Thursday, March 24, 2016

Garden Design Wisdom from Bill Thomas of Chanticleer

Story and Photos by Sarah Leach Smith, Visitor Services Coordinator

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that spring has definitely sprung in Durham! Albeit a little earlier than anticipated, the spring bulbs, flowering trees and warm weather are a welcome sight after a cold winter. The buzzing and blooming Duke Gardens set the perfect scene for an in-depth tour and design discussion with Bill Thomas, executive director of Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Penn., as part of our “Garden Inspiration” workshop on March 18. The workshop was made up of a mix of visitors and staff alike, and we started with introductions and motivations for attending.

Bill began the design conversation by emphasizing the importance of identifying strengths and weakness of your property first before getting too wrapped up in your design and plant selection. What is the topography like? How much sun exposure do you get? What kind of soil do you have, and what are the existing plants? Which of the existing plants do you want to keep? With this arsenal of preparatory questions in mind, our “roving classroom” began.

We entered through the main gate, taking in the gorgeous cherry blossoms on the way. At this point, Bill shared an interesting story from a Japanese moss garden he had visited. Before visitors were allowed to enter the garden, they had to “get in the mood” for the garden, Bill recalled. To do this, visitors had to spend about a half hour studying and writing some specific Japanese characters. This practice was meant to prepare their minds and bodies for the experience they were about to have in the gardens. Bill found this incredibly interesting, as it is a practice that you definitely do not see at most American gardens. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a place for people to get quiet and get into the ‘garden mood’ before they entered?” This question posed by Bill was one of my biggest takeaways from the workshop. How can we do a better job of this at American gardens?

As we walked down the perennial allée and into the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, Bill did an excellent job of engaging the participants by asking about their personal gardens as well as answering questions that everyone had as we moved through different areas of the Gardens. 

One specific topic that came up had to do with perennial plantings under trees. One of the things that Bill had shared in his lecture the previous evening was how Chanticleer had handled keeping visitors off the roots of some of the oldest trees. One of the photos he showed was of a perennial planting under a tree, so workshop participants were curious to find out more about this strategy. 

“The tree is the most important thing,” Bill said. “That should take priority over whatever you plant underneath, since it will live longer than an herbaceous perennial.” He also said that it depends on the tree, since different trees can have different root structures. Basically, if you are considering planting under a large tree, do a little bit of research first to make sure you are pairing the right perennials with the right tree, and allowing plenty of room for the tree’s roots to thrive.

We wandered through the Terraces and admired the incredible color and texture combinations created by curator Mike Owens and horticulturists Jan Watson and Heather Seifert. We made our way up to the new Japanese garden, Pine Clouds Mountain Stream, by way of the Fisher Amphitheater, where several loblolly pines have just been planted to enclose the space a bit more. A chat with stonemason Brooks Burleson provided a pleasant break in the shade by the red arched bridge. 

The roving classroom ended with a visit to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden and a pause in the Spring Woodland Garden to observe the progress on the new overlook feature. As we sat down for a tasty lunch on the terrace, Bill shared more about projects at Chanticleer. Their most recent garden addition has been an elevated walkway to accommodate the steep slope of the garden’s hillside. We also introduced Bill to the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry – a topic that we all quickly digressed to, given the time of the year!
It was wonderful to spend this time with Bill. Not only was his lecture about Chanticleer awe-inspiring, but the thoughts and ideas he had to share were incredibly refreshing. We wish him the best in the promotion of his new award-winning book, The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planning Techniques from Chanticleer, and look forward to visiting Chanticleer in person sometime soon!

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