Woful shortcomings of most American examples—A perfect sue-cession of flowers and a perfect colour scheme — The border should become a national institution.
I THOUGHT I knew something about hardy borders before I went to England, but I was as a babe unborn. What we Americans don't know about the art of making pictures with perennial flowers would fill several large volumes. Our flowers are usually mere dots amid wide areas of foliage. We allow patches of bare earth to appear everywhere, even as late as July. We tolerate shocking colour discords. We suffer stakes to show. We put perennials in front of shrubs, where most of the finest flowers are sure to be starved or overrun. We indulge in a mighty housecleaning every spring — digging, dividing, rearranging, and manuring — to the ruin of all repose and beauty in April and May. And if you, good reader, were called upon to explain what colour scheme you used and what pictorial effects you aimed at, could you give a satisfactory answer?
Years ago my imagination was fired by that sensational passage in Robinson's "English Flower Garden" in which Frank Miles, the artist, laid down three startling propositions: Every square yard of ground should have bloom on it at least eight months of the year; every six inches of soil should contain its plant; and once a border is well made, it need not be dug up at all! One of the first things I did on reaching England was to inquire where I could see a flower border like that of Frank Miles. I was informed that Miss Gertrude Jekyll was believed to have the most perfect borders of their kind in England. I might have armed myself with letters of introduction, but I have no desire to intrude upon the privacy of one who publicly declares that she is "growing old and tired, and suffers from very bad and painful sight." And there is no need of anyone's seeing her garden because no one could possibly get from a single visit a hundredth part of what her latest book contains. "Colour in the Flower Garden," it seems to me, carries the art of designing hardy borders to a point far beyond anything previously written.
"It has taken me half a lifetime," says Miss Jekyll, "merely to find out what is best worth doing." Many people get their pleasure from collecting rare plants. Some prefer to make cut flowers the main feature. Others desire gardens that are merely decorative adjuncts of the house, i. e., gardens for show. But the supreme pleasure, Miss Jekyll thinks, comes from designing a garden that is a "year-long succession of living pictures".
There is only one way of accomplishing this, in her opinion, and that is by dividing the whole estate into a dozen portions or more, each one of which is assigned a different period for its perfection. Thus she has one border for March effect, which contains snowdrops, crocuses, scillas, and the like. She has a spring garden devoted to April and the first three weeks of May, which includes tulips and daffodils coming through carpets of rock cress and creeping phlox. She has a "hidden garden" for the last days of May and first half of June (the period between tulips and irises), in which alpine flowers and tree peonies are a feature. She has a June garden, which is rich in roses, irises, and lupines.
She has a September border that is mainly for perennial asters. And her main flower border, which is 14 x 200 feet, is designed to be at its best only from the end-of July to the end of September — a little more than two months. The pitch of perfection which Miss Jekyll demands (as shown by her pictures) cannot possibly be maintained in any one part of the grounds for more than three months, and even then only by using potted plants as "fillers." Two months is about the longest period that is practicable. What a different idea this is from Miles's dictum that "a yard of ground should have bloom on it at least eight months in the year!"
Is such a high standard worth while? Yes. I saw a border at Knole which, from end to end, was almost a continuous sheet of bloom. Countless thousands of flowers, in two unbroken bands lured the eye on and on until the straight lines seemed to converge in the mellow distance. The brilliancy and gayety of such a spectacle are beyond the powers of pen or camera to convey. And at Knole this magnificent display was maintained by a simple and relatively economical plan. A great many perennial plants._ are grown from seed every year in coldframes. Most of these are white flowers because white is the great peace-maker. This is the only colour that can be put in anywhere by cheap labour without making serious discords. I saw a young woman putting in these fillers wherever there was a bare spot of ground and doing the work well for thirty-six cents a day! This simple plan makes white the dominant colour in the border, and gives it an indescribably cool and airy effect which is most appropriate in hot weather. As I strolled along the borders, I was not conscious of there being too much white. It was only when one came to the end of the border and looked back over the whole extent that the white seemed dominant. I asked the gardener whether there was any other colour scheme and he said no. Their main idea was to have every foot of ground covered, and they depended on white to soften all the colour discords. Rarely did they remove any plant for lack of harmony. This is the cheapest way of keeping a border up to high C that I know.
But such a plan would never suit Miss Jekyll, because there is no definite colour scheme. $-She believes that each important colour should be assigned a section in the border, where that colour is to be dominant but not exclusive. Moreover, these sections should be so arranged that each one is the best possible preparation for the next. For example, suppose you spend five minutes enjoying the flowers of the yellow section. Your eye has unconsciously acquired an appetite for the complementary colour, viz., blue. Passing next to the blue section, it seems as if no blue flowers ever before appeared so pure or vivid in colour. It is an amusing experiment to gaze for thirty seconds at marigold flowers in iull sunshine and then look at the leaves. Although they are normally a dull green they now appear a bright blue.