GARDEN DESIGNER Bill Noble starts his new book with this promise: “I’m going to tell you a story of the pleasures and challenges, both aesthetic and practical, of creating a garden that feels genuinely rooted to its place.”
His book, called “Spirit of Place,” profiles the making of his own garden in New England, but at the same time teaches us to take contextual cues from where we are gardening, along with other guiding principles of good garden design for any place—like how to create distinct outdoor spaces and also a sense of privacy, something that we all struggle with in gardens large or small.
Bill Noble is the former Director of Preservation for the Garden Conservancy, and has worked with individual homeowners and public and private organizations to create, restore and preserve gardens for many years. In our conversation, he offered some garden design wisdom as we talked about “Spirit of Place” (affiliate link).
Read along as you listen to the June 15, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Bill’s new book, by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page. Also: Bill is giving a Zoom lecture for Berkshire Botanical Garden on June 25 from 6:30 to 7:30 PM; that info is here. In July, he is hosting two special ticketed small tours at his Norwich, Vermont, garden each day on July 2 and July 12; info here.
a garden with a sense of place, with bill noble
Margaret Roach: Hi, Bill. How are you?
Bill Noble: I’m fine. We got a quarter of an inch of rain last night and another quarter today. So all is well in our little world.
Margaret: Yes. I had 0.55 inches total between the two events last night and this morning, a few hours south of you. And that was our first measurable rain in weeks. So I was glad, very glad.
Bill: I can’t be quite as precise. I have an old pan that we found in one of the barns and I stick my pinky in it. [Laughter.]
Margaret: O.K. Well, I’m slightly farther ahead in the rain-gauge business. I have an electronic one.
Bill: My friend Laurie Ferris gave me a rain gauge for my birthday two years ago, and she’s coming back for my next birthday and I’m going to have to find it and put it out.
Margaret: O.K. Congratulations, of course, on the book. And now toward the beginning of it, maybe 10 or so pages after the quote I said in the introduction, you write that, “Much of what gardening is about is the feeling of being connected to a place.” And the place that you profile in the book is your home in Vermont. So tell us briefly, for context, how you first connected to it, and when that was, and so on.
Bill: That was nearly 30 years ago, when I had really only started working in gardens and being interested in gardening. But my partner, Jim Tatum, was offered a job elsewhere, didn’t take it, and we said we needed to mix things up a little bit. So he wanted a modern glass-surrounded house with a view, and I wanted a farmhouse. And luckily he’s the one who found this farmhouse.
And what he found was a house that had been built in the 1830s, sort of modest, early Greek Revival style. And with still open fields around it, forest encroaching, beautiful stone walls, 100-year-old maple trees and apple trees. And a place that had been gardened by its previous owner, Betty McKenzie, for 60 years. So I inherited a lot of really great bones, and then also a lot of blackberries and barberry and wild roses. But that’s what we found.
Margaret: You’re in what then, are you in Zone 4? What Zone are you in, Bill?
Bill: Well, on the map it shows at Zone 5, but I’m in Zone 4. Because Zone 5 is two miles from here, but about 600 feet in lower elevation, closer to the Connecticut river. And the garden and the house is on the north slope, so we’re really open to the winter winds and summer gusts and downpours.
Margaret: O.K. Because some of your beds and borders in the book look like the tropics. You seem to have a flair for creating a tropical look, but with hardy plants, cold-hardy plants, yes?
Bill: That border was made in … the there’s one long border, I call the Long Border, and it features entirely hardy, large-leaf plants, but the intent was to make a tropical-looking garden because that was in the 90s when everyone was planting tropical gardens.
And that’s just not something you can do in my part of Vermont. The season is too short. Cannas don’t really size up until Labor Day; dahlias don’t bloom until just before that.
And early on, I made the decision here that I really wanted to focus on hardy plants. I didn’t want a lot of annuals, I didn’t want a lot of plants that required lifting and storing over the winter. I do some of that with pot plants, container plants on the deck. But not too many annuals. And the tropical look, I think, has been fairly successful. Astilboides, and a really large-leafed rhubarb, and a variety of Rodgersia and Darmera stand in for many of the really desirable tropical plants.
Margaret: All my favorites, so I approve. I loved that, and those photos, those are beautiful. [Above Rheum australe, a rhubarb, and in the foreground Rodgersia.]
Now you were not a garden designer then, and here you came to this place and there’s views of mountains and fields, and it feels like a big open place, but you weren’t a garden designer. But somehow you’ve sort of figured out how to make a plan. And you speak about in the book about measuring the house [laughter] and measuring the distance to things, and kind of drawing and taking photos. And kind of pinning up that and some inspiration on almost like a mood board to get started, to figure out what you were going to do, yes?
Bill: Yes, I mean I came here not as a gardener, but I felt that I needed to learn really quickly. [Laughter.] And the way I learned was… I had been farming. And as I tell maybe in the book, I made $5,000 at it my first year and felt great. And I made $5,000 at farming my last year, and I’d had enough. And I landed a seasonal job, restoring a half mile’s worth of white pine and hemlock hedges at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, which was the garden of Augusta Saint-Gaudens and was part of an artist’s colony that included architects and landscape architects and artists, like Charles Platt and Ellen Shipman.
