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September 19, 2007

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  • Book review: In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World
    Penelope Hobhouse's latest release explores the delights of gardens around the globe.
    By Dave Zuchowski

    Judging by annual attendance figures, public gardens are a major tourist draw. Both Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx report ticket sales of close to 800,000 last year. And the stats for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, are even more impressive with close to one and a half million visitors in 2005.

    In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World, one of the newest releases by award-winning garden writer, garden designer, lecturer and television narrator, Penelope Hobhouse, is a good way to enjoy the visual delights of exemplary gardens without even leaving home.

    Winner of the 1993 Award of Excellence for her book, Gardening Through the Ages, given by the Garden Writers Association of America, and the 1996 Royal Horticultural Society Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest award given by the RHS to British horticulturalists, Hobhouse recently released her newest tome. The 271-page book traces man's attempt to realize the ideal garden by compiling gorgeous color photographs and narrative about some of the greatest horticultural installations on earth.

    Believing that the ideal garden is "at the balance point between human control and untamed nature," Hobhouse launched her latest literary project as a result of serving as curator at a 2002 exhibit at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Three years later, a second exhibition at the same institution emphasized contemporary gardens, including modern designs that stressed an ecological and environmental approach almost unknown to previous generations.

    In her book, Hobhouse starts off her explorations in a first section titled "In The Beginning," which documents the land of the world's oldest gardens the deserts of the Middle East, the land of the lost Eden.

    Two striking images included in this section both have an Iranian locale. Bagh-e-Fin, built by the early Safavids in 1590, is the oldest living garden in Iran. The photo shows a long turquoise-lined pool flanked by 400-year-old cypress trees that lead to a pale yellow building with an inviting open, arched portal.



    Bagh-e Shahzadeh, a much later garden, was designed in the 1880s and again accentuates the importance of water with an extensive water pool and fountains that front an eye-catching building.

    The gardens of Asia follow in a section devoted to China's "Havens for Retreat" that features, among other things, the 16th-century Liu Yan garden, with large, irregular rocks that front a pond or lake surrounded by blooming flora and meandering paths.

    Japan's contemplative and stroll gardens get both up-close looks at quiet, intimate sections of gardens as well as panoramic, even aerial views, that sweep through extensive landscapes.

    Hobhouse's search for paradise continues with the gardens of England, North America, the Mediterranean, the tropics and deserts. Sections are also devoted to water in the garden, ecological gardening, nature in the city and contemporary designs by landscape architects working with artists and sculptors that incorporate traditional materials like wood, glass and stone in new ways.

    In Sydney, Australia, for example, architect Vladimir Sitta uses fire as a primary element to reconnect a modern Australian garden with the ancient landscape dependent on periodic fires to induce germination and new vegetation.

    Even recycled materials like rubber tires and beer barrels find there way into gardens, expressing designer Mien Ruys' concerns for environmental economy in his plan for the famous Moorheim nursery in Dedemsvaart, Netherlands.

    Hobhouse concludes her search with the individual visions of contemporary garden designers like Juan Grimm, whose garden along the seacoast of Chile uses both native plants and those acclimated to Northern Chile's Mediterranean climate, and Kim Wilkie, who took the original but unfinished garden plan for 18th-century Heveningham Hall in England designed by Capability Brown and gave them a modernist reinterpretation.

    The book includes 200 mostly color illustrations, many covering both sides of the page of this glossy 10-1/2 by 12-1/2-inch hardback. The gorgeous images, taken by a host of some of the world's leading garden photographers, include concise descriptive statements that provide vital information such as the history of the garden, salient elements in the design and more.

    In her forward, Hobhouse writes, "Modern garden photography has reached a level at which it measures up to the work of the great painters of landscape. Skilled in technique and sensitive to the changing forms of shadow and sunlight, photographers capture the beauty of gardens through the seasons and at every time of day, but particularly at the magic moments of dawn and twilight. Those photographers who truly understand the philosophy behind the designer's vision produce the finest portrayals of the garden landscape as the following pages reveal."

    In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World should be of interest to travelers, horticulturists and those who appreciate fine photography. The book, published by Frances Lincoln Limited, is available at Amazon.com in hardback for $29.70.

    Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for twenty years and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. Currently, he is the travel correspondent for the New Castle News, a daily in the Pittsburgh area. In his spare time, he also puts his horticultural interests to good use on his 15-acre farm located near Centerville, Pa.





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