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Just add tea and crumpets

At the sight of an English garden -- lush, boisterous, romantic -- everyone's a Brit. But a cottage garden in Los Angeles? It's not a contradiction in terms.

June 23, 2005|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

Few phrases are more magical than "English garden." The words conjure visions at once settled and unconstrained: cool emerald vistas, buxom clumps of lilies and larkspurs, rose petals spilling from a tree-hugging vine. Caught in their spell, desert dwellers yearn for picket fences, while Angelenos who thought they had embraced khaki as the new green suddenly make plans to reseed the lawn.

I know. I'm one of them. In the grip of thyme-scented desire, I've endured the hauteur of modernists who equate dainty blooms with chintz-covered tearooms and wasted years coddling a mildew-prone moss rose. What is it, I wonder, that's so seductive about the idea of an English garden? Why does a style that took shape a continent away still have such a powerful hold on our imaginations?

And how -- here we get to the abiding questions of a gardener's heart -- do we translate its dewy loveliness to our coastal desert climate?

Southern Californians' romance with the English garden is in no way dimmed by the fact that we don't all agree on what it is. For Riverside's Nan Simonsen, a master gardener and lecturer, whose former rose-scented grounds were frequent subjects of Sunset magazine, the term refers to "a beautiful, lush, colorful environment" characterized by its mix of flowers, herbs, fruits and climbing vines.

Her historical model is the dooryard gardens of England's country cottages. Part larder, part medicine chest, part repository for great-aunt Lucy's prize strain of sweet peas, these crowded village-style plots lure us with an appealing combination of companion-planting wisdom and antique chic.

For Silver Lake landscape architect Mark Beall, on the other hand, classic English gardens are the long, airily textured, flowingly colored borders pioneered by British designer Gertrude Jekyll in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are the gardens that were becoming fashionable when Los Angeles entered its own Craftsman-cottage building boom, and their advocacy of natural materials and carefully edited artlessness echoed the city's emerging image as a suburban Eden.

Happily, these definitions aren't as contradictory as they seem. The hallmark of both the grand perennial border and the cozy cottage patch is an expressive individualism. No wonder Los Angeles, home to a bewildering mix of private architecture from Spanish deco to Japanese ranch house, adores the English garden: It is as exuberant and eclectic as we are.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The stylistic attitudes behind these gardens have their roots in the late 19th century, the same expansive decades in which L.A. was built.

For much of that era, English gardens -- like English society -- were an arena of vigorous control and pompous display. Growers were experimenting with orchids and other exotic imports in greenhouses, and arranging legions of annuals in symmetrical beds that occupied lawns like uniformed regiments. An artistic rebellion, however, was brewing against Victorian formality.

In the name of naturalism, painters were beginning to experiment with blurred outlines and sketchier brush strokes to give a more imaginative impression of their subjects. Designer William Morris created wallpapers and fabrics that evoked the blowsy flowers and innocently twining vines of antique tapestries. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed old-looking new houses in the Arts and Crafts style with simple lines and mellow stone facades.

Lutyens' designs were frequently accompanied by Jekyll's curving borders, which consciously drew on the cottage garden's profusion of bold leaves and delicate blossoms. Jekyll, born in 1843, trained first as a painter at a time when attending art school was unusual for a woman.

A friend of Morris, she was a stocky figure, habitually photographed in squashed hats and gumboots. But her borders seemed almost to float above the lawns that contained them, their clouds of color worthy of an Impressionist painting. To these artistic innovators, anything sensual, individual and seemingly at home where it grew was a welcome antidote to an increasingly industrial society.

Like many of my fellow gardening fanatics, I trace my own English fixation to another era of romantic back-to-the-land naturalism -- the 1970s. While some were inspired by rediscovered British classics such as "The Secret Garden," my stimulus was the equally fanciful Smith & Hawken catalog. There, heirloom trowels and benches modeled on those designed by Lutyens promised to lend a patina of picturesque entitlement to a landscape planted yesterday. Of course, there still remained the problem of what I was going to grow to complete the knee-deep-in-Sussex look.

Opening "Plant Portraits" by nursery owner and London garden columnist Beth Chatto, I expected to find pictures of baby's breath and other graceful plants in watercolor tints. Instead, the book fell open to poke weed -- the American native whose poisonous black berries are a familiar feature of our vacant lots.

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