Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) - my garden inspiration
I came to know Gertrude Jekyll through my love of the cottage garden style. There is a cross-stitch of 'Miss Hathaway's Garden' hanging in my great room directly in my line of sight so that I enjoy it every day, and this is what I want my gardens to be: a riot of color, seemingly unmanaged, but carefully planned. Last year when there was discussion about starting a new Cottage Gardening forum here at Dave's Garden, it came at exactly the right time for me. A plan was in motion for a new 70-foot cottage garden across the back of our lot, just at the top of a slope that leads to a small man-made lake.
So many times on the new forum Miss Jekyll's name was mentioned. It was new to me, so I had to find out more about her. I found that she studied painting as a young girl and completed quite a number of commissions before progressive myopia forced her to give it up. She was also a talented craftswoman who did embroidery, carving and metalwork. Her family connections allowed her to travel abroad and meet many interesting plantsmen who were willing to share their knowledge with her. Gertrude said herself that she was interested in plants from a very early age. In her 50s she turned to garden design seriously, often in partnership with a younger architect, Edwin Lutyens. She even bred some new plants herself.
Nothing inspires a gardener like an excuse to buy a new gardening book! Jekyll was a prolific writer, having penned more than a dozen garden design books in her lifetime. Add to that the fact that most of her books are out of print and I had a tough choice to make. 'Gertrude Jekyll: The Making of a Garden' is the one I settled on first. It is an anthology of her writings compiled and edited by Cherry Lewis. My thought was that I might get a cross-section of her ideas on many subjects and, indeed, that was true. I was lucky enough to find a used hardcover in excellent condition, dustjacket intact.
"...how many gardens on sloping ground are disfigured by profitless and quite indefensible steep banks of mown grass! Hardly anything can be so undesirable in a garden." This is my favorite quote from the book. How can any avid gardener disagree? In my opinion, grass is only good for paths and I am not too sure about that. The book covers many topics: gardening through all seasons, companion plantings, fragrances, rock gardens, pond gardens, wooded gardens, heath gardens, kitchen gardens, many individual plants and their characteristics. There are even directions for making a doll from a snapdragon seed pod. Included are black and white photographs and some of Jekyll's small drawings. The book is supplemented with lovely watercolors from other artists. An inexperienced gardener might be put off by the use of Latin names for plants, but it is worth it to look them up as you read.
As I learned more about Gertrude Jekyll, I began to understand that her use of color in garden design, owing to her trained artist's eye, was probably the most important element to me. 'Gertrude Jekyll's Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden' was my next acquisition. Having some limited experience in watercolor painting myself, studied mainly so that I could attempt to capture the beauty of the flowers in my garden, I have decided that color is what draws me to gardening. This book has a preface by Richard Bisgrove, who is one of the foremost authorities on Jekyll.
Throughout the book there are original planting plans, some never before published, reinterpreted in color. You will want to reproduce them in your own garden as much as I do. Again, as in the anthology, Miss Jekyll steps you through the seasons, including planning for winter color. No gardener wants a gorgeous spring display at the expense of a gray and brown August. Mixed color borders, monochromatic gardens and even discussion of wood and shrubbery are all covered. There is also combining plants in pots for an effective display. Lest we forget, she follows up with a chapter on form.
Now entirely devoted to Miss Jekyll, I began looking for 'Gardens for Small Country Houses' to no avail. My home, on a ¾-acre lot, is located at the edge of suburbia within a mile of farms; properties outside our subdivision keep chickens and horses, so I thought it would be perfect. As it turns out, 'Arts and Crafts Gardens' is a newer edition of the same book. (It was re-titled because complementary color photographs and contemporary paintings were added to this edition; it is the volume I bought.) It was written in collaboration with English architect Lawrence Weaver.
I have always been an admirer of the Arts and Crafts movement. Having grown up half a block from the Frank Lloyd Wright 'Darwin Martin House', I was aware of Arts and Crafts at an early age. Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft Campus is 20 minutes away and Stickley Furniture is made nearby. (Click on any of the underlined links to learn more.) I try to trick my ranch-style house into thinking it is Arts and Crafts by filling it with Mission-style furniture. As I started reading I quickly became aware that Miss Jekyll's idea of a 'small country house' and mine were pretty far apart. The smallest lot described is a half-acre, but they quickly grow to 15 acres and beyond. However, the book is still a treasure to me. The first few chapters describe individual gardens, their design (with illustration) and the inherent problems and solutions. Next are sections about design problems and how to deal with them, for example, the use of dry-laid stone walls for terracing steep slopes. Formal water gardens are addressed, and, even if you are not interested in owning one, the illustrations are wonderful. Following are chapters on hardscape and adornments; gates, pergolas, statuary, sundials and more. The final chapter, on rock gardens, was contributed by Raymond E. Negus.
I also own two other anthologies of Gertrude Jekyll's work, 'The Gardening Companion' and 'Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening'. Although they are both fine books, I prefer the 'Gertrude Jekyll: The Making of a Garden' because of the large number of photographs and illustrations. As you can imagine, there is some repetition from one anthology to the next.
I wish I could say that my gardens resemble those in Gertrude Jekyll's books. Maybe they will someday--at least I have a goal to aim for. Even if you are not interested in building your own garden in this style, there is much to learn from these books about combining and placing plants in the garden.
 The childhood home of Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare, in Shottery, Warwickshire, England. 'Miss Hathaway's Garden,' original painting by Marty Bell adapted to cross-stitch by Mildred Hinnant Hedgepath, published by Pegasus Originals, Inc., handwork by the author
 Gertrude Jekyll, The Making of a Garden: Gertrude Jekyll; compiled by Cherry Lewis (2nd Edition, Antique Collectors' Club, Ltd., 1985), p. 44
 Richard Bisgrove is a garden designer and the author of the best-seller, The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Frances Lincoln Limited)'Mr. Lincoln' Rose, original watercolor, copyright Janice Recchio, all rights reserved.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 22, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
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