If there’s one landscape architect on the radar screens of American gardeners, it’s probably James van Sweden. His firm famously pioneered the New American Garden style in the '80s, and it’s still winning new fans for its low-maintenance, naturalistic sweeps of color and little or no use of lawn. Helping to spread his influence both here and abroad are his seven widely admired books, including the just-released Artful Garden, with horticulturalist Tom Christopher.

Love 'em or hate 'em? Read all about vines in the last Garden Rant.

Van Sweden is a natural to tackle the subject of the juncture of gardening and art, having first approached landscapes by painting them as a high schooler in Michigan. By the time he studied architecture in college he was already collecting art. That was followed by three years of total immersion in the Dutch art scene while working as a city planner in Delft. Later, in his 40s, he studied ballet at the Washington School of Ballet, and he’s long been a major opera buff. 

OK we get it—he’s ridiculously qualified to write this book.

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Plus, he seems to know everybody, so he can show us some of the world’s most artful gardens and interview some of the world’s best artists.  (“So Yo-Yo, tell us how your cello-playing is expressed in your garden,” I imagine the conversation going.)  He can take us along on a visit to Brazilian design superstar Roberto Burle Marx, whose gardens use tropical plants in huge, bold and abstract ways that most of us marvel at but could never, ever replicate.

More super-artful gardens in the book are those of painter Robert Dash on Long Island and the California garden of the late landscape architect Lawrence Halperin and his dancer wife, Anna.  Halperin is famous for many designs, but the one I’m most familiar with is the FDR Memorial in D.C., a favorite with locals and a radical departure from the grand but plant-free monuments we’re used to.  Van Sweden told me that Halperin’s own garden on the edge of the Pacific is very natural yet very dramatic. I just bet.

Then there’s Van Sweden’s personal garden on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, which he supposedly wanted to be an “ugly garden” of native plants that wouldn’t compete with views of the water.  But I’ve seen the garden, and it’s stunning, so does he think he succeeded in his plan?  “I think it’s beautiful,” he admits. And so, I imagine, does any lover of beauty or nature.

But ARE gardens art?

Clearly there are artful gardens, but do we really think of gardening as an art form? Not in this country, with our crazy obsession over lawns, but most of us can cite some pretty artsy examples in Europe—like Monet’s Giverny or Gertrude Jekyll’s White Garden, with its impressionistic use of color (no surprise, since Jekyll started out as a painter). But van Sweden makes the case that the principles of art—like composition, rhythm and pattern—are used in designing outdoor spaces, which is no doubt true of the best ones.  Most amateurs, like myself, create gardens using exactly none of those principles, and I’m not sure that this book will change that one iota. But The Artful Garden, jam-packed with artful ideas and inspiring photographs, encourages us to give more expression to our creativity in the garden, and that’s music to this gardener’s ears.  

Photo credit: Photos of the van Sweden garden at Ferry Cove by Susan Harris.

Susan Harris co-founded the blog GardenRant and blogs professionally for independent garden centers. She also co-founded the D.C. Urban Gardeners and founded the Lawn Reform Coalition. Her articles about gardening, especially alternatives to conventional lawns, have appeared in national magazines. Susan recently launched Boomer Turn-ons, a blog about the music, technology, second careers, etc., that are turning Baby Boomers on these days.