design tips from american gardens: ‘american roots’ with nick mccullough

IF I SAY “English garden,” you probably conjure a mental picture of colorful mixed borders and garden rooms enclosed by hedging. But what’s the essence of an American garden? That was what a new book called “American Roots” set out to explore, profiling 20 home gardens around the nation for design inspiration and also for how-to advice geared to gardening success.

Garden designer Nick McCullough and his wife, Allison, are the team behind an Ohio-based landscape design firm, and also behind the new book, “American Roots: Lessons and Inspiration from the Designers Reimagining our Home Gardens” (affiliate link). Nick shared some takeaways he gleaned from the process of making the book.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book (out later this month) by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 10, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

‘american roots,’ with nick mccullough



Margaret Roach: I smiled when I read your introduction to the book where you confessed that you started the project of trying to define the American garden and what you had in your head at the time, like stereotypes. And I quote you, you say, “Cookie-cutter suburban landscapes, perfectly mown lawns, annual-lined walkways, and white picket fences.”

Nick McCullough: Exactly.

Margaret: [Laughter.] But is that what you found?

Nick: Certainly not. And it’s so funny, that’s what many people think it is, but it’s so not that. We’re so diverse, we’re so creative as a gardening community in America and there’s so many regions of the country, it’s so vast. So it’s really hard to put into a box. And so that was our mission we set out to really explore and help define.

Margaret: And again, these are home landscapes, the 20 that are in the book. They’re not the gardens that we may have heard of around the country that are famous, that wasn’t what you were doing.

Nick: Exactly.

Margaret: This is home landscapes. And some of the people are designers themselves, and some are home gardeners, yes?

Nick: Yeah. I would say, they’re all creative. Anybody who likes to dig in a dirt, get creative, and dream of the flow of a garden are certainly creatives. And many of them came from very creative backgrounds professionally, but these are their spaces. And in general, these gardens were created by them individually, and so they didn’t have a big firm coming into it. These are the garden’s personification of them, so to speak.

Margaret: And so besides all the gorgeous gardens, there’s 20, as I said, that are portrayed in the book and lots of pictures. I think maybe you took pictures, did you?

Nick: Yeah, I photographed nearly all the gardens, except for four. And logistically, it just wasn’t feasible, and then we have some fantastic friends who are amazing gardeners. And then specifically, Caitlin Atkinson in California, she’s a brilliant photographer herself as well. And so she photographed her own garden.

Margaret: What I loved, besides all the beautiful pictures, is that, at the end of each section about each garden, you did this thing called “Learn from…,” and then the name of the gardener, and tips that they had. And I wanted to talk about some of those, because to me, that was what makes this a very distinctive book; it’s not just the gorgeous visual inspiration.

Nick: It was very important for us to have takeaways of how you can implement this into your own home landscape or professional ideas or what have you. And there’s so many times you read a magazine article somewhere and you’re like, “Well, I really want to know what that specifically is.” That’s the nitty-gritty that us gardeners really love. We love to share knowledge, we love to talk specific cultivars or talk paving material. And so we wanted to make sure we armed all the readers with all the information we could to really take away these lessons that are so beautifully portrayed through all these 20 gardens across the country.

Margaret: I don’t know if you want to tell me some that really stuck out, lessons you learned or that resonated with you, or either want me to tell you some of the ones I took lots of notes. So where do we begin [laughter]?

Nick: Well, both is great with me. I’m sure if you start going, I’ll chime in with something that I remembered as we were going.

Margaret: Well, some of them were almost philosophical and deep, big things, and some were simple. Like in Wisconsin, Erin Schanen, is that right?

Nick: Yeah.

Margaret: She says, “Nasturtiums are problem-solver plants.” Do you remember that? [Erin’s nasturtiums, above.]

Nick: Exactly, for sure. There are those fillers that are just beautiful fillers, right? And that’s the thing that … you look at someone like Erin, who is so good at starting seeds and filling in with annual displays or perennials. And then you look at someone like Peter and Steven in New York, who you are creating the framework of gardens with big hedges and things like that. And so that’s the beauty of this book, everyone’s personal style.

I always say there’s no rules in gardening, but there are some guidelines you should follow, certainly. And each one of these gardeners really marched the beat of their own drum. And what they do and have done and still do is so beautiful in how they weave their tapestry of a garden together.

Margaret: Erin’s nasturtiums, it’s a packet of seeds, it’s no big deal-

Nick: It’s a packet of seeds.

