on garden rooms: a talk with hidcote's manager

by David Stowell via Wikimedia commonsI HAVE BEEN THINKING about garden “rooms” lately—about how it is that even a homemade and very informal garden like mine, built without any master plan or design expertise, ends up having defined spaces, anyhow. So when I saw news of a lecture by the manager of Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire, a century-old British treasure of 28 rooms, I wrote to ask the speaker some questions. Perhaps you’ll want to come to Berkshire Botanical Garden’s winter lecture–or if geography’s a challenge, and you’re not near western Massachusetts on Saturday, February 23 (or Philadelphia February 20, where he’s also speaking for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society), just come learn a little on the jump page about the making of garden rooms from Glyn Jones.

You may ask: Now why would I want to go to a talk about a historic and grand National Trust property situated in another climate altogether, a place long on fantastic walls and fountains, connecting outdoor “hallways,” magnificent topiaries, and hedges of box, hornbeam and yew? (As is probably the case in your garden, I have not one of those things here.)

On a visit maybe 20 years ago, Hidcote was the initial place I saw such formal lines contrasted against a “jungle style of planting.” Even though each garden area is clearly enclosed and its shape well-defined, as in the famed Red Border up top, the plants in individual beds within each area were invited to just have at it, to spill out into the paths here and there, and to spill into one another in a riot of color, texture and intimate connection that’s both restrained and unrestrained all at once. Delightful.

And then, it was this that made me perk up at news of the upcoming lecture:

On Garden Conservancy Open Days at my (not-a-manor) house (this year: May 11, June 1, August 17), I’m always startled when visitors say things like, “I love how your garden has individual rooms,” and I think, “Huh? Are you kidding?”

I am on a steep hillside, where no hard lines (other than my lopsided but basically rectangular raised vegetable beds) are possible—where “amoebic” is more the shape of things by necessity.  But somehow, quite accidentally or at least subconsciously, the garden has indeed ended up with clear areas anyhow.

I WROTE TO Glyn Jones (below), Garden and Countryside Manager of Hidcote, to ask him about the evolution of the famous rooms there, and also about room-making in general.  Our little Q&A, followed by a question for all of you about your own garden-making journeys:

Glyn Jones photo by Jason IngramQ. Did Lawrence Johnston, the founder of Hidcote, have few/many/most/all of the 28 rooms in mind before he made the first ones nearest to the manor house starting around 1907? Or did this Paris-born son of two Americans, who came to garden for 40 years in the making of Hidcote, conjure ways to add on over the years–did the garden as it grew suggest new rooms to him again and again?

A. This is a difficult question to answer as our archive does not extensively cover the early days of the garden development; no notes, plans etc. survive from this period.

So here are my thoughts:

I believe that the garden is a product of evolution; with maybe Johnston’s biggest inspiration being Thomas Mawson’s book “The Arts and Crafts of Garden Making.” We know he was reading this before the purchase [of what would become Hidcote] and again in the 1910s.

In essence Mawson describes a classic Arts and Crafts garden as one where nearest to the manor the architecture is very defined, using hedges, stone or brick walls to provide the structure, then these hard architectural lines are softened by a “jungle style of planting.” Nearest the manor the space is divided into smaller components (the rooms), each one having a different character, planting style and atmosphere.

One should not be able to see what’s beyond the enclosure of the room; the eye should be pinched, giving a glimpse towards the next room to encourage movement throughout the garden.

Then as your journey through the garden continues, you leave the more formal areas behind and travel through wilderness areas, these being inspired by William Robinson and the “naturalistic style of gardening.” These natural areas at Hidcote include the stream areas, bulb slopes, and wilderness areas both woody and herbaceous. All these can be described as “rooms,” just less formal to those rooms near the manor.

So I think Johnston conjured up a plan to which he could add onto as the garden developed, and the symmetrical central axis with vistas and avenues lends itself to this.

Q. Are rooms ever plotted even less deliberately? I ask this because probably totally unconsciously I created loosely defined areas when I began my home garden, but it wasn’t until nature and time conspired–not until the woody plants grew up–that any sense of defined areas took shape. If someone asked me who “designed” the garden, I’d say it was the shrubs, especially, and the garden-sized smaller trees that did.

