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Russell Page: Gardens that look Inevitable

Russell Page: Gardens that look Inevitable

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Published by: avisolo on Aug 28, 2009
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Russell Page has been making gardens for over fifty years. At
present he is working in Belgium, Chile, Bermuda, Nassau,
Long Island, and Connecticut on hotels, aboretums, conserva-
tion projects, private gardens, and on a new and expanded
edition of his book,
The Education of a Gardener.
Here he
talks about gardening in this century with hints for anybody
setting out to design his own small garden.
ardens are to do with growth and
change, and through the last 80 years
many new factors have modified
them—sometimes for better and some-
times for worse.
Through the 19th century, gardens,
in Europe at least, grew larger and more
elaborate. The industrial Revolution created a new
"middle class" on both sides of the Atlantic, and gardenstended by armies of gardeners were luxuriant manifesta-
tions of new money in new hands.
These gardens were what we choose to call Victorian.
They were planned as a curious mixture of derivative
formal elements and a very stylized form of picturesque
gardening. Both these conflicting styles were interpreted
in new materials, cast iron and synthetic stone. Monkey
puzzles, bananas, palm trees, cactus, dahlias, cannas,
and other newly introduced exotica
from all over the world gave a rather
bizarre look to northern gardens.
By 1900 more modest themes be-
came fashionable—English cottage
gardens, the writings of Gertrude
Jekyll, William Robinson and others,
and the saccharine water colors of Beat-
rix Parsons and many more, made bor-
ders of herbaceous plants and elaborate
rose gardens, water, bog and rock gar-
dens high fashion in Europe, but it was
the First World War that caused the
first major change in a century-long
tradition.I was recently visiting one of England's great country
houses, looking at what was left of a large and elaborate
garden. Two men struggled to keep an air of tidiness atleast round the house. On asking how many gardeners
there had been before 1914—I was told 80—and they all
slept in the house!
By the middle 1920s, when I first began gardening,
circumstances had changed and gardens became smaller
and simpler. The bedding-out of whole gardens withannuals disappeared except in public parks, to be re-
placed by perennial plants, and (a new element) flower-
ing shrubs, which could be used for formal and informal
schemes and be kept in order with an occasional pruning.
In the British Isles rhododendron fever set in due to the
introduction of hundreds of new species from high Asia.
British gardeners went mad about these and the Asiatic
primulas and blue poppies that came with them. Formalgardens were reduced to the minimum required to makea seemly setting for a house if you had not already been
obliged to move into a cottage, and "wild" gardening
became the rage.
This was about the time that I set out to earn my
living by making gardens in a modest way. People who
had had 50 gardeners had by now maybe 10, and people
who had 10 made do with 2. If garden owners were not
digging themselves, they gave much time to pruning
and weeding and propagating plants. Gardening was a
pleasure and an interest for the amateur, and the sheer
quality of gardens and of horticulture improved in
consequence. Young, enthusiastic and hardworking, I
was soon up and down the country building modestalpine and rock gardens, learning about plants from
everybody who could teach me, from clients and from
their gardeners, while I slowly felt my way to designing
in a stricter sense of the word. Handling plants taught
me much about design, form, and texture, and I wanted
to use this knowledge to unite shapes and colors and
textures to make gardens that would mature, I hoped,
into original and well-designed entities fit to stand
comparison with the best work of earlier designers.
In England, design had always taken second place.
Spending time and working in France I taught myself
the elements of classical design, and then with some
years of practical gardening behind me I became a
landscape architect, as such, and in the few remainingyears before 1939, found myself designing quite large
schemes in England and France. By then the idea of
using the garden for living as well as for looking at had
made its way from America to Europe—people of means
wanted their gardens tranformed to include terraces and
loggias for outdoor living and their own swimming
pool—new concepts for European gardens. Country
house gardens in England and France took on a gayer
look. A new kind of outdoor life brought people,literally, out into the open and induced a new and
slightly different stimulus to garden design. Then came
the Second World War, and the whole process repeated
itself-1945 saw even more changes than 1918.
Of course there were still people who could afford tomake large gardens, and I continued to work for them in
many different countries.
On the whole, the great gardens and great gardeners
of the last 60 years have been amateurs, working in their
own gardens and in those of their friends—semi-
professional in some cases. Distinguished professionals in
this period are few. The outstanding designer of the last
50 years is surely Burle Marx—Brazilian painter,
sculptor, and botanist. His influence and impact has
