Gertrude Jeckyll

Photos of Bodnant Garden in North Wales

Last week I wrote about Bodysgallen, a country house in the Conway Valley in North Wales. Here are some photos of somewhere I visited on the same day further inland on the same river valley. It is Bodnant Garden. The mountains you see in the distance are the Snowodonia range, the highest in England and Wales. I visited earlier this year in May and have just been working outside in my garden here in New England. I was looking for some inspiration to remind of the ideal I am aiming for. So here are some photographs of the National Trust property. As you will see the planting is in the traditional British style of drifts of colour and lots of herbacious borders - in the manner of Gertrude Jeckyll. I really can't think of much more to say other than please just enjoy the photos and to ask, why can't we have a few more gardens like this over here in the US?



How Small Household Flower Gardens Have Helped Transform a Boston Community

Here is a great story of how beauty really can change the world. A low-income housing complex in Boston has been transformed, through the work of its residents, into a place of beauty and dignity. It started with one or two people deciding to plant the little plots of land in front of their houses, then others seeing what was going on and starting to do the same. And according to the delighted director of the complex, who has just been watching this happen over the last year or so, it has brought benefits to the community as a whole that one just wouldn't have imagined. I have written before about the importance of the pleasure of gardening and as the garden  as a symbol of the culture of life in which man's harmonious work with nature raises it up beyond its natural state. But here is a story of how there is an underlying truth to this that really does affect people's lives for the good; we are talking here of people who, bar one, have never read my blog and are not likely to. There are no Chelsea Garden Show gold medal winners. This is just everyone mucking in and having a go. I heard about this from Nancy Feeman, who is working with me and a band of enthusiastic students to establish an English style garden at a farmhouse in Groton, Massachusetts.  The farm on which this stands will, once the money is raised for building, be the site for the new campus for Thomas More College. Nancy lives in the complex; she became connected with the college by coming along to one of the Way of Beauty retreats, two summers ago. (She has written about how this sparked an interest in gardening before, here.)

I'll let Nancy describe it: 'I have lived here for 9 years.  The housing complex in Boston was originally built for the returning WWII veterans and their families.  Later it was converted to housing for low-income families.  Here we pay 27% of our income for rent as well as heat and electric.  For me working in a Catholic school and as a single mom it was a huge relief to know that my rent would only change according to my income.  Still it was difficult to move here because of the social implications, prejudices and the difficulties raising children here.  But God’s grace has helped us overcome every difficulty. Recently changes in policy from the Housing Authority, which has always work hard to make this a good community, have had a positive effect.  About 4 years ago they received a grant for a huge renovation project and every apartment was completely remodeled which meant new and updated kitchen and bath.  They put in a small police substation to deal with crime, more lights, cameras, speed bumps, and the director moved her office from the main building to this complex about a year ago.

I was told about seven years ago that I could not hang a planted basked from the rail outside my house. That was disappointing I admit, but I am sure they had very good reasons at time.  Then about a year ago I noticed that a couple of people were doing little bits of gardening here and there and went to ask the director about it. I was pleased that this time the policy was different and she encouraged me to do it.

I have a tiny plot of land in front of my house and so this year I have planted it in the English style, that I have learnt about from the writing of Gertrude Jeckyll. This is a new interest for me and I am just finding out about plants, and this is just the first year I have tried it. I am just learning as I go along. What has happened is that gradually people have noticed what I have been doing and asking me about it and then starting to have a go themselves. As far as I know, most had no knowledge of gardening or plants before this. I feel as though I am only half a step ahead of the starter-gardeners. I am not using exotic plants at all - just the ordinary things that you buy from the garden centre, but the colour combinations and that way of packing out the bed so that eventually there are no spaces, which comes from Jeckyll, does have an impact. Not everybody is doing exactly what I am doing, but more and more are planting something and making an effort to think about how in other ways to make the place look neat and tidy. There has been a definite change in the attitude of people who have gardened even if they have simply begun to rake around the trees outside their apartment or sweep their porch. ’

