For many years, garden exhibits at the Royal Horticultural Society’s UK flower shows have swayed in the direction of naturalistic emulation: embellished recreations of living landscapes the world over. Take Jihae Hwang’s herb-strewn Korean mountainside at Chelsea this spring, or Urquhart & Hunt’s celebrated vision of a rewilded West Country glade the previous year, so convincing in its wildflower naturalism it drew debate over what a garden — or gardener — really is.
As someone whose writing falls predominantly between the two spheres of “Gardens” and “Travel”, these kinds of show gardens almost always appeal, but none so much as the best in show winner of last month’s Hampton Court flower show. Seeking to distil a range of natural US environments – forest, desert, grassland – the America’s Wild garden, designed by Jude Yeo, Emily Grayshaw and Imogen Perreau Callf of Inspired Earth Design, was a love letter to landscapes I have grown increasingly enthralled by this past decade. It was a garden that drew me in with irresistible immediacy. In an area smaller than a tennis court, tall sweetgum trees, falling water, arid boulders and freely interweaving prairie perennials portrayed an unmistakable continent, yet within, the garden dealt in nuances capable of actually spiriting you there: the flutter of aspen leaves, the runaway stream-side yarrow; textured, stone-pigmented, adobe-like walls rendered by innovative makers Local Works Studio. Moving through the beautifully crafted space, the pathway dusted your shoes as might a hiking trail, giving a sense of the garden beyond: I thought of walks in upstate New York, in high desert Wyoming and airy Nebraska, and beneath the great broadleaf woods of Virginia and North Carolina.
My affection for the American landscape – more an escalating preoccupation – could probably be distilled down to one overarching stimulus. The magnitude, great diversity and often raw nature of the country’s unparalleled wild places and natural parks are a unanimous draw, of course, but the moment I began to recognise these environments as the native grounds of plants I’d long grown in the domesticated setting of a garden, they came alive in a wholly new and thrilling way. Centuries of transatlantic travel has seen, for better and for worse, an extensive variety of American flora brought to British gardens: plants now considered staples within the horticulturist’s catalogue. What started in earnest with John Tradescant the Younger, returning from colonial Virginia in the 17th century with trees, creepers and curious flowers hitherto unseen on British soil, was continued across the years by a succession of botanists and intercontinental traders – William Bartram, Thomas Nuttall, David Douglas et al. – until, down the timeline, these plants became so commonplace in our parks and gardens we forgot where they actually came from: echinacea, lobelia, magnolia, red oak, Virginia creeper.
A few years into my gardening career I made a journey between American coasts, from Cape Cod right across to California through the vast, ever-morphing scenery of the country, and I understood with surprising clarity how the purple garden penstemon, the bright lupin, holly-leaved mahonia and countless trees, bushes, berries and ferns familiar back home belonged to settings far less pedestrian across the ocean. On the road, over the plains, beside the river, gorge or woods, my eye turned to the passing plants and when recognition flared it was like spotting a friend in unlikely surroundings. That the ubiquitous sunflower was a hardened Midwesterner was a revelation to me then, its yellow petals spotted shimmering across the pink hills of the Badlands in South Dakota. Now, such encounters live on in the garden – the daisies, rudbeckias and salvias at home seen in a new and un-dimmable light. Ever since, this has been the primary draw pulling me back across the Atlantic, getting to explore state after state for the familiar plants in residence there, from forested California to rolling Texas Hill Country and the southwestern deserts. But far from plant hunting, this is discovery in reverse – the desire to place the ordinary back within its extraordinary context.
In a sense it is a shame that a handful of natural monuments have come to so exclusively represent outdoor USA for those living beyond its shores: The Grand Canyon, probably foremost, Niagara Falls, Monument Valley, the Florida Everglades and the vertical rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. These are all such institutional ambassadors for American tourism that, whether you’ve visited them in person or not, in the mind they appear principally as stylised icons, silhouetted motifs of the National Park poster available in the gift shop. But there are of course unending counterparts in the vast tapestry of landscapes that sprawls across the “lower 48”, features in the terrain that, on a personal level, leave as lasting an impression.
Woody Guthrie might have committed the redwood forests to song though I might sing of trees less tall but equally statuesque: the broad firs of Washington state or the gnarled junipers that polka dot the hills of interior Oregon; the towering tulip trees, luminous in autumn leaf, that candle-light the Appalachian hills in October. Of America’s considerable rivers I might think of the Columbia before the Mississippi, gathering its wide water in approach of the Pacific from the Canadian Rockies, or of canoeing the South Carolinian reed-maze outside Charleston, overhung by low live oaks dripping Spanish moss. Similarly, the golden poppies and ice-white chicory flowers found underfoot in the Sonoran Desert now evoke the southwest for me every bit as does the iconic saguaro cactus. On a recent trip through Colorado, a truly memorable moment I witnessed alone, at the curve of a mountain road that revealed an unexpected panorama: an expanse of green valley beyond the mountains; in the foreground, suddenly beside me, the enormous figure of a moose stood cooling in a rainwater pool. The spectacle was marvellous, its composition uncanny.
The great American dichotomy is the stark polarity that still exists between manufactured infrastructure and comparatively “untrammelled” wilderness; the contrast can be crude. The colossal weight of concrete – of gas station, mall, agricultural steel and city tarmac – sits strangely lightly on the landscape, and, trespassing aside, one can exchange these two worlds in a footstep. The late travel and nature essayist Jonathan Raban wrote of American towns and buildings, particularly in the West, appearing incongruous in the landscape, like a work in progress or a recent project: “…for all the ranching, logging, damming and city-building that have gone on for the last century and a bit”, he noted, “Americans have altered the land less immutably than the Romans, Saxons and Normans altered the face of England.” In this way, again, Inspired Earth Design’s America’s Wild garden triumphed: you stepped into it from the footing of a showground causeway, into a scene in which everyday plants were reunited for a moment with the theatre of the American landscape.
Words and photographs by Matt Collins.
Inspired Earth Design’s Garden, pictured in the second image, was shown at Hampton Court Garden Festival 2023.