"THE AVERAGE middle-aged Englishman and
woman have three great affections, their children, their gardens and their dogs. The three have a good deal in common: they all turn out differently from what you expected," says Viscount Lambton in his chatty and somewhat irascible chapter in The Englishman's Garden, a lush, glorious guide to the small private gardens of 33 Englishmen from assorted walks of life.
In this colorful new male companion to the popular The Englishwoman's Garden of a few years back, the reader is first charmingly introduced by the Marchioness of Salisbury and then taken on personal tours of 33 little Edens created and described by their proprietors.
We never do learn how Lord Lambton's children and dogs turned out, but his garden is one of several stately affairs with yews and topiary, stone cupids and Gothic follies--and all with lawns that demonstrate that in England the grass is always greener.
Some of the gardens have been "in the family" for 170 years and been maintained by head gardeners and a staff of up to half a dozen. But most are behind small country, village or London houses. They are relatively new and were created, often on barren ground, by middle-class architects, teachers, businessmen, doctors, artists and horticulturalists who do most of the gardening themselves--although prisoners of war in 1945 helped build the Devon hillside garden, near Dartmoor, of retired Eton master Lionel Fortescue.
Sir David Scott, the book's senior gardener at age 96, is pictured scything grass in coat, tie and hat with rubber knee pads strapped to his pin-striped trousers. He still manages his informal Northamptonshire garden, he says, with only a little help on weekends. But the "haphazardness of it all" forces him to put "white paint on the wood part of all our tools" so he and his wife can find them among their more than 50 flower beds.
Couturier Hardy Amies, dressmaker by Appointment to the Queen, describes the "drapery of the walls" where he has intertwined climbing roses and clematis in the treeless flower and herb garden he created in a small schoolyard in Oxfordshire.
Sir Frederick Ashton, founder-choreographer of the Royal Ballet, on the other hand, loves trees and moves them about like "stage decor" in his Suffolk garden, where he planted a cedar of Lebanon in the middle of the tennis court and surrounded it with a chorus line of clipped yews and box dancers.
There are wild gardens, secret gardens, alpine, bog and rose gardens, gardens with streams and pools (not for swimming) and of course almost everywhere, herbaceous borders of perennial flowers. A few gardens contain, on their fringes and discreetly screened by hedges, vegetables patches, orchards and even croquet and tennis lawns.
English garden books and indeed the very idea of a landscaped garden, have become celebrated export products from an island that reputedly grows more varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers than either the United States or continental Europe.
A recent sampling of three books, however, reveals that English garden information doesn't always travel well, since so many of their cultivated varieties or "cultivars" are unavailable here and the climate is different.
The Wisley Garden Book, an "authoritative" production of the Royal Horticultural Society (Wisley is its official garden in Surrey), is a stately tome with dry chapters on assorted garden topics. Perhaps English gardeners enjoy reading the latest Royal recommendations for gardens shady, alpine, vegetable and rose.
But none of the tomatoes, peas, corn and only some of the flower cultivars recommended by Wisley are sold by U.S. nurseries, and many would not survive a Washington summer.
The Wisley book addresses the garden enthusiast who presumably is on a first botanical name basis with plants. If you don't know "Hamamelis" is witch hazel you won't discover it in the index. Unless you have "Malus" aforethought, you will never find the crab apples.
One garden book that crosses the Atlantic better is The Contained Garden, a compendium in 168 pages of the best British botanical thinking about potted plants.
This U.S.-Canadian edition is something of a Time- Life book but more detailed. The plants it recommmends are available here and are listed both by botanical and common names, although Lycopersicon lycopersicum (tomatoes) and Lactuca sativa (lettuce) look somewhat silly under those headings. Even the Royal Wisley does not demean itself by referring to vegetables by any but their most common names.