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Four English Garden Designers

August 20, 2007
D.F. Braun

By D.F. Braun

The word Hidcote means only one thing to serious gardeners; it means one of the most beautiful, interesting, haunting gardens in existence. Created in the early 20th century by American born Lawrence Johnston, it remains as lovely as ever, thanks to the National Trust of England. Situated in a remote farming area of the Cotswolds, it seems an unlikely choice for a serious gardening site, yet Johnston with his great knowledge of plants and imagination turned rough pastures into acres of botanical marvels. Entirely original, it was the opposite of the conventional herbaceous border setting. Not only unusual plantings, but “rooms” were a novel surprise. So popular did his Hidcote become among gardening friends that plants were sent from far and wide and as his knowledge grew so did his collection. He traveled himself to find rare plants; the slopes of Kilimanjaro weren’t too distant. Johnston believed gardens were to be enjoyed and lived in and he created gazebos, benches, ponds, surprises around every corner, quiet spots for contemplation.
Unfortunately, Johnston kept few records, but Vita Sackville-West wrote often of Hidcote. “Who can ever forget the quincunx of pleached hornbeams!” (Translation: “Who can ever forget the geometrically perfect arrangement of five trees”!)
Which leads us to V. Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson, life long gardeners who inherited a derelict Jacobean estate in Kent, Sissinghurst. It is believed that because Sackville-West admired Hidcote so much, she adopted many of Johnston’s designs. Again “rooms” were also established which worked well with the number of strange buildings on the property.
As a serious horticulturist Sackville-West wrote a regular column for years in “The Observer.” Perhaps because of these articles she was voracious in her pursuit of new plants.
As Californians we take our global artichoke for granted, but in 1949 V. Sackville-West wrote, “I really want to plead for this tall and extremely handsome plant” and continued for 600 more words ending with the suggestion that after eating it “one should drink of cold water to bring out the flavor.”
The white garden at Sissinghust with vines of clematis, honeysuckle and white roses started a cult of gardening taste that is still popular in gardens around the world. She wrote of the allure of white flowers at night.
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to visit Sissinghurst on a spring day.   As I entered a “room” called the Nuttery, a dilapidated bus appeared and disgorged a large group of elderly gardeners all equipped with gloves, trowels, bagged lunches and old straw hats and set about covering the floor of this room with a carpet of primroses—the National Trust at its best!
Always pictured as an eccentric in heavy brown boots Gertrude Jekyll’s first career was spent in Paris as an artist painting among the Impressionists, but when her eyesight began to fail she dedicated herself to an earlier love—gardening. Jekyll moved to Munstead Wood, a Manor house designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. The 15 acres of garden became a laboratory in which she experimented and honed her skills of using her painterly color theory in the garden. Jekyll literally used plants as paints and made garden pictures with her borders. Hers was a completely innovative approach to planting. She wrote over 16 books on every facet of home gardening. And yet Jekyll was practical; she wrote, “I think that a garden should never be tiring, that if a large space has to be dealt with a great part should be laid out to woods.” Her woodland gardens are her signature. She also wrote, “The purpose of a garden is to give happiness and repose of mind.”
Sir Peter Smithers, whose name may not be familiar to you, was a lawyer, politician, diplomat, scholar, photographer and spy as well as a passionate grower of glorious gardens. As a spy in World War II he worked for Ian Fleming and has been rumored to be the model for James Bond. However, Sir Peter was to gardening what Bond was to martinis. The Royal Horticulture Society gave him one of its highest awards, the gold Veitch Memorial Medal. His garden in Switzerland overlooking Lake Lugano with 10,000 plants, none a duplicate, was named by the Financial Times as one of the 500 greatest gardens since Roman times.
His lush photographic images of flowers won 8 gold medals from the horticultural society. They have been called “floral pornography.” His response in 1987, “This is Playboy in flowers. What are flowers but sex in action? The bee performs the wedding…”
In retirement he moved to his garden in Switzerland and developed an ecosystem of exotic plants, including hybrids he developed himself. In his later years he began giving away his plants. He said the pleasure of owning a fine plant was not complete until it had been given to a friend.
Just what did these four have in common besides their passion for their gardens? They all started gardening as children. Their curiosities about plants led them to seek and collect new species around the world. (As a young boy Sir Peter began an index of every plant and seed he acquired; it grew to 32,000 entries by his death.) Their creativity and commitment to their land has left us with a magnificent heritage and gardens which we may still visit today.

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