Carrie Preston, a New Jersey native working in Holland, is bringing her binational design perspective to the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show.
By Moira Sheridan | Photographs by Jolanthe Lalkens
As an American living and working in the Netherlands for the past 18 years, Carrie Preston has learned a lot about translation—not only from one language to another but also from dreams to reality. The award-winning garden designer attributes much of her professional success to possessing a talent for translating clients’ ideas and desires into functional yet creative landscapes.
“My main skill is that I understand people,” she says. “Some people you need to push past their comfort zones, and some you need to rein in to be more realistic. That’s why I love designing private gardens: I love the intense and intimate relationships that develop when you tap into who people are and how they live.”
Ten years ago, Preston—a 1998 graduate of Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania—launched her design business, Studio TOOP, into the “Dutch Wave” of innovative horticulture now riding high in Holland. Based in her adopted hometown of Amersfoort, her company is one of a select group of Dutch design firms invited to interpret the theme of the 2017 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, Holland: Flowering the World. The displays created by Preston and her colleagues should show that horticulture in the Netherlands goes far beyond tulips, encompassing a full range of garden plants as well as modern design theories that have been adopted the world over.
Carrie Preston created the award-winning Inclusive Garden for people, plants, and animals.
Doylestown Degree to Dutch Design
Preston embarked on her Dutch career arc after college, lured abroad by the Netherlands’ reputation for great horticulture and design. After completing an internship in a plant production greenhouse, she worked on an organic farm and took courses for a landscape architecture degree, but she left this program to pursue more-practical horticultural work. Her goal was to start her own design business, but with no contacts or professional network in the country, that was difficult at first. She was studying for a teaching degree in elementary education when she finally got her first commission—to remake a fellow student’s tiny, dark, and depressing backyard. This provided the jumping-off point for Studio TOOP.
The yard was only 15 feet by 21 feet, but her friend, Preston recalls, “wanted to be able to eat in the shade and lie in the sun; she wanted it to be a little bit green but not a lot of work.” Preston devised a deck for sunbathing, and a shady niche under a vine-planted pergola for dining. Two small borders with bulbs and perennials, as well as some potted plants, provided the sum total of greenery. Her friend loved the reconfigured yard, and this first job helped teach Preston that a client’s needs can be met even in the most restricted spaces. What’s more, about a year later, the friend’s neighbor contacted Preston to give her the best compliment of her career. “She told me, ‘I love the garden you did for her, but I want something completely different,’ ” Preston remembers. “She trusted me to do the same thing I did for my friend: make a garden that fit her particular needs.” She’s been doing just that for clients ever since.
In this small residential garden, abutting baked-stone pavers with raised wood decking provides added visual interest; a minimalist water feature serves as a focal point.
Riding the Second Wave
The Dutch Wave of horticulture, spearheaded by Piet Oudolf’s naturalistic designs, breaks away from a long trend of crisp minimalism in the country’s gardens. Preston sees herself as part of a “second wave” of younger designers reinterpreting this looser approach. “I think my personal work is in a large part distinguished by the emphasis it places on the human element, creating places to engage with rather than primarily to look at,” she says.
That philosophy is clearly shown in the Inclusive Garden, which earned Preston the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) 2016 Designer of the Year award. This show garden, created in 2012 for the Appeltern Garden Festival in the Netherlands in collaboration with Jasper Helmantel of the Dutch seed company Cruydt-Hoeck, upends the notion that concrete pavers belong only on the ground.
“We thought it would be interesting to take the idea of a fully paved lot, of which there are many in Holland, and ask, ‘How can you transform it?’ ” Preston says. “We wanted to make it inclusive and accessible for any budget. That’s why we chose the most common concrete paver in the country, the one you get automatically installed when you buy a new house.” In this creative garden, pavers are stacked to make walls and benches and used in a floating walkway across a long pool of water. To soften the hard lines of the concrete, Preston chose colorful, billowing perennials from a limited plant palette developed by the influential Dutch landscape designer Mien Ruys (1904–1999), who was noted for the idea that if you can create an entire language with 26 letters, you can create a garden with 26 plants.
