Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Thatched and Surrounded by Blossoms

THE grass, they say, is always greener on the other side of the fence. And when it comes to gardening, it often also seems that the flowers are brighter on the other side of the world. To some gardeners, there's nothing quite so attractive as a plant from a remote and alien culture.

There are gardeners who go even further and make their whole garden into a patch of foreignness on their native soil. In deepest England, you can find Chinese gardens. In sultry Italy, you can find English herbaceous borders. French parterres spread themselves out prettily, clipped and classical, in front of castles in Scotland. Japanese gardens can be stumbled upon in just about every corner of the globe.

About these ads

The move today, however, is toward a sense of regional garden-making - or so some garden books tell us. Actually, in my own patch, the move is, and always has been, continually toward local flora: Every time a buttercup, vetch, or dandelion establishes itself therein (these being weeds, you understand) this garden moves that much closer to "regionality." It seems I'm in vogue.

Well, maybe. Regional gardening is not really just encouraging the invasions of weeds. It's more a question of appropriateness - of not growing cacti if you don't live in a desert, or, if you do, not trying to grow roses. Regional gardeners advocate growing plants that naturally flourish in your neck of the woods. There seems good sense in this.

But I suspect that we gardeners will still hanker after plants - and garden designs - that are completely or partially foreign to the landscape we live in. Gardens, we will argue, are contrived and artificially set out anyway. One of the chief triumphs any gardener can claim is that he managed to make a displaced species feel so much at home that it burgeons just outside his front door.

On a similar basis, city gardeners bring a small breath of the countryside into their environment by making a garden bloom in the midst of concrete and car exhaust. If they only cultivated what grows naturally in cities, what would their gardens be like? Long tradition has established the garden as an exception to its surroundings: a tame touch of plantlife in a wide wilderness, an escape, something different.

I'd say that a handsome volume by Margaret Hensel - from which the photographs on these pages are borrowed - is one that presents a gardening idea falling squarely into this category. It is called "English Cottage Gardening for American Gardeners."

Ms. Hensel explains: "This book began ... one sunny June morning." She was in Kent "on the way to photograph the gardens at Sissinghurst" (perhaps the most visited and emulated large English garden open to the public) when, in a small village called Benover, she "spotted the most wonderful thatched cottage with hollyhocks and cascades of red and yellow roses surrounding the windows and the wild, picturesque tangle of old-fashioned perennials to either side of the path leading to the front door."

What developed in her mind was a comparison between "that cottage garden" and "the large, well-known English gardens I had been photographing. Unlike those estates, with their mile-long valleys of rhododendrons, or Gertrude Jekyll-inspired perennial borders embellished with balustrades and fountains, this simple garden was deeply personal and something that American gardeners, such as myself, with small gardens and equally modest amounts of spare time and cash, could create."

About these ads

I must say that Hensel should be given due praise for pursuing this notion. It has resulted in a charming book, full of evocative visual delights. Photographs never lie, do they? So we have to believe that there really do exist thatched cottages of utterly cosy, nest-like character almost lost in gardens awash with color and leaf, with climbing and clambering, spearing and spiking, towering and tumbling and overflowing summer flowers. The amazing thing is that it is true: They do exist.

These are among the different kinds of English gardens I remember missing quite desperately when I spent a number of years living in the United States. Like Hensel, I find them quite as exciting as the large, well-known gardens like Sissinghurst, probably because their scale is within reach of a private pocket. After all, the whole idea of a cottage garden is that it is not large or pretentious. It is meant to be a traditional folk garden.

Britain has its share of neglected and derelict back gardens too, of course, and not a few American-style front gardens, open to the road and nothing but grass and perhaps an odd tree or two. And there is another breed of vernacular British gardens that Hensel somehow chose not to include. These are mixtures of vegetables and flowers: a row of sweet peas, a few annuals like marigolds or cosmos, a mock- orange bush, a laburnum, a patch of daffodils. Nothing much to them. You see them from trains behind r ows of connected urban houses. I believe such gardens are probably the real cottage gardens of today: packet-of-seed gardens belonging to postmen and supermarket check-out women. They are more likely to have washing lines and dustbins in them than the arbors and garden seats that Hensel shows in her book. But these gardens are the real thing, and they have a no-nonsense attractiveness.

The gardens Hensel feels are typical of the cottage-garden genre are mostly more aware of themselves. They are still unpretentious. They are still of the "small is beautiful" persuasion. They still rely more on the swap-and-gift concept, where neighbors and friends are the best plant suppliers and garden centers are visited as rarely as possible. But whether the folk who care for the gardens can mainly be called simple "cottagers" is altogether another question.

