Wild Garden Photos

– Posted in: Garden Photography

Autumn pond - Proctorsville, VermontLast month, while our Gardening Gone Wild readers were out shooting for the Fill the Frame theme in our Picture This photo contest, I was on vacation in New England – I was filling my camera frame with fall color in Vermont and the landscapes of poet Mary Oliver in Cape Cod, such as Blackwater Pond:

Blackwater Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore

Funny thing though, while I was ostensibly on holiday from my work as a garden photographer I saw all the wild landscapes as gardens.  God’s gardens to be sure, but I saw them defined by earthly designs.

It is no surprise that garden designers take inspiration from nature, but I am thrilled to see my landscape work take on more meaning for all the years I have spent in gardens.  Both the first two photos were taken in the wild, and all the while I was remembering the photo I took of the pond at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware.

Pond, Mt Cuba Delaware

Note the point of view looking past foreground trees and the use of the strong vertical lines to divide the photo  into interesting blocks.  I knew when I took the Mt. Cuba photo that I wanted an angle to make the scene look natural, and that act of studying gardens has allowed me to see better landscape photos.

Imagine my delight, an admitted grassaholic on photo safari, to round a bend on my hike in Cape Cod National Seashore to find this scene.

meadow, Cape Cod National Seashore

Native blueberry and bayberry shrub border with a lawn substitute of a wee meadow.

Because I spent two years photographing designed meadows for The American Meadow Garden I knew what I was looking at, I knew the story I wanted to tell.  Communicating good garden information gives meaning to my work, and finding inspiration in nature that can help gardeners in their work is a joy.

In the book we started with the premise that meadows must mimic local ecologies to be successful, then sought gardens that proved it.  I studied examples that worked, so now I have a much better idea how to photograph wild vignettes that might serve to inspire gardeners.

meadow David Fross

This garden meadow designed by David Fross helped me see how grasses, shrubs and trees can be placed together in photogenic fashion, so now when I see those elements in the wild I see new meaning and purpose in my photography.  Sure, the original design ideas often start with nature before the designer ever puts their own ideas together, but here we are talking about the photographer finding a story to tell.

When I returned from vacation, I set about judging the photo contest.  We had a huge number of entries and I was at first surprised to see how many entries were nature scenes, rather than garden scenes.  I confess I favored the gardens in the judging (as I disclosed :-)), but I loved seeing the nature scenes.

I realized it is only natural for other gardeners, like me, to find inspiration in nature and they might submit photos to a garden contest.  ( This is a big duh, but isn’t it odd how some of us think we are the only ones with insight ?).  However, I think many photos submitted to our contest could have been stronger if there were a more obvious story.

Looking over the entries, with my own fresh insight on how our knowledge of gardens can help us tell better stories with our nature photography, let’s look at a few more examples.  As I have suggested above, use the garden as your inspiration for a story when looking to photograph in the wild.

Start with the inspiration of whatever landscape you find yourself in.  Think of how that applies to a garden.  Here, of course I am assuming every gardener is being amazed in nature by the plants.  Here, we are ignoring mountains, canyons, oceans, clouds, and critters.  Who cares about those things?

On that same hike at Cape Cod where I found the meadow I found this tapestry of mixed native plants.

native shrub tapestry mixed border

In trying to frame an inspiring composition I thought of it as a mixed border of ferns, perennials and shrubs.  I have learned about mixed borders by photographing them, as in this mixed border by Nancy Beaubaire:

mixed border by Nancy Beaubaire

Perhaps the photo of the Cape Cod native plants will one day inspire a New England gardener to incorporate these native plants into their designs.  Whether or not, I am happy with my own photo that shows such a plant combination in the wild.  That’s the story.

In Vermont I was lucky to find wonderful fall color.

V ermont trees in fall color

This is the sort of scene that inspires gardeners to bring fall color into their gardens.

filoli, fall color

I photographed the autumn color at Filoli gardens long before I ever went to Vermont and this exact photo was in my mind as I went hunting for photos.  Observant readers will also note this photo was included in my original contest announcement“This autumn color study of Filoli makes you want to crawl into the scene and see more.  Extra points for these garden landscapes that fill the frame.”

Filling the Frame was not just a contest exercise, it is my constant mantra as I look to compose a photo and look for a story to tell.  The more I remind myself of this when I work to illustrate gardens, the more it spills over to my personal work.  And now that reflects back, to even better garden photos.  A dance of self improvement that I hope will not simply make me feel better about my landscape work, but will allow me to find deeper beauty in gardens that use wild inspirations.

I did not expect to find my favorite tree for fall color, the tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) at Cape Cod.  It has such reliable color in all gardens I have seen it in. I knew when I saw it I must try to make a photo of some kind that highlighted the color.

tupelo fall color, blackwater pond

I made this using back light of the fading sun at the edge of Blackwater Pond – the same afternoon and across that pond from the earlier, poet inspired photo at the beginning of this post.

I did not have some pre-existing garden photo in mind when I took this image but I darn sure wanted to take a renewed look my own tupelo in my own front yard when I returned.

tupelo in Saxon holt garden

Hmmm.  Here is a clear case of the wild garden photo now improving my garden work.  In nature , the rake is a useless tool.  I continue to learn….







Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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7 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

One November 13, 2011, 3:16 am

I’ve enjoyed this post thoroughly. Wonderful captures that I truly admire. I have much to learn. Thank you for sharing.

We all have much to learn and must always be open to it. – Saxon

Donna November 13, 2011, 7:16 am

Wonderful post and observations, Saxon. As a garden designer, my thoughts exactly. Being in peoples gardens all the time, what keeps my creativity and imaginative interest, is nature herself. I never bore or her planting combinations , juxtaposition of texture, associations of scale, and formation of mood created by light and color. Always an inspiration in design and behind the camera. I see beauty all around in the natural environment, fresh with life and also in pitiful decline. In late Fall, the plants fade to crispy browns, but a new beauty emerges, ready to take on a dusting of white snow, well here in the Northern climates anyway.

Ah kindred spirit. The happenstance we see Nature put together can hardly be matched by mere mortals. But the fact we try is one of the great traits of humanity. – Saxon

Gloria November 13, 2011, 11:10 am

You continue to amaze. The Wow factor we read so much about gardeners trying to capture in their gardens is captured in your photos of these natural scenes then related to gardens. Certainly this will help others to understand that wild gardens and meadows do have the potential to godsmack them even in smaller urban gardens. There is no sacrifice of aesthetics ,it is simply a matter of learning how to capture the essence of what creates the beauty and then translating to a garden setting. Awesome!

“godsmack” love it… Open up and be amazed by what happens. Thanks – Saxon

Sheila Schultz November 14, 2011, 9:02 pm

Saxon Holt, your vision of our world makes me wonder why I didn’t study photography, and why we haven’t met… I do appreciate what you see.

Consider ourselves well met now. Thanks – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin November 14, 2011, 11:57 pm

Your serenely gorgeous images give me permission to include a tree trunk smack in the middle of a scene. One of my challenges in shooting my own garden is the trunk of an oak that tends to get in the way. I’m going to stop shooting around it. Hey, it’s only film. I mean, pixels.

Thanks DL. Be careful of putting it smack in the middle, but it can certainly give one a sense of depth and looking into the scene. – Saxon

lawn care peachtree city November 16, 2011, 3:39 pm

Gorgeous photos! The foliage is incredible. Thanks so much for sharing!

And thank you for the kind words ! – Saxon

Greggo November 19, 2011, 11:30 pm

Saxon, you have certainly told a story. Fill the Frame! Enjoyed your touch and eye.

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