Invariably on a day in June, my husband will ask, “How’s old Gertie today?” and I’ll answer, “She in full bloom.” We’re not discussing an old friend but an English shrub rose in our border, named R. Gertrude Jekyll, bred by recently deceased rosarian David Austin. Voted England’s favorite rose, it is a repeat bloomer bearing rich pink rosettes with Old Rose fragrance, 80 petals per rosette on a bush up to five feet tall and three and a half feet wide. And it once was a gold medal winner in the Chelsea Flower Show.
But that’s not why this particular rose is in my garden. I wanted to honor Gertrude Jekyll herself, one of my favorite garden designers whose English style helped influence my mother’s gardens and, on a much smaller scale, my own back yard. Vita Sackville-West once referred to Gertrude Jekyll as “that grand gardener to whom we owe so much.”
Miss Jekyll (b. 1843 d. 1932) was a world-renown British horticulturalist, garden designer, craftswoman, photographer, writer, and artist – a sort of Renaissance woman during England’s Arts & Crafts era. She created over 40 gardens in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States; wrote some 15 books and over a thousand articles for garden magazines. She advocated for the simplicity and orderly disorder of English cottage gardens – the “natural garden” later espoused by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at Monks House and followed by Elizabeth Lawrence in North Carolina.
Jekyll created the cult of free floral form over a substructure of concealed architectural regularity. She allowed natural shape and harmonious coloring to take precedence by using a subtle, symbiotic approach that we know as the proverbial “English style” garden. Much as French Impressionist painter Claude Monet was doing at Giverny, Jekyll translated brush strokes into flowers and shrubbery. Jekyll approached horticulture from a painter’s perspective and planned her own gardens at Monstead Wood in Surrey as a series of pictures.
“I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to life up the heart in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.”
A gardener, she insisted, should develop an understanding of how the appearance of plants changes with the seasons as well as during their individual life cycles. Plants in the same bed overtake each other as the season changes. Perspective planting, with taller plants toward the back, allows for a multidimensional or “layered” effect that pleases the eye. And in the case of those unavoidable bare spaces that occur as plants expend their life cycles, an urn or pot of flowers in the empty spot becomes a delightful garden accent.
“Often, when I have had to do with other people’s gardens they have said: ‘I have bought a quantity of shrubs and plants, show me where to place them’; to which I can only answer ‘That is not the way in which I can help you; show me your spaces and I will tell you what plants to get for them’.”
Jekyll espoused innovation through experimentation, testing different plant combinations and keeping detailed plant journals. Each individual plant should be studied for its own culture and growth habit, foliage and color, in order to achieve a beautiful and appropriate effect in the garden. The garden as a whole should be harmonious, yet reveal surprises and unexpected views for a natural appearance; thus the gardener as artist devises “living pictures” with simple, well-known flowers in refined harmony in “dogged determination” as well as patience.
“A woman’s place is in the garden. And a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”
MUNSTEAD WOOD exemplified “the best simple English country life” of Jekyll’s day, frugal yet rich in beauty and comfort, very much in the tradition of the landed gentry, but much simpler than the popular imagination of the great houses like Downton Abbey. The house itself has been described as “every inch an Edwardian house,” an embodiment of gracious hospitality and living in a “golden afternoon.” To Jekyll, it was an unpretentious house and way of life. She greeted guests with both hands extended in welcome, sat and visited over a tea table, then sent them out to explore the gardens on their own as she grew older. Tea was half past four with “thin slices of bread and butter, some form of cake, perhaps an unusual preserve such as crabapple jelly or quince jam . . . ” (Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead House, Tankard & Wood, 111).
Let’s follow along with Miss Jekyll on a virtual garden tour she describes in Colour in the Flower Garden. We begin in the original Woodland, a plantation of Scots pine, before it was felled in the 1870s in favor of a self-sown mixed wood. Jekyll began working to develop this woodland almost immediately after acquiring the property in the early 1880s. With no plan at first, she treated each area on its own merits, creating natural groupings. One old Scots pine had been spared the chopping axe because its trunk had forked, thus the tree was retained as a focal point at the end of two broad woodland avenues.
The Green Wood Walk spread nearly 400 feet long between large bushes of salmon and pink rhododendrons, including Bianchi, one of few truly pink flowered hybrids. In Gardens for Small Country Houses, Jekyll described the grassy avenue as “the most precious passion of the place, the bluish distance giving a sense of some extent and the bounding woodland one of repose and security, while in slightly misty weather the illusions of distance and mystery are endless and full of charm.”
