One of Charlotte Moss’ favorite quotes is from the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, who once said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Nothing could be truer for Moss, the celebrated New York-based interior designer beloved for her sumptuously layered rooms.She’s a voracious reader who has penned nine books herself — most on interior design. Moss’ latest tome, Garden Inspirations (Rizzoli, April 2015, $50), features her own luxurious East Hampton gardens, Boxwood Terrace. The gardens took Moss, horticulturalist Lisa Stamm and architect Dale Booher 25 years to complete.
Moss shot most of the photographs for the book herself, along with many of the shots of the European gardens that inspired her own three-acre grounds. Like her interiors, the gardens are lavishly layered. Less about floral color, they rely on sculptural green forms, such as boxwoods and hornbeam, and structures such as rose towers and espalier — an ancient practice of pruning and tying branches of fruit trees to a frame or wall in formal patterns. Grand as they might seem, the gardens are still comfortable and welcoming. “If I had to describe my gardens,” she says, “they’re not so much about parterres and sweeping vistas as about intimate spaces, small rooms — gardens within gardens.”
An obsessive photographer, consummate traveler and able sketch artist, Moss’ passions play out on every page. Even the broad, elegant script that opens each chapter is her own handwriting —a detail I discovered after she signed my book. For those who are more bookworm than earthworm, Moss has included information on entertaining in the garden’s outdoor rooms and fascinating sections on stylish women whose passions for gardening have inspired her (including Ladybird Johnson, Empress Josephine, Nancy Lancaster and Beatrix Potter).
In May, Moss flew to Dallas to sign Garden Inspirations at Neiman Marcus Downtown amid plush displays of potted and cut flowers and greenery created by Junior at Garden Gate. (Moss also collaborated with Neiman Marcus and Architectural Digest on the store’s new spring windows.) I spent 45 minutes talking with her beforehand about two of her favorite subjects: writing and gardens. Here’s a bit from that conversation.
You’ve studied gardens across the world. What has inspired you?
Wherever I go, I scope out every garden within a 100-mile radius. Gardens offer so many things — a moment of solitude, a walk just absorbing the view and being in the midst of history. As much as I love the houses that sit on those properties, it’s the gardens that I’m drawn to. There are lessons to be learned in the gardens. Traveling and studying gardens satisfies the big explorer in me.
Which European garden inspired you most?
So many added to my point of view, but the one that had the greatest impact was the garden at Prieure Notre-Dame d’Orsan in Maisonnais, France. The master gardener there, Gilles Guillot, created the garden out of a total ruin. There were features I just loved and knew I could adapt easily. I brought him over to help me recreate some of the same things he had at Orsan, like the rondel-like windows into our hedging. He also created frames for the espalier pears, and benches and a gloriette woven from willow branches.
What did you learn while working on your garden?
More than anything, it was a change in attitude — to be more experimental and to not give a damn about what anybody else thinks your garden should be. People will tell you that you can’t grow this or that because of the climate or whatever. You have to be realistic about where you are, but sometimes you just have to believe. My mother had crepe myrtles in Virginia, and I wanted to plant them in my gardens. We are very near the ocean, and people told me I’d never get them to bloom. But I have four or five clusters of white ones, and it took about two years for them to bloom. People thought it was sheer madness to put windows in my hornbeams.
You started working on your gardens in 1989. Are they done?
Anyone who thinks their gardens are done is fooling himself. The garden is three acres — it can’t get any bigger. I can’t add to them; I just have to change things around. This year, the fence around the kitchen garden needed replacing, so we put in a brick wall instead. It was too hard for me to watch, though — we had to dig up espaliered fig and pear trees to do it. I had to leave town; it was too painful. The garden has become a very personal place. We have a huge issue with boxwood blight, and it killed several sculpted boxwoods. That was a tough one. Reality and practicality sets in at that point, all those boring words. As a result, we added more hornbeams. But I love the shapes of the hornbeams, and no one can sculpt them better than the French.
Had you always wanted to write about your gardens?
Gardens weren’t my expertise, so I never thought about writing a book until recently. As in every book I write, I’m on a mission to make good design more accessible to more people. To take the fear factor out. When you get to be my age, people think you do things at a certain level. They can’t believe that I actually ride my bike around the roads and pick wildflowers, or that I actually use a spade and dig in the garden. That’s one reason I wanted to include Lady Bird Johnson in the book. She had a very democratic approach through the highway beautification act, making the roadsides more beautiful and visible to more people.
I did a lot of research and was told that tan roses wouldn’t work in my area. But I have a couple of them now, and they are wonderful. They’re a sort of fleshy-pinky color, and the petals turn beige when they fade. French carnations turn that color. Also, there’s a tan dahlia called Cafe au Lait that is fabulous. That tan color goes with all kind of flowers — lavender, periwinkle and greens.
Three things every garden must have.
It must have your personal stamp, whatever that is. It should be a place that’s hospitable and welcoming with a bench or chair. For me, fragrance is important. Certain green trees even smell divine — pinch the leaves, and it’s magic. I love the smell of lilacs and herbs. I love green envy zinnias, Russian sage and big, blowsy white lavender.
You photographed almost all the images in your book …
It’s impossible to have a photographer in residence, and gardens have to be shot first thing in the morning or late afternoon, and something’s always popping up that will make a good shot. I photograph everything. Garden photography is easier than interiors, which often requires lighting. When the sun is at the right point in the sky, there are so many times I’ll be with my husband, and I’ll say, “I’ve gotta go!” And I rush off to take a picture. I carry a Canon Powershot G12 everywhere. It’s small with a good zoom. On long trips, I’ll carry a Mark II, which has multiple lenses. My husband usually gets stuck carrying the extra bag. I got a photographer’s vest when we were in Egypt. It had so many pockets that I didn’t have to carry an extra bag. But it was really hot.
Writing and reading are great loves of yours.
Peter Rabbit doing naughty things in the garden was my first experience with gardens and with writing. When I got older, I read Beatrix Potter’s biography. She created playmates out of her head. Her writing is the kind of writing I aspire to. And Edith Wharton, of course. She wrote about driving in the car with Henry James and exploring gardens. I dabble in writing — I’m special projects editor at House Beautiful, and I write for T magazine online. Book number 10 is just a seed right now, and I haven’t decided what it will be about yet. Writing keeps your brain matter fresh. But, I’ve always wanted to write fiction. If I wrote a novel, it would revolve around my world — houses, gardens, the things I know. I love Trollop with his long-running sentences and descriptions. I read poetry. I spend a lot of time on airplanes, reading: May the New Yorker rock on forever. My downtime is just sitting in the garden, reading.