Recently, the director of the complex, who has planted some annuals in front of her office called Nancy over just tell her how wonderful she thinks the imact is on the whole street: 'The director was full of excitement and told me how beautiful she thinks all the flowers are and how it has spread from house to house. She said: "More people are starting to garden and care about their place.  This is their home and it is so wonderful to see them even just rake or sweep their area because it means they care and that is what we want. Also, the gardening brings people outside and then they interact with each other and that builds more community." The director even involves the local children: "The children love the plants too. I invite them to help pit annuals in front of my office and they take great delight in carrying the water jug to and fro to water their small garden.”  She even told me that she taken aside all the summer student workers and the maintainance people to explain to them which plants are to be left and which are the weeds so that they don't take things out accidentally with their mowers and weedwackers!'

As Nancy said to me when relating the story: 'I think this does speak to the truth of human dignity towards things that are good and beautiful and gardening is part of that. It’s not just the beauty of the effect, but even working this tiny garden you feel the truth of the idea that there is dignity in working the land.

'It has made a big difference for me living here to be able to garden and to bring some beauty into a place that is not always easy to live in.  It’s so good that it brings joy to people and that when they see the flowers so many have been inspired to join in and do it themselves. '

What I love about this story is the way in which that has happened without the need for an organisational input or even community meetings. It has just happened organically (if you'll forgive the pun). When one person started doing it the others followed suit. There has been no cost to the taxpayer and precious little to the individuals involved.

We'll finish with a quote from Gertrude Jeckyll that Nancy brought to my attention: 'The size of a garden has very little to do with its merit.  It is merely an accident relating to the circumstances of the owner.  It is the size of his heart and brain and goodwill that make his garden delightful.'

Above is the approach to the complex. Nancy's street is beyond this, below.

And below is a typical view of the what the house front would look like before. At best neat and tiday, but soulless:

And that can be changed into this:

People have been planting the stone circles in the middle of the common lawn area, sometimes with garden plants:

And sometimes seeding with wild flowers:

And then they plant and arrange their house fronts in a variety of differents ways. As you look at them, remember that this is the first summer, the plants will mature in future years if this continues:
















Inspiration for Gardening in the US from Bodnant Garden in Wales, by Nancy Feeman

Nancy Feeman is working with us on the development of an English garden at the Thomas More College's new Groton campus development in Massachusetts. She describes a recent trip to the UK and a visit to one of the great botanical gardens there, in Wales, called Bodnant Garden. She writes: During the past couple of years I have attended the Way of Beauty Course and Retreat at Thomas More College summer programs and have enrolled at the distance-learning college in England, the Maryvale Institute on the course called Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective (available now in the US through the Maryvale Institute center at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas).  This summer I traveled to England for the final weekend of the Maryvale course and was blessed to be able to make a pilgrimage to St. Winefride’s Well (the Lourdes of Britain) and to Bodnant Garden in Wales.  Before I left I would probably not have called the trip to the garden a pilgrimage but now I am not so sure.

Wales is a country with more sheep than people (that is what the cab driver told me, so it must be true!), and Bodnant Garden is a hidden treasure in the northern part of the country.    Walking into the garden is like walking into an earthly paradise surrounded by the rural idyll of the sheep pastures and farms on the mountains.  This is the beauty of nature, but is different to an earlier experience of mine of walking through the Himalayas where the nature, while beautiful also and awe inspiring, is untouched by man (except for the surrounding rice paddies).  Here everywhere has been shaped by man and made beautiful, more beautiful, through God's grace and the vision of those who worked on it.

The garden is set on a hill and separated into levels.  On one level there is a rose garden and the colors are planted together moving from white to yellow, orange, pink and red.  We watched as the gardener held the rose branch so tenderly before he clipped off the flower.  The water garden holds perfectly formed water lilies, seven plants on each end of the pool.  Benches are on platforms throughout the garden and have been placed in the most perfect viewing spots beckoning to us as we passed, just asking to be sat upon (which we did every time we saw one!).  Here there is no separation between gardens and woods as one area of garden flows naturally into the next. The woods are managed and have been filled with hosta, hydrangea and many other plants.  Even the brook at the bottom of the hill is lined on each side with enormous blue hydrangea. Walking up the hill on the opposite side there are fields and one gardener carefully and methodically raked the grass.  It seemed to me that he should be wearing a Benedictine habit!

