Flower gardens have moments of perfection – sometimes even weeks of it – but no garden is perfect throughout the growing season. What blooms in spring fades quickly by the end of May. What blooms in June is over in July. Gaps appear in summer borders and moments of perfection pass.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), addressed the transitory nature of garden perfection by having separate gardens for spring, for the transition from spring to summer, for the month of June, for July and August, and one for September. In addition, she had what the British call a “kitchen garden,” where she grew all the vegetables you can imagine.
In each of her flower gardens, she grew plants that bloomed together, were color-coordinated, and, of course, arranged according to height.
She owned 15 acres, 5 of them devoted to these gardens. The rest was wooded, and there she and her staff planted carpets of flowering bulbs, ferns and other delicacies.
In addition to money, she had other advantages: She was educated at her father’s knee in botany and other sciences. She was an art school graduate with expertise in color theory and architecture. She was part of the growing Arts and Crafts movement, a potter, a craftswoman, and a talented and famous garden writer. She never married or had children, so her devotion to gardening, writing, and crafts was without distraction.
Fortunately, she left some advice that’s useful to those of us without her talent or resources. Some of it is about specific tricks: For instance, she grew various flowers in pots, so that when a gap opened up in a summer border where one plant had finished flowering, she could plunk in a pot of about-to-bloom lilies to fill the gap.
Another was to plant annuals – trailing nasturtium for instance – to grow over a plant like a perennial baby’s breath so that when it finished blooming, it became a support structure for the nasturtiums. She also managed to get fragrant white sweet peas to climb the stalks of bloomed-out tall delphiniums.
In her many articles and books, she advocated for an artist’s sensibilities. Her goal, she wrote was “to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should be always training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate bad or careless combination of any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honor to be always striving for the best.”
“It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to rank as fine art... It is to be always watching, noting and doing, and putting oneself meanwhile into closest acquaintance and sympathy with the growing things.”
She acknowledges that this is a very high standard. “There have been many failures,” she writes, “but every now and then I am rewarded by a certain measure of success. Yet, as the critical faculty becomes keener, so does the standard of aim rise higher; and year by year the desired point seems always to elude attainment.”
It was at that point that I had to close the book for a while. Her admirable ambition began to seem like a recipe for endless discontent.
It might make more sense for the typical gardener – people with jobs, kids, a house to clean, dinner to cook, or other obligations and expenses – to settle for a garden that is not fine art, but perhaps just pretty good art.
What we all need is a garden that provides a pleasant pastime, a partnership with nature, and a congenial place to spend time with friends and family.
Still, in the same way, it’s fun to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery, it’s fun to fantasize about – and be inspired by – a gardener who won the lottery at birth.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com
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