When I peruse my bookshelf, I often gravitate toward the same old cluster of gardening books. They’re by the most prominent British horticulturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The designers who built the most spectacular estates in England. They experimented with the concepts of outdoor rooms, mixed borders, and designing with focal points or natural features. While classic European gardens featured the formality of hedges and geometric patterns, these British visionaries broke away from that formality. They created a new, inventive, naturalistic art.
The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll
Gertrude Jekyll was the original garden designer. Born in 1843, she was a student of Arts and Crafts artist William Morris. Influenced by the integration of various crafts and art (tapestry, painting, woodwork, etc.), Jekyll became one of the first gardeners to consider color palette, sculpture, architecture and natural cues in her designs. She created the garden of her home Munstead Wood as well as many commissioned designs. She also published books and articles. But really she is most remembered for seeing gardening as an artistic endeavor. This book discusses her philosophy of practicality while laying out her vision in illustrations of design plans and photos. I love this book.
Gardening at Sissinghurst
Perhaps, the most famous English garden is at Sissinghurst Castle. Vita Sackville-West bought a ramshackle estate owned by her ancestors and renovated it in the 1930s. She established a sweeping, multi-faceted property. She and her husband Harold Nicolson installed a lake, a tower, countless “rooms,” and borders. Each room focused on one theme or element.
For example, can you imagine planting a giant border layered only with purple, blue, violet, and indigo plants? They did. This book outlines the history of Sissinghurst and its spaces. There’s the Cottage Garden, The Nuttery, The Lime Walk, the Herb Garden, and on and on. But it not only talks about the ideas behind these spaces but the plants currently in it, with illustrated plans. This book is “Downtown Abbey” meets gardening. Dreamy.
Rosemary Verey created the gardens at her home, Barnsley House, in the 1950s, which won awards for her expertise in plant combinations and year-round structure and color. In Good Planting, Verey advises on how to use texture and shape to create lovely spaces whose personality changes throughout the seasons in pleasing ways. I learned a lot about mixing deciduous and evergreen plants together from this book, a ton about color. There’s a great discussion of layering and contrast too. This is a wonderful practical guide by one of England’s 20th Century treasures.
Beth Chatto’s Green Tapestry
Beth Chatto may be my personal favorite. I think so much of her. She teaches readers about the nitty gritty of gardening. How to figure out your soil conditions. What to plant in a damp area. How to space plants. She’s maybe most famously known for the concept of “right plant, right place.” The concept says if you learn a plant’s natural habitat, then recreate those conditions in your garden, the plant will thrive. It won’t suffer disease or weak growth. This approach was an outgrowth of her property being located in a drier area of England. That challenged her to grow plants in Mediterranean conditions as well as shady groves and wet areas. Still alive in her 90s, Beth Chatto is a gift to the United Kingdom and the world. My dream is to visit the Beth Chatto Gardens.
Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure
The home and property of Great Dixter had been purchased by Nathaniel Lloyd in the early 1900s. But it was his son Christopher Lloyd who turned the estate into a gardening showcase in the mid-20th Century. He and gardener Fergus Garrett wrote this book in the early 2000s. It focused on how to create a garden that had year-round interest. They discuss in detail which plants to plant for a spring rise in excitement, then a summer spectacular display, and a blast of fall interest. They also discuss plants that offer ongoing color and how to plan for blank spaces. Hint: seasonal annuals regularly fill in for pops of personality. It’s a great guide as Lloyd says, “to keep the show going” in your garden.