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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

October 2006 Issue

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

Art Meets Nature at Peirce’s Woods 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 a horticulturist.”

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