What Is Wrong With Our Gardens?

Gardens are a little like people.

Some have great personalities and charm; the majority make little impressions one way or another.


Fortunately, gardens can be changed into what we want them to be.

Contemporary Gardening

Therefore, let’s consider contemporary gardening in this country constructively yet critically.

First, of course, there are the great gardens of America, like Biltmore in North Carolina and the garden of the Huntington Library in California. 

Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, and the Cypress, Middleton, and Magnolia Gardens near Charleston, but gardens such as these are not our concern. 

It is the smaller gardens that most of us have made or are planning to start this fall or spring which we must consider.

There is today a monotony in gardens both from the standpoint of planting and design. 

I feel that too many people are gardening imitatively, for there is endless repetition.

Foundation Planting

Foundation planting is essential, and there is no country where this is better understood and more quickly carried out. 

Houses are hardly completed before the hollies, yews, junipers, and arbor-vitae, and the clumps of rhododendrons, forsythias, and lilacs are in place. 

Perhaps there are a few climbers, like wisteria, roses, clematis, or honeysuckle, on the split rail fences or around the door. 

Next comes the planting of periwinkles, ivy, and pachysandra, especially on slopes and in the shade. Then a start is made on the rest of the garden. 

There must be roses, in all probability, the latest hybrid teas, and floribundas currently in the public eye.

And probably some clumps of irises or peonies and strips of annuals, including the following:

  • Petunias
  • Salvias
  • Snapdragons
  • Gladioli
  • Pansies
  • Marigolds
  • Zinnias

Basic Pattern Of Gardening

There are masses of bulbs in the spring, like dahlias and chrysanthemums in the fall. This is the basic pattern in tens of thousands of gardens.

Of course, the plants may vary with the country’s locality, but the ideas are the same.

The gardens often look neat and well-tended, both in winter and summer. Moreover, they are relatively easily maintained.

What, then, is my complaint?

Simply that they lack originality, both in layout and planting. 

Above all, they lack the charm and individuality they so easily might have with a bit of personal thought and effort to counteract the mass-produced look, especially where the same nurseries or contractors do the planting for an area.

We live in an age of specialization. This also applies to gardening, and the United States today leads the world in developing new irises, delphiniums, hemerocallis, camellias, etc. 

Rose Grower

The rose grower thinks only about roses; the iris is fancier than the latest irises.

Thus many gardeners devote almost all their attention to one genus and all too often solely to its cultivation rather than to its use. 

This makes for fine specimens but hardly for attractive gardens. We see this reflected on many sides.

Greater Number Of Gardeners: Knowledge of Plants

What is needed is a greater number of gardeners with a broad general knowledge of plants. 

Until recently, the nurseries were partly to blame for the lack of garden variety as they had a limited range, preferring to propagate and sell the items which showed a quick turnover. 

New Meritorious Plants

Now, small specialist nurseries are springing up, attempting to satisfy the growing demand on the part of a small minority for new meritorious plants. 

The garden clubs, botanical gardens, universities, and The Longwood Foundation have helped by sending competent gardeners to collect outstanding new plants from Europe and Japan. 

This is indeed a healthy sign. What this country needs is an ever-enlarging number of the enlightened few.

Individual Taste And Judgement

Secondly, gardeners must learn to trust their individual tastes and judgment.

Just because a plant is new, it is not necessarily better. Some of the older roses are as fine as those of recent introduction. 

Observe for yourself at flower shows, in the gardens of friends, in the trial grounds of nurseries, arboretums, and botanic gardens. 

After all, that is one of their principal uses. Have an eye for the unusual and learn to discriminate between good and bad forms of the same plant. 

Modern Man-Made Hybrids

Lastly, use some of the native plants of woods and countryside, for these species often have a subtle beauty that many modern artificial hybrids lack.

Be original in your use of color and your planting. If you like deep rich purples, magentas, and crimsons, use them in your garden. 

If you are fond of blues and mauves, use all the obvious ones like delphiniums, flax, asters, aconitums, Canterbury hells, and violas, but ferret out as well unusual ones like the shrubby caryopteris, perovskia, and ceratostigma. 