Margaret: … But it is a big deal. It can really make a difference.

Nick: It makes a huge deal. These seeds that could just fit in the smallest palm of your hands makes such a big difference this time of year. But it takes so much foresight and planning, and she certainly didn’t go out and buy them off a box-store shelf. She planned out her garden, her journey, and I think that’s the amazing thing that we learn.

A lot of things that we learned, too, was how ecologically driven many of these gardens are. It’s not just for the betterment of the people, it’s the betterment of the space, the greater landscape, so to speak. And whether that’s water-wise gardening in California, or creating wildlife habitat in New York, it resonated so true across the entire breadth of gardens that we featured.

Margaret: In Ohio, a gardener named Page Price talks about creating vignettes. Can you talk a little bit about creating vignettes?

Nick: Yeah, and Page is a good friend of ours. And vignettes are so … she just creates these little rooms, these little experiences that you get surprised by as you walk around the corner. And I think it’s so important that… My own personal design style is that you can’t see all the garden in one view from when you’re standing, you’re adding mystery. And Page does this beautiful job of organizing planters or antique vintage finds within the garden, and then also changing them up seasonally, year to year, to really keep the garden interesting and to really feed her creative soul as well.

Margaret: There was someone else, and I’m trying to remember who it was, looking at my notes…who talked about creating spaces, but not having too many points of interest within any one space. Do you know what I mean, not making-

Nick: For sure.

Margaret: … I can’t remember. Actually, it was Scott Eckley, I think.

Nick: Scott, yeah. He is-

Margaret: In Seattle, right?

Nick:… In Seattle. And Scott, he’s a fantastic friend of mine. And Scott was really the beginning of this whole book idea. We had a fantastic evening in his garden after a long conference kind of tour in Seattle. And it all ended with a group of friends of us having an evening in the garden.

And just sitting in his space, talking about his design theory and how his family uses it, was really like, “My gosh, this is what we need to share.” Because it’s the personal space of these designers that really, either get a lot of attention or get very little attention depending on how busy the person is. But it’s also our reprieve, and it’s our retreat that feeds our soul. And that evening in Scott’s garden, we had wood-fired pizzas and gin and tonics and things like that. Really, we knew we had to tell these stories of these gardeners.

Margaret: But it’s so important not to be too busy. You want focal points, but not to be too busy.

Nick: Absolutely.

Margaret: There were lots of examples like, we were talking about Page in Ohio with her vignettes. There were lots of examples about, I think in Indiana, Jonathan Wright talked about clustering collections of containers. And I think that’s something that I know as a beginning gardener, I didn’t understand the potential impact. I’d pot up some pots here and there and everywhere, but I didn’t understand about this staging of them. So maybe talk a little bit about that, and how that works.

Nick: And Jonathan in particular, who’s an amazing plantsman and has such a breadth of knowledge, he really uses these clusters of containers to display his tropicals [below, his front steps]. A lot of times, he has these just beautiful bananas, colocasias and alocasias that he moves throughout the garden, and on his front porch in particular. And so these are things that are not hardly, but easily transportable because they’re in these containers. And so he really sets the mood through his mix of textures. His mix of colors also allows him to change it up from season to season or year to year.

And so those uses of containers for a beginning gardener is great. If you only have a small balcony, you could have a little vignette of three containers with either something that is really complimentary to each other or very contrasting to each other.

And in Jonathan’s case, these mixed of textures and foliage and exotic tubers that he has found over his lifetime of collecting, they add such a unique feeling to his garden. And that also goes throughout the entire garden, but specifically, around places like the front entrance, and then their back patio, where they really are surrounded by these beautiful textures.

Margaret: And I think that as we grow into gardening, learning to garden, feeling more confident, and also understand our space better, we can collect interesting containers and things to go in them, and understand where to stage these vignettes to draw the person through the garden to the next stop, or to pull the eye to a spot.

Nick: For a young gardener, it’s a cheap way to make a mistake, as opposed to investing in an entire garden [laughter].

Margaret: As opposed to where you and I are at this point.

Nick: Exactly.

Margaret: [Laughter.] With expensive ways to make mistakes.

Nick: Expensive mistakes. And so that’s certainly one of those ideas that glean. Container gardening is one of my favorite aspects of gardening, because it’s so temporary, and you think about the longevity of it. But again, it’s a great way to start, it’s a great way to get dirty. When you’re a young gardener, you really have to pay attention to the watering so it’s a great way to get your feet wet for sure.

Margaret: The same person, excuse me, in Indiana, Jonathan Wright, he also mentions about “shopping with a spot in mind.” Do you remember that?

Nick: Exactly. And I think that’s important.

Margaret: I think it was a Penny Hobhouse… so from the English gardener Penny Hobhouse, he took this. So us tell about that.

Nick: The idea of thinking with a spot in mind is, you can walk into a nursery and certainly be overwhelmed and maybe over-inspired. And you could be walking out with boatloads of plants that you don’t know where they’re going to go. And so Jonathan does this great job of prescription planting, or knowing where you’re going to where you need to put something. And he does a beautiful job, and hopefully it comes through in the book. You photograph and you write these things and you’re like, “Gosh, I just wish I could have got one more image in there of this angle of the garden.” But it’s so, so inspired.

Margaret: I think it’s really true though, that if we just flip through the catalogs, whether online or on paper and or go to a garden center and you’re just staggered by that assortment, we can end up bringing home the stuff that doesn’t have a purpose, really.

Nick: Exactly.

Margaret: And higgledy-piggledy, hodge-podge-lodge is a result, as opposed to really saying, for my grouping of containers by the front door, I’m going to be inspired by thus and such, and the color palette’s going to be this. And it’s hard because we all want to be impulse shoppers [laughter].

Nick: Well, it’s very easy to be an impulse shopper. That’s literally what these market companies do, is to try to figure out our trigger point. And a lot of times it works, too, even on me. But going into it with a theme is always good and Jonathan’s themes are always very fun.

Margaret: I think it was maybe on your company website, I’m not sure, or maybe it was on your Instagram or something like that: I saw a video for your design business you also have greenhouse or greenhouses. You propagate plants.

Nick: Exactly.

Margaret: In other words, do you or for your clients don’t, in April or May, go out shopping and hope to find stuff that’s going to hang together. You plan it from months or the year prior, and propagate it, so that these groupings will hang together.

Nick: Yeah. We’ve already actually made our palettes for next year. So we’re a design-build-maintain gardening company, so we maintain residential projects. And a big part of our business is plants and container gardens. And so with that, the aspect that it gives us so much flexibility is having our own greenhouse and grower, in which we get to create our own palette every year. And travel, and meeting these gardeners, is the best way that we get inspired to do so. We always come back from these trips with new color palettes or a new plant we want to try. And so we’re very fortunate and we realize that, to be able to do that, implement it. Our head grower, Brent, really is very good at appeasing us [laughter].

Sometimes, the ideas are fantastic. Sometimes we have 500 too many Nicotiana that we got too inspired on at a trip. And so that, it’s fun. And that’s a big creative outlet for us that we really love to do and creating these vignettes. And I’ve been inspired through my travels through Europe, but more specifically, my travels through the U.S. really have inspired me to push the envelope.

This year at my house was big monochromatic, black-on-black planting, dark foliage. And it’s my garden, I’ll do whatever I want to do, and I did, and I think it turned out pretty cool. So that’s the fun in gardening, it’s your own domain.

Margaret: Speaking of rules or guidelines or inspirations or whatever, I think that’s the best one: It’s my garden and I’ll do what I want to. Because there’s so many books, if you look even in English gardening books, some of the older ones, it’ll say, “And yellow and pink don’t go together,” la-de-dah. Well! It’s been proclaimed. But that’s ridiculous; if you like yellow and pink, go for it.

Nick: You try it. And you could try it on small scale, like we were talking about containers, and try them there, and you can go to a bigger scale of mixing it in a big perennial border. And that’s the fun in gardening, is really as long as you can play within your environmental boundaries, let it be, and let it have fun.

Margaret: You mentioned earlier Peter and Stephen, you said in New York, and that’s Peter Bevacqua and Stephen King, and they’re actually near me in the Hudson Valley of New York and their garden. And the tip that “Learn from Peter and Stephen” section in their part of your book, one tip was, think vertical. It was about vines and even buildings, how they really fit in and utilizing them as part of the framework and excitement of the garden. So maybe just some comments about that?

Nick: They do such a great job of taking the height and really playing with that. In particular, I’m thinking of this really gorgeous, ‘Slender Silhouette’ sweetgum [above right in their garden] that is really right beside their garage and beside their hedged garden. And it just rockets into the sky and sets this tone of a beautiful green pillar throughout a lot of the season. And it’s just stunning. And then of course, here the next couple weeks they’ll be turning this bright orange-red as we go into fall.