A. Yes, I think rooms can develop. Gardens develop organically and naturally, with trees and shrubs growing up, eventually providing enclosure. Then a garden room is born. Rooms can either be large or very small areas but need boundaries, either in the form of grown-up woody specimens, hedges or walls.

what about your garden? do tell

SO WHAT ABOUT YOUR GARDEN? Does it have defined areas, and how and when did they appear–or are you in the process of sorting them out? Do tell us in the comments below.

join glyn jones for his february 23 lecture

TICKETS FOR “Back to the Future: The Garden at Hidcote,” to be held at 2 PM on Saturday February 23 (snow date February 24)are available at the Berkshire Botanical Garden website, or by calling (413) 298-3926.

Tickets are $35 members, $42 non-members; members and nonmembers can also sign up for a special “extra” lunch and chat with Jones ($50 or $60 a ticket for the lunch event).

The lecture is at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; the lunch and chat is at 11:30 AM at BBG, in Stockbridge.

Jones will also be lecturing at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society February 20.

(Red Border photo by David Stowell, via Wikimedia commons. Glyn Jones portrait by Jason Ingram.)

  1. Yup, my garden has pre-planned rooms and I’m in the process of experimenting with just how big to make them. The garden itself is tiny but the hardscaping (a stone patio and three steps going up to the garden on either side of the patio) dictates that there be at least three rooms. I am trying to decide whether to further subdivide each side of the garden into two parts. I really want a sense of journey, exploration and discovery and if the whole space is immediately visible, there’s no way to get that. Don’t want it to get claustrophobic either, though. I wonder if anyone has any insights on room size in really small spaces.

  2. Rosella says:

    I am working on the idea of rooms in my front garden. I live on a corner, and I would like to have more enclosure in the front and side so that there is no direct view through to the side street, but so far I am not succeeding to my satisfaction. I have lost my way in the garden recently because of some difficulties in my life, but perhaps soon I can find my way back.

    Thank you, Margaret, for such an inspiring website. You give me hope that even at the advanced age of 75, I can continue to work to achieve my ideal garden.

  3. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I didn’t actually plan “rooms” but my garden has definitely evolved with defined spaces and I have even gone so far as to name them; the Bird & Butterfly Garden, The Potager, The Woodland Edge, etc. It could be because of where there is sun and not so much sun, each section now has its own mood giving me and visitors the illusion of moving through rooms. I would love to dreamingly drift through your garden someday, Margaret!

  4. ConundrumK says:

    It’s a funny thing, but even my truly tiny condo backyard feels like it has different rooms now that I’ve carved out beds and put in a few small shrubs. It wasn’t intentional on my part, since I couldn’t have envisioned such a space space having that effect. Yet somehow the creation of raised earth beds, and the verticals of even small shrubs have made a bitsy little square of lawn and a porch into something that feels much bigger. I think of them as dollhouse rooms in a way. I’m not really sure if anyone else would feel that way about the space or not, though. I have been the one breaking my back digging out the compacted clay and (trying) to remove the couchgrass, so that may be part of why each part of the garden feels so distinct and separate to me. An outsider might think I’m a bit barmy for seeing rooms on the head of a pin!

  5. Denise says:

    My garden also has rooms (areas). Most of them were planed but some evolved as I got more ambitious. Small eco-systems play a big role in the planting and feel of the spaces. I would like to improve my spaces by defining them more with hedges.

    Thank you fellow gardeners, it is lovely be able to read comments on this site and enjoy them.

  6. John says:

    I’m sure that Glyn Jones would be interesting no matter where you here his talk, but February 20 seems early for the Philadelphia Flower Show. Perhaps that’s a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society event.

