The Grandes Dames of the Cottage Garden

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The history of gardens is full of men’s names: André Le Nôtre, creator of the formal French garden, Capability Brown who launched the English landscape style, Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park in New York, Roberto Burle Marx, whose Tropicalissimo still is still making waves, etc. But gardening has always been just as much a woman’s domain as a man’s… and never more so than in the development of the English cottage garden.

Here’s the story of two British women who helped develop the cottage garden as we know it and who thus still influence the design of our own gardens to this very day.

Gertrude Jekyll

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Gertrude Jekyll

If you have a flower garden, it’s probably because of Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Although she trained as an artist, she soon gave up painting to specialize in landscape architecture. As she began her career, the English landscape garden was still very much in vogue: large green parks filled with lawns and trees, a small lake and a meandering stream and often sculptures and pavilions, but with almost no flowers. This type of garden typically surrounded European castles, palaces and large estates.

 

Gertrude Jekyll help democratize this style, bringing it closer to the masses, but to it she also added color. She didn’t work on the vast domains of the wealthiest aristocrats, but rather with the burgeoning middle class and their more modest although substantial country homes. Her model? The gardens she saw in her childhood around the small thatched roof houses (cottages) of the British countryside, hence the use of the term cottage garden.

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Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon represents what a cottage garden might have looked like.

Around these houses were gardens of useful flowering plants – fruit trees, medicinal plants, culinary herbs, etc. – apparently growing without any planning, a real hodgepodge. Thanks to her knowledge of painting, Gertrude Jekyll organized the chaos just a bit, showing the gardeners how to match colors (she was strongly influenced by the color wheel and thus the influence of complementary and analogous colors) and how to mix plants with different flowering periods to ensure non-stop bloom from spring through fall. She was also a true plantswoman, always on the lookout for new, better-performing varieties.

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Flower border at Manor House, Hampton: one of Gertrude Jeykll’s designs.

She took the idea of the flower border, hitherto strictly rectangular, enlarged it, sometimes gave it curves and filled it with flowering plants, including perennials, biennials, bulbs and, of course, roses. The modern English-style flowerbed so many of us have today derives pretty much directly from her cottage garden style.

 

Don’t get me wrong, though. Gertrude Jekyll was not only person to democratize gardening and to reintroduce the flowers into the landscape. Consider William Robinson, her Irish contemporary whose “England flower garden” greatly influenced flower gardens in general, as well as Edwin Lutyens, who often worked with her. However, I think we can say that Gertrude Jekyll was the main instigator of the perennial border we know today.

It’s important to understand that she was also a garden writer who produced many articles and books for middle class gardeners. Thus her influence extended far beyond the 400 gardens that she personally designed or helped design: by the end of her life, the English-style flower border was the dominant style for small gardens worldwide.

Unfortunately, few gardens that Gertrude Jekyll designed herself still exist today and most of those that do are in private hands. Among those you can visit are:

  • Barrington Court, Somerset;
  • Bois des Moutiers, Normandy, France;
  • Castle Drogo, Devon:
  • Durmast House, Hampshire;
  • Hatchlands Park, Surrey;
  • Hestercombe, Somerset;
  • Heywood Gardens, Ireland;
  • Knightshayes, Devon;
  • Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland;
  • Manor House, Hampton;
  • Munstead Wood, Surrey;
  • Vann, Surrey.

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was well known in her time as a novelist and poet. Her novels have been translated in many languages and some have been made into TV series. But gardeners best know her today as a garden designer. Although she only created one garden, at Sissinghurst Castle, in collaboration with her husband, Harold Nicolson (1885-1968), a diplomat, author and politician, it’s a garden that still influences us today.

 

The couple bought the ruined castle in near Cranbrook, Kent, England, in 1928. They didn’t have the means to restore the entire castle, but did renovate a few of the outbuildings as well as the Elizabethan tower where Mrs. Nicolson had her office. The couple themselves stayed in the South Cottage.

The Rose Garden in June at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, Kent

Rose Garden at Sissinghurst.

The genius of their garden was that it was divided into “rooms”, like the rooms of a house, and that each garden room was decorated differently, as indeed would be the rooms of a house. It was a revolutionary idea for the time (although not really their idea originally; it was their friend, Lawrence Johnston, designer of another famous British garden, Hidcote Manor, who first developed the idea).

Previously, when planning a landscape, the same style would have been used for the entire terrain. So the house would surrounded by an English-style landscape garden, a French formal garden, an Italian garden, etc. The idea of a garden divided into rooms that could be visited one by one, as you would when you visit a house, represented a profound change in the habit of gardeners, especially since each room could then be done in a completely different style.

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The White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Mr. Nicolson was a master of landscape architecture and drew lines and curves with a draftsman’s precision, using any brick walls that were still standing and hedges where they were not. Each room was so arranged that you couldn’t see the following room before you crossed its threshold. Mrs. Sackville-West was the decorator, adding flowers and foliage to give each room a theme. We owe her a famous definition of an English flower garden: it should have “the strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting”. The contrast of the perfect lines of Sissinghurst Castle’s gardens overridden by exuberant plantings that seem to be threatening to engulf them create much of the charm of this romantic garden.

Again, with Lawrence Johnston’s help, Vita Sackville-West broke new ground by developing monochromatic gardens, where all the flowers were yellow or blue or pink, etc. Some of the gardens have water features or fountains, others statues, others an arbor or trellis, others were based on a specific group of plants, etc. Vita said that her garden was “a cottage garden on the most glorified scale”. I think a lot of people would agree with that.

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Bird’s eye view of part of Sissinghurst Castle from the Elizabethan Tower.

What is fascinating about Sissinghurst is that the tower that dominates the garden is open to visitors, so you can see the garden from above, as Vita Sackville-West would have seen it from her office. It looks like a palace whose roof has been removed so you can better see the rooms’ contents. Fascinating!

Sissinghurst Castle is now managed by the National Trust and is open daily to visitors. It has become one of the most visited gardens in the world.


 

And there you go: a very brief sketch of two grandes dames who changed the history of gardens and whose influence is still felt around the world. In fact, your own garden design was probably inspired by their styles, even if you didn’t even know the two women existed before reading this blog.

If ever you want to know more about Gertrude Jekyll or Vita Sackville-West, you’ll find plenty of articles both in print and online. Of particular interest is “Portrait of a Marriage”, a biography of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson written by their son, Nigel. And you can of course easily read Vita Sackville-West’s novels, most of which are still in print, or watch two mini-series based on her novels, “The Edwardians” and “All Passion Spent”.

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