The Not-So-English Garden by Sally Hultstrand - Read Online
The Not-So-English Garden
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The Not-So-English Garden is the story of the author's unexpected move to the Midwest and how she developed gardens that are compatible with the local landscape and climate. With the accumulated wisdom of more than fifty years of gardening in seven different states, she gives the kind of advice your grandmother would offer if she lived next door. Explained are the easiest way to divide a hosta or propagate a geranium, what those mysterious three numbers on the bag of fertilizer mean, and how to choose plants that provide beautiful views from your windows in all four seasons.

Discussed are the all-important trees, shrubs, perennials, and ground covers that give year-round pleasure and are easiest to care for. A chapter is devoted to each of the four individual seasons, describing the plants that illuminate that particular time of the year in a Northern garden, and the seasonal chores necessary to keep them flourishing. Personal anecdotes animate the manuscript, and pictures of the results inspire the reader to get started.

Published: Sally Hultstrand on
ISBN: 9781476356372
List price: $7.99
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The Not-So-English Garden - Sally Hultstrand

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When we purchased our first home--a small, grey-shingled Cape Cod in a far-flung suburb of Boston--it came complete with a few minuscule shrubs at the front foundation and a lumpy lawn that sloped down to the dark New England woods in back. It was here along the edge of the woods that I dug my first garden, a narrow bed bordered with the rocks that appeared with every shovelful of dirt. In Massachusetts, rocks grow in the ground like so many potatoes, and every time I pushed the shovel into the earth, there was the clink of metal meeting stone, but I dug and raked until I had a semblance of a flower bed and since it was fall, my first planting was to be a bagful of tulips bulbs. With my three-year-old daughter helping me, I explained as we planted these funny-looking brown bulbs that they were going to become beautiful flowers in the spring, and when the flowers appeared, we were going to welcome a new baby to the family.

This, of course, was big news, and as the leaves fell and then the snow, through the long winter she and I made many trips down to the garden to see how the tulips were coming along. Finally the backyard was full of deep snow, and it wasn't until April before we were able to spot the little noses of the tulips poking through the muddy ground. Success! As my belly grew, so did the tulips, and then early one May morning, I glanced out my kitchen window to see a rainbow of colorful blossoms down in front of the woods. I was so excited that I could hardly wait for Ande to wake up, and when she finally did, I dressed her and fed her some breakfast, and then took her by the hand to walk down the backyard to see the long-awaited flowers.

Gardening is a rewarding pursuit, but it can be as full of disappointments as it is wonders, and this was my initiation. There wasn’t a blossom to be seen. As we got closer to the flower bed, I could see the long green leaves and even some of the flower stems, but not a single bloom. I was dumbfounded. Where are the flowers, Mommy? Ande asked as we stood there, hand in hand, looking at the stems. I stammered that I didn’t know. They had certainly been there earlier this morning. I finally said, The deer must have been very hungry this morning and eaten them for breakfast. ( I was improvising as I was as yet unacquainted with the eclectic appetites of deer.) I told her we’d soon plant lots more flowers and, yes, the new baby was coming anyway. Later that day a neighbor telephoned with an apology. It seems her children had been roaming the adjoining backyards that morning and seeing the tulips, had picked a bouquet for their mother. Decades and dozens of gardens later, I am still disappointed when I think of it.

I don’t know what it is that makes some people so passionate about gardening while others could care less. My mother was an avid gardener, and I remember some of her efforts--the big dahlias by the back fence and her shade garden struggling among the shallow roots of the birch trees in our northern Minnesota yard--but I wasn’t aware of any interest myself until this first Massachusetts garden when I was almost thirty years old. But once started, I couldn’t stop. For those of us stuck with this inborn need, the pursuit of beauty is a constant quest. In the early years of my marriage I was obsessed with two things, babies and wallpaper, but now my passion is gardens. I love to edge, weed, water, and even deadhead because it makes things more beautiful. And I especially love to dig up a new garden. My husband has often commented that what I call gardening, he calls light construction, but whatever it takes to realize the vision in my head, I am not only willing but eager to do. This passion is what sets the gardener apart from the rest of the population, who look on with a combination of mild distaste and pity. But life is richer when it includes a passion – antique cars, football, fly fishing – whatever, and I found mine in that brown paper bag of tulip bulbs many years ago.



