We have been talking about romantic gardens here. Not that commercially packaged ‘romantic’ imagery of twilight, candles, a bottle of wine and two glasses. No, we are looking back to the European Romantic period from the late 18th century onwards blended with what is often called naturalistic and gardenesque styles of gardening, but in the 21st century.
The gentle, at times sentimental soft focus of ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett has stayed with many of us all our lives. It was something of an anticlimax to me when I finally discovered that the history of those walled gardens in Britain has rather more to do with growing fruit and vegetables than roses. So too have I never forgotten the image of Elnora Comstock in ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ though I admit I mentally had her in an arbour, not beneath a willow tree*.
How does this translate to gardening? Forget the twee, the naff, the contrived sentimentality. That is romantic gardening in the hands of the wannabe. It started to fall into place for us when we visited Arabella Lennox Boyd’s garden called Gresgarth in Lancashire, north west England. The pictures today tell the story. It was wildly romantic though not, I would guess as a deliberate contrivance. Lady Lennox Boyd is renowned as both a highly skilled garden designer and a plantswoman. This is her private garden and a reflection of her personal tastes. Unfortunately she was away the day we visited. We would have liked to have met her because we loved her garden.
It was not a show garden designed to impress. We have seen enough of those to pick them instantly. This was a garden with soul, underpinned by a very deft hand and eye. There were many detailed little pictures as well as the grand views, a marriage of formality and informality with areas of gentle abandon. It was a garden which served multiple purposes including supplying the house with produce and replenishing the soul. It wasn’t perfect. There were a few areas which were certainly not above criticism. In short, it was a garden to be lived in.
It wasn’t until later that we came to the conclusion that the best descriptor was “romantic”. This was despite the coach load of visitors and others who were there at the same time. I can tell you that garden coach loads do not vary a great deal whether they are in New Zealand or overseas. There is a certain herd tendency to tour groups. But even their intrusive presence did not detract from our enjoyment.
Gresgarth gave us a reference point as a romantic garden. Even if the handsome residence and the old stone and brickwork were stripped out, it would still retain that sense of romance because it lay in the garden, not primarily in the wider architectural or landscape context. Though it certainly makes life easier if you start with some good bones, as they say.
Romantic gardening is pretty much at the far end of the spectrum from hard-edged contemporary garden design with shiny stainless steel, matt black and sharp white structures and plants selected solely as soft furnishings. It is also well away from austere, classically derived formality although it may have some formal elements.
What else defines it other than that distinctly nebulous and subjective description of having ‘soul’? We are still unravelling this here but romantic gardening brings together a number of threads we have been discussing in recent years – sustainability, support for natural ecosystems, better environmental practices in gardening, a respect for nature which involves a cooperative relationship, some level of prettiness, often a celebration of simplicity rather than grandeur. None of this is a surprise when you consider that the Romantic era originated as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the elevation of science and reason above nature.
Maybe it is time for Neo-Romanticism or maybe the Romantic Revival as a response to the elevation of economics and self interest above nature and community? Only time will tell.
* “One afternoon early in July, Ammon came across the fields. He inquired for Elnora at the back door and was told she was reading under the willow. He went around the west end of the cabin to her. She sat on a rustic bench they had made and placed beneath a drooping branch. Ammon had not seen her before in the dress she was wearing. It was clinging mull of pale green trimmed with narrow ruffles and touched with knots of black velvet; a simple dress but vastly becoming.”
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter (1909)
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.