I have just visited 30 gardens in England, some of them world-famous and some not, and one of the things I learned (not for the first time) is that gardening is far easier here than there. If I had to live in England, I would not want to garden, probably, since the climate is so dreadful and discouraging that nothing ever blooms until it's almost winter again, and things grow so slowly and commonly have such a slight hold on life that to a southerner it all seems futile.
Their gardens are, of course, very beautiful and more impressive than ours, but this is only because they spend more time and money than we do, and they expect less.
On returning at the end of June, I reflected that at Kew, St. Albans and Wisley there was not a hybrid tea or floribunda yet in bloom. It will be the middle of July before their roses look like anything.
Much or most of England is not suited for growing roses, and at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's magnificent garden out from London, many of the roses looked chlorotic, as indeed they did in many other gardens. Say what you will and read what you may, the rose likes deep clay loam, and on the light soils of much of England, and the scant rainfall there, the rose is not happy and it grows only at the cost of much labor and fretfulness.
They do not have blackspot as we do -- and of course they do not know what weeds are. When they weed a bed they expect it to stay weeded for many weeks, but we expect to weed it seven days later.
The only advantage they have that we do not is an absence of sudden terrible freezes in the winter. Some years the temperature falls to zero in parts of England, and when this happens the damage is overwhelming; but generally speaking they do not know anything about a mild December with the roses still blooming, then a drop within an afternoon to a below-zero nadir, killing all the hardy roses to the ground and putting paid to many a tender treasure.
Because they escape such cold, many plants grow in time to great size. At Kiftsgate Court, for example, I saw Rosa chinensis mutabilis 36 feet high on a wall. We grow it as a bush three or four feet high, or, if we plant it against a wall, we may get it to 10 feet. But sooner or later, with us, a winter of below zero will kill it to the ground, so we shall never see it reaching the sky.
The English are good at using common plants in large clumps or masses. The red borders at Hidcote are famous, their luxuriance and richness a lesson to all. And you are surprised to see huge clumps of the double tawny daylily, Hemerocallis 'Kwanso,' figuring importantly here. With us it is a wayside weed; but its vigor and size are impressive and fit it for noble uses. Other important plants in the red borders are the purple-leaf canna, 'Le Roi Humbert,' which is grown mainly for its deep bronze leaves. The same may be said for the old dahlia, 'Bishop of Llandaff,' virtually out of commerce and usually virus-ridden in America. The point is that they have not used improved garden forms, but quite out-of-date varieties to achieve superb effects.
But you must remember, when you see such a border at its best, that there have been long months in which there was little to see. When you think what the border looked like from November to June, when the masses of dahlia and hemerocallis and canna were not making their show, you see that much discipline has gone into the border, not only through using relatively few kinds of flowers in large blocks, but also through enduring a bare look for months in which the border is not supposed to be looked at.
One annual flower that I never think of, but which gave a remarkably fresh look to many different gardens, is Limnanthes douglasii, which has the inelegant common name of fried eggs. It makes a mat perhaps 6 inches high, smothered with slightly cupped inch-wide flowers of rich lemon rimmed with white. Nothing is prettier along a walk, with gray-blue flowers or gray foliage or rue for companions. It has a long season of bloom and, everyone tells me, is one of those things any idiot can grow.
When I ventured out in my own garden I was struck by the great beauty of the trumpet vine, 'Mme. Galen,' which they cannot grow in England, or at least it is not worth growing there. Here its clusters of flowers occupying a cubic foot are glorious to see, in rose-orange-madder apricot, showier than our wild trumpet vine. Another one I grow is solid yellow, that I hoped would look all right against a garage wall painted black.
Our grapes are heavy-laden, and though the English grow grapes for ornament, especially the wild Japanese Vitis coignettiae, the grape is far more ornamental with us than with the English, and we should use it more than we do.
The same is true of a honeysuckle that I prefer to any other, Lonicera heckrottii, rose outside and cream inside and slightly fragrant at night. The thing about it is it blooms nonstop from Easter to Thanksgiving. It is a hybrid of unknown origin and is fairly widely available in the trade. Unlike the Japanese honeysuckle, which has become such a hazardous weed when let loose near small dogwoods, which it promptly smothers, the rose honeysuckle has glaucous foliage like the bloom on a cabbage leaf, and good manners, not romping over everything, yet vigorous enough to grow 20 feet up a half-dead maple, say, or over a summer house or arbor. Nothing is better to grow over the kitchen (or for that matter the front) door.
Probably I shall have a good bit more to say about things in English gardens, but the first thing to understand is that they owe most of their beauty to fine old walls that we cannot afford, or views of distant mountains that we cannot import, and perfectly trimmed lawns and weedless walks -- all of which we can have as easily as they, except we are rarely willing to spend the money required.
This may be the place to say that it is absurd to say we cannot have fine lawns in Washington. Look at the putting greens of any golf club, and you will see a lawn superior to almost all the ones of England. But such grass does require lavish maintenance, and such a lawn requires similar maintenance in England. It's just that gardeners here cannot believe anybody will take that much trouble with grass. Certainly I would not, myself, but the point is you can have lawns as good as theirs if you really want them and are ready to pay for them. Later I shall mention other plants they use, that we might use, and say something about their grouping of plants; how they use contrasts. And I think I shall take maybe one good English garden and simply list, with a few comments, all the plants to be found in it.