  7. Gordon harris says:

    Yes, my little trailer-park garden does have rooms. It’s a small, L-shaped garden and I began with just grass but, due to the nearness of the neighbouring trailer, I decided a box-canyon, miner’s claim would be my theme. I already had the canyon walls with the 2 trailers and the front fence, so I proceeded to install a water feature/bog garden made of 3 wooden barrels, one above the other with a rusty metal pipe to feed the water into the highest one. Tall shrubs were planted beside the bright blue neighbouring wall to cut the sun’s reflection and then underplanted with natives and other perennials. A small, shady reading room was left at one end and the opposite end was fenced off with a rail fence to provide for a Hidden Garden with a small cold frame beside the solid fence that i built across that end of the garden (to keep my dog in).

    Borders were planted on both sides of this rail fence so that after a very few years the entire Hidden Garden was, indeed, hidden from the rest of the garden. The curving path down the length of the garden turns sharply to the right at the end of the trailer and leads to a service area and rear gate with another reading/conversation area hidden away beside the compost bin.

    As the trees and shrubs have grown, the garden has naturally developed its own character with a Shady Garden, with only about an hour of sunshine per day, a Bog Garden, a Main Garden, a Hidden Garden and a Rear Garden. Each of these informal “rooms” are pretty well cut off from the others without seeming chopped up (believe it or not) and the garden was very popular when displayed on the local garden tour a few years ago.

  8. As our house is in the middle of our urban garden, it conveniently ‘carves’ out four distinct areas–front (north) in a cottage style, east side (forest-like) and west side (perennial/shrub border) and the back, which faces the south, is the potager, a bit of a lawn, and the orchard. I try to emphasize vistas by making making paths that connect or run down fully the sides of the garden. It’s so much fun to be just in the garden for a while, just checking out the potential and then it seems to organically design itself.

  9. Liz Needle says:

    My garden also has rooms that have evolved over the years. When I started out in this garden 40 years ago I planted the area immediately around the house. As these areas took shape and I needed further challenges, I moverd outwards with my planting and areas/rooms evolved. Some of these only became apparent as the trees and taller shrubs matured.
    Many of my ideas about the garden were influenced by a great Australian garden designer, Edna Walling. Over the years also my rooms have changed as plants died, trees fell, other plants prospered and became dominant. I love looking back at old photos to see how my garden has changed over the years.

  10. Margaret Mary Dabe says:

    My urban garden has little rooms, or raised beds, dedicated to certain growths. Each year I must wait for some of them to grow lest I pluck the wrong thing. It may behoove me to use graph paper to indicate what is where so I do not have to continually replant an area.

  11. Sharon says:

    As I worked in my small townhouse yard yesterday in my short sleeves ( sorry New England), I hoped this year to achieve a lovely garden room. It’s been 3 years since my96 year old dad passed and 5 since I sold my suburban house with huge trees and flower beds that I planted. My son gave me a Japanese maple year before last for Mother’s day and the 2 azaeleas in front of it are flourishing in spite of the 2 worst years of drought since the 50’s. Inside the half circle of boxwoods, I’ve started with pots of flowers and herbs but the hundred year old pecan tree has changed my mind and taught me patience to rethink a south facing garden in Texas is not always a sunny exposure. Shopping for shade plants and digging out some spindly roses are on my to- do list along with the purchase of a bench. Happy Gardening all!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Sharon, for sharing your story (and we forgive you your Texas weather!). Ah, how the passage of time makes for more shade, a lesson I to am facing up to here. See you soon!

  12. Chris says:

    We did make a plan, 7 years ago, for our 1/4 acre garden surrounding our 102 year old house, which is on a street corner. It gave us a place to start and as time goes on things have changed and continue to do so. We have some defined areas and while 2 sides are open to public view we have tried with espaliers, trellis, arches,small hedges, etc. to add mystery to areas beyond. One of my favorite areas is the Reward Bench where I try to go at the beginning or end of day and sit to look through the grape arches to Anna’s (our grandchild’s garden) and then the shade garden. We are now planning some changes, adding more shrubs to give even more year round interest, but also make less high maintenance. Our Kitchen Garden is 2- 4 x 12 ft. raised beds surrounded by10- 1/2 wine barrels and bordered by a blueberry hedge, an Asian Pear espalier, lavendar border and rosemary border. That is the most formal area.
    It would be great to come to lectures and garden tours in your area, but we will have to settle for the great NW Garden Show in Seattle and in our Lewis County town of Centralia a one day Gardening for Everyone put on by the Master Gardeners. So I’ m glad each area of the country has such opportunities.Maybe some day Hidcote.

