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Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Posted by woodyoak 5 (My Page) on
Mon, Jun 25, 12 at 22:42

The other day I referred to the book 'The Gardener's Essential Gertrude Jekyll' in response to a comment by Bahia that maybe he should give her a second chance - or something like that... Having pulled the book from my garden library's shelves I've just started re-reading it since it has been quite a few years since I originally read it. I was immediately struck by what a wonderful participant she would have been on a forum like this one! She had a pretty tart tongue and strong opinions, so she probably would have been called rude here from time to time :-) But she was good at encouraging a love of gardening by being tolerant (usually!) of the tentative, often stumbling, steps of beginners. Some quotes:

This one is very similar to comments/advice one oftens sees here...: "Often when I have had to do with other people’s gardens they have said: 'I have bought a quantity of plants; show me where to put 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.' "

This rather long quote deals with beginning/inexpert gardeners and more experienced gardeners communicating with the beginners:
"There are many people who almost unthinkingly will say, 'But I like a variety'. Do they really think and feel that variety is actually desirable as an end in itself, and is of more value than a series of thoughtfully composed garden pictures? There are no doubt many who, from want of a certain class of refinement of education or natural gift of teachable aptitude, are unable to understand or appreciate, at anything like its full value, a good garden picture, and to these no doubt a quantity of individual plants give a greater degree of pleasure than such as they could derive from the contemplation of any beautiful arrangement of a lesser number. When I see this in ordinary gardens, I try to put myself into the same mental attitude, and so far suceed, in that I can perceive that it represents one of the earlier stages in the love of a garden, and that one must not quarrel with it, because a garden is for its owners' pleasure, and whatever degree or form of that pleasure, if only it be sincere, it is right and reasonable, and adds to human happiness in one of the purest and best ways. And often I find I have to put upon myself this kind of drag, because when one has passed through the more elementary stages which deal with isolated details, and has come to a point when one feels some slight power of what perhaps may be called generalship; when the means and materials that go to the making of a garden seem to be within one's grasp and awaiting one's command, then comes the danger of being inclined to lay down the law, and of advocating the ultimate effects that one feels oneself to be most desirable in an intolerant spirit of cock-sure pontification."

Good advice - although she certainly didn't hesitate to lay down the law on desirable effects on a regular basis:-)

If you haven't read much Jekyll - or haven't read it recently - this book is a good introduction to/refresher on an iconic garden figure who deserves to be better known than as just a hazy 'flower garden' advocate.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Gardener's Essential Gertrude Jekyll


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

I have a half dozen or so books that were either written by Jekyll or were written about her.
My favorite is 'Wall and Water Gardens', because of her wonderful hand drawn illustrations, old black and white photography , plant lists and of course her dry quick sarcastic wit, which one can really appreciate when reading her weekly articles for the magazine "Country Life".

This woman did not suffer any fools gladly. She could be murderous in her direct poignant retorts and kept company with the best intellectuals of her time.

Her design work was splendid whether it was in woodworking, embroidery , garden craftsmanship or writing. She was the whole enchilada.


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

The original British version of Martha Stewart :)


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

  • Posted by bahia SF Bay Area (My Page) on
    Tue, Jun 26, 12 at 3:28

I enjoy reading the quotes, and find myself in complete agreement! I'll have to look into some of her writings. Not having any real landscape design experience with USDA zones below 9a, I've got no personal experience with the nuts and bolts of English/East Coast/less temperate climates, so don't often relate to books written for such locations. I'm much more attracted to writings about Mediterranean/Subtropical/Tropical/Deserts and contemporary design or books on regional floras of these climatic zones. Even books about nearby PNW flora and design often seem too "other" for applications to my circumstances. But Jekyll seems to have commentary that transcends her era and local climate...


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Bahia - do read her stuff. I'm sure you'll enjoy it and find much that you would agree with and find applicable. Some of her books do, of course, deal with plants for the UK climate and conditions, but much of her commentary is broadly applicable to all gardens. You might want to start with this book since it includes writings from many of her books, organized by general topics. Then, if you want to read more, you will know which particular books might interest you most.


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Another fun fact : that a modest portion of the plants she had written about have since changed their names .
I love the old hosta name of Funkia.


