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‘Garden Wonderland’: Leslie Bennett’s New Book Shares the Secrets to Designing a Magical Garden

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‘Garden Wonderland’: Leslie Bennett’s New Book Shares the Secrets to Designing a Magical Garden

March 28, 2024

Garden designer Leslie Bennett’s new book Garden Wonderland (out April 2, 2024) is full of delicious surprises. For one, it’s so much more than a book about edible landscape design, for which Bennett’s design-build firm Pine House Edible Gardens, is best known. Yes, there are plenty of fruit trees and raised veggie beds within, but the book includes other types of gardens as well. It’s broken into five types of wonderland: edible, floral, healing, gathering, and cultural.

The 18 client gardens, plus Bennett’s own backyard, that are featured in the book are gorgeous, immersive, and aspirational, but they also feel eminently approachable, like they could belong to your cool friend (not someone with a full-time gardener). Those people and their stories are also right there in the pages of the book: Bennett’s clients were all photographed in their gardens, which is something you don’t often see. The result is a volume that feels deeply human and captures the spirit of “wonder” that Bennett hopes we will experience in our gardens.

Leslie&#8\2\17;s own garden wonderland, in Oakland, CA.
Above: Leslie’s own garden wonderland, in Oakland, CA.

More than just a dreamy coffee table book, Garden Wonderland  is packed with practical how-to advice and takeaways for both novice and seasoned gardeners. We spoke to Bennett to find out how we can all weave more wonder into our backyards. 

Photography by Rachel Weill, from Garden Wonderland.

Focus on plants.

Fragrant English lavender, edible pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), Agave celsii, kalanchoe, and kangaroo paws fill this cottage garden. Their contrasting foliage and flowers provide year-round beauty. 
Above: Fragrant English lavender, edible pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), Agave celsii, kalanchoe, and kangaroo paws fill this cottage garden. Their contrasting foliage and flowers provide year-round beauty. 

To pay attention to plants in a garden may sound like obvious advice, but Bennett points out that many of today’s yards center around expensive hardscape elements or fancy furniture. “In contrast, a garden wonderland is a plant-based space where fairly minimal hardscape will do,” Bennett notes in her introduction. “By designing your garden using lots of lushly layered, interactive plants, you can create a place where you will be surrounded by plant and animal life and awaken all your senses. You may brush past a scented geranium and welcome its fragrance or savor the taste of luscious homegrown fruit.”

Create distinct seasonal moments.

&#8\2\16;North Shore’ and ‘Triple G’ sweet peas climb over an arched trellis for an ephemeral early summer bloom.
Above: ‘North Shore’ and ‘Triple G’ sweet peas climb over an arched trellis for an ephemeral early summer bloom.

The foundation of Pine House Edible Gardens designs is always a combination of evergreen and long-blooming plants, but Bennett says, “There’s also a small but important role for things that have a short bloom time—that just pop up and give you that feeling of, ‘Oh, it’s spring’ or ‘It’s fall.’” Whether that is a pot of tulips or a blueberry bush whose leaves turn scarlet in fall, Bennett says, “You need to have that moment of wonder, and it just takes one plant, and you get that little pop of seasonal color.” Try to find one thing for each season that is ephemeral to connect you to the seasons.

Grow something edible.

 The harvest from one of Pine House Edible Garden’s yards.
Above: The harvest from one of Pine House Edible Garden’s yards.

Bennett’s design business is all about creating edible landscapes, so it is no surprise that she thinks fruits, vegetables, and herbs are a key component of a wonder-filled garden. “Harvesting directly from your yard is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to remind you of your connection to nature,” says Bennett. “That moment when you walk in the garden, and you notice that something is ripe and you get to pick it and put it in your mouth. It’s truly a marvelous feeling.” Bennett would have you grow as many edible plants as you can, but if you don’t have any, start with a pot of herbs or a cherry tomato plant. 

Weave in something fragrant.

 Leslie sits beneath an arbor topped with angel&#8\2\17;s trumpets in her yard.
Above: Leslie sits beneath an arbor topped with angel’s trumpets in her yard.

Anyone who has had a smell transport them to another time and place knows the power of scent. Bennett suggests planting fragrant plants where you will be in contact with them: near patios and paths, and in her own yard Bennett has angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia) growing over the arbor that perfumes the evening air during al fresco dinners. Other highly-fragrant plants include: Scented geraniums (Pelargonium), Agastache, and mints, which all have fragrant foliage; and Daphnes, Jasmine, and Osmanthus fragrans, which have sweet-smelling flowers.  

Incorporate your memories.

An Ume plum tree, at left, reminds a client of his Japanese roots.
Above: An Ume plum tree, at left, reminds a client of his Japanese roots.

Bennett believes our gardens can be places to fortify our sense of belonging, especially when we plant things that are imbued with meaning. You can grow food that links you with your family stories or cultural heritage, like one of Bennett’s clients who planted an ume tree to use in the traditional Japanese recipes he grew up with. “This could mean planting medicinal lemongrass to use in a healing remedy passed to you by your mom, roses that remind you of your grandfather, palms that resemble those that grow in a place you visit every year, or a tree like the one in your childhood backyard,” Bennett says.

…and make new ones, too!

Caption: Leslie’s daughter Zeta helps plant Jamaican Hibiscus sabdariffa (also known as roselle or sorrel) in their home garden.
Above: Caption: Leslie’s daughter Zeta helps plant Jamaican Hibiscus sabdariffa (also known as roselle or sorrel) in their home garden.

Once you start to think about intentionally creating experiences of wonder, Bennett believes your garden will naturally create new stories with plants that support how you’ll belong moving forward. 

 Above: Garden Wonderland, by Leslie Bennett and Julie Chai, is published by Ten Speed Press.
Above: Garden Wonderland, by Leslie Bennett and Julie Chai, is published by Ten Speed Press.

For more on Leslie and her Pine House Edible Gardens, see:

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