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Lessons from great gardeners

Have you ever wondered how many gardens we humans have made since the beginning of civilization? We’ve grown grains and other crops for food; herbs for medicinal purposes; and eventually flowers and other ornamental plants just because they gave us pleasure.

The first gardeners probably didn’t place much emphasis on aesthetics, but it wasn’t long before we humans could consider what looked nice as well as what would feed us. Ancient Egyptians grew flowers and vegetables together, planted trees for shade, and even had ponds. The Assyrians had large pleasure gardens featuring rows of trees. The Romans planted trees, flowers and fruit and added statues and topiary. The ancient Chinese developed the concept of the garden as a living landscape. Can you just imagine the conversations among early gardeners and the practical advice that must have been passed from one generation to the next? Oh, to have been able to listen in on some of those early exchanges!

There is a new book by Matthew Biggs, a British gardening expert, which helps us answer that question about lessons learned. “Lessons from the Great Gardeners: Forty Gardening Icons and What They Teach Us” selects influential gardeners from the 1400s through the present and then explores their ongoing influence. Some of these nuggets of wisdom sound surprisingly like what our grandmothers taught us. Other snippets encourage us to reevaluate how we approach gardening and its impact on other individuals.

Have you ever thought about empty space in your garden? According to Asian gardening precepts, it’s just as important as the areas filled with plants. Asian gardening philosophy also emphasizes the uniqueness of individual reactions to a garden. There is no single correct response because beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Many of the great gardeners have talked about the therapeutic value of gardening — how it’s a meditative experience that produces mental and physical well-being. And then there is the practical advice, lots of it. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the value of succession planting to extend the season of a crop or favorite flower. He loved green peas and, by sowing more than 20 varieties, he managed to have fresh ones from early spring until July. Jefferson understood the value of our native plants and grew many because he believed that they were well suited to local growing conditions. Above all, Jefferson believed in the value of keeping notes on gardening activities. What better way to learn from mistakes without repeating them?

Beatrix Farrand, an American landscape designer and gardener whose best-known projects include Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine believed that understanding the relationship between the cultivated and natural areas of a garden was essential for creating harmony; that’s why the flower borders at her home, Reef Point, had scalloped edges. They echoed the edge of the forest just beyond her garden.

Like many gardeners, Christopher Lloyd, the creator of the gardens at Great Dixter in England, believed that rules are sometimes made to be broken. For example, it’s not always necessary to put tall plants at the back of a mixed border and short ones in the front. Lloyd wove ribbons of low growth throughout his beds. Lloyd’s views on lawns were right in line with today’s ideas (he died in 2006). He thought that grass required too much maintenance and was boring.

And then there is Dan Hinckley, who is still searching the world for new species of plants and creating new gardens. In the late 1980s, he created Heronswood nursery and display gardens to showcase woodland plants from around the world. In 2000, he sold Heronswood and started another garden in an entirely different environment. He’s a generous gardener, ever ready to share his knowledge. He believes that it’s essential to teach children to garden so that they become more aware of the importance of our environment and, perhaps, learn that gardening is a pleasure. Kill a few plants, he says. Push boundaries and experiment. You’ll become a better gardener.

The great gardeners all agree that practice makes perfect and that it’s not necessary to have a huge budget to have a lovely garden. There is much to be said for making do with what’s available. Good advice for all of us.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.