Gardening is a joy I reclaimed after Lev’s death; and since I started coming to Nantucket, I have sought to transform my South Texas garden to a traditional New England or English cottage garden. Each summer I look for new ideas—new ways to garden at home.
When we are holed up in our air-conditioned homes and the temperature outside hovers near 100 degrees, thinking about working in the garden has as much appeal as shopping for wool sweaters and coats. But it turns out that this is the perfect time to evaluate our summer garden.
Translating Hayward, my summer garden is the structure of the garden—the paths, trees and shrubs that I see from inside. What do you and your guests see from your windows?
After spending three days exploring seashore gardens and learning more about landscape design during the 10th annual Garden Festival on Nantucket. I am more convinced than ever that South Texans can learn a lot from the gardens and gardeners on this island.
The highlight of the festival was lunch with the noted New England gardener, landscape designer and author Gordon Hayward and his wife Mary. His advice for the New England winter garden is applicable to our summer gardens. Translating Hayward, my summer garden is the structure of the garden—the paths, trees and shrubs that I see from inside. What do you and your guests see from your windows? And what is the experience as you approach the front door? Does your entry say “Welcome”?
The order in which Hayward plans a garden is quite different from what I have considered in the past. He advises us to start with the paths. Draw a straight line from the front door to the spot where guests will first see the house—parking area, curb or gate. If there are multiple visible entries, clearly identify the path that guests should take to the primary entry. Mark the entry well, perhaps with a cluster of container plants. I’d add: Provide some shade, especially if your house faces south or west.
In that more private garden where you entertain when the heat of summer is gone, mark a straight line from the primary door to the furthest point. What catches the eye there? A view, a bench, a shade tree? That’s another path. Side paths lead to other outdoor spaces. In other words, don’t settle for a sprawling all-purpose lawn where guests have neither a path to take nor a visible destination.
Gardens Are Outdoor Rooms
Instead, think of your garden as a series of zones, with increasing degrees of intimacy and privacy as you move from the approach to your front door, just as your interior has increased intimacy as you move from the entry hall to the living room to the kitchen. Separate those spaces visually to create outdoor rooms.
For the past two summers, I have let my summer garden go dormant. Except for a few tropicals, I have little summer bloom; but I have lots shrubs and hedges, and flowering white crepe myrtle provide a canopy of shade along the front walk. The beds where annuals bloom profusely from fall to late spring are mulched with a thick blanket of pine straw to retain moisture and reduce the weed crop. When fall arrives, I will be ready to trim and fertilize my roses and perennials, and I will fill the empty spaces with colorful annuals.
Evaluating the Garden
Hayward posed three questions we should ask ourselves as we plan and evaluate our gardens.
- Ask yourself, who am I and what do I bring to my garden? What are your early garden memories? How do you reclaim those memories in your garden? Your garden is your autobiography.
- What is the nature of your house? The house is the center of your garden; your garden is an extension of your house. Identify the logical paths to lead from your primary entries to the garden. Too many times, we walk past the garden instead of in the garden.
- What is the nature and the history of the land? Respect not only the climate and soil conditions but also the landscape traditions of your neighborhood and community.
Hayward tossed out lots of random advice, and one point resonated with me: “Shorn (pruned) objects make wild parts look intentional. Plant wildly in front of hedges.” He described transforming a wild garden for a wedding. He brought in four large pruned boxwood in containers to mark the path in front of the untrimmed hedges.
I need to keep my tall viburnum hedges trimmed. Do I dare let the boxwood in front of them grow naturally?
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If you are a gardener who loves English gardens, check out Hayward’s books, Your House, Your Garden: A Foolproof Approach to Garden Design, and The Intimate Garden: Twenty Years and Four Seasons in Our Garden. While garden designs and photographs seem daunting, these are not simply coffee table books. Hayward provides great detail about his garden philosophy and how to think though your own garden design. With a little effort, a good gardener can translate it to city lots in South Texas.
Much of the information here will appear in somewhat different form, with an emphasis on practical summer garden design for homes where entertaining takes place outdoors around pools and on the waterfront, in the August 3 issues of Shoreline News.
I have blogged before about Nantucket gardens and my efforts to translate them to South Texas:
My forthcoming memoir, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, will be released September 15 by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press. You may preorder here from the Press, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.