“We kept to the list but added some natives and grasses,” says Preston, who wanted a multiseasonal display. She also incorporated perennial edibles such as asparagus, rhubarb, cardoon, various herbs, and small fruits to create what she calls a snoep garden, from the Dutch word for “snack” or “sweet.” Insect hotels of bamboo and brick are embedded among the pavers in some walls to attract pollinators, reaffirming Preston’s credo: “It’s not about what materials you use; it’s about what you do with them.” Judges loved the garden, calling it “brilliantly conceived” and “inspirational.”
At Hof van de Vierde Sortie, a long border overflowing with bright poppies, salvias, irises, and columbines faces a bed with paler accents of persicarias, lady’s mantle, and white alliums.
Modesty Is a Virtue
Preston works with 20 to 25 clients in a given year, most of them keen gardeners, as might be expected in a country known for its superior nurseries and world-renowned flower bulb industry. Moving from the United States to Holland, she had to adapt her design ethos to the mindset of a small country where space is at a premium.
“The Dutch are such amazing spatial designers because they have to be,” she says. “If you have limited space, you make sure that space has meaning and purpose. There are a lot of small gardens, and they’re not about extravagance. Modesty is a Dutch virtue.”
In such an environment, she says, “one of the advantages of being the least bit bold is that you stand out quickly.” This boldness has surfaced not only in her designs but also in choices that have advanced her career. Her smartest move: sending pictures of her gardens to local magazines, which published them and gave Studio TOOP a wider audience. “I started working with a really good photographer early on in my career,” she says, and she advises every fledgling landscape designer to do so.
Having her own property on a local garden tour opened up another opportunity for Preston. “Being in your garden is like eating cake,” one tour visitor told the designer before hiring her on the spot to reinvent a historic 4-acre estate in Amersfoort—Hof van de Vierde Sortie, a property that’s unusual for its size, formal gardens, and large expanses of lawn and woodland. This relationship continues after nine years, and Preston recently completed the most ambitious project so far on the estate: English-style double borders in space where a barn had been demolished.
When she came to the United States in September to accept her award at the annual convention of the APLD, Preston also met with contractors, nursery owners, and PHS staff to flesh out the plans for her Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit. She is calling it Stinze—referring to the plant communities that surround many of the country’s old manor houses—and considers it her colorful vision of Old World Dutch charm.
“I’m going to focus on naturalizing bulbs and spring ephemerals to evoke the flora of stinze manor houses in the north of the country,” she says. “I want to create a lawn that I hope will look like it is centuries old, with an established population of naturalizing bulbs. We are using lots of whites, blues, and soft yellows—and hope to inspire visitors to try a similar approach.”
If anyone is uniquely poised to translate American expectations of a Dutch garden into a memorable Flower Show experience, Preston is the one.
This Amsterdam property includes both a menagerie and a vegetable garden.
Moira Sheridan, a regular Grow contributor, lives and gardens in Wilmington, Delaware. For more information about Carrie Preston’s gardens and design ideas, visit her 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit or peruse her website, studiotoop.nl.
Growing Small Spaces
The compact gardens that are so common in the Netherlands have challenged landscape designer Carrie Preston to develop strategies that make the most of limited room. Here are a few of the tactics she recommends for maximizing small spaces.
Slight elevation changes break up the view and emphasize different sections of the garden. Use the third dimension—height—by building raised beds and growing vines up tall supports.
Expand your vision.
While breaking up the view is important, so the entire small space cannot be taken in at a glance, in at least one or two places—as a contrast—allow for a wider visual sweep across the entire width or length of the property.
Think outside the box.
To prevent the feeling of being boxed in, vary boundaries rather than relying on a single type of hedge plant or wall. Create borders using at least two materials that highlight the specific characteristics of the spaces they enclose.
Make things do double duty.
The wall of a raised bed can also work as a seating surface; a space divider can house firewood. Drop a swing from a pergola to offer play space.
Limit the materials and the forms used, and repeat them to tie distinct sections of space together so the garden tells a coherent story.