Mirabel Osler – A Gentle Plea for Chaos

(photos by Jerry Harpur & Michael Osler)

When, in 1989, Mirabel Osler wrote her book A Gentle Plea for Chaos: The Enchantment of Gardening, she and her husband Michael had been planting their Shropshire garden, and gardening at all, for less than a decade. In it, she describes her assent up the learning curve of gardening, remembering her mistakes, follies and triumphs that line the path of all learning gardeners, which is to say, all gardeners. She holds strong opinions and expresses them freely, sparing no sacred cows, yet acknowledges the individuality of gardens and gardeners, indeed celebrates it. As usual with well known garden writers there are things to be learned in this book and visions waiting to be formed in the minds of readers.

Excerpted here is a short, contiguous piece that I think illustrates her gardening philosophy.

Jim Thorleifson

A Gentle Plea for Chaos

Mirabel Osler

Simon and Shuster, 1989

Michael and I do none of the things that gardeners do. We don’t put cuttings into pots or seeds into trays; we do no propagating, potting-on or thinning. Our conservatory is for human beings primarily, plants are secondary. So when we had a busload of gardening society enthusiasts to visit us on a summer’s evening, our garden was, for them, a dead loss. Their disappointment was apparent. They had hoped for unusual plants to identify, rarities to recognize, cries of ‘What a good form!’ to be tossed hither and thither, and naturally cuttings to be asked for. Instead they were faced with a late July shambles in which overblown roses were behaving with blowzy vulgarity, their raddled petals lying in extravagant pools.

I know that gardeners like these are more intense, more sincerely dedicated, more uncomplaining about labour and certainly more devoted to the vast commitment of the subject than those of us who flit and hope. They don’t seem to joke – not about gardens, anyway. I call them the Penstemon Ladies because I once observed a group of Hardy Plant Society members walking round a garden where they were discussing those ravishing flowers. Pettifogging their way from clump to clump, their eyes seeing subtleties and refinements that had passed me by completely. Where I had been looking at a heavenly rampage of mottled and freckled flowers in a herbaceous border, they had been looking at a conundrum. ‘Is that penstemon “King George” or “Schoenholzeria”?’ ‘Oh, it must be “Evelyn”, surely.’ Would one of them at any moment mutter fitfully about that winey-blue beauty known as ‘Sour Grapes’? I moved forward hopefully. Discussion followed, animated and intense, and like a foreigner I couldn’t grasp the language.

This attitude to gardens explains a lot. It accounts for the diversity there is; how there are some places which are wholly a collector’s garden, where there is something of everything even if it has to be jammed in so that it’s there, rather than precisely chosen because it was the only right plant for that position. Yet there is the other sort of gardener who anguishes over a decision; who carries a sample of colour, looking with fastidious care for exactly the right plant for a precise site, and the end result is manifest. Such a garden is harmonious and subtle, and appears to have happened with ingenuous ease.

Visiting gardens is a recurring pleasure; unfortunately for the majority of us it takes place just when we are most needed in our own. Visiting, though, is invaluable. We get so many ideas and so much stimulus that it becomes an important attribute to the business of gardening. On the converse side there is the pleasure of receiving visitors. Twice now we have opened our garden when other people in the village have opened theirs. Of the hundreds of people who have come through, each has seemed delighted to be there. They’ve stopped to talk, to ask questions and to tell us of their own gardens. They’ve sat about in the orchard, by the stream or in the summer house, and when the last visitor has finally left after seven in the evening, we’ve found no debris, no damage.

Walking through other people’s gardens has become a national pastime. Many of the visitors here were obviously addicted to it, almost professionals. With heroic fortitude they were steadily working their way through places within a forty- or fifty-mile radius of their homes, loving every visit regardless of dimension and of weather. In the end, if year by year there is an increasing population spending hours in each other’s gardens, what can it do for the famous places? Will it influence the head gardener’s plans? Does a car heading north from the Elephant and Castle change next spring’s plantings at Kiftsgate or Bodnant? Must paths be widened, steps be made safer, grass paths be replaced and shrubs be held back? Above all must there be teas? Gardens and teas are symbiotic, as inseparable as roses and black spot. There seems to be no end to what these jaunts have started; if it’s accepted that no one goes in for purposeless strolling in their own domains then, of course, it has to be done elsewhere. And visually people can be an asset in certain places; they don’t look like flowers, I know, but they do add a mobile dimension to designs that are supremely formal. In the Mogul enclosures, for example, Indian figures provided magnificent colour and animation to the precision. In the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, the rather austere dignity is invigorated by the sight of pedestrians moving and children playing.

Walking round our garden with friends is another, different pleasure because some of them are interested enough to be critical. Several of the best alterations we have undertaken are due to a friend who has made pertinent suggestions. His fresh contemplation has seen things we had grown used to, no longer having that wide vision we had at the beginning. We needed his discerning eye where ours had become accustomed to mistakes – his cogent remark that if we remove a short scruffy hedge the garden would spread visually to the horizon. The low box hedge which surrounds our terrace and provides formality in contrast to the rest, was instigated by someone else’s perceptive eye, and again it needed an outsider’s judgement to propose where we should add crucial height by building up an existing wall by several feet.

We are thankful for these imaginative comments because our approach to gardening is tentative and speculative. When someone stands around ruminating and then makes some sentient observation, it often solves instantly what Michael and I may have been pondering for months. As the seasons pass, recurring slightly differently each year, as gradually we acquire plants and knowledge from other gardeners, as we unpick our numerous errors, we have learnt one thing the hard way; it is this: take other gardeners’ advice on design, or accept their plants, only after you have seen their gardens.

If you ask most people how they began their gardens they say they evolved. Few admit to sitting down and carefully working out the design. The majority seem to work gradually, letting things become apparent in their own time, and often at moments not knowing quite what they are dealing with.

I have read Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener, full of wisdom and stimulus. I love every word of it but I doubt if we have done one single thing he advises. I can sigh over the formal water channels flanked by conical yew trees in Jennie Makepeace’s garden in Dorset, or David Hicks’s immensely long rose pergola, and realize that before any of this is achieved somebody has to sit down with a pen and a piece of squared paper. It is no comfort to know it is possible, that really there are some people who do this. For the uninitiated it is hard enough to imagine that a three-inch cutting will eventually grow into a Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’, a fine shrub with splayed leaves and creamy flat-faced blooms. Or even more of an enigma is a seed held in the palm of the hand. Is it really going to become a hollyhock, a six-foot stem in need of staking, with yellow and pink flowers evoking cottage gardens? As a child how agonizedly poignant I used to find the sentimental verses of E. Nesbit:

Little brown brother, oh! little brown brother,

What kind of flower will you be?

I’ll be a poppy – all white, like my mother;

Do be a poppy like me.

What! you’re a sun-flower? How I shall miss you

When you’re grown golden and high!

But I shall send all the bees up to kiss you;

Little brown brother, good-bye.

Poppy or sunflower, at the start it didn’t matter which, we were trying to cover the ground. Only later did I realize that starting a garden is the beginning of making a series of mistakes. Books explain how and when to do things, but they do not underline that one intrinsic pitfall that what you are about to encounter will never be concluded. There is no ‘The End’ to be written, neither can you, like an architect, engrave in stone the day the garden was finished; a painter can frame his picture, a composer notate his coda, but a garden is always on the move. Even Russell Page doesn’t warn you of the elementary, in-built hazard that this thing once started will never be quiescent; at no moment, however peerless, will a garden stay immobile, petrified at its summit of flowering. And though I have now learnt that a garden is always in the throes of becoming something else, I still haven’t come to terms with it. Forgetting, I make steps, plant plants, stand back and think the shapes work. Mounded cushions of saxifrage, all pretty pinks and whites in spring, soon become eiderdowns, making the steps impassable. Docile grey Snow-in-Summer, placed in becoming blobs of low growth, lets fly in no time and utterly overwhelms a choicely contrived arc of stones. In ignorance while I was planting, my mind had been on the present effect; as I tucked up a flower I had forgotten about the future. Even after several years of gardening, it is still pure chance whether I get it right with the placing of something or whether I must spend hours in summer hacking back a robust plant, too vigorous by far for the scant area I’ve allowed it.

Through our errors Michael and I began to learn the habit of plants; slowly we began to know the way each one would grow, the lie of its branches if it were large or the way it used ground if it were small. Every plant has its own way of filling space, but without understanding this beforehand, how easily destroyed are those spaces which make the difference between a garden that sings and one in visual discord.

Our mistakes proliferate. A major one was thinking too small. Where we made curving steps down to the stream, they have been too diminutive, for we have to watch our feet when we should be watching wagtails; where we have made a pear tunnel it takes a few meagre paces to be out the other end, barely leaving time to relish the blossom and intriguing form of the trees. Raised beds are not raised enough to make a feature of their height, and where we have a path round the pond, it is not broad enough. Rather than being able to saunter and look, you have to totter perilously, thrusting aside leaves of Solomon’s Seal and filipendula.

Then carelessly our other paths failed to begin at the beginning, indolently we let them evolve by following the ways we had naturally taken. We should have been resolute and designed the paths, fixing them like ley lines to hold down the overall composition. We realized too late why garden designers design. That mathematical precision between clutter and proportion. There is a right way where the size of garden, the dimensions of the house, the width of path and terrace, come together into perfect cohesion.

But how hard it is to get the arithmetic right between smallness and emptiness; and how perfect are straight lines. Why aren’t they used more often? Is it because they are uncompromising? Because their rigidity somehow restrains the spirit, is inhibiting or unsubtle. Straight lines are good things; they are the direct route to perspective, to geometry, from the gate to the cottage door. Once these strong, decisive lines are fixed, defining boundaries, forcing direction and relating to the verticals of house and wall, only then can one achieve spectacular plantings and indulge in outlandish idiosyncracies. Endless patience is also required when planting huge-headed trees standing high, at right angles to the ground lines, where mounded shrubs or flowers soften and blur the crossing axes.

It is quite obvious that the horizontal view is not the only one: flower-beds, parterres, knot or sunken gardens, bedding plants and alpines, in fact all the looking-down on a garden is only one aspect. I was slow to realize how vertical divisions are paramount. How they lift the eye and intensify distance. They draw lines together so that what is planted below is framed as the focal point; or in the middle distance they can confuse an ugly outlook which needs obscuring. Upright shapes lay shadows over flat ground, making dense or dappled shade, giving an effect of movement or an illusion of substance.

However one thing we did get right, quite fortuitously: we can walk through the garden and return by a different route. It is essential, however small it is, to walk ’round’ a garden, not merely to the end and back. So we have bridges and stepping-stones across the brook, steps to other levels, and mown paths cut at different heights which form a sort of architectural grass garden. Michael leaves some grass long until it needs to be scythed, when the wild flowers are over; some is of medium length, and some cut close to make paths that wind and cross each other, so that the levels of green in themselves make a design.

I know a garden should be reassuring, it should not unbalance your equability; yet because everything takes place in slow motion it may take years before arriving at the point of departure, the point at which things begin to go right. I have bursts of thinking we are there, that really each area is at last beginning to form its own identity; yet at the same time I can’t stop the maddening habit, as I walk around, of mentally lifting things from one place to another, and imagining they would look so much better elsewhere. I suppose the great gardeners never went in for this twitching at the fabric; they had bold confidence and knew exactly how to combine structure with plants, and then keep it that way for the next half century.

Long before then, with a sense of urgency, I make a supplicating wail for country gardens to admit the country. Where is the charm in polystyrene? In those ubiquitous urns, so clinically white, which are placed on either side of the door; in those awnings, that mushroom lighting and umbrella-shaped clothes line; or in patios crowded with white garden furniture? Nettles, yarrow and ragged robin have been superseded by precast staddle-stones; the beautiful colours of rust and lichen are eradicated by doses of Solignum or Agrichem. Incisive grass edges are regarded as a prerequisite for any self-respecting gardener, while good behaviour is demanded from columbines and gilliflowers.

Walled gardens, behind their formal barricades and enclosures of architecture, are superb, but what about those small burgeoning plots of land held down by hedges of hawthorn, where crooked orchard trees and little bouts of dishevelment have all evolved through carelessness? Look over the hedge. Shouldn’t a garden be related to all that? To the meadows, trees and lack of symmetry? Our villages are becoming too dapper by half. As Dawn MacLeod describes in her book, Down To Earth Women, an ideal country garden is a place ‘which has slipped into the country scene without any dividing lines.’

Let’s accept random seeding, let’s tolerate small flowers like grace-notes decorating the paving. Not always, but sometimes. The corrosive vice of trimness infiltrates everywhere. Formality is pleasing in parks, imperative at Versailles and restful in courtyards, but why not let country churchyards be sanctuaries for wild flowers? A soothing sense of seclusion can still be found in churchyards, from gravestones, graves and grave-mounds, slumberous trees, ancient and umbrageous, and oak lych-gates, silvered with age. Here just the right balance between order and disarray can be found. Irish yews flanking the way to the church; grassy paths, mown and smooth, contrast with the untouched wild grasses full of snowdrops in winter, and later followed by celandines, dog violets and sorrel, meadow saxifrage, red clover and willowherb. How destructive, like wanton vandalism, to find some patches of churchyard wilderness utterly massacred by the rotary mower, or a wholesale pogrom carried out with weedkiller. As a result of these massive regimes of orderliness wild flowers, moths, ladybirds, crickets and lacewings vanish, followed by bats, wrens and hedgehogs.

Sometime soon we must reinstate our country churchyards and country gardens before it’s too late. Telling the time by blowing the seedhead of a dandelion, holding a buttercup under the chin to see who likes butter, using a dock leaf to ease the sting of a nettle, will be lost to children. Daisy-chains, the drone of bees or watching a red admiral butterfly open and close its wings in sunlight, will belong to past childhoods. We will have destroyed our country gardens while looking the other way.

We are surrounded by low hills, so it is only necessary to walk a little way up our six-acre field to where we’ve planted our two-acre wood, to get a distant view of the village, the church, the cows and the sheep grazing in the small, medieval fields and the wild, bracken-covered hill where larks sing throughout the summer. Without the stream we’d be without frost, instead we’d be higher up and have a wider view. I’ve often wondered how we would deal with a garden which had a distant outlook.

The first time I discovered the intensifying effect of limiting a view was at a monastery in Greece. The monastery was on a hill and the courtyard totally enclosed by solid doors and a high wall in which there was one circular hole. Looking through it the impact was instant. From walking past the Byzantine apse and cloisters, unexpectedly there appeared a pristine view like an early Italian painted landscape seen over the shoulder of the Virgin Mary. The land fell away below the monastery to small pastures and a trail of dark cypress trees, meandering like leisurely mourners down the opposite hillside. The view was enhanced in a way which never would have happened if there had been no wall. The same effect was achieved in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, when Kaye, bored with winter, amused himself by making a peep-hole with a warmed coin placed against the window to look at the wintry roofs and falling snowflakes.

Since seeing that monastery courtyard in Greece I think that if we had a view it should be conserved by an enclosing wall or a tall, dense hedge. There would be circular windows or arches so that the landscape was observed deliberately. It would not be overlooked because it was an appendage to the garden, or because the plants at our feet were of such intensity as to leach out the delicacy of distance, but would be seen rather as a series of trompe-l’oeil, suspended like pictures so that the far horizon was neither forced nor taken for granted, but something intentionally looked at.

At Hestercombe in Somerset where Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens designed that magnificent garden with such bold use of flints, stone and cobbles, there is a wall with a circular window in it framed by roses. You look through and out of the fine garden to an undramatic view of pastoral countryside.

In America this result of inhibiting the view is to be seen at the Moon Gate, built around Korean tomb figures at Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden at Seal Harbour, Maine, in 1926. It is a very patent example of this trompe-l’oeil effect. A circular window, designed by the American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, looks out from such a dark interior that the startlingly brilliant garden has an immediate theatrical impact. I hope somewhere in our English gardens there grows a deep canary yellow forsythia, ‘Beatrix Farrand’, with its exceptionally large nodding heads, in memory of this distinguished American lady.