Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), 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.
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 sort of hands-on, close-up view of her personal skills and preferences. This made her writing more appealing and popular than other prevailing gardening books.
Jekyll structures Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by the calendar (somewhat)—like Oxford gardener Robin Lane Fox, who also structured his more technical but equally delicious gardening book (somewhat).
You see, to gardeners comes a unique relationship with time. Novelist Penelope Lively called gardening “beyond the dictation of time.”
Garden time is measured not by dates or weeks but by events: the first magnolia bloom, the upward thrust of the clematis, and 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.
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. That she happened to write at all is, as she might say, a gift of Providence.
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. The best teachers are those who carry such an overflowing love for their subject matter that they scatter drops as they move through life.