  13. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    I have 1916 craftsman bungalow. I’d already figured out from Miss Jekyll about formally laid out spaces, informally planted, but I must have this book. Thank you for the link.

    A normal city or suburban lot automatically divides itself in to a front garden, side gardens, and a back garden. My back divided itself into two gardens on two levels because of topography. Different light levels afforded by relationship to the house and trees mean plantings of a different nature. Rooms just happen.

    My front garden faces east. There is a big tree on the SE corner. The space is irregular in shape, so I used irregularly shaped beds with small trees, large, shade tolerant shrubs, etc, around the periphery to create a small, regularly shaped lawn in front of the house. The yard on the south side of the house is much sunnier, and regularly shaped. Straight mixed borders run on either side of the grass path to the back gate. I keep thinking I need to do something, like an arbor, to emphasize the difference at the turn of the corner from the front garden. I need to give that more thought. There really isn’t enough definition at that point. I’m planting the lower, farther level of the back yard as a woodland, because being farther from the house it should be less formal and require less care (and water), and because I need trees to screen me from a city facility behind us. The upper level will eventually be divided into a chicken yard, and the “jungle” room my husband wants. Acreage, like yours, makes it trickier.

  14. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    Now you’ve gone and done it, Margaret! You got me thinking about that transition between the front and side yard I’ve never been quite happy with. I just moved a lace leaf maple, half a dozen rhododendrons, and a number of subshrubs. I’m tired.

  15. Nadine says:

    Margret, I’m sure you would love to visit the “Jardins Albert-Khan” near Paris. Here is the link to the English version of their website, http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.net/english/, but the French version has a map of the gardens http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.net/les-jardins/les-differents-jardins/. I don’t know how this compares to your own garden, but what is astonishing is the very clever and fluid transitions from one “garden” to another, from the mountain forest to the rest of the gardens for instance, all this in an urban context. How he managed to position an “English garden” next to a “French garden” is brilliant. I visited the gardens in October, and intend to pay a visit every season of the year to get a full picture.
    Congratulations as usual.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Nadine. I have not been there. My garden is VERY informal and not fancy at all, but I find inspiration in all manner of gardens.

  16. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    I am waiting (somewhat) patiently for my shrubs and trees to grow to give me the definition that I would like. I definitely have specific growing zones. Some full shade, a little full sun right beside it. But what makes the full sun area really tricky is that the yard drains right through the middle during large rains, or spring thaw. So heavy clay that turns into concrete during drought, and won’t dry out after big rains. What will survive that?

  17. Deborah B says:

    Lisa, your note about your yard draining right thru the middle during big rains reminds me of a post I saw a few years ago on the Fine Gardening ‘over the fence’ forum. A woman posted a link to her website showing the garden she had created which handled heavy rains and heavy deer pressure. The beds surrounded the house and sloped up somewhat from the fieldstone paths. When it rained the water flowed along the paths, and fed into a drainage ditch. She had a lot of tough plants, like bee balm, agastache, various ornamental grasses, buddleia, sea holly, lavenders, salvia, echinacea, hardy geraniums, willows and ninebark. It was really beautiful.

  18. Dixie says:

    Mother Nature has defined many garden rooms on our 1/3 acre with sun and shade, wet and dry soils, decades old Douglas firs and Western Red Cedars framing the upper slope as well as the evolution of garden knowledge, and learning from mistakes the past 21 years. All that while Mother Nature was gently nudging me with all the loyal stalwart natives gracing our small part of her planet and after removing ivy (yes I planted it, another mistake!), I listen and observe more.

