Planting the Plantsman’s Garden

An area planted with stachys, lavender, valerian and furcraeas by the pool in the author’s garden. Author’s photographs.

An area planted with stachys, lavender, valerian and furcraeas by the pool in the author’s garden. Author’s photographs.

It is in such a border as this that we attain the utmost variety, unceasingly beautiful, every yard different, every week varying, holding on its surface at least three times the value of plant life and successional plant beauty of any ordinary garden.

Frank Miles, quoted in William Robinson’s
English Flower Garden

By all rights, this winter should be noted as a most significant centennial for all serious gardeners, since it was in November 1883 that William Robinson’s The English Flower Garden was published. This event was important not only for the English, but for gardeners everywhere who enjoy and want to grow a wide range of plants.

It is difficult to pinpoint revolutions in taste. Already, by 1883, Great Britain had seen a tremendous influx of plants from all over the world, and there were many gardens that were also sizeable collections. However, Robinson’s great work was at once a strongly worded manifesto and an enthusiastic spelling out of the possibilities of the plantsman’s garden. It describes in considerable detail almost everything we would need to know to plant at least one kind of informal and graceful garden in which a diversity of plants could be made to lie down in harmony.

Robinson’s title is misleading; he covers not only flowers but every conceivable aspect of the gardener’s art: hedges, trees, evergreen shrubs, even garden structures, rock gardens, and ponds. So complete is this remarkable book that the works of virtually all subsequent garden authors, from Gertrude Jekyll to Frances Perry and Graham Stuart Thomas, can be thought of as so many marginal notes to it. Thirty-six years before the appearance of Farrer’s English Rock Garden, Robinson was urging a more naturalistic laying of rock and deep and gritty drainage for a truly successful alpine garden. Here, twenty-nine years before Colour Schemes for the Garden, were many of the ideas for perennial borders that Miss Jekyll carried out and expanded. Most astonishing, perhaps, are Robinson’s lists of plants for various purposes. A hundred years later I am hard put to think of a vine, a fragrant plant, or a good perennial that he did not mention at least by genus.

Robinson and Jekyll both hated formality and were fond of describing their plantings as “natural” or as similar to “painting pictures.” I don’t think either author was aware how odd their choice of words was. Most often, the plant combinations they mentioned were unlike anything found in nature; even as “pictures,” there is nothing on earth they could be said to represent. By a curious inversion, Robinson makes the extraordinary claim that if English gardens were as well planted as he would like them to be, artists would prefer them to nature as subject matter.

The idea of nature is obviously large and many-faceted. It has been variously defined, and at different times differing choices among its many faces have been emphasized. Most often words like “natural” are the rallying cries of those in revolt against what they see as the excesses of artifice and the stilted fashions that threaten to gain a stranglehold on the morals or tastes of a civilization. We can, therefore, best discover what these authors meant not by asking for definitions, but by examining what they were rebelling against and how they proposed to remedy it.

Victorian Artifice

In mid-Victorian times, before Robinson’s influence began to be felt and after the late eighteenth century fashion of landscape gardening, there was a long period of return to formality. Parterres, hedges, fountains, bedding-out schemes, long, straight avenues, and abundant terracing were the order of the day. Judging from all the descriptions, it was deplorable, lacking as it did the grandeur of French formal gardens and the grace and intricacy of their Italian counterparts. There were statues, but they were awful statues; fountains, but they were ugly; pergolas and gazebos, but they were ungainly. In the growing prosperity of the British Empire, most of these things were bought by the newly prosperous to impress rather than to charm. Robinson’s descriptions of all this are exasperated; he hated it so. This is, in a way, unfortunate, because it made him an uneven and crotchety writer. To discover his remarkable world, we must fight again a battle that has long since been won, and it is difficult to discern the peaceful beauty he expounded through the turmoil and dust of his struggle.

Robinson particularly hated excess terraces, which he compares to railway embankments and to fortifications “made by Uncle Toby and an army of Corporal Tims.” He writes:

The landscape gardener, too often led by custom, falls in with the notion that every house, no matter what its position, should be fortified by terraces and he busies himself forming them even on level ground, and large sums are spent on fountains, vases, statues, ballustrades, useless walls, and stucco work out of place.