And I really immersed myself in the garden at Saint-Gaudens, but then in learning about the gardens that those artists had made, I really came to gardening as an art form first. And then I had to learn how to draw [laughter] and deal with hardscape, which I’m still not very good at. But the National Park Service was great about supporting its staff by providing training. And I spent a couple of years running down to Boston, to Cambridge, to the Radcliffe Institute and to the Arnold Arboretum and to Garden in the Woods, and learning the trade there, and then applying it on the job at Saint-Gaudens, and here, and in some of the other Cornish gardens.
Margaret: I see. So one of my favorite parts of the book, besides all those big-leafed plants in that, was it a 70-foot-long border or something, is just magnificent, is that you make a list in the book that I find especially helpful. I think you call it “guiding principles.” And I know this was after the fact because you started making the garden nearly 30 years ago, or 20-something years ago, and you wrote the book just recently. But it’s good for those of us making a garden, or getting ready to fine-tune or revise our gardens, to think about guiding principles. So is this something like a sort of self-assessment—what do I really care about?—is this something you do with clients when you first visit their places?
Bill: If they’ll let me get away with it, yes. [Laughter.] And sometimes more successfully than others. I don’t have a form that I hand to a client, but I as a designer want to be able to understand the context. The built context, the living context, the landscape context, and the social context, as well as how the homeowner or the gardener is going to use the space, and use the garden, and what their goals are as a gardener.
Margaret: So kind of harking to the title, it begins with how the garden should feel like a natural outgrowth of the place, and harmonize with the place and be contextual and so forth. Then in the middle of the list, and there’s a lot of different points on… there’s a whole section about boundaries and a sense of creating privacy. Because even though you’re in a relatively rural place, you wanted to make some views, frame some views, eliminate some views.
You wanted to make spaces, even in this place, this open place. So I feel like there’s a lot of lessons for all of us in that, as I said in the introduction. I wondered, tell us a little bit about here you were, and again, this rural open place, but you had to actually screen things and change things that way.
Bill: Well, I told you that it was Jim who found the house. And all of a sudden he came down and found me, I was at work, and showed me this place with great excitement. And there’s a deck off the back and the house was locked, it had been empty for a year. And he proudly showed me out to the deck and my jaw dropped, because it was a gorgeous, spectacular landscape, but it was a huge landscape. Way beyond the scale of anything I could imagine gardening with. So that was more than I could imagine gardening with, but given this view—and just a short description of the view: there are beautiful hayfields and cornfields and an old farmhouse to the west. And then a long view of the Connecticut River Valley to Moose Mountain and the foothills of the White Mountains, and a stretch of open field and forest beyond that. So it was really spectacular.
But it was an old farm, and farmers in the 1950s and 60s had to sell off bits and pieces of their original 150-acre farms to pay the taxes. So there was a really big, very bright house, maybe 350 feet away to the west. So the eye just went to that house, it didn’t go to the view. And then there was another 10-acre lot just to the east that had been sold, hadn’t been built on, but we knew it was going to be built on. So I had to take both of those things into account.
The other thing to take into account is that the house is right on the road, we’re just set back 25 or 30 feet from the road. And when the house was built in the 1830s, people were really glad to see people passing by on the road, but that’s no longer the case.
So Jim wanted more privacy from within the house, and I didn’t want to be out in the garden and be obvious to people passing by. So there were parts of the garden that I needed to screen. The front lawn, the garden in the front, I made the conscious decision early on, just to leave open and leave as it was. But the rest of the garden where I was going to be spending more time, I wanted some privacy from the road.
Margaret: Right. So, I mean, some of us might not have that house 300 feet away in a giant landscape, but we might have this telephone pole, like I have across from the end of my driveway. [Laughter.] You know what I mean? It could be a smaller thing. And so is this about like the strategic placement, because I think you say in the book or … that it didn’t take much, really, to do what you just said. It was really like these strategic particular plants, placed in a strategic manner. It wasn’t like you were building a giant wall to hide it all or something.
Bill: I didn’t have to screen the telephone pole right in front of our house because the previous gardener, Betty McKenzie, had, with a suckering white lilac. So you can see the top of the pole, but there’s 60 years’ worth of lilac that obscures the rest of the pole.
The main screening I did early on was an evergreen screen to take out the house of our neighbors. And we were really friendly with them, we loved them, but we just didn’t want to have to see what they were watching on TV. So we cooperated with them, I told them what I wanted to do and what I would pay for and plant on my property. Because they were going to lose some of their view.
