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Getting Back to the Garden

By Stuart Mitchner

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…

That line from Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” has been singing in my mind ever since I began thinking about books on gardens for the spring issue. The sound that haunts me, however, isn’t from the composer’s version, but the one sung by Ian Matthews and backed by Gordon Huntley’s eloquent pedal steel guitar on the album Later That Same Year by Matthews’ Southern Comfort. Huntley weaves a spell of such beauty, no place but an earthly paradise could live up to it.

Of real world here-and-now gardens in my experience, I think of Hidcote near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, which I visited with my wife and 10-year-old son at the time of his all-consuming fascination with plants and flowers, particularly exotic deadly ones (a year later it was electric guitars and exotic, deadly music). As it happens, Hidcote was the creation of an American expatriate named Lawrence Johnston, who settled in England in 1900 and began laying out the garden ten years later. During the same UK summer, we visited Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which shared the Arts and Crafts style of Hidcote, with its sequence of outdoor “rooms.” I was always the semi-reluctant hanger-on, for these visits took place when my wife was reading her way through the letters and journals of Sackville-West’s soulmate Virginia Woolf and my son was doing the same with field guides and botanical esoterica.

Both Hidcote and Sissinghurst are featured in George Plumptre’s The English Country House Garden, with photographs by Marcus Harper, recently published by Francis Lincoln. Hidcote and Sissinghurst are, in fact, among “the Three Essentials” of the opening chapter (along with Great Dixter), described as icons “that have come to encapsulate what many other garden makers admire and would like to achieve themselves.” According to Publishers Weekly, Plumptre “traces the key features of basic garden design—the relationship of the garden to the house, the surrounding landscape, detailed planting arrangements, and the human element—highlighting various estates, the personalities who once built them, and those who now sustain them.” Viewers in remission from Downton Abbey may be interested to know that “the role of the garden quickly emerges as a central theme in the history of English country houses, evoking a sensibility that reaches beyond the prescribed care of the elements and asserts that the country house garden is magical.” Of the three icons, the garden with the strongest literary ties is given in-depth treament in the recently published Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (St. Martin’s Press). The publisher notes that from 1946 to 1957, Sackville-West wrote a weekly column in the Observer depicting her life at Sissinghurst, showing her to be “one of the most visionary horticulturalists of the twentieth century.” There are additions by Sarah Raven, “a famous British gardener in her own right who is married to Vita’s grandson Adam Nicolson.” Sissinghurst reveals “Vita’s most loved flowers, as well as offering practical advice for gardeners.” It also “describes details of the trials and tribulations of crafting a place of beauty and elegance.”


Of Gardens of the Garden State (Monicelli Press 2014) by Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, The Newark Star-Ledger says “Perhaps the most intriguing sections” are “those that sneak readers into fabulous private gardens, captured by photographers Gemma and Andrew Ingalls.” The review cites the garden created by “noted garden writer Ken Druse and partner Louis Bauer, horticultural director at Wave Hill in the Bronx, on a 2-acre river island”; the tropical garden of Graeme Hardie and the “sculpture-rich garden of Silas Mountsier, located opposite one another on a leafy street in Nutley”; the “elegant fountains and artful perennial gardens at Kennelston Cottage in Far Hills” and Linden Hill in Rumson, “where 45,000 annuals create a spectacular display every summer.”


The Gardener’s Garden (Phaidon $79.95), conceived and edited by editors at Phaidon Press with 1200 illustrations and an introduction by Madison Cox has been called “the ultimate garden book,” featuring over 250 permanent gardens by leading garden designers, horticulturalists and landscape architects, from the 14th century to the present day, and covering key types and styles of garden. The featured gardens have been selected by an international panel of experts, including, along with Cox, Ravindra Bhan (India), Toby Musgrave (UK/ Denmark), Bill Noble (USA), Dan Pearson (UK) and Made Wijaya (Bali). Summary texts explaining each garden and its design and planting features are written by leading garden and horticultural experts, including Edwinna von Baeyer, Ruth Chivers, Noel Kingsbury, Jill Raggett, Christine Reid and Lindsey Taylor. Featured gardens include Cox’s Ain Kassimou garden in Morocco, the High Line urban greenspace in New York, Japan’s serene moss garden ‘Saiho-ji’, and the Renaissance garden Villandry in France.


In the visual tour of The Gardener’s Garden narrated by Madison Cox on the Phaidon site, he suggests that the garden has always “represented paradise,” a notion that sent me to the lush description of Eden in Book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost—that “delicious Paradise” seen through Satan’s eyes; the blossoms and fruits “at once of golden hue” with “gay enamelled colours mixed,” groves “whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,” between them “lawns, or level downs,” “Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose:/Another side, umbrageous grots and caves/Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine/Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps.” Note that this being Eden before the fall, the rose has no thorns. Being wholly benighted on the subject (let Gertrude Stein say it, “a rose is a rose is a rose”), I went looking to see if there are thornless roses, and found a list, but with an asterisk admitting that “some thornless varieties may have a rare thorn or two, or small thorns under the leaf.” So there you have it, if you want a truly Miltonic before-the-fall no-thorns rose, turn to Paradise Lost, Book IV, line 256.


I was thinking the only gardens I was casually familiar with were the ones behind Prospect House on the Princeton campus when I remembered the one I lived in for a month in my mid-twenties. on the island of Mykonos. Surrounded by an eight-foot-high whitewashed wall, it had shed-like living quarters consisting of kitchen, study, and bedroom (only the study had electricity and the conveniences, as they say in the UK, were of the outdoor variety). With some help from the girl I was with and a British friend, I made a list that I still have: we had Easter lilies and geraniums, morning glories, carnations and roses, fig trees, pomegranate trees, orange, apple, baby peach, and kumquat trees; there were grapevine arbors roofing the path, plus pine trees, lime trees, and a big bay tree, evergreens, mint plants, and honeysuckle. We could pick our own lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and there was a hen house providing all the eggs we could eat. A fitting line from Keats just flashed through my mind, as good a one as any to close with, on the subject of “vines that round the thatch-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.”

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