Gertrude Jekyll

Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden

“To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for colour, is by no means the easy thing that is commonly supposed.”

Gertrude Jekyll (November 29, 1843 – December 8, 1932), although not formally trained as a gardener, was one of the most influential horticulturists of the last 200 years. Her work helped define the English garden as an art form appreciative of color, plant correlation, and informal, ever-changing structures.

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that in all flower borders it is better to plant in long rather than block-shaped patches. It not only has a more pictorial effect, but a thin long planting does not leave an unsightly empty space when the flowers are done and the leaves have perhaps died down. The word ‘drift’ conveniently describes the shape I have in mind.

Gertrude Jekyll's illustration of summer flowers showing her color scheme and drift planting. Featured in Gertrude Jekyll's "Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden" in The Examined Life Library.
Gertrude Jekll’s illustration of summer flowers shows her color scheme and “drift” planting.

Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden is one of the most important of Jekyll’s more than fifteen books, all detailing her own attempts and learnings at gardening in a hands-on, close-up view of her personal skills and preferences. This made her writing more appealing and popular than other prevailing gardening books.

Inscription from William Robinson to Gertrude Jekyll featured in Gertrude Jekyll's "Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden" in The Examined Life Library.
Gardener William Robinson’s inscription to Gertrude Jekyll in his gifted copy of the immensely wide-read The Wild Garden. Robinson wrote the note from Gravetye Manor, his most famous garden. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Jekyll structures Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, published in 1914, by the season —like Oxford gardener Robin Lane Fox, who also structured his more technical but equally delicious gardening book.

By season makes practical sense, you see, gardeners have a unique relationship with time, both ruled by its dictations and striving to exist independently. Novelist Penelope Lively called gardening “beyond the dictation of time.” Time is everything (even though when gardening, we often step outside its tyranny.)

My Jekyll-inspired garden. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Garden time is measured not by dates or weeks but by events: the first magnolia bloom, the upward thrust of the clematis, when to prune the jasmine. Time can expend abruptly and exhaustively—American poet Mary Oliver noticed in her last collection of poems “The fire in leaf and grass so green it seems each summer the last summer”—or time can graciously repeat itself gloriously. In between time, there is ever more time.1

When the spring flowers are done, and before the full June days came with the great flag irises and the perennial lupins, there is a kind of mid-season. If it can be given a space of ground it will be well bestowed. I have a place I call the Hidden Garden because it is in a corner that might so easily be overlooked if one did not know where to find it.

Jekyll, like many gardeners who keep to themselves, seemed like someone who hid in plain sight. There has always been a bit of mystery about her. Like the legend that she focused on color because her eyesight was failing. Or the whisper that when asked to sit for painter William Nicholson she declined due to her later-in-life obesity. Nicholson, taking inspiration from van Gogh, who once drew his shoes after walking across London, painted Miss Jekyll’s gardening shoes.

"Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots" by William Nicholson, 1920. Featured in Gertrude Jekyll's "Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden" in The Examined Life Library.
“Miss Jekyll’s Gardening Boots” by William Nicholson, 1920. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Beyond the lawn and a belt of Spanish chestnut I have a little cottage that is known as the Hut. I lived in it for two years while my house was building, and may possibly live in it again for the sake of replenishing an over-drained exchequer, if the ideal well-to-do invalid flower-lover or some very quiet summer tenant, to whom alone I could consent to surrender my dear home for a few weeks, should be presented by kind Providence.

Reality is that despite having a few close gardening friends like fellow gardener William Robinson and architect Edwin Lutyens, Jekyll was most at home in the garden. Not in London society, not when writing about herself, but when expressing herself and artistic talents through her love of gardening. Nourishing that inner space through gardening as psychoanalyst/gardener Sue Stuart-Smith explores in her visionary study of gardening and mental health.

That Jekyll happened to write at all is, as she might say, a gift of Providence.

You might wonder why I included a century-old gardening book on this Site. I believe anyone who popularizes words like “drift” in relation to physical space and asks quietly for moments of contemplation deserves to be widely-read.

Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden exudes that rare quality of someone who loves what they do and writes about it carefully, expertly, and in a beckoning manner. Her work belongs in a cluster of blooms with director Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, Stephen Fry’s warm, inspiring guide to reading and writing poetry, and certainly Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder.

Portrait of Gertrude Jekyll by William Nicholson. Featured in Gertrude Jekyll's "Colour Scheme for the Colour Garden" in the Examined Life Library.
A portrait of Gertrude Jekyll, born today in 1843, by William Nicholson done in 1920 when Jekyll was 76 and practically blind.
The best teachers are those who carry such an overflowing love for their subject that they scatter drops as they move through life.