Your Garden as a Work of Art

By Anna Dantoni –

Most of us who tend a garden don’t consider a personal plot as a work of art. But we should. A garden, whether majestic or minescule, is the creative expression of its gardener. And whether we intend it to be or not, a garden takes on the characteristics of an artwork in-progress as surely as a painting or a sculpture evolves in the hands of its creator.

Some gardens are an abstract work – a seemingly random and energetic tangle of color, heights and texture that Jackson Pollock could relate to. Others, like Martha Stewart’s tidy kitchen garden, are as thoughtfully composed and placid as a Rousseau tableau. Raphael, you might know, created a garden for Pope Clement VII in Rome and Leonardo da Vinci designed a royal water garden for the French monarch Francis I. The famous cellist Yo Yo Ma pays attention to rhythm and flow in his garden and he sees similarities in making a garden to creating a musical score.

This is the month that most of us are ready to dig in the dirt. It’s also a great time to spend a few hours reading The Artful Garden by James van Sweden (with Tom Christopher), a book that offers inspiration to homeowners tackling landscape design. Van Sweden, who is closely associated with the New American Garden movement, has designed gardens around the world including the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Rockefeller Park at Battery Park City in Manhattan, and Washington, D.C.’s WWII Memorial on the Mall.

In this new book, van Sweden interviews artists and looks at the works of famous painters, sculptors and musicians to demonstrate that all home gardeners can develop an artist’s eye and a definite sensibility by producing something unique and wonderfully rewarding with growing plants.

The Artful Garden is lavishly illustrated with photographs of actual gardens and with paintings that prove a point, some of them by James McNeill Whistler, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Helen Frankenthaler. In the text the author defines the characteristics that make a successful artistic garden as he prompts readers to explore hardscape, water features, trees, the play of shadow and light, color and texture, line, rhythm, perspective, positive/negative space and how to frame a view. If it all sounds complicated, too professional and impossible to achieve in your yard, it isn’t. The author breaks down the components and shows both how and why many of his artistic practices will work for you.

My advice is to take away from this book just as much as you can handle in one growing season. Gardens, like people, evolve. Don’t stress. Enjoy the book, go to the plant nursery and create your own plot of art. You absolutely can.


(The Artful Garden by James van Sweden and Tom Christopher. Random House, hardcover, $40.)

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