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose! Another Jeykll commentary that reflects what happens on this forum... On beginners and learning:

" ... it is only when we know something of the subject and an eager beginner comes with questions that one sees how very many are the things that want knowing. And the more ignorant the questioner, the more difficult it is to answer helpfully. When one knows, one cannot help presupposing some sort of knowledge on the part of the querist, and where this is absent the answer we can give is of no use. The ignorance, when fairly complete, is of such a nature that the questioner does not know what to ask, and the answer, even if it can be given, falls upon barren ground. I think in such cases it is better to try and teach one simple thing at a time, and not to attempt to answer a number of useless questions. It is disheartening when one has tried to give a careful answer to have it received with an Oh! of boredom or disappointment, as much as to say, You can't expect me to take all that trouble; and there is the still more unsatisfactory sort of applicant, who plies a string of questions and will not wait for the answers! The real way is to try and learn a little from everybody and from every place. There is no royal road. It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig. - I mean sitting indoors and asking it. Better go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it and go on trying till it comes, and you gain the knack that is to be learnt with all tools, of doubling the power and halving the effort; and meanwhile you will be learning about other things, about your own arms and legs and back, and perhaps a little robin will come and give you moral support, and at the same time keep a sharp look-out for any worms you may happen to turn up; and you will find out that there are all sorts of ways of learning,not only from people and books, but from sheer trying. "

Doesn't some of that sound like some of the comments that have been made here by regular posters...?

How can anyone not like Jekyll?! She speaks directly to me in that that is exactly how I garden and learn - I've even had the experience with the robin waiting for the grubs and worms dug up in the making of a new bed!


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Woody, Jekyll was a paid garden advisor, was she not?

Karin L


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

Very definitely so Karin!


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

I think I've gotten carried away with Jekyll's idea of "living pictures" from the book Color Schemes for the Flower Garden - I keep making new pictures while dismantling old ones... gotta have some hobby, right?


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

timbu - I like playing with 'making pictures' too and usually have to rework them when they turn out wimpier than I expected them to, or as growth and maturity of the plants change the picture. Jekyll also had a 'pretty incidents' category - for small groupings that she didn't consider worthy of the label 'picture'. I'm not sure where the line gets drawn between those two, so probably a lot of my pictures are just incidents! I try to keep a lot of the pictures fairly simple in terms of a limited number of plants but try for striking but comfortable color effects. I like her comment:

"In the case of my own garden, as far as deliberate intention goes, what is aimed at is something quite simple and devoid of complication; generally one thing or a very limited number of flowering things at a time, but that one, or those few things, carefully placed to avoid fuss, and to please the eye and ease the mind. In many cases the aim has been to show some delightful color combination without regard to the other considerations that go to the making of a more ambitious picture."

And this comment:

"If I have dwelt rather insistently on matters of color, it is not that I underrate the equal importance of form and proportion, but that I think that the question of color, as regards its more careful use, is either more commonly neglected or has fewer exponents. As in all matters relating to design in gardening, the good placing of plants in detail is a matter of knowledge of an artistic character. The shaping of every group of plants, to have the best effect, should not only be definitely intended but should be done with an absolute conviction by the hand that feels the 'drawing' that the group must have in relation to what is near, or to the whole form of the clump or border or whatever the nature of the place may be." By 'drawing' she meant "a right movement of line and form and group" that is necessary to provide "life, spirit, and reasonable justification" to the thing shown. (She also said "I am only too well aware that to many this statement may convey no idea whatsoever.")

I'm not sure I understand it all either, but I do try to aim for what I think it means! I think many people have a very simplistic idea that Jekyll was all about masses of colorful flowers, when she was advocating something far more carefully considered than that.


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RE: Gertrude Jekyll on the forum... :-)

I thought of the 'making pictures' issue when walking around the garden taking pictures earlier today... This one appeals to me a lot - it was partly planned and partly a 'happy accident'. Even without flowers at this point, I think it still looks nice. The big shrub to the right of the living room window is a Beautybush I planted so it could cascade down the blank wall between the living room window and the office window (not visible in this view as the foliage hides it looking at it from this angle...) and arch over the path across the back of the house leading to the south alley. The white redbud tree in the bed across the path was planted to pair with the one I planted in the bed diagonally across the lawn. The shrub at the corner of the house, at the end of the south alley, is a bridalwreath spirea. So, the three elements were all planted for a reason and to be part of individual 'pictures', but what I hadn't really planned for is that they would, as they matured, come together to form an arching tunnel to mark the entrance to the south alley/entrance to the backyard (depending on which direction you are travelling in...) Accidental, but I quite like it :-)

I've just been reading a book about Frank Lloyd Wright's gardens. He used pergolas for tunnel-like effects and he described the experience of walking through them as 'compression and release'. Walking through this area, especially going from the alley, through the shady 'arch' and into the open lawn area on a sunny day, I understand what he meant by that. Interesting....

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