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the art of garden-making, with dan benarcik

THE FLYER PIQUED MY INTEREST: Dan Benarcik, part of the creative team at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania (a must visit!), would be lecturing nearby about “The Art & Craft of the Garden,” and how to personalize a garden using artistic elements, found artifacts, and ornamental containers. I quickly got a ticket—you can, too, for the June 16 event, including garden tours and a garden market, in Spencertown, New York—but also asked Dan to share some of his ideas and images (including the bromeliad-artemisia- urn-and-melianthus moment at Chanticleer, above) with us, no matter whether we can attend. A Q&A with this enormously talented plantsman and garden artist.

Q. First, tell us a little about Dan Benarcik, and especially how it is that such an accomplished horticulturist finds himself lecturing about art in the garden (not just a big, long plant list!). Where did the two dots connect—or are they even two different dots?

A.  I believe they are two dots, just not very far from each other.

I grew up with one foot in the flower shop (my mother is a third-generation florist and cut flower grower), and the woodshop (my father and his brothers opened one of the first postwar DIY-type stores in Wilmington, Delaware). Interestingly, it was the common thread of customer service (read: customer experience) that was held in the highest regard growing up. And showing people what and how they could make their lives and situations better by a little hands-on aesthetic improvement.

A side note: My sister is an NYC-based artist who works in three-dimensional organic installations, and my brother is a Seattle-based architect, who teaches and designs/builds furniture as dept. head in a community college. We all have our mediums that we work in.

Additionally, Mom at 78 still operates the flower shop eight days a week, and dad at 90 is still fully engaged in his workshop every day. Creativity keeps you alive.

Q. As long as I’ve been doing Garden Conservancy Open Days here, the most asked-about feature is not a plant, but my chairs (including the red ones, above).  They were adapted from the so-called Wave Hill Chair plan (from the public garden in the Bronx), and I understand they are the icon of the upcoming event at Spencertown, NY, on June 16 where you’ll be speaking (details in the box below). What is it about these chairs?

A. What is it about these chairs? That’s what I want to know! I believe they bit me years ago, in 1988-89, on my first visit to Wave Hill; they ruined the visit!

I was so smitten by the chairs I didn’t really even take in the garden per se.

Like Lester Collins, [particularly celebrated for the minimalism of Innisfree, in Millbrook, New York] and yourself, and everyone that has adapted them in some way, this chair begs for personal input. Those with confidence in their aesthetic redesign, adapt, modify (like Bob Dash at Madoo, on Long Island); those that may lack the confidence simply enjoy the lines, the look, the chair.

It struck the organizers of the Spencertown event and me in an early conversation that it could be the perfect canvas or medium that one could express the personality of their garden and everyone that attended the event would understand the meaning of the chair.

Q. What are some of the most surprising things you’ve incorporated as art in gardens you’ve worked in or made?

A. Nothing surprises me anymore, but I have used an old English railway marker, an outhouse (privy), birdbath cast from a lotus leaf, and a living succulent table, to name a few.

Generally, though, it’s the plants, be they a statement, an accent, or a focal point. They really are the feature in any garden I work with. The artifacts are just supporting characters. Much of the point of the June 16 talk is to emphasize the craft, as it pertains to the elements in the garden.

Q. Along the way, were there any misses or near-misses–objects or ideas that just didn’t work, and somehow went too far or otherwise didn’t cut it? Any insights why, to help us avoid veering off the track ourselves when we select and then place objects in the garden?

A. Plenty of near misses and total disasters, but you’ll never see them! Remember that we learn much more from our mistakes than any successes we have.

Rules? Do it for yourself, not for somebody else. If it works for you, employ the courage of your aesthetic. If it doesn’t work change it! It’s gardening, not brain surgery.

Q. Can a plant or plants be the sculpture or artwork? If yes, what are some of the plants that you think do the job best?

A. Absolutely! Generally I use plants as art and sculpture much more than nonliving items themselves.  The entire Agave family [such as the specimen in the photo above], with Agave americana as the Chairman of the board of garden architecture. Melianthus major [below, and in top photo with the bromeliad Alcantera imperialis ‘Rubra’], and its toothy blue presence in the borders.  Palms are the flying buttresses and cannas and bananas are the color on the walls. Let’s not forget rhubarb, Paulownia! Seasonal big-impact foliage [from tender tropicals] is great, but I like to build the hardy component first them heap on the seasonal layer in different manifestations over the next few years.

So many plants, so many tasks…

Q. In all my Q&A interviews, I always ask these last questions:

1.  What are the most-used books on your garden bookshelf?

A. The most recent plant catalogs. I don’t care nearly about was has been done as what is yet to be done. So, I want to do things with the newest coolest plants out there. I work in the business, I don’t sit down and touch a book until winter drives me inside, and then most of the time I’m looking out the windows anyway.

