Years ago, a magazine sent me to write about a grand Elizabethan garden outside London with a peculiarly un-English display of the Union Jack, fashioned from roses and lavender. An editor was sending a helicopter for the photographer to get aerial shots of the flag garden and suggested I climb aboard as well.
In time, the machine arrived. It was about the size of a gnat and seemed to have trouble holding its hovering position against an approaching squall. The photographer, Christopher, said the contraption was too small to take both of us up. “Go right ahead,” I said, feigning disappointment.
The flag garden doesn’t really stay with me, but a small, charming double border does. It was created in another part of the grounds by a consummate plantsman and designer named Lanning Roper. This year marks the centennial of his birth, and while his work is inherently fleeting, his credo persists: Know your plants, have fun with them, but pay attention to structure and design.
Roper was born of blue-blood New England stock in West Orange, N.J., and died before his time in 1983. He lived most of his life in England, where he became a respected and prolific designer of, for the most part, private gardens.
Somewhat overgrown and tired by the time I saw it, the border still possessed a distinctly different character. It had more shrubs than was fashionable, and though there was a considered color scheme, the most striking aspect was the lively composition of leaf texture.
By now, most of his work has been lost to time and changing tastes, and his legacy has mostly vanished with his gardens, except perhaps for a book about him and his gardens by Jane Brown, published by Rizzoli in 1987.
I turn to it often for inspiration, perusing the plant border plans, for Roper had a deft and easy touch when it came to forming artful plant groupings, a skill that does not come easily or quickly to most of us.
“The Oxford Companion to the Garden” describes Roper as a designer who “practiced in a relaxed English style with exuberant mixed borders and a refined sense of architecture.”
English but with an American eye. With a little tweaking of the plant selection, his compositions would fit elegantly into our gardens and climate. (No romneyas, hebes or ceanothus, alas.) What is remarkable about Roper is that while he designed large gardens for industrialists, aristocrats and even royalty, he seemed to do his most pleasing work in small domestic settings.
What do I like about his borders? They are both architectural and effusive, combining flowery perennials such as echinops, helianthemums and lilies with soothing mounds of lavender, lamb’s ears or phlomis, along with small and medium-sized shrubs as visual anchors. He liked to use mahonias, viburnums and sumacs for this role.
For his borders, he used the whole bag of tricks short of annuals and grasses, employing evergreen and deciduous shrubs, perennials, herbs and bulbs. He was telling us: Use loads of plants, but make the design clear. His compositions were soft but not mushy; they had form and a certain rhythm achieved by repeating plants here and there. He loved to insert roses into his borders, and his refined taste drew him to some beauties: Nevada, Frau Dagmar Hastrup, Buff Beauty, Charles de Mills and Cardinal Richelieu. His four favorite climbers, wrote Brown, were New Dawn (the now ubiquitous, silver pink beauty); Wedding Day (rampant and with eye-catching fruits); Felicite Perpetue (soft pink blooms and vigorous growth) and Adelaide d’Orleans (a blushed, profuse and soft-petaled beauty).
Roper also used boxwood to provide strong forms to his compositions. Given the astonishing low-care, long-flowering roses that have been developed since his death, one could imagine him refining his borders with even better material. The same thought extends to boxwood, where new hybrids have almost the same fine texture as some of the old English and dwarf Kingsville box, but are healthier and more handsome for it.
Color schemes were important to Roper, though the black-and-white photos in the book demonstrate that without attention paid first to assemblages of texture and form, color is nothing.
When he employed color, he used signature themes. Importantly, the hues were carried by the foliage as much as with the more fleeting flowers.
He liked color schemes of “soft pinks, mauvy-blues and silvers,” wrote Brown, or yellows, creams and grays. He also wanted his gardens to have “blood-red roses on a stone wall, glossy green leaves, puffs of lavender or lavender-cotton, sweeps of autumn’s russets and golds, and always the scents of roses and his aristocratic loves, lilies and tulips,” she wrote.
Roper may have become better known if his last commission had come to fruition. In 1981, Prince Charles had bought his estate, Highgrove, and had turned to Roper to develop the gardens. (Brown wrote that he had been recommended by the prince’s future wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. Roper had designed her parents’ garden in the 1960s.) But by the early 1980s, Roper had become weakened by his cancer, and he begged off. Prince Charles used other designers to help him, but in time he became his own skilled gardener, driven by his organic interests.
Roper would have been sensitive to nature, but his gardens existed in a purer time when horticulture was less freighted by ecological imperatives. His gardens and, particularly, his borders were assembled by a master for their own simple beauty and joyfulness. Imagine such a thing.