In Kent and Gloucestershire and Dorset, cottagers are just as likely to be retired lawyers and widows of successful city gents as the cobblers and fieldworkers they should be. Ex-Army officers can be particularly keen gardeners. Schoolteachers likewise. But whoever they are, they still have a distinctive urge to suit garden to house. A cottage, particularly a Tudor one, simply asks for a particular kind of garden. Many owners of such cottages have an instinct, it seems, going way back into ancient peasan t roots ... or at least to the Victorian era.

Hensel does not make much of the fact that "the cottage garden" has a romanticized history that is more self-conscious than just a puttering-about-after-work, casual cultivation of the ground that happens to lie around small houses in small villages in England. I believe she knows this very well, because the gardens she chooses are, however modest, all clearly enthusiasts' gardens. They are loved by and endlessly worked in by owners often quite obviously besotted by horticulture as a hobby and habit.

These gardens have a style (which is why she is fascinated by them); they have many plants in common; they belong to a tradition. They don't just happen to look "old-fashioned;" they are, by their very nature, the continuance of an old fashion.

The cottage garden belongs to the Romantic era. Keats wrote about autumn "conspiring" with the "maturing sun" to "load and bless/ With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;/ To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees...."

The painter Samuel Palmer, who as a young man lived in rural Kent for a few "visonary" years, made memorable paintings of village cottage gardens as if they were walled-in Edens.

Hensel does mention in passing a painter of overcrowded and much-too-sweet pictures of cottage gardens called Helen Allingham. She might have mentioned Beatrix Potter. Both knew a typical cottage garden when they saw one, and admired, loved, and recorded them - Potter with greater insouciance.

Hensel mentions Gertrude Jekyll, a well-known gardener and designer of gardens. This is interesting, because Hensel links her with large gardens and borders, which was by no means always her concern. In fact, Jekyll was fascinated by cottage gardens, influenced by their traditions and naturalness, and wrote: "The size of a garden has very little to do with its merit. It is the size of the owner's heart and brain and good-will that will make his garden either delightful or dull."

Of course, Jekyll worked on the large gardens of wealthy families. But she certainly went along with the argumentative William Robinson, author of the classic "The English Flower Garden," who espoused hardy perennial plants instead of the annual bedding-out plants that have to be resown each year, replanted, and dug up in the autumn. Robinson even liked wild plants and wanted them in gardens. He loved cottage gardens. About "Cottage Garden in Kent," he wrote:

"No pretentious plan to consider, only the yellow Sunflowers of the season massed in their own way ... inside the little wall.... One lesson of these little gardens, that are so pretty, is that one can get good effects from simple materials." Paradoxically, the sunflowers he mentions are annuals, so, to assert his point of view, he adds: "... how much more might we get by good hardy flower gardening round such pretty old houses.... In Kent we must trust to the hardy things of which there are so many that

no cottage garden can contain half of them."

Robinson's ideas - and Jekyll's too, when she was working on smaller gardens - are what hold sway today in the cottage gardens Hensel has photographed and written about. There is a certain irony in the fact that today's small cottage gardeners are so beautifully practicing the precepts preached by late 19th-century "Big House" gardeners like Robinson and Jekyll.

There is irony in the fact that at the much-admired Sissinghurst, its owners Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, following Jekyll and Robinson, divided their large garden up into smaller gardens, and one of them they called "The Cottage Garden." The name is appropriate not only because a cottage is located there. The garden is also, as writer Anne Scott-James has described it, "planted with a cottage mixture - or rather, a sophisticated cottage mixture, for all the varieties are choice and some are rare." Scott-James mentions, among others, such plants as columbines, helianthemum ("rock roses"), pansies, potentillas and nasturtiums. It is notable that some of these are annuals - and why shouldn't they be?

Hensel is absolutely right when she says that roses are an absolutely essential ingredient of cottage gardens.

Flora Thompson, in her chronicle of hamlet life in the 1870s, describes one cottage garden in "Lark Rise" (a made-up name) with special pleasure. It is revealing to note that this garden was a sign of wealth in a hamlet inhabited by very poor people. Her description emphasizes the roses in Old Sally's garden:

"Sally had such flowers, and so many of them, and nearly all of them sweet-scented! ... Wallflowers and tulips, lavender and sweet william, and pinks and old-world roses with enchanting names - Seven Sisters, Maiden's Blush, moss rose, monthly rose, cabbage rose, blood rose, and, most thrilling of all to the children, a big bush of the York and Lancaster rose, in the blooms of which the rival roses mingled in a pied white and red. It seemed as though all the roses in Lark Rise had gathered together in th at one garden. Most of the gardens had only one poor starveling bush or none; but, then, nobody else had so much of anything as Sally."

So, no cottage garden of today, following this tradition - in England or America - can possibly be without roses, particularly climbing and rambling roses, intertwined if possible with honeysuckle and clematis. If nowhere else, they should be close to the door, as many of Hensel's lovely photographs show: Such things make cottage part of the garden, and garden part of the cottage.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.