The Layered Landscape and the New Wild Garden
by Colleen Fitzpatrick Michelson
When Rick Darke gazes at landscapes, he looks for ghosts. Ghosts are the patterns in the land and vegetation that linger longer than one might imagine and that reveal things about the ecological and cultural history of a place, he says.
To him, such patterns are partly what make a landscape intriguing. “A lot of what I’ve known and loved about local, happenstance landscapes has to do with pattern and framing, nuance and distance and mood, …things that imbue the landscape with value and wonder and have nothing to do with the moment of bloom,” he told supporters of the High Line, the elevated park along New York City’s West Side, last year.
Learning to read the land in such a way is important because it’s the first step toward creating what Darke calls “livable landscapes.” Such spaces embrace “the notion that gardens can be personal, intimate spaces while simultaneously celebrating community and the joy of connected landscape.” They encourage and sustain “spontaneous, sensual everyday living, preserving local uniqueness while evolving toward a universal language of landscape stewardship.”
The blend of cultural geography, horticulture, ecology and art in Darke’s design and management of landscapes has earned him widespread acclaim as a photographer, author, lecturer and consultant.
He graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1977, and then worked at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., for 20 years. He spent half of that time as curator of plants, and his expedition work took him to Japan, South Africa and the Canary Islands, Europe, Latin America, and Australia and New Zealand.
His books include “The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition” (Timber Press, 2009) and “The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest” (Timber Press, 2002). He is an expert in grasses, the subject of several of his books.
His photography and writing are included in two multi-author books published in 2011: "The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening" (Timber Press, edited by CHS incoming Vice President Tom Christopher and reviewed in the Summer 2011 CHS Newsletter) and "Fallingwater" (Rizzoli).
Darke has received numerous awards, including the American Horticultural Society’s writing award in 2004 and its scientific award in 1998. In 1997, he earned a citation from the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (AABGA).
Over time, as he has traveled, seen successes and failures in his own 1.5-acre garden in rolling piedmont near the Delaware border (and which features “locally native and adapted plants and regional relics”) and in the numerous public spaces he has designed, his thinking about the land has evolved.
“All landscapes are layered in space and time, and landscapes are most livable and conserving when they celebrate the dynamic layering of regional ecologies and cultures,” he says.
In his talk to CHS, Darke will draw “from an array of evolving habitats and cutting-edge gardens to demonstrate how the cultural histories and population dynamics of regional ecologies provide an extraordinary basis for conservation-based design and management.”