Knock on wood, Philadelphia has escaped the threat of a storm-filled winter, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still jonesing for a taste of spring. Enter the Philadelphia Flower Show, our annual gift to the world,where Philly gets to show off its softer side. This week’s Portrait is expat Carrie Preston, landscape designer extraordinaire who will be exhibiting at this year’s show. She spoke to me from her current home in Holland — also the theme for the show.
PGN: I understand that you’re a Jersey girl.
CP: I am. I grew up by the shore, near Red Bank.
PGN: Tell me about it.
CP: My father’s family has been in that area for a long time so we were really knit into the fabric there. I have an older brother who still lives nearby. I really enjoyed it too, but for some reason I always really wanted to leave. The grand irony is that whenever I go back I think, Now why did I want to leave here? I was outside constantly, though I’d usually try to go to the beach in the evenings or in the winter when it was quiet. I went to Sandy Hook Nature Center a lot, which was about 20 minutes away biking. [Laughs] That’s very Dutch of me to measure things in biking time! I worked in a garden center there when I was 14 and that’s where a lot of my interest in gardening took root.
PGN: Did you stay away from the beach during regular hours because you were an introverted kid?
CP: I wouldn’t call myself introverted but I’m definitely not a crowd person. I’m on the cusp of being introverted. I like people, I’m good with people and can lecture large crowds, but in this profession I’m also alone a lot and I enjoy that. I spend about 80 percent of my time alone and I like it that way.
PGN: I’m the same way; I do a lot in public but actually like being alone quite a bit. I call myself an extroverted introvert. So at age 14, you were working in the garden center, learning how to propagate plants and literally learning about the birds and the bees.
CP: [Laughs] I guess I was. But I think what really drew me to it was that Red Bank was very posh, a lot of extreme wealth. My father’s a contractor, so we were part of it, yet not part of it, and I was craving something real. The garden center was something very tangible in that world. And I liked being an expert at something. I enjoyed learning a vocabulary that not many people had, and so all of my allowance as a kid went to experimenting with plants and crafting this world for myself. A lot of kids at that age are searching for their identity and trying on what other people suggest they should like, but this was very much my own thing. It was a blessing to find something that I loved right off the bat.
PGN: When did you have your first inkling about being gay?
CP: I had a crush on the manager at the garden center. She was much older and therefore safely out of reach, which is how I wanted it for a long time. My first genuine relationship wasn’t until I was 29. I think relationships with women ask for a certain amount of vulnerability from me that I definitely avoided for some time. But I’m now happily married. She’s from this area but grew up abroad, so I call her Dutch-light.
PGN: How did you meet?
CP: She’s a graphic and commercial retail designer and I was familiar with her from a women’s entrepreneur network. When I ran into her at a creative networking event, I invited her to an architectural network program, which I thought very clearly was a date but she was clueless about it. [Laughs] I had to send her an email the next day to let her know that it had been our first date — at least in my mind — or we might have never gotten together.
PGN: That’s great. So how did you go from being a kid from New Jersey working in a nursery to being a world-traveling designer?
CP: I always wanted to leave Jersey. I took a trip around the world when I was 22 and at the end I still wasn’t ready to go back, so I got some education here and started a business and one thing led to another. Holland wasn’t meant to be a permanent destination but it seemed to embrace a lot of the values that I had on environmental issues, social issues, etc. What’s funny is that all those things that were so stridently important to me — riding my bike everywhere and bringing my own bag — is passé here; grandmothers do it. One thing that Holland’s taught me was to not try so hard. It’s a very unambitious place, which is very healthy for a high-strung perfectionist from New Jersey who always needs to achieve more. And Holland is like, “Please stop that. Just do less and be less and have a cup of coffee.” It may sound very strange to an American, but it’s very therapeutic in many ways.
PGN: Tell me your best and craziest moments traveling around the world.
CP: In 1999-2000 I spent about seven months woofing across Australia, when that practice didn’t really exist.
CP: Willing Workers on Organic Farms. I’d studied sustainable agriculture and I was always looking for off-the-beaten path places. A few of us traveling around realized, Oh, shit. Christmas is coming and we haven’t figured out what to do. We ended up on this goat farm in Telangana, about two hours north of Melbourne in the middle of nowhere. We were castrating goats with these Seventh Day Adventists. It was awful; they fed us this horrible bean-curd for three days straight. At one point, we went to go for a walk but there were so many flies all over us we couldn’t even do that. That’s when we decided we’d had enough and the day before Christmas we took off and got the most expensive hotel room in Melbourne as an antidote to our horrible goat-castrating, bean-curd-eating, fly-covered outback experience! Sometimes you discover just why something is off the beaten path. Best experience would be in South Africa. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and it was very oddly familiar, partially because there’s so much biodiversity in the plant life there. I was seeing plants from around the world, which were like old friends. Oh, and last June I had an amazing time visiting the botanical gardens in Tajikistan for two weeks. It’s so remote, there’s amazing vegetation in the wild, and traveling around with 15 plant nerds who knew more than me was fantastic as well.
PGN: It’s funny, I think we have the impression that every place except the U.S. and the U.K. is war-torn rubble.
CP: I think we all have an image of most of the former Soviet Union being vacant and empty, which is part of why I wanted to go. I wanted to fill in those empty places on the map that you have no mental picture of. And going there you realize that 80 percent of life there is just like home. I’ve had some amazing opportunities. On Nov. 9, the day after the U.S. election, I was in Russia to give a naturalistic planting lesson for Russians and it was the best place to be because those people know how to deal with that stuff. No one even mentioned it. “Let’s just talk about life and plants and anything but the election.” So yeah, we often think we’re the center of the universe when the rest of the world is going day to day and not as concerned with us as we think.
