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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Plant Life Valerie Easton

Respite In The Rustic

Natural and loose, the Arts and Crafts ideals suit our gardening style

When I heard that art historian Judith Tankard was coming to Seattle to talk about her book, "Gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement: Reality and Imagination," I started wondering: Is the Arts and Crafts concept of a garden still relevant? Do you need to live in a bungalow to have one?

So I call her at home in Newton, Mass., to find out more. Tankard has two gardens, one in Newton and the other a work-in-progress on Martha's Vineyard. She balks at defining either as Arts and Crafts gardens. "I've been indirectly influenced, or maybe inspired, by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic," she says. "My gardens reflect an appreciation of foliage and color that I learned from studying Gertrude Jekyll." But she rushes on to say that her gardens aren't at all like Jekyll's. "I wouldn't embarrass the poor woman with that," says Tankard with a laugh.

The Arts and Crafts movement flowered in England between 1890 and 1910. It's not merely about decorative items or even architectural style, but an aesthetic philosophy that actually draws its inspiration from nature. Arts and Crafts gardens are refreshingly unself-conscious. With an emphasis on the quiet, the rustic and the handcrafted, the Arts and Crafts ideal seems an antidote to our slick, high-tech world.

In gardens, the Arts and Crafts style meant subdued colors, natural materials and a loose planting style advocated by Jekyll and William Robinson, author of "The Wild Garden." It emphasized smaller, more intimate gardens with outdoor rooms relating directly to the architecture of the house, which were revolutionary ideas after decades of Victorian grandiosity and stiff bedding-out schemes. Perhaps the most important lesson we could absorb from the Arts and Crafts movement is the value of bringing gardens down to a human, domestic scale.

For good design, turn to the elements

• Gardens are integral to the house; spaces are divided into rooms and enclosed for human scale and a feel of sanctuary and repose.

• Design is more important than plants, which are usually common, simple ones. Think daisies and asters, native trees and grasses rather than cannas and coleus.

• Natural cedar, indigenous stone, and soft blues and greens predominate. Color inspiration comes from the tints and tones of water, tree trunks, lichen, moss and rock.

• Architectural elements blur the line between outdoors and indoors. Courtyards, gates, planters, window boxes, arbors and pergolas tie the built elements to the planted elements of the gardens.

• The overall feel of an Arts and Crafts garden is loose and unrestrained; hedging, rock walls and wooden fences offer architectural lines. Plants are allowed to self-sow and naturalize, creating nature's own patterns in the garden.

• Plantings are chosen for form, scale and texture rather than flower, a modern and practical way to think of plants for maximum year-round appeal.

• Art and architectural accents come outside in the form of birdbaths, tiled pools, fountains and sundials.

The movement sounds downright modern when Tankard begins talking about regionalism, indigenous craftsmanship traditions, and the goal of linking a home's interior with the out-of-doors. "It was all about blurring inside and out," says Tankard. "Where does the house end and the garden begin?" Arts and Crafts gardens were predominantly designed by architects, who used ornamentation, paving, pergolas and arbors to push architectural elements out into the garden.

Since Tankard thinks the Arts and Crafts movement came together in California with the work of Greene and Greene, what does it have to do with the Northwest? "You have so many great bungalows in Seattle," says Tankard. She adds enviously, "And you can grow plants so well there." Arts and Crafts style also has a great affinity with the Asian aesthetics that so influence our gardens and architecture. At its heart, Arts and Crafts is an embrace of nature's most satisfying and enduring qualities, an ideal we perhaps understand better here than anywhere else in the country.

Tankard will show slides and lecture on Arts and Crafts gardens 11 a.m., Sept. 29, at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave. at Seneca Street) as part of the 10th annual Bungalow Fair. Cost is $10. You can pay at the door, sign up at or call 206-622-6952.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is