Thomas Church

Dean of Western Landscape Architects

 April 27, 1902
Today is the birthday of the renowned and innovative 20th-Century landscape architect Thomas Church.

Known as the “Dean of Western Landscape Architects” and the “Father of the California Garden,” Thomas - or Tommy as he was known to his clients and friends - is remembered for personalized landscape design. His 1955 book aptly titled Gardens are for People drew on Tommy’s belief that gardens are personal and needed to meet his clients' needs. Tommy wrote,

“We're all different - and our gardens and what we expect our land to do for us will vary as much as our demands and our personalities. No one can design intelligently for you unless he knows what you need, what you want,  and what you are like.”

Tommy also wrote,

“The only limit to your garden is at the boundaries of your imagination.”

A pioneer of Modernism in the garden, Tommy’s approach to design came to be known as the “California Style.” Tommy’s California Style included elements that seem pretty standard today: raised beds, low-maintenance, lots of groundcovers, timber decking, kidney-shaped pools, places to sit, clean lines, and asymmetry. Tommy once wrote,

“Style is a matter of taste. Design is a matter of principles.”

Tommy’s portfolio was comprised of over 2,000 private gardens, but he did some work for Berkely and Stanford and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where Tommy famously said,

“Gentle be the hand that lays upon the land.”

In addition to his private and university work, Tommy designed the gardens for Sunset Magazine after the headquarters moved to Menlo Park in 1952.
Tommy designed the Sunset Garden to encircle an acre of lawn. The trees and plants represent the 17-State circulation area of Sunset Magazine and are grown in four distinct gardens. For instance, there was a dry Arizona desert garden and a wet garden representing the Northwest.

Today at Sunset, the redwood trees that were planted from five-gallon cans are now 100 feet tall. In all, there are over 300 varieties of trees, shrubs, and perennials in the Sunset gardens. The annual flower beds are replanted three times a year.
Now two aspects of gardening - the amount of expertise the owner had and the amount of free time available by the owner - were both taken into account by Thomas Church. His obituary said,

“[Tommy] thought it preposterous to create a garden with exotic fragile plants that need tending for busy people who just like to relax in a garden. He wanted these people to have a tranquil place they could use and enjoy without its upkeep being an albatross around their necks Thus because each garden came from his understanding of its owners -  none of them look the same though they have common elements.”

Thomas Church wrote,

“When your garden is finished I hope it will be more beautiful than you anticipated, require less care than you expected, and have cost only a little more than you had planned.”

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Thomas Church
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