Foliage Plants

Use foliage plants to your advantage.

The greys and silvers of lavender, artemisias, Stachys lanata, and lychnis and the glaucous green of rues, sedums, and thalictrums can set off even difficult colors like magenta and orange. 

If you enjoy color clashes, combine mauves and purples with shades of orange and scarlet. 

In proper quantity, they can be lovely together. Mix geraniums boldly; pinks, purples, crimsons, oranges, and scarlets do not clash if enough colors are combined, and how much more interesting they are than the customary beds of red, pink, or white. 

Large-Leaved Plants

Large-leaved plants like mega sets, acanthus, rodgersias, hostas, and even the sword-like yuccas are often needed to make soft feathery borders, herbaceous or mixed, take on a real character. 

And some of these plants are worth the trouble of seeking—every nursery does not carry them.

Garden Design

Garden design is a vast subject. One fair criticism of American gardens is that they lack proper containment or, to express it another way, they need a setting or background. 

The Florida, California, and Southwest gardens are the exceptions because of their patios and terraces.

One of the charms of English gardens is the feeling of privacy created by enclosing walls and hedges. 

Spanish Gardens

In Spanish gardens, there are patios. In contrast, there are terraces and architectural features in Italian gardens.

Walls mean backgrounds and protection for shrubs and climbers, which provide a mass of color and carry the interest above eye level. 

Unfortunately, walls are expensive to build, and for those who are impatient, hedges often take too long to grow.

But there are endless attractive fencings—chestnut sapling, wattle, board, lattice, and picket—which make excellent backgrounds at moderate cost. 

Also, it is possible to utilize the walls of the wings of the house or garage to provide sheltered backgrounds on two or three sides. 

Gardens incorporated into the architectural framework of the house and outbuildings have an intimate charm and desirable seclusion.

I think that too many gardens are made without properly appreciating the limiting factors of soil, wind, property size, and even purse. 

Adaption Of Gardens

It is safer for most gardeners to adapt their garden to the site rather than trying to adapt the site to the preconceived garden. The latter is undoubtedly the more expensive way. 

True, it is possible to create almost any type of garden if enough labor and money are expended.

But is it worth it? Take a rock garden as an example. 

Many suburban homes have rockeries, which are all too often little more than mounds of earth with rocks stuck into them like almonds in a cake, and planted with flowers more suited to annual and herbaceous borders. 

This has always been a supposed solution to gardening on a slope, though generally not a happy one. 

Rock Gardens

Rock gardens belong where the terrain is such that there are, or well might be, natural outcrops of rock such as one sees in a New England pasture or along a stream. 

If rock gardens are created elsewhere, they must be constructed with cunning artistry and a determination to tie them to the land and provide the right background. 

If suitable conditions cannot be provided, it is better to find an alternative method of growing the desired plants, such as raised beds with dry stone walls or stone troughs where alpines and rock plants will grow happily. 

Believe me, I am not against rock gardens, but I certainly decry what so often passes for one, isolated in the middle of a lawn or on either side of the entrance to a drive, where clumps of shrubs would be more appropriate.

Herbaceous Or Perennial Borders

Herbaceous or perennial borders offer another example of what I mean.

But, again, the site must be appropriate, for they are not suited to exposed windy positions any more than to airless shady ones or too long narrow strips, too cramped to create a bold effect. 

Where proper conditions do not exist, they must be created by establishing windbreaks or cutting away encroaching shrubbery and overhanging branches.

It may even be necessary to change the basic concept. 

Remember that borders entail a great deal of work; even then, there are many months of the year when they are bare. 

How much better to have a well-designed mixed border including flowering and evergreen shrubs for form and interest throughout the year, especially if a few are chosen for their autumn foliage and winter berries?

Rose Gardens

Far too little thought is given to these sources of interest. And I commend for including varieties of berberis, cotoneaster, viburnum, callicarpa, and even of shrub roses like Rosa Mayes, with its sealing-wax red, flagon-shaped hips, or varieties of rugosa.

Dare I criticize rose gardens so universally beloved? 