But also, the vines that they use: They mix a lot of climbing roses, and Clematis within the borders that really guide you through and pull you down a path. And they just do a fantastic job of that, with creating these backdrops of beautiful hedges. It’s really so, so inspiring to see something like that, and relatively… They do have a very large garden, but these garden rooms that they created are really fun to explore and we’ve a lot of fun photographs.

Margaret: Other friends, but in Rhode Island, John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, who I actually did a “New York Times “column on not long ago, they have a crazy wild garden that I remember visiting it in the beginning even and how much it’s changed. But they talk about scale. So vertical is one thing that Peter and Stephen talk about, but scale, because using really big leaves, that’s super important for creating drama, because they love drama [laughter].

Nick: They always love drama and, man, they embrace it so well. And one I’m thinking of is Petasites japonicus giganteus, is just this massive, beautiful plant that they allow to run in this area [above]. And you’re talking leaves that are 3, 4 feet across in some cases, and it just creates this dramatic backdrop.

And then they have just from their color patterns, their monochromatic plantings of their chartreuse yellow garden, to now their beautiful naturalistic meadow-style planting of just the most beautiful combinations of seeded annuals to long live perennials is really very inspiring. But the scale of what they do, whether in each room, it is just very so dramatic.

Margaret: And there’s one person profiled in the book, I think it’s Jon Carloftis. Is he in Kentucky, is that where he is?

Nick: He’s in Kentucky, Lexington.

Margaret: And he reminds us something that’s important, because a lot of us who garden and don’t sit down so much in our own gardens because we’re always working. We forget to leave or make spaces that are suitable for entertaining, and for being quiet and for being with other people and so forth. It’s not all about the plants and the beds and the borders and hedges.

Nick: Well, and Jon, he’s, gosh, just a quintessential entertainer when it comes to using his garden that way. I’ve learned so much from him over the years, and he’s a good friend of ours. And so we’ve had many a “drunken walks around the garden.”

Margaret: [Laughter.] Now you’ve mentioned gin and tonics and drunk walks-

Nick: Gin and tonics-

Margaret: …so I don’t know.

Nick: … In the land of bourbon there where he lives.

Margaret: Yes, Kentucky, boy.

Nick: Kentucky. And that’s it. He has all these beautiful spaces to sit, not only vignettes to look at, but vignettes to sit in. And he has so many entertaining spots around the garden. And he uses it so well during a day and also at night through his beautiful landscape lighting around his garden, it sets the tone for wanting to be in it.

And so Jon is an amazing entertainer, an amazing host, and his garden portrays that as well. And that’s why, as I said, his garden’s personification of him or vice-versa. And it is so true, when I look at that garden, I see Jon and that’s-

Margaret: And it’s an invitation-

Nick: … It’s an invitation.

Margaret: It’s an invitation to come be with him in the garden.

Nick: … And believe me, many people try to just show up and come to talk to Jon for sure.

Margaret: I just want to end with of this couple in Portland, Brandt and Chelsea and I can’t remember their last name, I’m sorry [Kaemingk]. They have a great tip, and you spoke to it a little bit at the beginning. They say don’t forget to travel; we can’t just stay home in our own gardens and figure it all out. We have to go see other outdoor spaces. So doing this book probably did that for you, and probably inspired a lot of new riffs in your own work and so forth, right?

Nick: Certainly. And then we’ve always lived by that mantra, that the best way to get inspired is to travel. And whether it’s taking a car ride to two hours away to go to a botanic garden, or go to visit a friend or an art museum, it could be little or it can be as grand as going on the European grand tour [laughter] Which seems like everyone’s doing right now, as I watch Instagram, everyone’s in Europe. So just a change of scenery, a change of mindset and getting out of your comfort zone, really can inspire. And it can be so little, but it can be so grand as well.

You spy that new restaurant, that next bookstore, to exploring some of these beautiful little garden centers that we have around the country. That’s what we do. We find spaces, we’ll make sure we do some good research before we go to a town. Just enough because you need to allow time to let the wind take you wherever it takes you. And that’s how we’ve met a lot of our friends that are in this book, and it was through that and not being afraid to reach out.

