Looking at the squat shrub, it’s tough to believe that anyone is overly interested in it. “If you saw it in a gas station parking lot, you wouldn’t look at it twice,” concedes Donald Pell. “But in October, this thing turns an orange gold that’s second to none. It has a luminescence that our gardeners will stop and photograph.”
That’s true of many species the landscape artist has on his 14-acre Chester County farm. Here, what looks innocuous, common and even accidental is, in fact, part of the plant palette from which Pell creates a living painting filled with color and texture. A hosta isn’t just a hosta—it’s an Abiqua Drinking Gourd hosta with rippled leaves that gather and rise into a bucket shape. The salvia is a variety known as Russian sage. “It’s from the mountains of Afghanistan,” Pell says.
This is New American gardening, a style adjacent to, but different from, the native plant movement. Pell doesn’t limit himself to plants that are indigenous to Pennsylvania or even the United States. Instead, he uses flowers and greenery from the Balkans, Holland and other parts of the world, creating a horticultural melting pot.
Instead of being purely ornamental, Pell’s spaces are “immersive experiences” created by working with herbaceous plants in mass. If it looks similar to the meadows of the Brandywine Valley, it’s probably because Pell did part of his training at Swarthmore College’s Scott Arboretum. He’s taught classes at Longwood Gardens, held talks at Brandywine Conservancy and worked with clients throughout the region and the world. Pell has won awards from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, the Perennial Plant Association and Houzz. One of his gardens was a finalist in HGTV’s 2021 Outdoor Awards.
But this year was the first time Pell participated in the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show. Held in June and moved outdoors for the first time in its 192-year history, the show offered several logistical and horticultural challenges for landscape designers. “We can’t control the environment at all,” he says. “It’s natural and wild, as it should be.”
Whereas perfectly manicured lawns and orchestrated flower beds are signs of prestige for many homeowners, Pell finds them unnatural and unoriginal. He likens his landscapes to Impressionist paintings. “Our clients tend to be daring people,” says Pell. “They recognize this as an art form. They accept that it’s not going to be perfect. But there is no perfect.”
Landscaping can cost a pretty penny, so it’s not surprising that people want to invest in plants that are reliable. Client education is a big part of Karen Meadows’ job as Pell’s director of marketing. “When people first see our work, they think it’s just wildflowers or that it looks thrown together,” she says. “When you start to understand it, you see that there’s an incredible amount of thought and expertise that goes into it.”
Pell is a self-taught horticulturalist. “I barely graduated from high school,” he says. “Anything I learned I learned by doing.”
He started doing serious landscape work at Peter Zimmerman Architects in Berwyn. One of Zimmerman’s architects thought Pell had a good eye and sent him to Swarthmore College’s Perennial Plant Conference. Pell discovered the work of Wolfgang Oehme, the revolutionary landscaper who created the freeform style that became known as New American gardening. He loved the connection between heavy, herbaceous plantings that weren’t tied to seasons—or chemicals, mulch or irrigation systems.
It’s the style Pell brings to the Philadelphia Flower Show. “It was a huge experience for our company,” says Angela Webb, Pell’s chief administrative officer.
Webb adds that they are booked solid with clients—and there are shortages of both labor and plants. So how will they handle the influx of new clients post flower show? “We’re experimenting with solutions,” says Webb.