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`Planting In Layers'

A leading British gardener uses densely planted beds to create rich relationships and subtle transitions

THERE was something about those three bright red tulips that really bothered Rosemary Verey. It wasn't their color as such. It was where that color was. "I mean - look over there," she said, pointing at them disapprovingly.

We had started out on a tour of her four-acre Gloucestershire garden but almost immediately deposited ourselves on one of the seats that dot this increasingly famed patch of horticultural magic. She feels seats are very important in a garden. For looking, observing - contemplating.

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But those flashy scarlet petals distract. "I'm going to pick off those awful red tulips in a moment." Then, aside, she added: "and remove the lady in the green coat." Finally, even more aside: "Did she hear? No?!"

The clashing green coat - worn by one of the many appreciative visitors who come to this once totally private, nowadays open-to-the-public garden - moved unaware along the path toward the enclosed area with a fish-and-lily pool in front of a small 18th century, classical temple.

But the offending tulips, for the time being, stayed put. They had somehow found their way into this bed, which this time of year is a tapestry of fresh green shooting things undercarpeting a drift of "golden daffodils" merging into a rush of euphorbias (she describes their color as "a wonderful chartreuse green"), juicy-looking delphinium foliage, yellow-golden grass, and heaven knows what else burgeoning and budding and emerging.

And beyond this densely planted bed, between us and the lichen-textured wall, was a massed band of grape hyacinths in full flower, their blue both electrifying and soft. Though separated from each other by a peaceful stretch of lawn, the blue and yellow seen in proximity and contrast, are favorite Verey colors.

But still she wants more. She says, "I suppose we ought to put more daffodils in there - not enough to make an impact, are there?" I thought their effect extraordinarily striking; but her imagination was looking for something even more intense for next spring. "Enough of one thing is necessary," she says. Apparently there are enough blue grape hyacinths but too few narcissi. "I failed," she observes somewhat quizzically. Point out that what looks like a failure to her would be a triumphant success to m ost other gardeners, and she laughs.

ROSEMARY VEREY'S color-sense in garden planting is just one facet of this popular gardener-writer-lecturer, whose quiet unpretentiousness belies the mark she has been making for years now on the taste of gardeners in Britain, Australia, and the United States. Just back from America, she plans two more trips there within the year, one to further a planned book on rooftop gardens in New York. She has written articles and edited a book about American gardens; she has written about scent in the garden; abou t classic garden design; about "good planting"; about winter in gardens; about country matters more generally; and about her ornamental vegetable garden (which was originally suggested by the French garden at Villandry). We were shortly - like a pair of rabbits in Mr. McGregor's much-less-distinguished vegetable patch - to nibble a variety of unfamiliar winter salads, hot or sweet or nutty, and I wondered why other people don't grow them.

For all her pen-to-papering, though, Mrs. Verey has not, to date, written a book just about her own garden. A pity.

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She and her husband, David, who was an architectural historian, moved into the mellow, late-17th-century house in this delicious Cotswold village, half a century ago. But it was 10 years before they started the garden (Verey says she was too busy riding horses, and her children used the garden for cricket.)

It was carefully planned, and now looks as though it has been there forever. Axial paths, linking small architectural or sculptural features, relate happily to the house and to the long wall up which all kinds of climbing plants are extended. The Vereys avoided the compartmenting of their garden, however, into the separate "rooms" so favored by many British gardeners this century. You move from one distinct part, with its own planting and color character, to another, hardly realizing the transition.

One axis is distinguished by a "tunnel" of yellow laburnums, a walk that moves into an avenue of pleached limes. Another axis is a stone-flagged path running at right angles to the house between pairs of yews, standing at intervals a little lopsidedly (trussed at this time like parcels to regulate the tendency of their vertical growth through the summer to splay outwards). In summer this path is virtually smothered in a light-hearted sea of flowering helianthemums (rock roses).

Rosemary Verey explains her approach to planting as "planting in layers." We walk by a bed that shows what she means. "It has masses of white crocuses earlier," she says (their leaves are now smothered in manure), "now daffodils, and the green leaves of the roses, then the rose flowers, then their hips - and what I want to do is plant clematis along the top." Innocently I ask, "Do you interplant anything else there in the summer?" "No! There isn't any space!" she laughs.

Indeed she does plant so densely, and with an eye always to interest continuing throughout the year, that everything is like a medieval tapestry of "mille fleurs." (Her knot garden and herb garden, as well as other uses of clipped box witness more self-consciously to her knowledge of garden history, fostered by a large library.)

Her close-knit planting clearly requires continual attention, mulching, weeding, and trimming (she talks of "tutoring" plants). Every year a bed or part of a bed is completely replanted. But it makes for exceptionally rich relationships of plants; and she does enjoy it when plants surprise her by seeding in unexpected but felicitous places. Wild plants intermingle happily with unusual hybrids and cultivars; annuals with perennials.

Are there any plants she absolutely will not grow? "There must be. Oh - I hate rhododendrons! Well, no, I don't hate them. I love them for other people, not myself. And I'm not madly keen on lupins."

Or small red tulips in the wrong place.

"Do go - please - and pick them off. Now. Yes!" So, with some trepidation in such a famous garden I tread through (and on!) layers of plants and gingerly retrieve the three flashy rogues. Meanwhile Verey has found a seven-year-old visitor and makes him a present of the tulips. "Now go and pick some white daffodils - over there - keep going - that's it - to go with them. Pick five or six!"

Then, as we sit on another seat for more contemplation, she remarks, "What I'm trying to say to you is: In a garden you get what you work for, don't you?"

She has.

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