Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter, East Sussex, England. Photo copyright Jane Booth

What Inspires A Gardener Most?


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Jane Booth

Memories & Books, Tours & Tools & Planting Seeds

When I was three my family moved to a French Norman style brick house with leaded glass windows situated on a level bit of land halfway up a hill. The house was surrounded by mature trees and long abandoned gardens. My mother, though pregnant with my brother, took it upon herself to bring back the formal perennial beds and rock gardens as best she could. She weeded out low rock retaining walls revealing hens and chicks, candytuft, and creeping phlox.

My mother, lost in thought, after a long day weeding in our Chappaqua, NY garden.

Photograph by John Booth

My father cut out unwanted saplings under tall trees giving breathing room to grape hyacinth, bleeding heart, blood root, and andromeda. Snowdrops and crocus flourished. Dogwoods flowered white and pink.

A view into part of the garden at my childhood home.

Photograph by John Booth

Thick gnarled vines of wisteria wove up decorative wrought iron porch roof supports and dangled their pendant racemes of fragrant purple flowers. Ancient looming rhododendrons, a backdrop to the formal garden, offered round bouquets of crimson and fuchsia blossoms. A narrow pathway between the behemoths led through dark overhanging branches to a secret room where my brother and I would whisper to a stone cherub standing silent against the wall of green. From this quiet space there was a path heading uphill through rock gardens. If we turned about we could head down to a greenhouse, broken and aged, a dangerous place with shards of glass to fear. Above the greenhouse were terraced beds where my mother tried her hand at growing watermelons, tomatoes, lettuce, corn, and beans. An overgrown patch of ferny asparagus was weeded and produced copious spears the next spring. We moved nine years later but memories of this place continue to provide inspiration.

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I have the books my mother bought in her quest for garden knowledge. I’ve bought many more in my adult life as they are a wonderful inspiration. I love gorgeous four-color coffee table books filled with impossible ideas when you only have two hands and a small pocketbook and the gardens you adore have owners with deep pockets and a staff of four or more. I am an information junky and and through the years have filled bookshelves with books on garden style, shrubs, and trees, books on insects and books on disease. There are many favorites for gardening in the shade or in boggy places, gardening with roses or ornamental grasses, and most of all gardening with design in mind.

Books are a constant source of inspiration.

Photo copyright Jane Booth

My best friends for the vegetable garden are “how to” books letting me know the onions are ready to harvest when their green tops have toppled over and to pull the garlic when the browning stems are tilting toward the ground. I have books on tending perennials and books on herbs and annuals. They are all an inspiration.

In the early winter I look forward to the arrival of seed and plant catalogues that I keep for reference and to drive a gardener crazy with want. I’m content to sit with catalogues in my lap reading longingly of heirloom tomatoes, chicories from Italy, and sweet peas filled with scent. Some seeds I can’t bypass and buy for the pleasure (and pain) of planting by seed. I’ve recently realized I can’t have it all, neither the mind nor body can consume so many plants. I’ll buy too many packets of flower and vegetable seeds and then find I don’t have space for all the resulting seedlings and even if I did, where is the time for all the nurturing and care?

"Relax! Have a Garden".

Photograph copyright Jane Booth

While the days are still gray and the snows receding there is great pleasure in opening colorfully illustrated packets of seed and placing, one by one, the tiny treasures found inside on top of soil pressed into pots. It is a wonder that something so small will later make a tomato plant that fills a space three feet wide and twice as tall. No matter how old I get I know I’ll always have the sense of wonder and joy when the seeds sends out a shoot, breaking the soil surface, searching for light.

As for the “pain” of planting from seed, whether annual or perennial, it pains one when the seedlings tended through the first weeks of growth suddenly don’t make it. It is even worse when you have planted out your babies, watered them and fed them, and watched new growth only to return the following day and find broccoli bitten off at ground level the plant now limp and helpless on the ground or beans and tomatillos chewed down to near death. (A search in the soil at the base of the broccoli revealed a cutworm. The bean and tomatillo consumer was a mystery until grasshoppers took flight). One year there were many tears when my eighty heirloom tomato plants got blight overnight and had to be destroyed. Destruction in the garden hurts but it also inspires education. Determined to find answers to my planting problems I'll crack open my garden books, check through information filled seed catalogues, mine garden info online, and best of all look for answers from gardening friends.

A gardening companion. Photograph copyright Jane Booth

When my husband and I are on the road and have the time we'll stop to search antique and junk stores. I always look for old garden tools, often sturdier than what is manufactured today though I have not allowed myself to bring them into the garden, I just like looking at them and thinking about the hands that used them many years ago and the gardens they might have helped create.

Unusual well used garden tools.

Photograph copyright Jane Booth

I also hunt for old terra cotta pots, especially small pots to start seeds in. They don’t retain moisture like plastic, but they look fantastic and you don’t toss them in the landfill when your plants have grown!

Some of the best inspiration comes from visiting gardens open to the public whether personal or private. I often buy plants or put together color combinations I have seen in someone else's garden. The Garden Conservancy publishes The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Directory, A Guide to Visiting America’s Best Private Gardens. Founded by Frank Cabot in 1989, the organization’s mission is “to preserve exceptional American gardens for public education and enjoyment.” Make sure you bring a camera and don't forget to take notes.

When my father died in early winter ten plus years ago, my mother and I found ourselves in a deep gloom. She had traveled extensively with him and suggested we take a trip. My favorite garden magazine,Britain's Gardens Illustrated, had just arrived and included was an article about the upcoming Chelsea Garden Show, by far the most important and inspiring garden show in the world. I did some looking about and found a small Canadian garden tour company that was going to England to look at a number of great British gardens and the tour included a day at Chelsea. We signed up and loved every minute of every day. The gardens we toured included places that inspire me to this day including Christopher Lloyd’s absolutely incredible, Great Dixter. Lloyd wrote many witty and thoughtful books on gardening, all beautifully illustrated. (Note: if you find yourself in central Connecticut during gardening season, make a visit to White Flower Farm in Litchfield where Lloyd designed a large perennial border.) Vita Sackville-West, another great garden writer, and her husband, Harold Nicolson, designed and planted the many garden rooms at Sissinghurst Castle with its matching set of fairy tale towers. We visited Wisley where the phenomenal plantsman and designer, Piet Oudolf, was in the midst of installing large swaths of color, creating a very natural looking garden. Hidcote

A tiny portion of the gardens at Hidcote in the north Cotswolds of England.

Photograph copyright Jane Booth

was gorgeous, Kiftsgate was elegant, and Savill and Kew Gardens kept us on our feet for hours. Looking again at photographs I made on this trip I now know what inspires this gardener most!

Kiftsgate Court Gardens in the Cotswolds, elegant England.

Photograph copyright Jane Booth

Some of My Favorite Garden Books for You or the Gardener in Your Life

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

Earth on Her Hands, The American Woman in Her Garden by Starr Ockenga

A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach

Sissinghurst, Portrait of a Garden, Jane Brown

Well-Tended Perennial Garden, Planting & Pruning Techniques by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

Designing Borders by Noel Kingsbury

Gardener Cook  by Christopher Lloyd 

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