The plantings are, if anything, worse:

On top of ail this formality of design of our day were grafted the most formal and inartistic ways of arranging flowers that ever came into the head of man… Bedding out, or marshalling the flowers in stiff lines and geometrical patterns, is entirely a thing of our precious time and ‘carpet’ gardening is simply a further remove in ugliness.

Much of this folly, Robinson says — and this I think is still true today — comes from giving architects too much power and from the “too facile labors of the drawing board artist.” It would be difficult to exaggerate the depth of his feelings on this score:

Any pupil in an architect’s office will get out a drawing for the kind of garden we see everywhere… It is the difference between life and death we have to think of, and never to the end of time shall we get the garden beautiful formed or planted save by men who know something of the earth and its flowers, shrubs, and trees.

In Robinson’s mind, the natural was a clear and beckoning goal that rose above all considerations of style, a word he hated and usually put in quotes. Criticizing a garden writer who talks about “style,” he says:

What is the result to anybody who looks from words to things? That there are two styles; the one straitlaced, mechanical, with much wall and stone, with fountains and sculpture; the other the natural, which, once free of the house, accepts the ground lines of the earth herself as the best and gets plant beauty from the flowers and trees arranged in picturesque ways.

And there we have it; the common conceit that one has risen above all fashion and all history into the light of the truth.

The natural and the picturesque are not the geometrical, the architectural, and the formal. What, then, are they? Robinson’s efforts at definition are vague, but we can infer much from his descriptions of his favorite garden projects, his flower borders, shady walks, rock arrangements, and bog gardens; from his notes on the placement of trees and shrubs; and from his ideas of light and shade and the circulation of air in the garden.

Brooms and rock roses cover a bank with achilleas, pinks and other herbaceous plants at their feet in the author’s garden at Western Hills Nursery.

Brooms and rock roses cover a bank with achilleas, pinks and other herbaceous plants at their feet in the author’s garden at Western Hills Nursery.

The Robinson Ideal

Central to his thinking is the use of an abundance of plants; a feature of nature is said to be variety, and “the question is, how the garden lover is to enjoy as many of these treasures as his conditions allow of.” Apart from the woods where there is natural leaf mould, there is no bare ground, and in all the descriptions there is a feel­ing of luxuriance, sometimes even a riot of foliage, flowers, and plant forms.

Robinson quotes with approval the artist and gardener, Frank Miles, who writes:

Well, supposing the back of the border filled with delphiniums, phloxes and roses, pegged down, and other summer and autumn blooming plants… I should carpet the ground at the back with spring blooming flowers, so that when the roses are bare and the delphiniums and phloxes have not pushed above ground, the border should even then be a blaze of beauty. Crocuses, snowdrops, aconites and primroses are quite enough for that purpose. The whole space under the roses I should cover with the common wood anemone and the golden wood anemone, and early cyclamens and the earliest dwarf daffodils. And among the roses and paeonies and other medium-sized shrubs I would put all the taller lilies, such as require continual shade on their roots; and such as pardalinum and the Californian lilies generally, the Japanese, Chinese and finer American lilies. Now we come to the front of the border, and here I would have combinations, such as the great St. Bruno’s lily and the delicate hybrid columbines, primroses planted over hardy gladioli… carnations and daffodils planted so that the carnations form a blaze of blue-green for the delicate creams and oranges of the daffodils….

And so on and on for many more pages.

The picture gradually unfolds: densely planted borders, vines on pergolas and walls (and sometimes on trees and shrubs as well), rock and dry wall gardens chock full of plants that thrive there, ponds edged with reeds, water irises, cannas, and much more. As we walk into the woods, the paths are bordered at first with closely planted sun-loving plants, then those that like the shelter and frost protection of dappled shade, and finally to the genuine shade lovers. There are even some tropical plants bedded out — bananas, tender palms, and philodendrons.

Any feeling of congestion is relieved by broad, rolling lawns, and all is contrived to fit into its setting with as little alteration of grade as possible. Above all, there is geometry only near the house.

We have, in short, what the world now knows as the English garden. In England, there has been no real revolution in taste since the appearance of The English Flower Garden. Writers such as Christopher Lloyd, Margery Fish, and Beth Chatto have laid more emphasis on selectivity, refinement, and unity of effect, but they all stress variety in planting — though none would urge, as Robinson did, that the gardener plant “as many of these treasures as his conditions allow of.”

