“And now to sum up as to a garden. Large or small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the willfulness or the wildness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near the house. It should in fact, look like a part of the house”
-William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1882
“For some reason, people cease to think about design as soon as they walk into the garden” -Roy Strong, Creating Small Gardens, 1987
With the confidence gained from the success of the Tree Stump Garden, we embarked on a more ambitious landscaping scheme. Ever since we bought the house, I had been longing to implement a formal garden plan somewhere in the backyard. The property presents a number of challenges in terms of finding a suitable location. The area directly in front of the porch sits above the septic system D-boxes, while the area where our Sugar Maple had been contains the septic field. That pretty much leaves the small area between the driveway and the patio. The proportions of which seemed workable for a small formal herb garden, but it is not a level surface as the yard inclines up toward the house from the driveway. We had no choice placing the patio at the elevation we did, as the concrete basement door foundation dictated the height. I did feel we could better follow Morris’s advice in this location by trying to tie the garden and the house together. It would also be practical for gathering herbs close to the kitchen and I hope it will make an attractive view from the Dining Room windows.
With no other viable option, I figured we could accept the potential awkwardness of the incline. So we ordered some bluestone (significantly easier on the back than sourcing the antique stone we used for our patio) in 3 foot wide, 2 inch thick, pieces to connect the patio to the driveway. I read in a gardening manual this is the bare minimum path width two people can expect to walk next to each other on. The incline did have the advantage of not necessitating much digging to accommodate the quarry process under the stones. It did however, require the purchase of a lot of dirt to backfill on either side of the walk.
Once the path was finished, I had three physical boundaries determining the size and shape of the herb garden. I centered the garden on the part of the patio to the right of the walkway and divided the area into four parterres with gravel walks and a circular central path. The parterres are edged in True Dwarf English boxwood bounded on the patio side by a low Yew hedge that wraps around the side of the patio in an “L” shape. At the far driveway end a small bluestone patio contains an antique Gothic Revival cast iron bench, flanked by rose bushes, with yews behind to help terminate the view from the patio.
Working with a deadline to get the design completed with enough time to purchase the shrubs and get them planted before winter, I set up strings to guide me in the creation of the pathways. Inevitably, there was a lot of trial and error and I found it difficult to adjust the bricks into a pleasing edging where they rode up the incline. Before I learned to be strict in keeping them precisely vertical, I would find them slowly leaning over to the side as I went along until one would refuse to mate to the previous one. I thought the circle would be harder to make than it turned out to be. Once I grasped I could turn the brick in the dead center of each curve sideways, it solved the problem of keeping the circle the correct size while keeping the bricks tight together. As you can see from the smashed fence and broken tree in the photo below, Super-storm Sandy provided some setbacks in my schedule but I did manage to get everything planted in time. With the freshly spread soil it was very easy to dig the holes for the boxwood and a good thing too, since this also required some trial and error. After mulching, the gravel went in last and I now eagerly await filling the parterres with herbs in the Spring.
More than two months after completion I came across Roy Strong’s wonderful account of creating his ambitious garden The Laskett, and while the size of that undertaking was colossal, he champions the formal garden on any scale. He provides a fascinating account of the demise of formal gardens in England over the course of the 20th century (factors including the toll of two wars and the indifference and hostility of Modernist Design) and laments the abrupt end to instruction manual publication following the end of the Arts and Crafts Era. To help remedy this he authored Creating Small Gardens and A Small Garden Designer’s Handbook, both of which I purchased recently and strongly recommend. Although his advice to only lay out parterres on level ground gives me some pause, I felt comforted by his admissions of early failures and his insistence on the importance of design and structure over plantsmanship.