EUROPE abounds in magnificent gardens and parks that Americans have loved to visit and sometimes try to imitate. For example, the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and The Long Walk at Windsor were models for redesigning the Washington Mall as we know it today. Tucked away behind abandoned castles and thatched-roofed villages are less familiar gardens with many ideas that can be transplanted to Washington, even to small town-house gardens.
After three years of haphazard gardening, I decided to take advantage of a vacation to London and Paris to see if there were some ideas I could copy from the smaller gardens where love and care were more evident than great wealth. It was extremely helpful for a beginning gardener to experience the scale, light, vistas and colors that have made small European gardens the inspiration for what we consider "good" gardening in the 20th century.
After writing the tourist boards of England and France I quickly discovered there are thousands of European gardens open to the public. The only problem was selecting which ones to visit. I used three criteria:
First, since I do not like to drive in London or Paris, they would need to be easily accessible without a car. Second, since I was traveling with someone even newer to gardening than I and with questionable interest in the whole subject, the gardens would need to have some historical aspect besides being just great gardens. Finally, they should have been started after the high cost of labor placed limitations on garden design. Not much practical advice can be obtained from the gardens of Versailles or Blenheim, which are maintained by dozens of people, and where bulldozers have been used to realign rivers and create terraces.
If I had not already seen Chartwell, Winston Churchill's home and garden, I would have ranked that first. I well remember seeing the brick wall he helped lay, the beautiful rose garden the Churchill children gave their parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, and the ponds he made by damming a small stream that flowed through the property.
While the two gardens described below were the highlights, I also visited Hidcotte, near Stratford-on-Avon; Kew in London and Saville Gardens, near Windsor Castle. All are well known to garden lovers and perhaps more appreciated by someone who has greater familiarity with plants than I. Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, however, was a different story. There one sees the perfect urban park -- safe, with plenty of places to explore, filled with specimen plants yet also a place to sail a toy boat. No wonder so many garden lovers have been influenced by this setting.
Probably the most useful thing I learned was that advance planning and concentration on the "bones" or layout of the garden are the secrets to success. A beginning gardener, who may not know a syringa from a spiraae, soon learns that it is far easier to transplant a lilac than to tear down and rebuild an improperly placed brick wall. Occasionally one can even talk to the owners or gardeners and learn how they deal with such mundane topics as weeds, birds and compost piles.
Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, England: This is the quintessential English garden, created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. They are perhaps more famous today because of their unusual marital relationship described by their son, Nigel, in his best-selling book, "Portrait of a Marriage," than because of their significant contributions to literature and politics during the first half of this century.
When arriving at Sissinghurst, a climb to the top of the tower (three stories) affords an overview of the most characteristic feature of English gardens: the outdoor "rooms." They are so called because they function as rooms in a house without ceilings. Their high walls are of brick or hedges with snall openings to serve as doors or entrances. Each of the outdoor rooms at Sissinghurst has a unique feature -- one has all white flowers, another has only spring-flowering bulbs, etc. While most of us in Washington do not have enough space to create as many rooms as Sissinghurst has, we often have two outdoor rooms, specifically a front and back yard. Could not each have a theme? Even a 20-by-60-foot townhouse garden can sometimes be divided into two small sections to create distinct moods.
Descending from the tower, I started discussing the garden with a man who turned out to be Nigel Nicolson, who still lives at Sissinghurst. While not every tourist is fortunate enough to wind up having tea with Mr. Nicholson and discussing his daughter's wedding in the White Garden, there is an excellent book, "Sissinghurst; The Making of a Garden" by Anne Scott-James which provides a vicarious experience and includes many family anecdotes.
Nicolon told me that the essence of the garden is "ordered expectation combined with surprise." When his parents first acquired the ruins of the castle in 1930, his father laid out on graph paper an orderly plan for the future garden. He started with the "givens" -- the existing 16th-century tower, the other buildings, the ancient brick walls and the moat. He then added more brick walls, hedges, paths, and vistas that provide the garden with a strong sense of order. The surprise element derives from the plants, sculpture, vases and other artifacts Harold Nicolson would bring home from his diplomatic trips and strategically place throughout the gardens.
