Recently I was unable to garden or do much paperwork for two weeks due to the limitations imposed by eye surgery. So I worked on knitting and quilting projects and watched the big, juicy series The Tudors. I was captivated by this family as a teenager: such drama, such scandal, such fortitude and perseverance, such larger-than-life individuals upon whom to project my uncertain and embryonic identity. Appalled (and enthralled) by Henry, admiring of Elizabeth, I made them the focus of many papers for years. However, that was long ago, and I had forgotten almost everything I ever learned, so this series has been almost entirely new. The drama is all there, but there are two peripheral aspects which captivate me almost as much. Often when the camera pans back from the espionage, fornicating and bloodshed there is a meticulous CGI image of various parts of London, Paris or Rome as it would have looked at the time. These images are brief, but compelling. These places were once green! These truly were villages that had grown, were becoming great cities, but still retained the human scale which all have now lost. They cause a yearning in me for places I have never been, and can never go, but which are still echoed in places I have seen. These ancient villages are entombed in their modern cities.
The other fleeting, but riveting, images in this series are the gardens. These are not CGI, but are actual gardens, and not faked or tarted up in any way (as opposed to, say, all the women in the series). The revelation to me (since I don’t know anything about garden history) is that they are simply gardens of green, there are almost no flowers in them. They have very few kinds of plants because, of course, the exploits of the plant explorers are centuries in the future. And they are strongly architectural. In the depth of every winter I always wonder if there is something I could do to give my garden more presence. The architectural nature of these gardens and their simple plant palette are making me question my own garden. Now is certainly the time to do so because it isn’t even finished yet. If I am going to rip it up and start over at least now there is only half a garden to uproot!
In the series the garden we see most often is the ultimate in simplicity. Centered by a large pool which is edged with a shaped stone coping and filled with waterlilies, it is a series of concentric ovals. Radiating out from the pool are a gravel walkway, then a low hedge of boxwood, clipped flat, not rounded. Finally, this is surrounded by tall walls of what appear to be pleached and clipped beech or hornbeam. There is a fountain in the middle of the pool, and four figures surrounding it, which I ignore as being extraneous to the otherwise perfect simplicity of the garden. Water, stone and three gorgeous plant species, plus taste, taste, taste and a laser eye for proportion. Are the ingredients for a great garden really that simple?
I am thinking that maybe there is a fork in the garden path down which I have been walking all these years, and that it is time to take it. I have enjoyed myself immensely, and there are still days in the spring when, incomplete and ragged as it is, my garden makes me agog with wonder at its beauty. This is not to brag because the features of which I am in awe are the plants and the light, and I cannot claim any credit for either of those. However, I would like to love my garden all year ’round, and I have been working toward that result unsuccessfully for a long time.
When I first started to garden seriously I read in a book by Ann Lovejoy that she allocated her garden plants by thirds–evergreen, deciduous and ephemerals (those herbaceous plants which disappear in the winter). She seemed to know what she was was talking about, and the gardens pictured in her books were gorgeous so I took roughly this ratio as my own. The math I failed to do, however, was that this meant that for nearly half the year the garden would only be one-third clothed, which is far too skimpy for my taste. Also, like most gardeners, I started gardening to have flowers (in one of her books the Duchess of Devonshire says, as I recall, that gardeners start with flowers then move on to bark, leaves and then the undersides of leaves). I still love flowers, and leaves are really growing on me (I have a couple of plants which I grow solely because their leaves are beautifully reticulated in bright yellow), but more than anything else I increasingly crave GREEN in the depth of winter and the height of summer equally.
In recent years I have added green with a small lawn, and by planting many dwarf conifers and boxwoods, both of which seem to like it here. That is helping, but the effect is still spotty and unsatisfying in the winter. Perhaps that is partly because the garden is so young, and so the plants are still small, but it feels like there is another element missing. My garden lacks the structure which I see in these Elizabethan gardens. But I don’t want the fussiness of parterres or boxwood knot gardens. I can’t be counted on to maintain twelve-foot high hedges with crisp edges and smooth walls. And I don’t live in the 16th century.
Then last week I went to a lecture at the Garden Club given by the venerable landscape architect Wallace K. Huntington. The topic was his own garden in the French Prairie area. Huntington and his wife, interior designer Mirza Dickel, restored the historic William Case house from a shambles and then Huntington surrounded it with a stunning two-acre garden of his own design. The lecture was too retrospective for my tastes since all I wanted were pictures of the garden as it is today, but the few current slides which he showed made my mouth water. Again, I was overwhelmed by the greenness of it, and just as I had felt watching The Tudors I yearned to be enveloped in that green. Huntington’s garden still had structure, but it was so much more informal. There is lots of boxwood, but it is often left natural or just loosely clipped. The garden is well established so these plants are big and billowing. There is also lots of lawn and there are big, mature Douglas firs. Within this structure he does have flowers, including a large number of magnolias, which is a special plant to him. But the overwhelming impression is of green.
I have not decided exactly how all of this information is going to change my direction, but I am certainly looking at my garden with new eyes. And I keep thinking that this is not a change I can “tweak” into existence. I am thinking that I will really need to start over, with a clean slate and an actual plan, which I have never had. Despite all this, however, my eye now healed, I went out into the garden today and continued to do what I do: plant, move, weed, water and mulch. It was as satisfying as always, no less so because it may all have been work that will sooner or later be undone.