I have recently discovered the writing of the famous garden designer from the first part of the last century, Gertrude Jekyll. Her joy in her work is infectious and it is informed by her Christianity. She declares regularly that gardens are a hymn of praise to the Creator; and it would be difficult to wander through Bodnant Garden without giving thanks and praise to God.

Since my return home my heart always skips a beat when I see a lace-cap hydrangea that I remember so clearly from Bodnant and my visit has inspired me to learn more about gardens.   I hope to reflect in the future on the manner in which gardens, especially their history and design, have a part in the philosophy and spirituality of the Way of Beauty; and am looking forward to seeing how the development of a English garden, that has begun at the Thomas More College's new, as yet undeveloped, campus in Groton, Massachusetts, takes shape as we work on it.








What Colour are the Blue-Ridged Mountains of Virginia?

Do Laurel and Hardy have something to teach us about colour perspective? The words of garden designer Gertrude Jeckyll seem to confirm the words of the American comedians. Laurel and Hardy sang about the blue-ridged mountains. But were they seeing blue mountains or green mountains in Virginia?

When learning to paint landscapes I was taught the principles of colour perspective. In a natural landscape those parts that are in the distance look bluer. Artist use this to indicate distance. A good gardner understands, along with the landscape painter and the this too. Just as with a painter, the gardener is creating a beautiful scene and will consider the combinations of colour so that the whole scene is harmonious. When considering how distant flowers will combine with those that are closer, he must take into account the fact that everything looks bluer when it is further away.

There is a another way of making use of this. If I want to enhance the sense of space I can create artificial perspective. The gothic architect made the distant objects smaller in reality, so that it doubles the natural effect of perspect and made things seem even further away than they are. Consequently, gothic cathedrals seem to soar to heaven. The gardener can use large-leaf plants closeby and small-leaf plants in the distance, so creating the illusion that things are further away than they really are. Similarly he can put bluish green leaves and blue flowers in the distance and other colours in the foreground and it will reinforce this further. It is useful if you have a small garden but want to create a sense of greater space.

Even when we know this it is not always easy to see it. When we focus on a distant point, the mind modifies the information that the eye supplies it to create an image in our mind's eye that is affected by what we know, or think we know, to be true. So looking at distant hills that are blue tinged we don't believe that they are really blue, the brain knows that they are in the distance and we very often see it as green.

Gertrude Jeckyll was a garden designer who used her artistic training in the academic method in the choice of planting. She describes here how she convinced a skeptic of the fact that things in the distance really do look blue:

'As for the matter of colour, what is to be observed is simply without end. Those who have not training in the way to see colour nearly always decieve themselves into thinking that they see it as they know it is locally, whereas the trained eye sees colour in due relation as it truly appears to be. A remember driving with a friend of more than ordinary intelligence who stoutly maintained that he saw the distant wooded hill quite a green as the hedge. He knew it was green and could not see it otherwise till I stopped at a place where part of the face, but none of the sky bounded edge of the wooded distance showed through a tiny opening among the near green branches, when to his immense surprise he saw it was blue. A good way of showing the same thing is to tear a roundish hole in any large bright-green leaf, such as a Burdock and to hold it at half arm's length so that a distant part of the landscape is seen through the hole and the eye sees the whole surface of the leaf. As long as the sight takes in both it will see the true relative colour of the distance. I constantly do this myself, first looking at the distance without the leaf frame in order to see how nearly I can guess the truth of the far colour. Even in the width of one ploughed field, especially in autumn when the air is full of vapour, in the farther part of the field, the newly turned earth is bluish-purple, whereas it is rich brown at one's feet.'

So it seems that Laurel and Hardy could have been landscape painters, or gardeners - each had an artists eye!

Images: the Appalachians in Virginia; the garden scenes are of a small walled garden on Holy Island, in the Farne Islands of the coast of Northumberland in England. This designed, to some degree, to be seen from the bench seat visible below. The wall protects the garden from high winds. I struggled to find photographs of her planting that illustrate very strongly the principles I have been describing, but though the photos of this garden would be of interest to readers anyway!; the watercolours below are by John Singer Sargent and W. Heaton Cooper the 20th century English painter respectively.


