‘spirit of place:’ designing and defining a garden that belongs, with bill noble

‘spirit of place:’ designing and defining a garden that belongs, with bill noble

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).

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.


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.

Astilboides, and a really large-leafed rhubarb, and a variety of Rodgersia and Darmera stand in for many of the really desirable tropical plants.

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.

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.

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.

Margaret: Right.

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.)

enter to win a copy of ‘spirit of place’

Bill Noble’s “Spirit of Place” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Are there (or were there) elements you wish(ed) to screen from view at your place? Any suggestions how?

No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Good luck to all.

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