been enormous though unfortunately limited in its range
since, as far as I know, most of his work has been in
terms of tropical vegetation.
Thomas Church was another first-class designer, in
California and in temperate North America. Judging
only from photographs he seems to have been singularly
sensitive to plant material, to modern painting and
sculpture, to the reticence and discipline of the Japanese
approach as well as to the traditional forms of the smaller
European and American garden styles of the last 300
years. Lawrence Halprin, whose garden work, too, I have
only seen in photographs, has brought a remarkable eye
to garden design using abstract forms and disciplined
planting in a way that to me indicate a deep understand-
ing of the motivation of certain Asian gardens and, more
important, of the relationship between sheer geometry
and the organic forms of plant life that informs all
Islamic garden design to be seen at its best in the Mogulgardens of Northern India.
The amateurs who have shaped 20th-century gardendesign are many. Lawrence Johnston's garden, at Hid-
cote, is still the finest example of a small garden, as well
designed as it is well planted. Inspired by it is Victoria
Sackville-West's well-known garden at Sissinghurst.
Here in the Kent countryside a basic framework of
hedges and walls repeats and extends the courtyards and
walls of the red brick castle. The planting, in each
enclosure, tends to be dominated by one kind of plant,
old-fashioned roses, perhaps, or Ghent azaleas with
colored primroses, or by one range of color like the white
and silver garden or the tawny copper and orange plot
next to one of the cottages.
These two gardens have acted as an inspiration for
hundreds of medium-to-small-sized gardens in England,
whence the fashion has spread to other European coun-
A hint on designing a small garden—what do you
want from your plot?—to grow flowers and plants, to sit
about in it, or perhaps to have something pictorial to
look at? Whatever the requirements I would set about
the problem by choosing one simple idea for its plan and
composition—and only one—and my planting would be
thought out in the same way with a limited choice of
plants deployed to look well and make the garden look
bigger. If I try to introduce too many details unrelated to
my basic plan I am only likely to achieve a confused and
confusing result, which would be the opposite of what I
think gardens are about and how they should look.
Over the last 50 years I have made a good many
gardens in a good many different countries, differing
climates and different types of soil. Each of these gardens
was, and in most cases still is, necessarily unlike any
other. All the aspects that a site offers will at once
indicate possibilities and limitations. You have to design
within these limits and possibilities and come up with a
scheme that takes full advantage of both. The transientnature of gardens, other than purely architectural com-
positions, is what most appeals to us whether we are
consciously aware of it or not.
I have lived to see many of my gardens mature and
some abandoned or destroyed. Each of the ones I have
revisited and liked years later, I have liked because they
have seemed to me so closely linked to their surround-
ings and the nature of the ground they are built on. I like
to feel that they look inevitable. Of course there are
many possible solutions to the problems set by any one
site. I usually hope to get a flash of insight into what the
garden will be like—note that I don't say could or
should—so I just try to keep this in mind and do
everything that will bring me nearer to my original
impression. I try to keep clear of variations that willdistract from the essential nature of the garden I am
Imagine a narrow sloping valley, hemmed in by
wooded slope, almost too steep to climb. There is a rocky
ditch in the bottom with running if dirty water. The
whole site is a tangle of weeds and brambles and assortedrubbish brought down by occasional brief floods from the
mountains above. Now the small stream is cleaned and
controlled and fills a series of small ponds, 11 of them,
each flowing over a little cascade to the next pond below.Wide stretches of grass make easy walking on both sides
of the ponds whose edges are planted with drifts of
Japanese iris, Japanese anemones, phlox, which like a
moist position, astilbes, spireas and ferns—wild rhubarb
and gunnera make accents of giant foliage, and manyvarieties of hostas and other foliage plants are used as
foils for more highly colored flowers. Through these low
plantings rise groups of flowering shrubs suitable for the
site. These include rose-species, barberries, magnolias,
lilac species (not garden varieties), and many others.
Clusters of Japanese cherries, mountain ash, magnolias
and koelreuterias add their height to the flowering
material, and certain evergreens and conifers especially
some of the better chamaecyparis like C. Pottenii and C.Wisselii give sharp vertical accents. Autumn color plays
its part: there are Japanese and other maples, sweetgums, sumacs and katsura trees. All this planting is
linked to the surrounding woods by groups of Scots pine
and white birch, both natives of the area. There are no
dramatic statements, all is easy and flowing, and the
gentle tinkling sound of water tumbling over the little
cascade is the key to the whole scheme.

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