The Outdoor Enthusiast
Chip Callaway's glorious gardens
Nicole Crews -- Casual Living, 9/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Chip Callaway is a man for all seasons. The North Carolina-based gardening guru's principles are based on the land and its history. He knows the earth and what grows from it - when to plant, when to reap, when to sow.
A native Southerner, Callaway cut his teeth on historic plants and garden designs. The turning point in his career came when Richard Jenrette, co-founder of Wall Street's Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, needed a gardener with a period-bent for his newly acquired Hillsborough, N.C. home. It was a resounding success and soon he commissioned Callaway to restore the garden of his Charleston, S.C., home, Roper House on the High Battery, for a visit from Prince Charles and King Constantine of Greece. A career - and an international reputation - were born.
With more than 600 projects under his belt, Callaway and his small team of landscape architects have, in the past 30 years, made their mark. He's restored Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee's Virginia home, the Alexander Graham Bell house in Washington, D.C., countless other historic landmarks and numerous homes of the well heeled including the late Andy Griffith's home in Manteo, N.C. He has been featured in Garden & Gun magazine, Southern Living and numerous other publications.
The humble gardener lives and works in dueling bungalows in the Fisher Park Historic District in Greensboro, where outdoor living is celebrated with a vengeance.
You have a master's in landscape architecture but describe yourself as a garden designer. Why is that?
CC: A bit of reverse snobbery. The profession began turning its nose up at garden designers about 50 years ago thinking the professional practice had moved to more socially relevant fields like environmental protection and ecological land development. That's all well and good but I love making gardens so "garden designer" is a much better description of what I do.
You tend to lean toward the English garden personally yet you design with a scholarly approach and work with existing architectural elements, periods, etc. What would you say is "au courant" in landscape design today and do you pay attention to that?
CC: Sustainability is "au courant" and I say, "Bravo!" I rarely design a garden these days that does not have a potager or decorative vegetable garden aspect in it.
What about the "green" factor? How do you incorporate that?
CC: It's part of my philosophy. I try to avoid fussy plants which require chemical attention and I pride myself in knowing which plants can suffer the vicissitudes of drought and wild swings in weather. Good gardeners have nourished the earth for thousands of years so the "green" factor is nothing new to us.
You often refer to strong bones in your work and that includes hardscape. Has the hardscape/outdoor living room element of your business grown over the years or evolved?
CC: I spend as much time as possible in my garden and entertain outside 95% of the time. Hence, my garden IS my living room and dining room. When I design gardens for clients I just assume they are going to live outside as well and frequently they join my lead. My gardens start out as floor plans which pay particular attention to the lifestyle my clients live.
I have a theory that while high-end clients may have a certain taste level and feel comfortable designing their own home, they don't have the confidence, know-how or grit to do the same to their outdoor spaces. Even if it's minor landscaping and outdoor room decorating they want plantings that are appropriate, aesthetically pleasing, regionally workable, etc. - and they don't know enough to do that. They also don't understand high performance, flow-through cushioning, solution dyed outdoor fabrics or that much of today's outdoor furniture is made to last a lifetime framewise. Am I right?
CC: Probably, about the furniture and performance, but I have a lot of clients that are true gardeners. They just want to take things to the next level.
I know you have strong opinions about outdoor furniture. Would you ever consider designing a line?
CC: I would love to do this and if I ever have any room on my plate, you bet! I am just having too much fun with the flowers and shrubs to design a line right now.
Are you plotting a gardening book?
CC: I'm still threatening to do a book and I will eventually do one, but having to sell a book gives me hives. I'd rather make gardens!
Was going from selling roses to the town matrons for a nickel a pop as a boy in Mt. Airy, N.C. to garden designer to the rich and famous ever intimidating? Did you ever have that, "I'm in over my head moment?"
CC: Never a day passes that I don't wonder if I have gotten above my raisin' as my mom often implied.
Ten years ago you cracked the half million mark for a garden design. Where are you now?
CC: Way past that, but it would be indelicate to give specifics because my clients are private folk. Half a million is a lot of money but when you are including acres of bluestone terraces and stairs, swimming pools, potagers, gardens, cobblestone driveways, irrigation systems, lighting systems and on and on, gardens get expensive.
Your personal garden has been described as experimental. How so?
CC: Good gardeners love new plants and since I am partner in Piedmont Carolina Nurseries, I use my garden as a proving ground for a lot of plants before I recommend them to clients. I change my garden every year. As trees develop canopy, conditions change and the design has to accommodate. My front yard grass plot recently became a vegetable garden when Alice Waters came to visit.
You collaborated with acclaimed chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse on projects including the Edible School Yard at the Children's Museum in Greensboro, N.C. Tell me about that and the resurgence of the victory garden.
CC: Nothing is more pleasurable than picking veggies from your personal garden. I find that instead of planting annuals every year I am adding veggies right next to the peonies. My front yard has never been more beautiful in my eye than since I abandoned labor intensive color gardens for the ones I can put in the soup.
Along those lines, home entertaining is at its height right now and people are very much into doing it outdoors - tell me how you design to accommodate that.
CC: I interview clients from the get-go about their entertaining expectations. Al fresco is the way to go!
How do you envision the evolution of the outdoor room over the next decade?
CC: I see a continued and exciting trend as people get more bang for their buck in their gardens by growing their own food and hanging out at home. When travel becomes extravagant, just stay home and experience the satisfaction and joy one can get from growing your own food and entertaining with it.
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