Although roses are grown in almost every garden worthy of the name, how seldom do we see a rose garden that is charming, intimate, and satisfying?

Yet, we must admit at the outset that creating such a garden is difficult. 

Lovely as roses are when in flower, the stiff upright bushes of most hybrid teas are far from graceful and as dismal in winter when earthed up or covered with straw as they are attractive in summer. 

Therefore it is necessary to create an interesting setting, preferably evergreen, and to give careful consideration to the plants to be used in combination to soften the edges and to make the beds less naked. 

Evergreen Plants Border

Borders of evergreen plants like box, ilex, rosemary, lavender, periwinkle, and even ivy are suggested, as are herbaceous plants like nepeta, iris, old-fashioned pinks, and violas with clumps of peonies and lilies. 

The inclusion, if space permits, of taller shrub roses, especially the fine new floribundas, the so-called “old-fashioned” standards, and species is another solution. 

If you are as allergic to rose beds in winter as I am, it is advisable to locate them where they are not in a full close view of the main living rooms. 

Small Garden

In the small garden, it is possible to combine roses satisfactorily in clumps on the border as long as they have plenty of air and light, and even to combine them in the French manner with annuals, herbs, and vegetables. 

Everyone can have neat, tidy beds of hybrid teas, but to create something new and arresting in the way of a rose garden is a challenge.

Garden Ornament

Garden ornament also requires a word of comment. In the last 20 years, there has been an increasing vogue for pottery, animals, birds, vases, and other objects, often in bright colors. 

Decorative objects should not be scattered without reason, which is definitely a fault of many gardens.

Also, poor or inappropriate ornaments add little and often actually spoil an otherwise pleasing effect. 

There are, in any case, so many attractive possibilities. Stone pineapples, urns, or fruit baskets look well on pillars of a garden gate or drive, but simple stone balls will do as well. 

Flower Pots: Attractive Design

Flower pots of attractive design are appropriate on a terrace or grouped about steps or a doorway.

Figures can be charming in connection with a pool or fountain or at the end of a vista, but the scale must be right. 

All too often, too small objects are used. Objects of stone or lead are expensive, but cast ones of good design are readily available. Above all, avoid the current cliches. 

Cast Iron Benches

For example, the wave of highly decorative but often uncomfortable cast iron benches with bunches of grapes, plumes, and other designs is charming in specific settings. 

When they are introduced where they are not suited just because they are “in fashion,” they irritate the eye. 

Interesting And Unusual Things In The Garden

This goes for silvered gazing globes, stuck out in the middle of space, for trellises and arbors that do not tie into walls, planting, or fences. Instead, find interesting and unusual things. 

A simple birdbath, an old alabaster mortar, an ancient Romanesque, or old copper watering cans with squat proportions can look appropriate in the proper setting.

Unity In The Garden

Many gardens give me the feeling of being too little too late. Either beds are so small and spread that there is no feeling of unity, or the planting is too small and inconsequential. 

If there is a large area to plant, be bold and rely on shrubs and trees to give a broad, massive effect and a feeling of unity. 

Above all strive for luxuriance and that well-clothed look, so often missing, for the more I see new gardens, the more I feel that they are too tidy. 

I don’t mean that I miss weeds and dead heads.

What I do miss is the feeling of the following:

  • Borders overflowing on the brick paths,
  • Climbers draping walls and softening the lines of modern buildings,
  • Flowers boldly massed rather than in neat groups of three or five, and 
  • Plants are used as ground covers, evergreen, and flowering, so all the bare earth is covered, even in the tucked away corners where ferns alone will grow. 

Cottage Gardens

This lesson is borne out in cottage gardens in New England where hollyhocks, sweet Williams, petunias, and climbing roses run riot. 

The same is true of the peasants’ cottages in Portugal and southern Spain, where geraniums splash the walls with brilliant color, and jasmine, grapes, cobaeas, and morning glories form bowers of leaves and flowers. 

In all these, there is a feeling of wild abundance. Neatness, exuberant abundance, and charm should cohabit in the garden.

44659 by Lanning Roper