Natural Inclinations

In an excerpt from TOM STUART-SMITH: DRAWN FROM THE LAND, the English landscape designer shares insights and inspirations that have shaped his decades of work
View to house from border above driveway including Prunus dulcis (almond) trees. Landscape design by Tom Stuart-Smith. Photography © Andrea Jones/Garden Exposures Photo Library
In his more recent projects, Tom Stuart-Smith takes an experimental, naturalist approach to horticulture, as seen in the landscape at a vineyard in Spain’s Duero Valley. Photo by Andrea Jones

It was the encounter with Piet Oudolf’s work which encouraged me, along with so many others, to plant on a more expansive scale. I had read about some of the Dutch and German work with perennials but had never visited Westpark in Munich or Piet’s nursery at Hummelo in the Netherlands. But Piet’s garden for John Coke at Bury Court was eye-opening. I recall seeing the meadow of Deschampsia cespitosa with Trifolium rubens scattered through it like loose purple confetti. By today’s standards the garden layout seems quite mannered, but there was the beginning of a freeing-up of the plan so that plants were not just arranged in linear sequences but were all around, interacting in countless, often unforeseen ways. The balance between man and plant was readdressed in favor of the plant.

book cover for Tom Stuart-Smith: Drawn from the Land © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd.

This seems to me the important catalyst. Using plants in these larger expanses inevitably means getting away from composing a merely linear flower arrangement, where plants seem like lines of suspects subjected to the scrutiny of an ID parade. The viewer is forced to ask, how do these plants relate to one another? It’s then a short step to looking into how they grow in their natural habitat.

I saw the Bury Court meadow, which is actually quite a modest area, in its prime, before the Deschampsia died out and the clover went rather leggy. It had such simple grace, as if it were just getting on with its own business of being grass and clover. Growing, flowering, and of course dying. Piet is the evangelist of decay.

The courtyard garden with Genista aetnensis, Euphorbia seguieriana subs. niciana, and Salvia nemorosa 'Amethyst'; Serge Hill Barn, Hertfordshire; Designer Tom Stuart-Smith
At his own home in the Hertfordshire countryside, Tom designed a courtyard around steel water tanks he had previously used in a 2005 Chelsea Flower Show garden. Photo by Andrew Lawson

At this time I was filling my own garden with short-lived verbascums, giant thistles, and other unruly things that suckered, seeded, and generally misbehaved. It was up to me to keep them in check. This is all very well on your own watch or if you are lucky enough to work with a gardener with lots of patience and understanding, but I gradually learnt that the spontaneous and slightly disorderly look I was drawn to had to be reined in a little if it (and me, I suppose) wasn’t to come off the rails. I remember once coming quite spectacularly unstuck when I enthusiastically recommended a clump of Sambucus ebulus, the handsome herbaceous dwarf elder, for a planting on heavy clay in the middle of France. The elder duly helped itself and in nine months covered an area about half the size of a tennis court, engulfing all before it in an inexorable flow of green. Sometimes a plant can be just a bit too happy.

Landcape design by Tom Stuart-Smith from his book, Drawn from the Land
Tom collaborated with horticultural ecologist James Hitchmough to create the meadows at Oakhill in Kent, England. Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris

As I developed my own practice I was able to expand my garden at home, and my experimentations with plants accelerated. The garden began to take some shape, and various patterns started to fall into place about how I was using plants.

I moved away from the idea of having very different types of planting in different areas of the garden, which I think I had inherited from all those Arts and Crafts gardens I had visited. This seemed more a collector’s approach than one in which planting is a tool to create and manipulate the atmosphere of a place. Instead I gravitated towards the concept that planting is like a medium that can flow between spaces, gradually being transformed by them to take on a character that emphasizes the physical setting or the desired mood in relation to the nature of the surroundings. So there might be a subtle gradient of change between different parts of a garden, but not sudden discontinuities.

Landscapes by Tom Stuart-Smith

Click the arrows (or swipe if on a mobile device) to see more
Garden view from swimming pool roof
This project in North Yorkshire, England, consists of two terraced gardens in completely different styles. The yellow tones of phlomis, digitalis, and eremurus envelope the upper level, while the plantings become darker and richer below the pool. Photo by Andrew Lawson
Overview of ornate well in formal parterre garden, Buxus sempervirens fleur-de-lis and yew pyramids
Tom designed this “jewel-box” garden for a Worcestershire manse. Photo by Marianne Majerus
Pool garden. Landcape design by Tom Stuart-Smith from his book, Drawn from the Land
In Wiltshire, England, a distinctive thatched wall serves as the backdrop for an abundance of perennial plantings. Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
Landcape design by Tom Stuart-Smith from his book, Drawn from the Land
Another project in Kent involved platforms planted with persicaria, Euphorbia cornigera, Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’, and Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’, all leading to a pool building designed by architectural firm Sergison Bates. Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
View under the house with stone paving, planted borders and the House Meadow looking west Photography © Andrea Jones/Garden Exposures Photo Library
In Dorset, England, Tom designed a yew-hedged “paradise garden” to sit within a walled garden of wildflowers. Photo by Andrea Jones

Excerpted from Tom Stuart-Smith: Drawn from the Land © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd., London; text © 2021 Tom Stuart-Smith. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.,