If you were to take an inventory of my shelves and tabletops, you'd find lots of gorgeous books about English gardens, books filled with glossy pictures of blooming perennial borders backed by tall, dark, and handsome yew hedges that set the flowers off to perfection. They picture swaths of foxgloves as tall as a man, mellow brick walls enveloped in roses, topiary animals leaping over manicured boxwood hedges, and knot gardens with intricate patterns that are best appreciated from the upper rooms of the castle. To us, this is the quintessential English garden. No wonder Robert Browning was yearning for England. I was yearning for it too.

Was there ever a race so devoted to gardening as the English? Everyone from the royals to the rubbishman is interested, and tickets to their favorite flower shows are harder to get than tickets to the Super Bowl. They flock to these expositions every spring to see the latest delphiniums and the newest begonias and to inspect the gold-medal winning gardens, and when they're not visiting gardens, they're writing about them. In fact, I was first seduced by the idea of the Christmas Rose so often mentioned in these volumes. Imagine, a rose that blooms in December! It was quite a while before I realized that the rose they were speaking of was actually a hellebore. Still--blooming at Christmas! Where I garden, the hellebores may bloom for Easter if Easter happens to come late enough in the season. At Christmas, my hellebores are buried in snow.

The Evolution of the English Garden

While the American colonists were struggling to eke out their survival in the wilderness, the English had already been gardening for centuries, and the emphasis in eighteenth century England was on more rarefied things such as vistas. While the Indians were teaching the colonists how to fertilize corn with dead fish, the English were laboriously moving mature trees to frame distant views and excavating ha ha’s to keep the livestock out of the gardens. These man-made cliffs at the edge of the tended part of the garden extended the view to the far borders of the property, the same idea as a modern infinity swimming pool. It was a trick to fool the eye of the visitor into appreciating the expansiveness of the estate while also keeping the foraging animals in their place. A handy class of laborers was available to do the digging, men who passed the secrets of their trade from generation to generation and did the gardening in tweed caps that they doffed in respect to their betters at every encounter.

But fashion is fickle and garden styles also change with the times, so the nineteenth century brought the Victorian custom of bedding out to England. Flower beds like these can still be seen in public parks the world over, patterns of one kind or another created with hundreds of brightly-colored, low-growing annuals. Circular gardens were popular, floral clocks were all the rage, and even today at many a corporate headquarters, company logos can be seen worked out in wax begonias and ageratum. As long as I can remember, the White House has displayed such a Victorian bed on the front lawn, a circle of vivid red geraniums or salvia surrounding a spouting fountain. Gardens of this kind required so much plant material to carry out the effect that greenhouses started to appear on English estates in which to grow the thousands of flowers to be used in the beds, and garden staffs necessarily grew along with them.

Then as the twentieth century began, garden rooms began to make their appearance in England. The world-famous outdoor rooms of Hidcote Manor were in fact designed by an American bachelor, Lawrence Johnston, who lived with his widowed mother in an old English manor house, purchased at a time when many wealthy Americans were emigrating to England to enjoy the aristocratic lifestyle they admired. Like most of us, Major Johnston first took up gardening in a small way, beginning with a plot near the house that he could enjoy from his window. The result pleased him so much that he started to develop another promising part of the property and so on and so on, until he had a series of ever-expanding plots, each with its own character which became referred to as rooms. The rooms were laid out in such a way that visitors could stroll from one to another, eventually ending up where they began. While Johnston’s mother fretted that he was spending way too much of her money on these gardens, his English friends so admired the idea that they went home and did likewise. Even the writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson who created Sissinghurst--maybe the most famous of the twentieth-century English gardens--were inspired.

The Cult of the Perennial Border

One of the must-haves in the English garden at this time and which can still be found the world over, was an herbaceous border, a bed as long and as wide as possible, filled with perennials that would succeed each other in waves of complementing colors as the season progressed. This plan was popularized by another famous gardener of the late nineteenth century, Gertrude Jeckyll, a painter whose nearsightedness so hampered her work that she turned to gardening for artistic expression. She translated her painterly ideas into long flower borders with plants that started at one end of the color spectrum and ended with the other, blooms continuing in this fashion throughout the season. As her idea caught on, her wealthy friends enlisted her help to create herbaceous borders for them too until every English estate worthy of the name had at least one wide, long border, or often two facing borders. But no matter how lovely when well executed, there is probably no gardening scheme more labor-intensive than the perennial border. Think deadheading, weeding, fertilizing, spraying, planting and replanting to keep the color scheme going. If you’ve ever seen the iconic picture of Gertrude’s tattered gardening boots, you know it was a lot of work. Perennial borders need constant grooming to keep them looking presentable, and when winter comes, you have nothing to show for your efforts but an empty space, somewhat muddy, as the plants disappear into the earth not to reappear until the following spring. But people all over the world are still planting the perennial border. It has become the icon of the English garden.

