Bold Vision


The title of this article is a slight adaptation of Richard Hartlage’s book, Bold Visions for the Garden. Richard Hartlage is a garden designer, writer, lecturer and photographer who was trained in ornamental horticulture at North Carolina State University. Mr. Hartlage has “15 years in public gardening as superintendent of horticulture for the Morris County Park Commission where he directed horticulture at both Willowwood and Frelinghuysen Arboretums.” Today, he is an associate principal at AHBL, Inc., a planning and engineering firm located in Tacoma, Washington, managing the landscape architect division and woks with private and public clients around the country. Having had the fore mentioned book for several years and sharing his love for plants and bold textures in the garden, I recently had a few opportunities to visit some of his work as well as hear him lecture.

Stephen Schuckman, owner of First Mountain Arboriculture LLC, Certified Tree Expert and Consulting Municipal Arborist, my former boss and longtime friend invited my family to a gardening extravaganza in Nutley, New Jersey, which Steve manages. Richard Hartlage has been involved with designing these gardens for almost two decades. Two distinctly different gardens, across the street from one another; embrace style, color, texture and scale so flawlessly that they left me speechless. Couple these principles with some large-scale planters, artwork and interesting sculptures and you can begin to feel a sort of “grand theatrical gesture” going on. On one side of the street a smaller garden feels very cozy with several defined outdoor spaces. Colorful, tropical, vibrant, energetic and exciting are all words to describe this outdoor phenomenon. Soothing blue walls define the perimeter landscape. A hidden hot tub underneath a wooden patio area is just one example of a concealed space that awaits you at every turn. Passiflora, Colocasia, Coleus and Caladiums are all used in mass plantings, many of which are used as foundation plantings and ground cover. Across the street is a classical stroll garden with exciting twists and turns all on 2.3 acres. Hidden garden rooms, a clumping grove of bamboo (Fargesia rufa), geometric Hornbeams cut into rectangular pillars, a huge sweep, some 10,000, of Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa), a huge hill of Liriope, named Mount Si, are just a few of the highlights awaiting the visitor. A feeling of privacy and ease immediately calms you as you leisurely walk this magnificent garden and stare at the nearly 180 outdoor art objects. Two highlights, for me, were the baboon garden and a mass planting of Rohdea japonica. A granite baboon sits peering through some tropical’s, at the foot of a bed, mass planted with dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus’). Rohdea is a seldom seen, tough perennial with broad strap-like, evergreen leaves. Its appearance is exotic especially when the clumps of winter red berries appear. Hartlage was quick to point out, in his talk, that when designing, it’s not about what is rare, but rather what will work.

The following week I took my family on an outing to Willowwood Arboretum located in Chester Township. Anxious to see pages 30 and 31 of Hartlage’s book, Bold Visions for the Garden, it was, of course, better in person. An enormous meadow of little bluestem, a native grass to New Jersey, had a deliberate path carved through it. Another notable experience was an almost quadrant of these four trees: Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Persian Parrotia (Parrotia persica), Osakazuki Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’) and an enormous Chinese Quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis), complete with mottled, colorful combinations of exfoliating bark, reminiscent of Chinese Elm. These four trees alone, situated so closely to one another was a sensory overload for me. Watching our two-year-old daughter cross a mossed bridge, through a bamboo grove and into the forest, exploring on her first hiking trip, relived childhood experiences for her parents. Another outstanding outing where Hartlage left his mark, softening the edges of our daily grind.

Growing up in Kentucky, Richard Hartlage was quick to point out his love for seasonal change. More fond of the deciduous, hardwood trees changing into their fall colors than he is a fan of the evergreens, his landscapes seem to be driven by artistic movement, defined spaces and large sweeps of plant material. His lecture at the Arsenal in Central Park was worth braving the elements that evening. A raw October evening with sleeting rain didn’t seem to stop his fans. The Metro Hort Group provided the forum and Richard Hartlage did not disappoint. I found Mr. Hartlage to be affable, gracious, witty, comical and forthright. His visions are quantum and his implementations are timeless. Clearly one of today’s best designers, Richard Hartlage gives credit to those who have inspired him, Gertrude Jekll, Topher Delaney and Roberto Burle-Marx as well as the contractors who implement his ideas. His words, which he so graciously wrote in my copy of Bold Visions for the Garden, sum it all up… garden with clarity and vision!