The White Garden at Sissinghurst is considered by many experts to be most beautiful garden in England. This small, square garden is surrounded by high pink-brick walls and yew hedge. In an all-white display, the untrained eye for the first time begins to see the white flowers individually. In other settings such flowers are often lost amidst orange, scarlet and magenta. It is a peaceful garden, wonderful for sitting, reading, talking or contemplating how its beauty could be transplanted to Washington.
The new gardener often sees everything in terms of flowers and vegetables, often the bigger the better. Green leaves just happen to come along with them. Many English gardens contain a small all-green garden room, with no flowers whatever. Think how cool such a room might seem on a hot August day in Washington. What a pleasure to discover the many shades of green and the different shapes and textures of the leaves. Consider also how polished the garden would look in the winter, when even the best rose garden is dismal. Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown has one such delightful garden.
Even a small garden provides an opportunity to create vistas. And the larger the space, the more vistas that can be created by using cross and diagonal axes. All gardens terminate somewhere; the question is, do they come to an end in nothingness, or do they end in a magnificent specimen plant, a statue, an urn, a waterfall, a beautiful view, an inviting bench or an unusual fence? Whatever the eye rests on at the end of the garden should not be accidental. Perhaps we are so scared of putting out something that will be equated with plastic pink flamingos that we have too often ignored these possibilities.
One of the small outdoor rooms at Sissinghurst captures the particular mood of the cottage garden. Americans coming to England for the first time are always amazed to see how almost every home has a small garden overflowing with colorful flowers. This crowded tangle of flowers spilling onto walks and climbing over fences seems to occur in houses of all incomes levels. It is important to remember that without the overall sense of order and form provided by the walls and hedges, cottage gardens on a large scale would be considered too unkempt.
It is very easy to recreate a cottage garden in Washington, especially in some of the small townhouse gardens in the city. Property line fences can provide a sense of order. While it is not necessary to go to Sissinghurst to see a cottage garden, the plants there are the very best, the color schemes extremely harmonious -- a difficult task -- and the arrangement of plants is worthy of duplication. One way to obtain the luxurious feeling achieved at Sissinghurst is to overplant and not to prune too excessively.
Giverny (near Vernon, France): Claude Monet's home and garden is a treasure for lovers of his art, of fine Japanese prints, or provincial architecture and -- most of all -- of flowers. The garden has been restored in the last 15 years with generous support from many Americans. Its structure is simple; the plants run in long, great rows downhill from the house. Magnificent irises, roses, Oriental poppies, wisteria and peonies are related to each other in ways that will inspire beginning gardeners.
All new gardeners think their problems are insurmountable. One can sympathize with Monet who had a railroad line running through his property! He used it to sharply define and divide the garden. The land sloping down from the house to the tracks contains the formal garden called the "Clos Normand." In the low land on the other side of the tracks Monet laid out the famous lily ponds. Beginning gardeners will be comforted to know that Monet had to rework the drainage and circulation system of the ponds several times before he got it right. The bridges over the ponds were designed more for esthetic appeal than transport. Here it is easy to see the influence Monet's Japanese prints had on his sense of design.
Claude Monet personally oversaw the layout and plantings in the gardens. He said of himself, "I am good for nothing except painting and gardening." Washington gardening couples who squabble over certain gardening decisions will enjoy knowing that even the Monets had "endless and painful arguments" about whether two yew trees near the house should be cut. I could easily see Madame Monet's point of view since the yews were outside her bedroom window and blocked her view of the garden. Nevetheless, the trees still stand.
One final lesson I learned: keep a garden book. Most great gardeners wrote down when plants bloomed and reminded themselves with yearly "to do" lists. Even Thomas Jefferson meticulously kept such notes. I was encouraged to learn that Vita Sackville-West's early garden books contained misspellings, references to the popular names of plants rather than to the Latin names, and other failings of the sort which beginning gardeners tend to attribute to their own inexperience and ignorance.