Art Meets Nature at Peirce’s Woods
A landscape architect creates an idealized forest and
refines his design over the long term.
By Linda McIntyre
Courtesy Longwood Gardens
“The planting plan is not the last word,” says landscape
architect W. Gary Smith, ASLA. He sees it as the starting point, not the end,
of the process of creating a landscape. “Gardens change over time, but
landscape architects don’t always understand this. Ideally, the variables
ultimately enrich the garden.” At Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens, in
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Smith put this philosophy into practice with
years of attention and engagement and a continuous give-and-take with
Longwood’s horticultural staff.
Peirce’s Woods, a 2004 ASLA Design Award of Merit winner,
was for years an ignored part of Longwood Gardens, used mostly as a
pass-through area by visitors looking for Longwood’s Italian Water Garden. In
the early 1990s, Longwood director Fred Roberts, who had a long-standing
interest in the regional landscape, approached Longwood’s then-curator of
plants, Rick Darke, to see whether a garden based on a native plant palette
would work in that space. “I was beside myself,” says Darke, who now works as
an ecological consultant and designer. Roberts knew Darke had gone to college
with Smith and asked Darke to approach Smith with the idea; ultimately Smith
was chosen to implement Longwood’s vision of “an art-form garden of plants
native to the mid-Atlantic region” (see “Artistic License,” Landscape Architecture, July 2001).
An Apotheosis of the Forest
Smith has a degree in horticulture, has been active in the
native plant movement, and is known for his environmentally sensitive designs.
But Longwood’s objective with this project, and therefore Smith’s, was not
ecological. Longwood’s mission is to promote “the art of horticultural
display”; Smith saw an opportunity to show off the beauty and design potential
of native plants. “I wanted to achieve a garden design that did not show the
hand of man,” he says.
One of Smith’s mentors was A. E. Bye, famous for his
naturalistic landscapes. But the Peirce’s Woods project was also heavily
influenced by Smith’s interest in the work of Roberto Burle Marx, who had been
a visiting critic in one of his undergraduate landscape architecture studios,
and whom he later knew personally. The flamboyant, graphical quality of Burle
Marx’s planting designs intrigued Smith. “He was using plants to create
abstract paintings on the land,” Smith says. “These two extremes informed me as
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