2. What are your must-see gardens, public or private, that you have found inspiring and think we should all visit?

A. Wave Hill was always a public garden that I used as an example of “what Chanticleer should be when it grows up” and Marco [Polo Stufano, founding director of horticulture, now retired] has served as an inspiration for nearly my whole career. Great Dixter [in England, home of the late Christopher Lloyd] for the people who made it great, and Derek Jarman’s garden for nearly not having a garden at all. Lotusland made me tingle, and the Getty Museum made me humble. I’ve so lucky to have access to so many private gardens through Garden Writers of America that I can’t even begin to list them.

3. Are there websites (whether public spaces or research and reference sites or even esoteric professional groups or plant catalogs) that you have bookmarked and rely upon in your garden life?

A: Blogs: Compost in my Shoe, Jim Martin’s blog.  Short, sweet and not too wordy, image-rich. Mosaic Gardens out of Oregon, inspirational.

Catalogs: Bustani Plant Farm in Oklahoma, Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut, Plant Delights in North Carolina for when you hit the lottery. But mostly I rely on friends in the business to share and trade the really cool stuff.

(All photos except red chairs courtesy Dan Benarcik.)

See You at Spencertown?

THE ANNUAL EVENT called The Hidden Gardens of Spencertown in Spencertown, New York, is June 16 this year, starting with a 9 AM lecture-breakfast with Dan Benarcik (inset photo). Afterward, the self-guided tour includes eight local gardens, each open from 10-4 PM. Read about the program here, and follow the link for tickets. Organizers say that provided there is space, lecture-only tickets for $15 can be had at the door that morning as well. This year there is also a Garden Market on the Green on from 8-4 at the Spencertown Village Green across the street from the Academy. Vendors will offer garden furniture, specialty plants, books, ornaments, birdhouses, terrariums, and other garden décor items. Master gardeners from Cornell University Cooperative Extension will be on hand to offer advice. Admission to the market is free. Proceeds benefit the Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

  1. kk says:

    Guess I would get the ‘Bad Mother of the Year’ award if I skipped my son’s college graduation for this – but I am tempted ! It looks great.

  2. Let’s see, I live 1500 miles away, I have to work that day, and it’s an important one in my business……….I might just be able to make it! Oh how I wish I could, I visited Chanticleer last year (on the hottest day of the year!) and had an amazing time. Yes I would have enjoyed it more on a cooler day, but it was still amazing!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jim. So funny that you are here — when I was just over at “your place” clicking around, thanks to Dan. We just missed bumping into each other. :) I have so many questions for you about your garden, your images, your …

  3. Jayne says:

    OMG – I wish I could come. Will be on a ferry to a little Island in the Atlantic – very much looked forward to each year – OR I would love to be there. We have copies of THE CHAIR at Irwin Park, which my Garden CLub is very involved with and I make pilgrimmage to Wave Hill and Chanticleer when time allows. All Winter we dream of events like this and then Everything happens at once. SOunds GREAT!

  4. Linda Pastorino says:

    Thank you for the question and aswers with Dan, i wish I could go sounds great. I visited Chanticleer in May (one of my all time favorite public gardens) and was lucky enough to speak with Dan and the other garden designers this year. Our garden club were there during the change over of spring to summer and before the planters were planted. it was the second time I was there and the gardens looked completely different and wonderful.
    Plant Delights nursery is a great gem of a nursery by the way, as far as quality and longevity of what they offer. Broken Arrow and Opus as well always offer hard to find cutting edge material.

  5. Donna says:

    Where is the best place to buy Agave plants? Can you buy them fairly large? I’m in the PA area and wonder if they winter over? Great interview!

  6. Donna says:

    Margaret: Would you ever think about coming to our Garden Club in Rehoboth Beach DE for a program next spring? We live not too far away from Longwood, Winterthur and Chanticleer.

  7. Saxon says:

    Dan’s own non garden art is special too. I remember photographing Eve Thyrum’s DE garden years ago and marveling over the silvery steel Agave sculptures of Dan’s. A special talent – would love to hear him talk.

  8. I too was smitten with the Wave Hill chair the first time I sat in one! so much more comfortable than Adirondack chairs. Wave Hill sells the plans for the chairs, I just need to find someone here in Asheville to make it.
    Re Chanticleer – one of the, if not THE, best gardens in the USA, certainly in the eastern half, right next to Wave Hill. One learns so much visiting both gardens.
    One question: is Melianthus hardy? or do they keep it in the greenhouse over winter?

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