Alas, we cannot say that William Robinson superseded all styles and found his way to the ultimate truth of the natural mode. He is, we must say it, very fin de siecle, or late Victorian in his opulence. Natural would be a strange term to apply to the garden feature for which he and Gertrude Jekyll are most famous: the long, straight, double flower border backed on both sides with hedges. Or to what Robinson approvingly called “one of the brightest colored beds I have ever seen” consisting of Sedum acre ‘Elegans’, creamy white; Sedum glaucum, gray; Herniaria glabra, green; Aptenia cordifolia ‘Variegatum’ (Mesembryanthemum cordifolium), light yellow; bright orange and scarlet alternantheras; the central plants being Grevillea robusta and variegated abutilons. Clearly, for all his protestations, Robinson was a product of his time.

I am sometimes appalled by Robinson, but I far more often agree with him and the feeling of communion and rapport runs deep. I agree that plantings should be graceful, well-rounded, and informal, and that they should charm rather than impress. I agree that plans on paper drawn up in offices do not make gardens. And I too like to use a wide variety of plants, although perhaps not with quite the same abandon. Even before I read The English Flower Garden, Robinson’s world in many ways was mine as well. In our changed circumstances, I hope I have kept something of his spirit if little of his letter in the following observations and suggestions of my own for creating effective plantings.

First, however, I should like briefly to compare the “natural” plantings of Robinson, Jekyll, and their disciples with those other “natural” plantings of the great landscape gardeners a hundred years previously. On the one hand we have a crowded canvas bright with colored foliage and flowers; on the other there is quiet, uneventful serenity. But that is not all; there is also an extreme difference in scale. Gertrude Jekyll spent her life earnestly tending a ten-acre plot. “Capability” Brown had hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres at his disposal, and, once planted, they were never to be dug again.

The differences are there for all to see at Stourhead, in Wiltshire, where the followers of Robinson and Jekyll have planted colored foliage trees and flowering shrubs in a sparse and serene eighteenth century landscape. There are many, even today, who find these additions excrescences that should be removed. To Brown, the “natural” was a landscape stretching as far as the eye could see, similar to one that might be found in some privileged place undisturbed by man. To Jekyll and Robinson it was bits and pieces of nature — the edge of a pond, the crowded verge of a copse, or a riot of wildflowers — to be imported, laboriously cultivated, and used to grace a well-trodden path. There are many other differences, of course. We also have to consider such factors as the great plant introductions into England in the nineteenth century, the late eighteenth century taste for classical simplicity, and the Victorian taste for opulence. Nevertheless, it is plain that nature is an alluring but varied guide, and now, a hundred years later still, we shall try again to capture the natural, and on plots that have become even smaller.

Martagon lilies, variegated grass and lavenders at Knightshayes Court, Devonshire, England.

Martagon lilies, variegated grass and lavenders at Knightshayes Court, Devonshire, England.

Mixed Plantings

Perhaps the most useful planting for small gardens and one that can be extraordinarily handsome almost anywhere is a border that mixes, more or less deliberately, the basic categories of plants — basic, that is, in the gardening sense. Perennials, shrubs, bulbs, and grasses can be combined in ways reminiscent of memorable scenes in nature and capable of providing interest the year round. I remember in Greece in late spring, on the island of Evia, a mixture that could well be copied just as it was. In the middle ground were euphorbias, lavenders, and campanulas (some of which were twining through the lavenders). These were backed by brooms and rock roses with low meadow annuals and bulbs — mostly anemones — in the foreground. For a garden we might want to extend the flowering season by adding later-flowering bulbs — Allium christophii (A. albopilosum) and A. pulchellum, perhaps — and some summer- and fall-flowering low perennials — origanums undoubtedly, and helichrysums.

Along a path at Knightshayes Court in the west of England there is a sizeable drift of white martagon lilies with, in the foreground, a silvery and blue grass interplanted with dwarf lavenders. This planting has the merit of great simplicity. The totality was a memorable picture (as Gertrude Jekyll would say), but it also was effective in displaying the individual beauty of each of these plants.

