Monday, January 1, 2018

A Good Flower-Eye

The Gardener’s Essential by Gertrude Jekyll

It is often around this time of year, when the plants in the garden have withered, gone to seed, and the last of the trees have shed their leaves, that I find myself thinking of the great English horticulturalist and gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, in particular of her book, The Gardener’s Essential, which I keep on a shelf by my desk. Understand, I myself am no gardener. Much as such books interest me I usually do not read them. Still, there is something about her books, this book, there is something about her sensible, no-nonsense approach to gardening, to flowers and shrubs and trees, to their color and pattern and scent, an outlook so earnest and forthright, so eminently reassuring, that I cannot help but imagine that one day I too might develop what she calls “a good flower-eye”. Here, from the opening of her book, from a section called “A Gardening Credo”, is Jekyll herself:

I lay no claim either to literary ability, or to botanical knowledge, or even to knowing the best practical methods of cultivation; but I have lived among outdoor flowers for many years, and have not spared myself in the way of actual labor, and have come to be on closely intimate and friendly terms with a great many growing things, and have acquired certain instincts which, though not clearly defined, are of the nature of useful knowledge.

Her language, when she writes of gardening, is distinctly moral. She speaks often and with conviction of her own “critical garden conscience”, of the need to resist “mental slothfulness”, and of “the just appreciation of the merits and uses of all our garden plants.” Indeed of gardens and their worth she speaks with an all but  missionary zeal. 

Born into a prosperous family in London in 1843, at the height of the British Empire, friend and cohort to various  leaders and thinkers of the time (including the Pre-Raphaelite artist and textile designer, William Morris, the architect Edwin Lutyens, and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who—so it is widely accepted—borrowed the family name, Jekyll, for his story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), she grew up confident in her belief that the British not only did things well but better than any other people on earth. Horticulture and gardening were no exception. 

Yet for all of her national-cultural pride, there is a frankness and humility to her, a willingness to learn and change and grow, that quickly endears one to her and her vision of what is beautiful, worthy, and good.

One of my favorite sections to reread each year is the part, near the opening, in which she writes about the importance—to any good gardener—of being attentive, aware. “Throughout my life I have found one of the things most worth doing was to cultivate the habit of close observation.” Indeed so much of the book is ultimately about training oneself to see, to see more and more truly, that is, with less dependence on experts and trends. At heart it is about learning—in time and with patience—to rely on one’s instincts, to trust and nurture one’s own good flower-eye.
Get a copy of this book—or of any of her other books. You are sure to be charmed.

Here is the official website for her and her estate: gertrudejekyll.

Peter Adam Nash