Seasonal Gardens, or garden rooms, are one of the hallmarks of Jekyll’s style, as well as the linking of house and garden, a bit of a challenge as the grounds were developed and cultivated before the house was built. Flowers soften the “boxy” appearance of the architecture. Jekyll was particularly fond of the briar roses, collecting many from area cottage gardens.
The Shrub Border featured a central backbone of magnolias and junipers; for example, a 12-foot M. stellate shared space with a Forsythia suspense, only 10 feet tall. A Spiraea prunifolia extended the season with its brilliant crimson leaves. And so on. Any spare space was planted with pentstemons and snapdragons.
Her most widely admired creation at Monstead Wood was The Main Hardy Flower Border (c. early 1890s) that ran 200 feet long and 14 feet deep, backed by an 11-foot stone wall. Plant material and plant combinations and design was her emphasis here. The border featured a complex, intricate color scheme based on harmonious plant relationships. The trick was to leave no empty “holes” when flowering is done by building the borders in layers of drifts that interlock and overlap each other – Meadowsweet, Foxgloves, Canterbury Bells, Iberis sempervirens, Yuccas gloriosa and recurve, Clematis montana together with Guelder Rose, single petunias, tall Ageratum, Phlox, Nasturtiums, Hollyhocks — many of which my mother cultivated in her Southern garden borders.
Thus, the flower garden becomes a changing tapestry of color and form with subtle changes to maintain interest from July to early September (late May to sometimes late September in the Southern garden). In addition, Jekyll kept a small reserve garden as an embryonic nursery for experimentation, trying out ideas and theories before placement in the main garden beds.
And there is more! A half-acre Orchard planted in eight varieties of cooking apples included “Egremont Russett” and “King of the Pippins,” pears – the old French variety “Catillac” and “Doyenne du Comice” – plums and figs, beds of strawberries reserved for the table, as well as raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants – all trained as espaliers – and a working kitchen garden and nursery with potting shed, all within fewer than two acres! The potting shed was an engineer’s shop with a forge where Jekyll made small specialized tools of her own design.
A PROFESSIONAL GARDEN DESIGNER
Most of us think of Gertrude Jekyll in her role as a professional garden designer who changed the face of English landscape following previous influences of Capability Brown. Cottage garden inspired Jekyll’s work in her 50+year career, mostly in southeast England. She worked best with an architect providing the basic layout, especially the equally renowned Sir Edwin Lutyens, a genius in space manipulation and deep geometric understanding. Luytens’ rigid frameworks were ideally suited to Jekyll’s concept of billowing borders softening sharp edges and angles, of neat lawns and masses of climbing roses, clumps of lavender and santolina, jasmine spilling out onto paths.
Her nursery business paid wages for a head gardener and four under-gardeners. Beginning in 1890, Jekyll’s catalogue listed 300+ plants, mostly shrubbery and herbaceous plants but also included 20 herbs and sixty alpines. The main purpose of her business was to provide plants for garden design clients.
Her nephew, Francis Jekyll, continued to run the nursery business after she died in 1932, but only until 1941 when labor became too scarce because of WWII. In 1948, Munstead Wood was broken up and sold after a unique selection of herbaceous plants and shrubbery had been dispersed among other nurseries.
Today, the essential ambiance of Gertrude Jekyll’s work endures in the way we design our own backyard gardens, consider plant form to soften hard lines of modern houses, and use color to harmonize the various seasonal elements.
SELECTED TITLES BY GERTRUDE JEKYLL
Many of Gertrude Jekyll’s books included her own photographs, first in black-and-white, later in an early form of color chrome. Wood and Garden took the gardening world “by storm” when it was published in 1899. Her forthright prose pinpointed both the attributes and evils in gardening, emphasizing diligence and determination. Admittedly my favorite of her books, Wood and Garden reads rather like Elizabeth Lawrence’s A Southern Garden. By the mid-1920s, Jekyll wrote magazine articles almost exclusively for Gardening Illustrated. Her final article appeared 12 days before she died in 1932.
Children and Gardens (1908)
Colour in the Flower Garden (1908)
Gardens for Small Country Houses (1914)
Roses for English Gardens (1901)
Wood and Garden: Notes and Thoughts, Practical and Critical, of a Working Amateur (1899)
Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood, Judith Tankard & Martin Wood, 1996 and 2015
Official Website: www.gertrudejekyll.co.uk/