Rob Proctor: Garden Magician
By Panayoti Kelaidis:
In the course of my rather lengthy career in regional horticulture, there have only been a few spokesmen for Horticulture in Colorado who have reached a wide audience. None of these can come close to Rob Proctor when it comes to ubiquity: on television, a long run as columnist for the Denver Post, articles in a vast range of magazines regionally and nationally, and as author of over a dozen beautifully illustrated books. He has lectured from coast to coast. Much of this is pretty obvious to every serious gardener in this region, and all of us owe Rob a debt of gratitude for his consistent and conspicuous promotion of our art of gardening.
As a longtime friend of Rob’s, I have had a chance to glimpse the phenomenon behind the curtain, as it were, and I can share some things that reveal facets of the man and the magician that aren’t so widely known. First and foremost, Rob is an artist – and not only of garden art. He has drawn, painted, and designed all manner of art since childhood. When I first met him he was in his “barn” phase, painting rural canvases with a Wyethian transparency, capturing the textures of wood and wind and wispy moodiness. He took a class in botanical illustration from Angela Overy and suddenly all that fantastic precision and passion for detail he’d attained with landscape was honed into botanical art of exquisite beauty. Vignettes of that period are sprinkled through his books as cameos and were shared with friends far and wide; I treasure half a dozen Rob Proctor botanical paintings on my walls.
Most importantly, his energy and enthusiasm inspired Angela to co-found Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Illustration with Rob in the early 1990’s. She and Rob taught most of the classes in the early years. He has never received the proper credit for his catalytic role in creating what may well be the most ambitious and far-flung program of its kind.
First and foremost, Rob is an artist – and not only of garden art.
Rob has never stopped painting, although nowadays he seems to specialize in winterscapes of the Great Plains. Nothing seems further removed from the flowery gardens that Rob displays in his books and on television than the stark horizons, the mellow pastels of melancholy prairie towns, cottonwoods, and tufted grass. The paintings show new depths and facets of our premier garden magician.
Art is what Rob Proctor is about, whether watercolor, designing with plants, or the dozens of decorative arts that he so often demonstrates in the television sessions. It was precisely Rob’s flair and passion for artistry that led to his selection as Director of Horticulture to Denver Botanic Gardens in the late 1990’s. In the course of the years he devoted to the Gardens, Rob had an enormous impact on every single garden there. I remember the pre-Proctorian DBG (and have pictures to prove it!); it was similar to Washington Park’s flowerbeds, with a preponderance of annuals throughout – lovely for a few summer months, but pretty grim the rest of the year.
Rob likes annuals well enough. He engaged every local landscape designer he knew–Lauren Springer Ogden, Tom Peace, Marcia Tatroe, and staff – to turn the annual beds into themed borders ranging from a “Drop Dead Red” border that blazed along the pondside, to an exquisite cutting garden that was perfected by Lainie Jackson. Most of the new gardens had a distinct botanical focus, like Plantasia or the Western Panoramas around the amphitheater (designed in-house by Dan Johnson). Or the Wildflower Treasures that Rob and I designed together, featuring enormous troughs, like Saxon sarcophagi, built by Mark Fusco, full of native wild flowers (designed by Gwen Moore). Annuals were used as fillers everywhere, especially in over 1000 containers stationed strategically throughout the gardens to create focal points and disguise unattractive corners. Pre-Proctor I doubt if there were more than a few dozen throughout the grounds.
The botanical focus and integrity of these new gardens was magnitudes greater than before. I don’t believe Rob’s role in transforming Denver Botanic Gardens from a rather mediocre provincial flower garden to the far more diverse and dazzling artistic display it is today has ever been properly acknowledged in print. Most of Rob’s innovations have become institutionalized, and the enormous effort and creative genius he expended on behalf of the Gardens laid the groundwork for the current extraordinary success. I, for one, will be forever indebted to him for what he did.
All of Rob’s talents combine into a culminating expression in the elegant home in Highlands that he and his partner David Macke have created over the last 30 years. David’s role as Rob’s creative partner isn’t always recognized. A geologist by training and practice, David grew up on a farm in Illinois and has the Midwestern work ethic and gardening skills honed from childhood. Many visitors to the Proctor-Macke garden marvel at how such a large garden space can be so meticulously maintained. Those famous interns certainly help, but Rob is no shirker in the garden and David is a tireless, very efficient army of one.
How to begin to describe that garden, which has evolved and keeps evolving… The large, historic, light-filled, orange brick house stands stolidly in the middle of a dozen or more garden rooms. The vast “ballroom” to the south forms the centerpiece and focal point. From the patio you gaze down a large allee of perennial border to a two-story folly, all created by Rob and David from the rather pedestrian space they purchased. The patio is filled with pots—I would not want to count them but I’d guess at least a hundred—brimming with bulbs and winter annuals from early spring that suddenly transform into extravaganzas of summer color with choice annuals and lilies.
The garden has been called “English Style” and I suppose Rob hearkens to the classic models of Gertrude Jekyll. But the substance, execution, and the plants that grow here are always selected for their sun and drought tolerance. This property, over half an acre, does not have a sprinkler system. Each corner is hand watered—deeply but infrequently. The plants throughout are often Mediterranean in origin: lots of Lamium, Phlomis, Salvia, Nepeta and no end of Thyme. The intricate parterre comprising the herb garden is symptomatic. There are lots of native plants throughout, from the predictable blue spruce (doesn’t everyone have one?), yellow columbine, and penstemons galore to the gracefully towering white cow parsnips. The garden is an anthology of the best plants combined in the most artistic ways.
Animal lovers, Rob and David graciously open their home and garden every year to benefit Denver’s Dumb Friends’ League. Thousands of regional gardeners look forward to these tours and the garden is large enough to accommodate the crowds comfortably. They have often been prevailed upon to host national conferences that meet in Denver, such as the Perennial Plant Association’s meeting last year.
A few of us old friends, who can manufacture excuses to drop in at other times of the year, can vouch for this garden being a year ’round wonder. The elegance of structure in the winter months offers much to see even in the dormant season. What must be Denver’s champion Kolkwitzia amabilis is a case in point: a dozen shaggy trunks rise to 20 feet, a perfect sculpture! Spring sees a plethora of naturalizing bulbs and early perennials in bright Giotto-like colors, while in late spring the colors tend more towards the rich Impressionist hues, deepening to Rembrandt by midsummer. Fall sees a mass of bright, brash colors that would take an El Greco to properly depict. I have brought garden luminaries to the Proctor-Macke garden over the decades, as well as interns and even a few tyros; it never ceases to amaze and delight.
Panayoti Kelaidis is Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens