dixter1Christopher Lloyd in the peacock garden of his beloved estate at Great Dixter, surrounded by banks of aster lateriflorus horizontalis. Photograph: Jonathan Buckley

Photo (& caption) from Lloyd’s obituary at The Guardian.

The problem with taking a summer sabbatical from posting is that, when you finally return to your blog folder, all memory has faded – one cannot tell what has been done from what hasn’t – and restarting the engine is difficult. In it, I came across this excerpt from Christopher Lloyd’s book The Adventurous Gardener and it appears that I scanned it from my own copy and so I present it here. It deals with his personal recollections of Gertrude Jekyll which we can now add to past posts on her and her gardening history.

I have collected quite a few books written by Miss Jekyll and, although her prose doesn’t elevate one to moments of ecstasy, it is competent and clear (not always the case with garden writers) and her humility shines through which presents her authority in a kinder light. Lloyd is correct to state that “seventy or eighty years has not staled the lesson” which is to say that there is still much to be learned from her writings with regard to an art very much under the ultimate control of Mother Nature.

At the moment I can’t lay hands on my hard copy in order to check my transcription so we’ll leave it as is and hope that it is correct. As stated in previous posts, Lloyd’s curmudgeonly writing is as enjoyable as his gardening logic is sound and, being a near-contemporary of Miss Jekyll, his assessments of her art and craft are bound to be closer to the bone than those of others; his admiration for her is also readily apparent.

The Adventurous Gardener

Christopher Lloyd

Allen Lane (Penguin) 1983

ISBN 0-7139-1535-8, hardcover, 248 pp

Another Look at Miss Jekyll

It was surely time that Gertrude Jekyll’s two masterpieces, Colour in the Flower Garden and Wood and Garden were reprinted. Now at last we have them (Antique Collectors’ Club Edition). There is so much to learn from them, and a lapse of seventy or eighty years has not staled the lesson. For Miss Jekyll knew how to manage plants, culturally, and also how to manipulate them for effect. She teaches us that gardening of the best kind is not easy, and that there are no short cuts, but she also fires us with her own enthusiasm. We can clearly see, after reading her, that the effort is worth while.

An inspiring facet of this great gardener is her lack of stereotype. Her name is associated with the herbaceous border and this garden feature is generally acknowledged to be outmoded, requiring far too much labour. Actually, the island beds promoted by Mr Alan Bloom are herbaceous borders under another name and using modern cultivars of moderate stature. But the point I want to make is that Gertrude Jekyll didn’t care twopence whether the plants in her borders were herbaceous or not as long as they contributed what she wanted of them. She did not refer to her herbaceous borders, ever, but to her hardy flower borders or mixed borders, and then generally in inverted commas because they did not fit in with the general conception of such features. ‘I have a rather large “mixed border of hardy flowers”,’ she wrote. ‘It is not quite so hopelessly mixed as one generally sees, and the flowers are not all hardy.’

On the point of not over-mixing, she shows the artist in her.

She was an artist, first, by training and until her eyesight began to fail. ‘Planting ground is painting a landscape with living things, and I hold that good gardening takes rank within the bounds of the fine arts, so I hold that to plant well needs an artist of no mean capacity.’ Of a large border, then, she says it is important ‘to keep the flowers in rather large masses of colour. No one who has ever done it, or seen it done, will go back to the old haphazard sprinkle of colouring without any thought of arrangement, such as is usually seen in a mixed border.’ ‘The next flagrant fault, whether in composition or in colour, is the attempt to crowd too much into the picture; the simpler effect obtained by means of temperate and wise restraint is always the more telling.’ And again, ‘There is nothing much more difficult to do in outdoor gardening than to plant a mixed border well, and to keep it in beauty throughout the summer. Every year. .. I find myself tending towards broader and simpler effects, both of grouping and of colour.’

I don’t think she loved her plants as individuals any – or, at least, very little – less than the plantsmen among us who give their all to cultural details but have no idea of presenting their material.

Miss Jekyll’s main border was 200 ft long by 14 ft wide. It had full stops at the ends and two-thirds the way along (where divided by a cross-path) made with big yuccas, bergenias (Megasea, in her day) and Stachys lanata. The border had a colour scheme (not slavishly adhered to): cool at the ends, building up to hot in the middle. Thus at the west end it starts with blues and greys merging into pale yellows, then brighter yellows, orange and red. From there it cools off again in the same order except that at the east end there were mauves, pinks and purples rather than pure blues.

On the whole she preferred colour harmonies to colour contrasts. I think most of us come to this preference as we get older. But her exception to this rule was blue. ‘Pure blues always seem to demand peculiar and very careful treatment.’ Thus she liked a full blue, as she called it, with a pale yellow but couldn’t bear blue with mauve or purple. For this reason she had the mauves and purples at one end of the border and the blues at the other, that is delphiniums, anchusas, Salvia patens, blue Cape Daisy (Agathaea coelestis, alias Felicia amelloides) and lobelias. She also tolerates Campanula lactiflora and Clematis davidiana here, but only because they flower when the delphiniums and anchusas are already over.

Nearer the centre of the border we find Eryngium oliverianum, which is pure blue, set in the middle of contrasting yellows: primrose African marigolds, tall yellow snapdragons, double meadow sweet, Achillea eupatorium (now A. filipendulina) and coreopsis. Her plan, included in Colour in the Flower Garden, is fascinating to study, although clearly it didn’t stay the same from year to year.

She reckons that the height of her border’s main season does not start till the second week in August. Indeed, of early July, taking the garden as a whole, she writes: ‘After the wealth of bloom of June, there appear to be but few flowers in the garden; there seems to be a comparative emptiness between the earlier flowers and those of autumn.’ Few of us would agree, judging by the number of gardens that choose to open to the public at this very moment. Speaking for my own, I reckon that it peaks in early July and holds it for the next month, falling off steadily from the second week in August.

The reason for the difference is not hard to pinpoint. Miss Jekyll chose to have it that way. She liked a delayed climax and she achieved it by a wide use of annuals, short-lived perennials (e.g. penstemons), tender perennials (dahlias, cannas, Salvia patens) and yellow-flowered composites: helianthus, helenium, rudbeckia and coreopsis. She also plunged a large number of pot plants, where a part of the border had turned dull. Indeed, if she wanted a pink hydrangea, say, in a position where something else was already growing, and provided the latter was an easy-going and tolerant perennial, she would have a piece of it chopped away to make room for the newcomer. Besides hydrangeas, Lilium longiflorum and L. auratum, Campanula pyramidalis (always unsatisfactory as a garden flower, in my opinion) and Plumbago capensis were introduced.

‘I have no dogmatic views,’ she tells us, ‘in having in the so-called hardy flower border none but hardy flowers. All flowers are welcome that are right in colour and that make a brave show where a brave show is wanted.’ How sensible! It is only the timid gardener whose mind-forged manacles constrain him to think entirely in terms of categories and compartments for different kinds of flowers in different areas of the garden.

To get the red she needs in the centre of the border Miss Jekyll uses cannas, hollyhocks, dahlias, scarlet salvia, red celosia (the cockscomb), scarlet and orange nasturtiums, penstemons, gladioli. The only really permanent ingredients are red hot pokers which she calls tritomas (kniphofia), Lychnis chalcedonica, Lilium tigrinum, the double form of Hemerocallis fulva (which is tawny, not red) and a border phlox. Some of these only flower for two or three weeks whereas the dahlias, cannas, salvias, celosias, penstemons and nasturtiums would contribute for many weeks and at a late season.

It is therefore worth pausing to remark that those who would plant a red border or red garden should be prepared to make liberal use of such tender plants (including verbenas), and they’d also be wise to introduce large groups, or large specimens, of roses. Also, to consider that purple and glaucous-leaved shrubs will make a setting for the red flowers; what Miss Jekyll calls ‘using the colour of flowers as precious jewels in a setting of quiet environment, and of suiting the colour of flowering groups to that of the neighbouring foliage’. In the red area of her border she had softening groups of misty white Gypsophila paniculata.

There was a 7-ft wide grass path in front of this border, and Miss Jekyll makes the point that a border of this kind should be capable of being looked at from a little way forward if it is to be seen as one picture. If you hug a border too closely you can only look at individual plants.

On the other hand you do want some element of enfilading. Frontally viewed (except at a very considerable distance), all a border’s major faults, particularly its gaps, are mercilessly exposed and, again, the eye cannot take it in simultaneously but swivels from side to side.

Miss Jekyll is famed for her practice of bending tall plants forward, as the season advances, so that they cover over those in front of them that flowered early but have gone over. For it must be remembered that, although her border was at its best in August and September, it already included bright spots of colour as early as oriental poppy and iris time – which is at the turn of May and June. Early colour, however, was never allowed to be at the expense of her ultimate target, the later summer climax. These plants that were bent forward (such as perennial sunflowers) were thereby induced to flower not only at the top of their stems but all along their length. I have never met anyone who has copied this plan of action. My own practice, if I want to blot out, say, delphiniums or alstroemerias once they have become hideous some time in July, is to have something planted in front of them that grows up and conceals them or that grows back and covers them. She worked from the back, forwards; I from the front backwards. It would be interesting to know her actual technique for securing her tall rudbeckias and sunflowers and suchlike in an oblique, ground-covering position. She doesn’t give it, neither does one gather whether the operation was performed in several steps or all at one go.

I constantly compare my own Long Border (of about the same length but a foot wider) with hers, as also my methods with hers. Although I consider the colours of neighbouring groups of plants, I have no overall colour scheme, simply because this does not appeal to me personally. I include many more shrubs (with roses) than she did, which means that the texture of my border is more varied and so are its contours. I think foliage is possibly a more dominant force with me, although she was strong on this and included rue, santolinas, bergenias, yuccas and stachys in the cooler parts of her border especially. Whether her cannas, in the red section, were purple-leaved, I cannot ascertain. I’m sure she would have liked them to be if such were available.

Although I use annuals and bedding plants, I am not nearly so free with them and I no longer include dahlias, as I once did. This is largely a question of labour, which is more of a worry nowadays than it was in her time. For the same reasons and because I have only one small greenhouse, I do not expressly raise plants in pots for plunging in the borders, but I do sometimes plunge a fuchsia here or a pot of lilies there, in emergency. As for dahlias, quite apart from the staking and tying, I find capsid damage so very obtrusive in a mixed border and that the necessary sprayings are one more thing. I wonder if this pest was as bad in her day.

One practice which I greatly enjoy, when I have the time for it, is the complete replacement of early-flowering perennials, halfway through the season. These early flowerers are lined out in a spare plot and replaced by others – either from pots or boxes in the frameyard or, themselves, from a spare plot. Of the latter, perennial lobelias and sunflowers, monardas and asters all move successfully from the open ground in July and August if properly watered before and after the operation. As far as I know, Miss Jekyll never did this. I wish I could talk about all these devices with her. That my life only just overlapped with hers so that I met her only once, as a small boy, is a great deprivation.

I include quite a lot of spring bulbs in my Long Border, especially tulips, which she didn’t, and one reason I can see for this difference is that I disturb large areas of my border much less often than she did. Also, my soil being heavy suits tulips as permanent features. On her hungry sand they would, very likely, have died out rather quickly. It is the same story with border phloxes. I have large patches of the more brilliant kinds and they are my mainstay for colour in July and August. She found them (and clematis also, which are great water lovers) very tricky.

‘They are always difficult here,’ she tells, ‘unless the season is unusually rainy; in dry summers, even with mulching and watering, I cannot keep them from drying up.’ Those she grew, she replanted every autumn. ‘The outside pieces are cut off and the woody middle thrown away. It is surprising what a tiny bit of Phlox will make a strong flowering plant in one season.’ Yes, but I find that they’re far more impressive in their second and third seasons and I usually split and replant after their fourth. Replanting a group annually with single-stemmed units means that you never get the compound group effect; the clumps of flowering panicles within the wider context of the aggregate that composes the complete phlox eiderdown.

Miss Jekyll also replanted her monardas every year and I’m sure for the same reasons. They quickly deteriorate on light soils and need re-establishing.

In studying her border ingredients I feel that there are certain plants I should never want to include. I can see why she did, because of the effect she needed, but the price strikes me as too high. Scarlet salvias and red celosias at the border front. Both plants have aggressively dreary foliage and there’s no way of concealing this in so prominent a position. Gladioli were not as large and clumsy in her day as now. The early-flowering Gladiolus byzantinus and the little Nanus types are easily assimilated when they go over but I should hesitate to bring in the Grandiflorus or even the Butterfly kinds. Not only do they need individual staking and going over daily when in flower to remove the faded blooms and spikes, but they look dreadful immediately they have bloomed. And yet, and yet. Perhaps it could be done by adopting either her or my covering-over tactics or by lifting and replacing them while still green. Gladioli are not so named for nothing. Their proud, sword-like cohorts have a wonderful presence in the mass.

I also envy Gertrude Jekyll’s use of tall – that is 4 or 5-ft – antirrhinums. I’ve never quite had the courage to go all out for these. They need staking, of course. The wonder, you might think, is that they are still offered by the seedsmen, for you never see them in a private garden. The reason is that they are still valuable in the cut flower trade for cropping under glass. And for this same reason you can still acquire single colour strains, from a few seed houses, instead of the ubiquitous mixtures.

Seed strains is another subject on which Gertrude Jekyll elicits cries and grunts of approval from Christopher Lloyd.

‘There seems to be a general wish among seed growers just now to dwarf all annual plants,’ she observes. While this is useful if the plant’s natural habit is diffuse yet ‘there seems to me to be a kind of stupidity in inferring from this that all annuals are the better for dwarfing. I take it that the bedding system has had a good deal to do with it. It no doubt enables ignorant gardeners to use a larger variety of plants as senseless colour-masses, but it is obvious that many, if not most, of the plants are individually made much uglier in the process. Take, for example, one of the dwarfest Ageratums: what a silly little dumpy formless, pincushion of a plant it is! And then the dwarfest of the China Asters. Here is a plant (whose chief weakness already lies in a certain over-stiffness) made stiffer and more shapeless still by dwarfing and by cramming with too many petals.’

All this is patently true now as then but it needs repeating again and again. I am always glad when Roy Hay inveighs against dwarf plants and points out, as he fervently does, that, among other disadvantages, they are harder to grow well than those of a more natural stature.

Apropos of ageratums, I remember visiting a trial of this flower at Wisley and being particularly taken by a strain of mixed colours called ‘Mosaique’. As well as different mauves and blues it included white and charming old rose shades. Furthermore the plants, although all more or less dwarf, were yet of different sizes and heights and this added to the interest of the tapestry. Yet the very reasons for my deriving enjoyment from the mosaic pattern of ‘Mosaique’ were the same reasons for disqualifying them from any kind of award. Uniformity of dwarfness, of flower size and of other plant features are the standards by which the seeds men who submit their wares for trial expect them to be judged. I once thought I should enjoy being a judge on the sub-committee that visits these R.H.S. trials but I realize that I should not, for the judges – whatever they think would make the better kind of garden plant – are themselves caught up in the system. They have to judge by those dreary standards of uniformity that are accepted by hybridizers, commercial growers, parks departments and, presumably, the general public.

The grower, Miss Jekyll continues, loses sight of beauty as the final consideration. He doesn’t know where to stop. ‘Abnormal size, whether greatly above or much below the average, appeals to the vulgar and uneducated eye, and will always command its attention and wonderment.’ She concludes this chapter called ‘Novelty and Variety’ (in Wood and Garden) by hoping her good friends in the trade will understand that she is not being personal about them. ‘I know that some of them feel much as I do on some of these points, but that in many ways they are helpless, being all bound in a kind of bondage to the general system.’

Growers, hybridizers, judges and public are all in the same straitjacket. If you’re in search of freedom and individuality you must not look for it among the majority who run our institutions.

Gertrude Jekyll was remarkable, in fact, for her humility. She never talked down to the ignorant reader or gardener and was ever sympathetic towards their elementary difficulties. But she had no patience with those who wanted to hear their own voices and let loose a flood of questions without listening to or even waiting for the answers. Impatient, too, with those who think it will be easy to copy some pleasing effect but are discouraged the moment they discover that the task is more difficult than it looks.

Arrogance combined with stupidity she found especially hard to bear. As when she had a visitor who owned a rather larger place and thought that, since hardy flowers (hitherto considered as more or less contemptible) were evidently now in fashion, he had better have them. He had lately made a large flower border and speaking of this while they were passing hers, then at its summer best, he said, ‘I told my fellow last autumn to get anything he liked, and yet it is perfectly wretched. It is not as if I wanted anything out of the way; I only want a lot of common things like that,’ waving a hand airily at her precious border, while scarcely taking the trouble to look at it.

Visitors, however, deserve another chapter.