But I spent some time looking around to see what the most effective evergreen screen was in this area long-term. And it became a very short list. It’s questions of hardiness, of deer-browse, all sorts of questions. So anyway, I didn’t find too many really good examples of evergreen screening for what I was after. But what I was seeing at the time was Norway spruce. So I chose to plant a staggered row of Norway spruce, but I didn’t want to be looking at the spruce. And a landscape architect friend recommended that I plant a grid of apple trees to make it look as though there had been an orchard there. And now when the apple trees are in bloom in mid-May, they show against the dark backdrop of the Norway spruce. And what was originally meant to be a utilitarian screen is now one of the real joys of the garden. [Above, apples backed by screen of Norway spruce.]
Margaret: So it’s like a canvas that you display other things against in a way now.
Bill: Exactly, and I’ve tried a peach tree from Windy Hill [Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts] and beautiful pink buds against the dark Norway spruce. And I’ve tucked the peach into a little bit of an alcove, so it’s protected from the worst of the north winds in the winter.
Margaret: One other place where you created a sense of, not exactly enclosure, but boundaries, definitions, you have a flower… I don’t know if it’s called the Flower Garden, but there’s a garden and it’s kind of formal in nature, and otherwise it would kind of be out in the middle of things. And by simply backing it with a number of repeating, almost columnar, upright trees [below]. You kind of said, “This is a place unto itself,” right?
So tell us a little bit about that because that’s another example, not of screening, but of definition, of clarifying.
Bill: Well, as I said, the scale of the view was almost beyond human. So I needed to set a boundary for the garden. So those trees were planted at the edge of the field. I was lucky that that formal-looking garden was actually the former vegetable garden of Betty McKenzie. So the scale was good, they had leveled it a little bit. So that suggested the place for the main flower garden, and it was 10 years before it really became that. It took time to clean up the witchgrass and to plant plants as a nursery, and I used it as my own vegetable garden.
But one of the plants that the Cornish gardeners used was the Lombardy poplar. Because they had all trained or spent time in Italy and they loved the Italian cypresses, or the Lombardy poplars in Lombardy and France, but they couldn’t have that in this climate.
So a lot of them planted, especially Charles Platt, planted Lombardy poplars. I could see in the photographs that they did fairly well. I visited Frank Cabot at his garden in Quebec, Les Quatre Vents, which is defined by 80-year-old Lombardy poplars. And he encouraged me to plant them because he thought that I had the climate for it, and that it was the right plant for the place. And what I did was to find a local nursery who was willing to purchase bare-root Lombardy poplar ‘Theves’ for me. I used them here and I used them at some of the gardens in Cornish, and now 25 years later, they’re here. Some of them thrive. Some of them have difficulty, but, but they not only frame the garden, but our screened-in porch has the advantage of not being able to see the Flower Garden so I can get away from it. But what we do see are the poplars against the sky, and the shimmering leaves on the poplars is one of the great relaxing aspects of this garden.
Margaret: So there are seven of them, I think; are there seven of them? And they’re quite tall. And they’re not one next to one another, they’re spaced, yes?
Bill: They were spaced to mark the quadrants.
Bill: There are four quadrants of the flower garden, and then I added a vegetable garden along the same line. So they frame the flower garden and the vegetable garden. For years, Jim kept telling me he wanted 100 more of them, marching along. I’m a designer, he’s a classicist.
Margaret: In the last few minutes, I wanted to just kind of bullet-point a few of the other things on that list and most important things on that list of your kind of principles that you think that others might benefit from thinking about—some of your other main principles.
Bill: Well, one of my main principles is that a plant should be the primary way of creating structure and interest in the garden. I didn’t have the money, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on this garden, but I had the good fortune to work with the Garden Conservancy and travel in all parts of the country and see how other people used plants. And this garden became sort of an experimental laboratory to see what would be hardy and what was available that would work and provide architecture for the garden, but also the ones and twos of the really interesting, unusual and beautiful plants that bring pleasure to me, and to fellow gardeners who get to learn about plants here.
And then I guess the other thing is, and this is something else I learned from Frank Cabot, is to really think about the emotional impact a garden can have. And at first I didn’t quite understand that I was hearing those words coming from his mouth. But I sort of got with the program and started thinking about how I feel when I’m in John Fairey’s garden or George Schoellkopf’s garden, or Montrose in North Carolina. And how you can set up expectations and emotions and experiences through planting, and creating a variety of garden spaces. So I’ve worked hard to create different spaces, but to make sure that they work together as a whole.
Margaret: So we should say for people, you mentioned Frank Cabot, who was the founder of the Garden Conservancy, the late Frank Cabot, a great gardener—and a couple of the other people that you mentioned also have gardens that have been part of the Garden Conservancy scheme over the years that you used to work with. So I’ll give links to all of that. The book is “Spirit of Place.” Bill Noble, the book is beautiful. I think you did all the photos yourself, too, so the book is beautiful.
Bill: It was a learning curve, and Timber Press has done a fantastic job with design of the book. It’s something that I enjoy holding in my hand.
Margaret: Good. Well, thank you. And thank you for making the time today. Now go out and work in the garden [laughter] and I’ll talk to you soon again, I hope.
Bill: All right.
more from bill noble
(All garden photos from “Spirit of Place” by Bill Noble, used with permission.)
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