Meet the Designer: Richard Hartlage

Creating and Nurturing Lush Spiritual Landscapes

Landscape Designer Richard HertlageYou went to college to study floriculture and nursery management. What led you to change your major to landscape design?
A friend invited me to see the Colonial Revival rose garden at Chatwood. It was just immersive, the first time I saw a garden as an experiential place, not just a bunch of growing plants.

After graduation, you managed Chatwood Gardens and other public gardens until a job took you to Seattle. What keeps you out West?
I’d meant to go back East, where most of the big botanical gardens are, but I love Seattle. There are no mosquitoes, the temperature is rarely above 90 degrees, 60 degrees at night. I do miss lightning bugs and thunderstorms—there are no cracks of lightning—but it’s heaven out here.

A third of your clients are in New England. What are some differences in your East and West Coast designs?
It’s a milder climate in the Northwest, we use lots of broad leaves and more evergreens. Back East, most people over-evergreen because they want green all year round. But the native landscape of the Northeast is deciduous, with dramatic changes from season to season. After starting with a formal layout of trees and shrubs
, we select the infill layer to celebrate what it is to be in Connecticut. It makes the garden feel at home in the region; you recognize vegetation that’s seen in the larger environment.

How do you span the seasons?
We design for summer and fall instead of spring. If it peaks in July, August, September, it’s constantly building toward something beautiful.

You call yourself a modernist. What characterizes a modernist garden?
A strong structure, crisp hedges with lots of built features, asymmetry, simple materials—concrete, metal, glass, Lucite—and using more grasses and textural plants, moving away from flowers. 

How does fragrance come into play?
It’s one of the most powerful senses, unconsciously triggering memories. It adds another layer and makes the experience more powerful.

What is the trick to successful container gardens?
People often use too many different plants in one container. It’s better to do one or two plants per pot, and then an arrangement of containers to strengthen the visual effect, Otherwise, it’s too many dots—like a Seurat painting, you have to back away to compose the scene.

You strive to create rich spiritual gardens. What makes a garden spiritual?
They are places it feels good to be in, that people are drawn back to and want to participate in—as opposed to places that are just about design tricks.

How do you achieve that?
We use a broad selection of plants, and we really tie the architecture and the planting design together. Most of our gardens are romantic, lush, rich—you feel as if you’re being embraced by them.

Why do you like clients to have courage?
We push them to rethink the landscape and how they want to use it. So, we take risks even within the confines of a traditional garden. We don’t just design, construct and walk away. We work with them over a period of time. It’s a process not a product and gets better every year.     

A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Richard Hartlage