  19. Don Statham says:

    My garden sits in a steep slope and I have several rooms including The Big leaf room, The Moon Garden, The Entry room- chartreuse and white garden, Plum Orchard, lilac walk, apple orchard, Pattern Meadow walk, and it continues to grow. What I like about having rooms is that I basically plant for two seasons. Each room comes into it’s season and I find I look froward to that time each year- rather than trying to make an ever blooming garden which would need very large borders. I prefer the intimate spaces of small garden rooms.
    Thank you Margaret for writing in depth articles on the subjects that you are passionate about and interest you. I find you always do the research and go deeper into the subject that you write about. Personally I am getting a little tired of all the ‘Garden Ranting” out there and I don’t consider Wikipedia a reliable source for quotes. Nor do I think just having an opinion is enough to base articles on, especially when there is such a lack of experience! Thanks you for going the extra mile.
    Best Don

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Don. So nice to “meet” you, and hear about your garden of rooms. I love the intimate spaces, too. And thanks for the kind words!

  20. Sir Kevin Parr, Baronet Kendal says:

    I know Hidcote gardens very well. Having moved to six acres and home in Europe I had a clean canvas of farm fields to work on. My heart felt desire was to make an English garden to suit this Englishman using ideas of my own. Major Johnson, in my view, made little spaces like rooms as he dared not upset his garden hating mother. He had read so much on gardens and wanting to be British he found joy in a garden. It allowed he to be able most of all to express himself. Artistic and gentle he loved the peace of gardens. even more so after war he started to explore plant colours and ways to excite that mind by planed easy design. his mother moved to France and that can be seen in his bold out stretched work on his red border. Money was not an object and he brought in teams on men to work his ideas into reality. Being a plant hunter came next and while land was being gardened he went to China for plants. My idea here was to build hedged rooms off a long drive right down the whole event. Big rooms off each side cut across in mid stream by wide lane that leaves the house yard through big iron gates. This gives access for tractor and mowers. I am working now on my end path from wide long border some 1380 yards long right through the gardens. I brought in stone statues to adorn the last walk on this path. Johnson had many stone statues from his Italy visits. Now sadly lost since his death. I am not intending to make another Hidcote but on the radical lines of that said garden in some form or other I created peace and carved out a garden English by my own hand alone. It is my hope that it will survive long after my demise.

    1. margaret says:

      Creating peace seems a very good goal indeed (and my second-to-last book was titled “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” using a line from Yeats). May your garden indeed survive as you wish — but not until you have many more years of making it first!

  21. Glyn is one of the good guys. I met him at Hidcote years ago but never gave my name. Since then living abroad I have made and am making much of Hidcote here in Europe. On just 6 acres I strive to make 6 rooms off a set of avenues looling much like the Red border garden at Hidcote, Waiting for Thuja Green Emerald hedging plants to grow. Glyn and his lovely team gave me help with red border sizes over internet and how kind they are to even think of helping me. I intend to help them with my photos later in time.

  22. in my youth I met Lawrence Johnny Johnston out in France.He was a tired old man in tweed suit on such a hot day. We talked this old man and a five year old boy staying with family on holidays in our French house. It is recalled by me as he was ill and on stick he had managed to find his way into the lane. I learned later that day that be was making gardens and was not in bed. The following summer he was dead . I did so want to see his garden. it was some twenty years later i discovered he was a major like my grandfather and that he had built a gardens in England. later just passing Hidcote for a client near by I had time to walk about in Hidcote gardens the penny still not dropped. It did when seeing his picture on a book cover in the shops. So Johnny built Hidcote. I then visited in all weathers after that. i loved Hidcote and feel perhaps part of it somehow. I have built 5 hedged room and a cross avenue leading to another iron tall gate we call the postern that takes you into the long pergoda walk to my lake. i copied his main gates to for entrance from my old gardens now 7 years old first ones I made near the house. Im a pensioner with time to carve an English arts and crafts garden from cow pastures in centre of farms and forest and lakes area of rural Latvia with wild winds and deep snows in winter 89- 120f all summer no let up. it is gardening on the edge at times but i will keep at it every day until my life is over. 70 is the new 50 so strong as an ox will give all my ideas vent.

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