Money and the Garden

The great English estates are the vestiges of the ancient feudal system that existed there for centuries. Loyal supporters of the monarch or warriors who rendered exemplary service in battle were often awarded titles and large tracts of land. The peasants who lived on that land became servants of the lord, their labor supporting his elaborate court, the castle he built on the land, and of course his pleasure gardens. The peasants were allowed to take their living from the land, but the profits went to the nobleman. The lord of the manor in return passed up a taste to the sitting monarch. But the wealth came from the land and the peasants who lived and worked on it. A male heir was essential to keeping property intact to pass on to his descendants. (Followers of the popular TV series, Downton Abbey, have witnessed this scenario in action.) Some of these holdings are still held by descendants of the original owner, but many of them now rely on schemes like renting the facilities to television companies or wedding planners to keep the roof from leaking and the gardens in presentable shape.

In the twentieth century when Britain was impoverished by two major wars and inheritance taxes soared, many of the lavish estates and their gardens were reluctantly ceded by their owners to the National Trust, an agency that still bankrolls their preservation with the help of paying visitors. While members of the family were usually allowed to stay in residence, all decisions on the maintenance were henceforth financed by the Trust. Frozen in time, these properties are a major tourist attraction today, providing tens of thousands of annual visitors an example of what a proper garden should look like.

But long ago, the rural cottagers of England were creating their own small gardens by transplanting desirable plants found in the nearby woods and exchanging specimens with their friends and relatives, creating what are still called cottage gardens. The plants provided something pretty to look at, but also herbs for cooking and doctoring, and the occasional strawberry tart besides. The cottagers were doing what suited their own purposes, and these informal plots are the real ancestors of our own gardens as well as those of the more modest gardens of today’s UK. Like the cottagers, we want a garden that meets our needs, one that is pleasing to our eye and makes the heart leap with joy upon occasion while providing a purr of satisfaction the rest of the time.

Reconciling With Your Weather

But a well-heeled aristocracy and a handy class of garden laborers weren’t the only factors in the creation of the English garden. When his government was planning new housing developments following World War II, prime minister Winston Churchill specified that there had to be space allotted for gardens because the people are so fond of flowers. Discussing this with his doctor, Lord Moran, Churchill declared that Americans have no decent gardens. They don’t have the climate for it, he said. Of course, Churchill's ancestral home was the magnificent Blenheim Palace, surrounded by lavish formal gardens, so his standards of decency were impossibly high. Still, he had a point about the climate.

Unlike England, North America is a large continent with a wide variety of temperatures, soil, and terrain, and whether we garden in the subtropics, the deserts, the mountains, the prairie, or the frozen tundra--our land provides challenges unfamiliar to the Brits. While England actually lies much farther north on the globe than we do, it’s warmed by the Gulf Stream and blessed with an almost perfect climate for gardening, a mild maritime climate where the lowest winter temperatures are comparable to those in most of our southern states. And being an island, most of Britain is bathed in moisture, something that plants need and love. On a tour of a ninety-year-old Englishman’s property a few years ago, I saw no sign of an irrigation system. When I asked him how he managed watering, he answered, God does it, and God did indeed, as my umbrella went up and down while sun alternated with showers. While this could be a nuisance if you were planning a garden party, the plants obviously loved it.

The USDA map indicates the highest and lowest temperature ranges in every particular part of our continent, and helps us to know which plants are likely to survive in the hardiness zone in which we are gardening. This zone is usually mentioned on the tag of the plant in the garden center or in the description in the garden catalog referring to any particular plant. Where I presently live, in lower Michigan, I am gardening in Zone 5 where winter temperatures may drop as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. If I lived forty miles to the west where the waters of Lake Michigan moderate the temperatures, as is common near large bodies of water, I could grow plants that survive to -10 degrees, but setting such a plant in my garden would present some degree of risk to its survival, as I have often learned. Since most of Canada’s population wisely hovers near their southern border, their garden zones are often equivalent to those in the northern US, and I presently garden in the same zone as the