The way I met Jon Carloftis specifically was, I messaged him on Instagram, “I’m coming to Lexington, never been before, what should I do when I’m there?” He’s like, “Well, come to my place.” And so we ended up-

Margaret: And you did.

Nick: And we did. And we ended up spending a whole evening together. And it was just one of the most memorable experiences we ever had, and we’ve been fast friends ever since then.

Margaret: Well, it shows in the book that you have in enthusiasm for all these places and that you’ve taken inspiration from them. So the book is “American Roots: Lessons and Inspiration from the Designers Reimagining Our Home Gardens.” And I’m so glad you could make time today, Nick, to talk about it. Congratulations again.

(Photographs from the book, used with permission.)

enter to win a copy of ‘american roots’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “American Roots: Lessons and Inspiration from the Designers Reimagining Our Home Gardens,” by Nick, Allison McCullough and Teresa Woodard,  for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box  below:

Is there a piece of design advice that has helped you in making your garden that you want to share?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 10, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Marie says:

    I’m busy now designing my spring garden by planting bulbs, my favorite are the tulips and I’m so particular on my design. I don’t know why because I do this every year and in the spring what comes up is NOT what I planted! I’ll end up with ae half a circle of white tulips and my purple are way over by the fence. My neighbor comments “Don’t you really love these pink tulips I didn’t even plant them! AHHHH My designers the SQUIRRELS!

  2. Krista says:

    I’m in-between gardens at the moment, but one piece of advice that will drive my future plans is to plan for viewing the garden from inside my home. Create vignettes to be viewed out the window in all seasons.

  3. Ann says:

    This sounds like an informative book with lovely photos. A journey through some of America’s best private gardens in the comfort of our comfy chair. Please count me in! I would be delighted to win a copy,,

    1. Kathy Orr says:

      This episode of Away to Garden was so interesting! And it’s about exactly what I like to do— visit other peoples gardens! Looking forward to the new book.

  4. Beverly Simone says:

    “Plant natives,” to me is the best advice. I’ll still have groups of containers with exotics and non-natives, but plants which grow naturally are beautiful survivors that help the native insects and birds survive.

  5. Pat Wilk says:

    I have discovered that it’s OK to mix flowers in with my vegetables. It’s surprising and fun. Especially edible flowers. Perfect salad gathering amongst the lettuces.

  6. Angie Wright says:

    Is there a piece of design advice that has helped you in making your garden that you want to share?

    Plant a lot of the same plant to make a bigger impact, instead of 3 here of this one and 3 here of another

  7. Caroline Schmalz says:

    I learned a lot from my Mom, a lifelong home gardener. Always buy at least three of a perennial, to make a grouping. Give them three years to keep, creep, and leap before deciding whether they “work” or not. Think about succession blooming and also attractive foliage.

  8. Pat says:

    Great interview and what sounds like a great book too. Probably my most useful design advice I’ve consistory used is to plant closer than recommended on the tag and to group several plants together to make an impact rather than a single plant here and there.
    I think what makes a garden American, is that each individual does their thing. Isn’t that just the American way?

  9. Katie says:

    The right plant in the right place. A gardener that I knew a long time ago said that she was able to grow species that you wouldn’t expect in her yard because if they didn’t do well in one spot then she would just move it to another with a slightly different microclimate. Trial and error was her method (I think) without analyzing all of the possible variables scientifically. I had forgotten that advice until recently, and am now embracing that method in my own finicky and shady garden. I loved this podcast, as I do all that I listen to here. So inspiring!

  10. Alana Steib says:

    Wonderful interview with Nick McCullough! I am ‘coming up for air’ after a Summer of Destruction necessitated by a new septic system. The work destroyed three gardens that were a labor of love over 30+ years, three raised bed vegetable gardens, and a SunShed. Since October 11 when the last piece of equipment rolled out of the yard, I’ve been manically putting back in over a hundred plants that I’d dug up and stored in pots over this hot, dry summer. If even half of them make it to the Spring, I will be one Happy Gardener. So my singular garden design to add: Do what you can, as well as you can, as long as you can. Someone else much wiser than I said that. But I don’t remember the name.

  11. Joanne Stahura says:

    My husband and I love antiques, and we incorporate them into our beds – chimney pots, fence pieces, windmills, etc.
    To us, they interject a sense of whimsy into the garden.

  12. Martha says:

    This conversation was so inspiring to a rookie gardener such as myself. Looking forward to learning how I can apply some of these design perspectives in our small city yard!

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