This post is the first in a series of interviews with people passionate about gardens or food. Or both! There are so many overlaps with design and the creative process when it comes to those two subjects.
As a little background, about 4 years ago I took an intensive, almost 2-month-long course on Landscape Design at the New York Botanical Garden. Kate Turney was one of my classmates, a talented woman with a down to earth vibe, warm smile, and amazing knowledge of plants and design. Here I ask her about what she’s up to, design trends in New York City, her personal relationship with design and her sources of inspiration. Hope you enjoy!
Hi Kate! I’d like to know in general what you’ve been up to since our Summer Intensive class at NYBG. Are you still working in NYC?
I’ve been working on a bunch of fun projects here in Manhattan. Everyone I work with brings great talents, energy, and knowledge to the work that we do. We try out new materials and innovative ideas.
Is there a favorite project that you’ve worked on recently?
Currently I’m doing my first mountain home garden for a client in the Catskills. It is a fun project because we are taking time to look at sun patterns, sit with ideas for months, etc.—rather than instantly create a garden, as we often do in the city, where people want the projects completed yesterday. It’s satisfying to see a client revise her ideas over time, to really sit with the possibilities and limitations of a site, a budget, where sun falls and where it doesn’t, where water collects and where water runs off—all of reality’s stipulations for that particular project. That’s the magic of gardens: reality. Time, the life cycle, how plants and animals and bugs interact, too much water, too little water, lots of heat, lots of cold. . . .
As a professional designer, are there any trends you’ve noticed that clients are looking for in design?
One thing that’s great about any city is that when you walk around you encounter other eras, which are communicated to you by the style of that time. In New York we have a lot of Art Deco, for example. Garden design of course tends not to outlive its era, except when specifically maintained and protected as historically significant design (there is greater consciousness about this in America now than there was in the past). One of our NYBG classmates, Mark Prezorski, has been instrumental in generating interest in restoring the historical landscape of Frederick Church’s Olana estate in Hudson, NY.
There are definite garden design fashions. Designing for a client is in reality an individual process, a collaboration with the person who has called one in, not a matter of selecting from a menu of three options. However, in New York right now there are three strong trends that I like to define as:
1) Contemporary / Minimalist
2) Green Focus
The contemporary garden is a visually quiet, spacious environment responding, I think, to the intensity of Manhattan and perhaps to the speedy, multi-tasking, distracted contemporary lifestyle. It is characterized by greys and browns for hardscape/built areas and a very simple plant palette. The contemporary minimalist style gets its excitement from some architectural element, usually—this may not be interesting in itself, but more in context. For example, in the first decade of this century the horizontal ipe fence was a design star. Also, sculptural furniture, and unusual materials, like resin panels for walls or vertical green wall plantings. This garden style often complements a 50s modern interior. It is defined by an extremely sensitive reading of form, and reminds me of Edith Wharton’s writing about the highly nuanced system of manners and protocols in late 1800s NY society. Although I appreciate the spaciousness of the minimalist style and recognize its psychological benefit in NYC, it’s definitely not for everyone. Some clients will need a warmer atmosphere than the minimal can provide.
2) Green Focus
The green-focus garden—which emphasizes incorporation of greenroof, native plants, rainwater collection and the like—sometimes dovetails with the contemporary/minimalist style and sometimes with the Bohemian garden style, but more often the aesthetic here is a bit more natural and wild. Piet Oudolf’s High Line plantings were a big hit here in NY, not in the sense of clients wanting an exact replication (his planting design for the High Line is more wild and “messy” than the more controlled curated design styles we see in his books) but there is a desire on the part of some urban clients to bring nature home. For some garden-owners it is very important to feel that their garden is designed specifically to benefit the environment, from rainwater sequestration systems used for watering the garden (rather than using automatic irrigation systems) to selecting drought-tolerant native plants and recycled building materials. Sustainably designed and built gardens have become important to home owners in America. In fact, garden design period has become important to home owners in America. That is a big change in itself.
And then there is the Bohemian garden, which seems to be a reaction against the minimalist fashion that has held court in the garden world in recent years. Historically we seem to see that balance played out over and over, as with the Victorian/Second Empire era and the Modernist reaction to it in. I like to call these gardens Bohemian, but it could also be called the neo-Victorian garden. Another unfortunate name might be World Garden. I like this design tendency because I grew up in the eclectic, thrift-shopping 80s and lived in a couple of countries in my 20s, and there’s a lot of warmth in drawing on a variety of beauty. Sometimes at first it can seem that a client is requesting a straight-up cultural lift: “I want a Balinese garden. We want a Moroccan garden.” But it never really works out that way. What is being requested is an atmosphere, rather than a reenactment. The atmosphere leans toward some kind of theatricality and possibly some kind of opulence. The garden architecture or furniture will provide a very strong statement, either through the use of an imported antique from India or Bali or China or a contemporary statement built on a traditional style (for example, the canopied daybed). I really love this style because I have a graphic design background and feel a bit rebellious when confined to a very limited plant palette and architectural style that is defined as “sleek.” Using a very simple plant, material and color palette with one bright color (usually orange or pink) dotted here and throughout creates a very striking effect (especially for photo spreads in garden magazines). But then you’re living year in and year out with a graphic design layout instead of a garden. The Bohemian garden is a lot harder to pull off and is riskier, but more open-ended and fun to me.
Here in Seattle there’s a lot of talk of Urban Agriculture. Is there an increased desire for kitchen gardens and design with edible plants where you work?
I can’t believe what’s happened on the East Coast! Three years ago, school education/kitchen gardens were not much heard-of, though on the West Coast you’ve had them for ages. Now they are commonplace here. Urban agriculture is pretty mainstream in NYC too, now. I used to avidly read the City Farmer website back in the 90s before I switched to horticulture from graphic design as a profession. Back then the name seemed paradoxical and far-out: “City Farmer.” (Another wow-me title at that time: “Urban Forester.”) We have definitely seen a much greater interest on the part of our clients for growing edible plants in their gardens, especially on the part of clients who have young children.
I remember that you’re an artist as well as a designer, which I’m sure has some overlaps. Or maybe your artistry is completely separate from your work?
I am a writer as well as a garden designer. I have done illustration and drawing as well, as part of the design profession. Writing and garden design don’t seem to be the same process, except that both are powered by mystery and atmosphere. Where garden design seems more like a deliberate fantasy (like building a dreamworld), writing seems to enter and exit like a breeze.
Finally, I know there are so many books on gardens, design, etc. and it’s hard to find a standout. Is there a book on landscaping, design, nature, or ecology that you’ve read recently that you think is awesome?
Lately I’m reading Julie Moir Messervy. I like her sense of direction in garden design. She has placed a strong emphasis on contemplative design for decades. Also she places a great emphasis on the garden owner’s vision for their own garden. Something about the way she approaches design reminds me of theater. For example, she presents an dinner-table-as-garden-design exercise: after a dinner party, gather the guests around and using the items on the table (wine glasses, salt-and-pepper shakers, forks, etc) arrange them to create a well-designed, balanced garden. A dinner plate might be a lake, the wine glasses an allee of trees. . . . She says that when she presents this exercise, everyone at the table contributes to tweaking and fine-tuning the composition of the design. I like the way that bypasses the creativity hang-up that may people have. . . .That collaborative approach is exciting. And what about that Music Garden she designed in Toronto with/for Yo Yo Ma?! Another favorite writer is George Schenk, who is a nurseryman, garden designer and gardener.