PGN: Right on. Let’s talk about your business. I was looking at some of your work and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s contemporary but still very natural. Nothing looks forced; it looks like the plants all belong there.
CP: That’s a fantastic compliment because that’s what I strive for. I think in the best design, you almost forget it was designed. There’s a word in Dutch, “Vanzelfsprekendheid,” which translates somewhere between obviousness, naturalness and “of course it should be this way.” I try to design so it fits you like your favorite sweater. The contemporary side is a reaction to Dutchness. The Dutch landscape is very linear, mostly manmade. They once did a survey across the world asking for their favorite painting and pretty much every culture chose a picturesque landscape, but the Dutch chose an abstract painting, which is partly their aesthetic but it’s also their self image. They want to be very modern, progressive and forward-thinking. When I first came here, it took me a while to get used to all the straight lines. I resented what I saw as rigidity but I came to realize that once you accept structure, it actually leaves more room for the wildness around it. I’ve found that both in life and design.
PGN: [Laughs] I’m going to need you to spell that word for me.
CP: You can’t spell check Vanzelfsprekendheid? [Laughs] And that’s not even a long one. The Dutch have a tendency to stick 10 words together and call it one word.
PGN: The Flower Show theme this year is “Holland: Flowering the World.” What are you going to be doing? I read something about “stinze?”
CP: When Americans think of Holland, they think of bulbs, so I know I need to have bulbs in the garden but I don’t want to go full-on keukenhof, which is a typical, almost kitsch-style garden that’s very showy and very loud that people associate with the Dutch. It was originally a kind of catalogue for bulb growers to show off their bulbs. Most Dutch people don’t really like it. It’s the Disney version of a garden. I wanted to do something different. In the northern part of the Netherlands, there are a lot of beautiful estates built out of stinze, which is the Fresian word for stone. In the 12th century, gardeners there started collecting and trading bulbs, mostly small, naturalized bulbs that just spread and spread. If you go there this time of year, you’ll see swaths and swaths of bulbs that have been spreading for eight centuries, both native and foreign due to the travels of those botanical explorers. And they come back each year, more beautiful than ever. So my design is inspired by those estates. I’m using a lot of Dutch plants but I’m also incorporating American native plants to show people how they can create their own stinze garden.
PGN: I have to admit, I’m one of the ugly Americans who just plants new annuals each year. I want it to be different each year.
CP: Ah, but done right, a garden is going to be different each year.
PGN: And like Veruca Salt from “Willy Wonka,” I want it now!
CP: [Laughs] Well, that’s a more honest answer. Annuals are all about immediate gratification. But the motto of one of our bulb growers here is “Enjoyment is thinking ahead.” Gardening is a very slow and humbling process; immediate gratification is nice, but the sublime, reach-into-your-heart beauty happens slowly over years and sometimes decades or centuries.
PGN: [Laughs] Duly chastised. Have you participated in the Flower Show before?
CP: Years ago I went to Delaware Valley College in Doylestown to study horticulture and sustainable agriculture and we did an exhibit, so it’s kind of surreal to be going back after all this time. Kind of a full-circle moment. I’m using the stinze theme but I’m also incorporating imagery from my childhood. I built an arbor, which is very Dutch linear and stately, but I’m also using chain-link fence, which evokes memories of the shore for me. It brings some American vernacular into the piece. The lace pieces are really cool. I like mixing the strong industrial aspect of the metal with the high femme of the lace.
PGN: Will you be seeing the family while you’re here?
CP: Yes, they’ll all be coming to the show, which is a little unnerving. [Smiles] I’m used to going to them, not having them come to me and being part of my world.
PGN: I read that when you design, one of the most important elements is your listening skills.
CP: Any sort of design process is very intimate. I spend a lot of time getting to know who the clients are and what’s going to draw them outside to really use the space. I don’t design gardens to look at, I design gardens to be in. People will tell you the socially desirable answers that they think you want to hear, or describe who they want you to think they are so you have to get under the surface and unearth who they really are. My questions aren’t necessarily about the garden but about who they are as individuals. Are you at heart a messy person? What makes you really tick?
PGN: Let’s learn some things about the way you tick. Are you one of the handful of Americans that knows the difference between centimeters and feet?
CP: Ha. I have to say, one of the challenges of the Philly show has been trying to remember how to think in inches and feet again. It’s hard! I much prefer working in centimeters.
PGN: What three people would you invite to your garden party?
CP: Beatrix Farrand, she’s probably the most influential female landscape architect of the 20th century in America. Mien Ruys, who is a Dutch landscape designer, one of the most influential designers, male or female, in Holland. And Topher Delaney, she’s a pretty fascinating post-modernist designer in California. I’m interested in all three because they’re more artist than architect in their approach, yet they all have very divergent approaches to their work. It would be fascinating to have all three together to get their viewpoints.
PGN: Best and worst food in the Netherlands?
CP: Dutch food sucks. There’s a reason you don’t find Dutch restaurants anywhere in the world, not even here! These are farmers and sober people who believe in working hard; they’re Calvinists — you don’t enjoy life, you work hard. And so Dutch cuisine is pretty much a cheese sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and if it’s possible, dinner. When I came here, just trying to get a salad was like … let’s just say there are a lot of good things about Holland, just not the food. Though they do have amazing cheese and chocolate, so we’ll give them that.
For more information about the Philadelphia Flower Show, visit www.theflowershow.com.