienced in other media. It is suggested that the resulting landscape design might “….resemble a tapestry woven from sky, trees, rocks, vines, flowers, grasses, and space”.

To elaborate on this perspective of landscape design, Mr. Van Sweden interviewed performance and plastic artists who garden. These include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, sculptor Grace Knowlton, textile designer Jack Lenor and painter Robert Dash. It is through their unique garden experiences and artistic mindsets, that the authors introduce the fundamentals of design that include positive and negative spaces, form and scale, as well as light and shadow. Additional design concepts discovered in the unique landscape of these artists include composition, color, symmetry, line, harmony, contrasts, rhythm and movement - aka music, foliage and texture. Finally, there is a brief discussion about creating the illusion of depth with textures and about layering a garden for mystery and excitement.

This informally written publication offers readers more than inspiration; it gives us insight into the brilliance of a landscape architect whose gardens are great works of art. James Van Sweden, along with his partner Wolfgang Oehme, was responsible for introducing his vision of the New American Landscape, an artistic and horticultural achievement that continues to receive international acclaim for more than twenty years since its conception. We are pleased that, with the assistance of Tom Christopher, Mr. Van Sweden has chosen to share with us the art - inspired creative process that makes his gardens beautiful beyond words.

Photos accompanying this review are meant to illustrate the New American Landcsape and may be found on the website of the landscape architecture firm of Oehme Van Sweden and Associates.