True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Gertrude Jekyll has, no doubt, been mentioned in these garden columns numerous times since the very first one was initiated on Friday, Sept. 6, 1968, by my grandmother, Lucy Cowan Williams. After I took the reins Sept. 7, 1984, the mention might have become more frequent, particularly after we visited some of the famous gardens Jekyll had designed in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Jekyll was one of the most influential garden designers in all England’s history, which is saying a lot considering that nation is the mother of all ornamental gardens, including many here in the United States. 

This woman was among perhaps a half dozen of the most imitated garden designers, and gardeners as well, in history, as she was a hands-on dirt gardener at her home in Surrey. 

Born in London in 1843, her family escaped the confines of the city and moved to the more rural Surrey section when she was 5 years old. 

She wasted no time, even at that early age, in adapting to the countryside and country living. She explored the area, learning wildflower names and absorbing a love for botanica. 

She died in 1932 at her beloved home place, Munsted Wood, missing by five years my own birth in 1937. 

My shelves are jammed with books by and about Jekyll, and all have contributed to my basic botanical education, such as it is. As Abraham Lincoln famously retorted when asked about his education: “I have read a lot.”

Before, and during, her gardening career, she was known as an accomplished painter, photographer, embroidery designer, and indulged in metal work, gilding and singing. 

With this background of varied talents, she settled on gardening and garden design, for which she is best known. 

Jekyll was never locked into any particular garden style, though she disdained the excesses of Victorian bedding out, which was all the rage when she was born. She, and friend William Robinson, were parents of the mixed flower border as we know it today, with largely hardy plants, but interspersed with some annuals.

She was often asked which kind of ornamental garden was the most difficult to design. 

Surprisingly, though her first love was the mixed border, she said the only kind of garden more difficult to bring as near perfection as possible was the wild garden. 

Most people think of the wild garden as some grown-over woodland with tough shade plants (i.e. ferns and natives) prevailing. For her, nothing could be further from the truth. 

She did indeed use numerous native plants, including maybe many kinds of ferns, but she also incorporated exotics such as the indispensable hellebores, hostas, azaleas and others. Only by such a mixture could she achieve the year-round effect she desired. 

She published many books covering every aspect of ornamental gardening, including more than one that included tips on the wild garden.

More on that anon.

 

JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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