One obvious advantage of the mixed border is that it is the best possible home for bulbs, which are often difficult to place in the perennial border and by themselves leave bare ground for considerable periods. In another English garden Allium rosenbachianum was in flower among Stachys macrantha, with its deep rose panicles, both in front of a shell-pink dwarf rose. Without detracting from the whole effect, it is possible in such a planting to leave bits of bare ground for bulbs such as nerines, after carefully calculating whether the neighbors on all sides will be compatible at flowering time.

Innumerable plants are available for the mixed border, but it is important to keep them all more or less within the same general scale (a useful cue one can take from nature). By scale I do not mean only size; it is not always a thing you can measure, but it is something we can generally agree on. A mullein, for example, may shoot skyward out of a bed of thistles by the roadside. The mullein has larger leaves, greater height, and a thicker stem than the thistle, but both are obviously lush, lowland plants, and neither looks out of scale. If, on the other hand, we make the mistake of planting a diminutive dianthus (which belongs in the alpine garden) with artemisias and lavenders a foot or more high, the dianthus not only will eventually be overrun, it will look out of place from the start. I have found that a good way to judge scale is to allow one or preferably two of the plants I intend to use to stand as a measure against which I judge the others — Origanum hybridum and Salvia officinalis, for example, or Alchemilla vulgaris and Geranium macrorrhizum.

There are many shrubs that can be used with plants of the stature of a medium-sized dianthus for pathside plantings. Among my favorites are the elegant Arctostaphylos nummularia ‘Anchor Bay’, many hebes of the size of Hebe menziesii, and Rhododendron racemosum, one of the best small rhododendrons for general planting in the garden. Many barberries are possibilities, including Berberis calliantha, with its graceful hanging flowers and the dwarf red-leaved barberry, B. thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea’. Dwarf brooms are not only showy in flower but offer a variety of picturesque evergreen forms for year-round effect. And most of the well-known deciduous flowering shrubs have dwarf species or forms — Syringa patula (S. palibiniana), a dwarf Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesi’, or Philadelphus ‘Nuage Rose’, to name a few.

Candidates for the herbaceous parts of our pathside can often be found among those plants that are beautiful, but too large or too rampant for the rock garden, which should be reserved for diminutive gems from the high mountains. Such plants are Omphalodes cappadocica, Gypsophila repens ‘Rosea’, Lithodora diffusa ‘Grace Ward’ (Lithospermum diffusum), Helichrysum ‘Moe’s Gold’ (which blooms in October), and Diascia cordata.

Grasses somewhat on the same scale are the Japanese blood grass lmperata cylindrica, the bulbous grass, Arrhenatherum elatius ‘Variegatum’, and Hakonechloa macra ‘Albo aurea’. There are also many colorful sedges, particularly from the New Zealand Alps. All of these plants are ideal in size for the average garden path, for mixed plantings in front of larger shrubs, in front of small trees on the sunny side, or for islands in lawns that do not obtrude far above the grass.

One way to start thinking about such a planting is to begin with two plants that are extraordinarily handsome together — Trachelium caeruleum and the pink stokesia, for example — and gradually add plants that will further enhance the effect, such as Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’, the beautiful deep red grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Cupreum’, Picea glauca ‘Montgomery’, and Allium pulchellum. Another way is to choose a geographical theme, a mixed planting of Mediterraneans, for example, or of California natives.

The mixed planting is ideal for displaying plant collections, provided the plants are of a size to be accommodated. A collection of dwarf grasses or sempervivums, for example, can be planted along a curving path together with bulbs, small perennials, and alpines of the right size in a way that gives a natural touch without detracting from the enthusiast’s interests in the plants themselves.

So far I have been thinking of more or less ordinary pathside plantings, since I agree with Robinson and Jekyll that all spaces in the garden should be utilized. When I see gardens that are primarily roses, perhaps, or rhododendrons, and the paths are either not planted or given over to a dull groundcover, I always wonder at the lost opportunities. It is true that many people see only plants and not gardens, but I have always considered this a curable deficiency.

Many variants of the mixed planting format are possible — those of larger or smaller scale than the above, for example, depending upon the plants to be used and whether delicacy or boldness is the aim. We shall return in future issues to the mixed format from time to time; but first we shall consider perennials and their more or less traditional home in the herbaceous border and then survey the possibilities for planting shrubs and trees.