This section is from the book "What England Can Teach Us About Gardening", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: What England Can Teach Us About Gardening.
If, then, we know the proper spirit, what is the proper method? I believe it is impossible to have a perfect formal garden without expert advice. Yet if the expert has everything his own way the result is likely to be cold and painful. How, then, can a man put his personality into a garden, especially when he knows nothing of design or of plant growth ? The only way is deliberately to deny himself something, for the surest way to spoil a garden is by creating the impression of unbridled desire. Some of our pet ideas must be subordinated, others omitted. For every great work of art must have some one dominant idea. And now, at last, comes the method I spoke of. For the important thing is to recognize that there are about a dozen types of formal garden, each characterized by its dominant idea; that the wrong way for a man to put the best of his personality into a garden is to try to combine the goocTieatures of all, and the only right way is to study the relative merits of these different types of garden until he knows which best fits his own home life.
Shall architecture be dominant? Yes, if the house be beautiful and enduring, and if the formal gardening is to be confined to the immediate surroundings of the house. No, if what one really needs is a separate formal garden where one may shut out the world and think. The Italian garden that is without flowers is too cold, hard, foreign, and pretentious for a democratic country.
Shall statuary be dominant? Yes, if confined to your one exquisite piece which perfectly expresses your ideal of character or achievement. No, if it is a mere foreign antique having no connection with your real life. We make too many collections of statuary that only serve to remind visitors of Fourth Avenue shops and the fat commissions of architects who let us buy all we want.
Shall a foreign or amusing idea be dominant? Shall we have an Italian, Dutch, or Japanese garden, or a maze, a grotto, or a floral clock ? A foreign style can never be perfectly reproduced, and it is only a thing to admire. It is not a comfort and inspiration in hours of trial. The amusing garden also is only for momentary pleasure. Our serious task is to study our own national life and to contribute what we can toward an American style of architecture and gardening.
Shall an historical idea be dominant? (See plate 9.) Yes, if it really belongs to our family life. No, if it is a mere affectation. An old Dutch family in New York may have a Dutch garden, but is a mere trip to Holland or a sentimental interest in it a sufficient excuse? Of course, it is a duty to preserve gardens that have a history, even though they belong to forgotten styles of art. We have no more right to make them over than to paint a new picture upon a canvas that already records a stage in the history of painting. What if the old garden is stiff and artificial ? It is a good thing to escape from one's century occasionally.
Shall water be a dominant feature? Yes, if it is plentiful and cheap. No, if in any way it suggests great expense. By all means have the sound of running water if you can afford to let it run, but if you can afford only a mere trickle, make the water feature subordinate. Rather the simple dignity of "Diana's Pool" (shown on plate 8), than an electric fountain-that will give your week-end house parties a new sensation.
Shall vegetation be the dominant idea? Yes, always in a secluded formal garden. The garden dominated by architecture is the deadest of all gardens, because architecture is the least emancipated of the fine arts. It has more of the material than the others. Stone does not suggest growth; vegetation does; and growth suggests character. A garden without vines is like a house where affection does not dwell. It is impossible to make a garden breathe a warm, tender spirit without luxuriance. (See plate 9.) But I believe we make a great mistake in mixing all the different types of vegetation. Let us consider what type of vegetation shall be dominant.
Shall trimmed trees be dominant? (See plate 10.) No. Let Levens Hall preserve its perfect specimens of topiary work, but let us trim no box or other evergreens into geometrical forms or shapes of birds, beasts, or men. The idea is trivial — even grotesque. We may use the simplest forms — globe, pyramid, and column — when there is a good reason, but sparingly. The best reason is to relieve flatness in a garden where flowers are to be dominant. Then your bay trees in tubs are justified, for they give height without harming the flowers by taking away sunlight or food. But a whole garden of trimmed conifers, even one with the simplicity of the Hunnewell garden, is artificial. Trimming is a mean way to show mastery over nature. A nobler way is exemplified by the avenue of yews at Hampton Court, where the trees are natural pyramids — but not too perfect ones. If we need a columnar tree, we should not long for the Italian cypress, but plant our own red cedar — and never trim it.
garden, flowers, plants, England, effects, foliage, gardening