A Visit to a Garden in Connecticut Designed by Gertrude Jeckyll

The English garden designer who painted her ideas in plants, and thought like a 17th-century baroque artist.

I recently visited Glebe House, Woodbury, CT to see a small garden designed by the famous English garden designer and writer Gertrude Jeckyll.

Gertrude Jeckyll is an English garden designer whose long life spanned the turn of the last century. She often worked in conjunction with the architect Edwin Lutyens who was famous for his English country houses. Most of Jeckyll's gardens are in England but there were three in the US. This one has been restored, which for Jeckyll's gardens means planting as she planted as much as reproducing the shapes of the borders.

Jeckyll design principles are about harmony of colour and form through a proper understanding of beauty and a deep knowledge of her medium, plants. She studied art as a young woman and based her ideas of colour combinations upon what she learned and especially those of the artist William Turner. Luckily for us she also wrote beautifully about gardens and gardening. I am grateful to my friend Nancy Feeman who has been studying her work and her gardens for bringing Jeckyll's books to my notice.

I am just working my way through the first book, The Gardener's Essential Gertrude Jeckyll and it is a delight. She had a deep Christian faith and this is reflected in her approach to design which is that of the baroque painter, applied to gardening. So much so that her descriptions of the purpose of gardening (to bring glory to God and joy to mankind), the virtue of creating a beautiful garden to that end and the need for inspiration from the Creator in working towards it, remind me of passages that I have read from the book about baroque painting written by the great Spanish teacher of Velazquez in the 17th century, Francesco Pacheco. I would recommend every artist to read her. Especially those who wish to paint landscape.

Furthermore, her understanding of the relationships and hierarchy of God, man and nature is thoroughly Christian, and consistent with those that I wrote about in a previous article about gardening, here. I would suggest that Jeckyll should be read by all conservationists and ecologists as well in my opinion.

Glebe House is not a huge garden at all, and we saw in September when it was well past its peak. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to see (apart from the vicious biting insects!). There will be more about Gertrude Jeckyll in the coming months, but for now I will let her garden and her words speak for themselves:

‘The object of this book is to draw attention, however slightly and imperfectly, to the better ways of gardening, and to bring to bear upon the subject some consideration of that combination of common sense, sense of beauty and artistic knowledge that can make plain ground and growing things into a year-long succession of living pictures. Common sense I put first because it restrains from any sort of folly or sham or affectation. Sense of beauty is the gift from God, for which those who have received it in good measure can never be thankful enough. The nurturing of this gift through long years of study, observation and close application in any one of the ways in which fine art finds expression is the training of the artist’s brain, and heart and hand. The better a human mind is trained to the perception of beauty the more opportunities will it find of exercising this precious gift and the more directly will it be brought to bear upon even the very simplest matters of everyday life, and always to their bettering.’

'I am strongly for treating garden and wooded ground in a pictorial way, mainly with large effects, and in the second place with lesser beautiful incidents, and for so arranging plants and trees  and grassy spaces that they look happy and at home, and make no parade of conscious effort. I try for beauty and harmony everywhere, and especially for harmony of colour. A garden so treated gives the delightful feeling of repose, and refreshment, and purest enjoyment of beauty, that seems to my understanding to be the best fulfillment of its purpose; while to the diligent worker its happiness is like the offering of a hymn of praise.'

'And a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. “Paul planteth and Apollos watereth, but God giveth the increase.” [cf 1 Cor 3:6] The good gardener knows with absolute certainty that if he does his part, if he gives the labour, the love and every aid that his knowledge of his craft, experience of the conditions of his place, and exercise of his personal wit can work together to suggest, that so surely as he does this diligently and faithfully, so sure will God give the increase. Then with the honestly earned success comes the consciousness of encouragement to renewed effort, and, as it were, an echo of the gracious words, “Well done, good and faithfull servant.” [Mt 25:23]'


PS In case anyone is wondering, she is related to the Dr Jeckyll after whom Robert Louis Stephenson named the character in his book Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Dr Jeckyll was the good guy!