I’ve been spending a lot of time with plants recently, tending my modest potager and dreaming up blueprints for a cut-flower bed and rows of herbs. On weekends I’m plugging little seeds into big pots, dreaming of future blueberries and fruit trees.
The appreciation for beauty in the world is no small feat. In the last few weeks, I’ve leaned on flowers to calm and inspire me. In a moment of deep upset, the impulsive decision to walk through an arboretum and admire their flowers and trees. When feeling burdened, cutting and arranging flowers becomes meditation and art form.
Walking down the street, I notice the flowers growing in people’s lawns and I am struck by the amount of careful tending they require, how much love is put into that beauty. I’m filled with gratitude that I, even in passing, get to enjoy them. In loving something as simple as flowers, the whole world seems brighter.
“Sometimes since I've been in the garden,” writes Frances Hodgson Burnett in the childhood classic The Secret Garden, “I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast.”
Blending the natural and human worlds, there’s nothing like the depth of a garden. When I feel disconnected from the earth, humanity, and even myself, nothing soothes my bristling skin like strolling a walking path through quiet beauty, or cracking open a book in the shade of green leaves.
Horticulture is an artform. It takes care, precision, and creativity. Nothing demonstrates like the gardens of Bunny Mellon. I had the once-in-a-lifetime to live for a few weeks on her estate and write, immersed in the perfection of a meticulously-planned garden.
She was a self-made garden designer, horticulturist, and art collector. She was also one of the wealthiest women of the 20th century. She designed gardens for her friends, fellow lovers of beauty like Jackie Kennedy and Hubert de Givenchy.
At Givenchy’s estate outside of Paris, Le Manoir du Jonchet, Givenchy and Mellon chose to follow the formal French style of gardening. It fit his renaissance manor. They designed the grounds with neatness and symmetry, reflecting pools and shaped hedges placed at regular intervals. It’s a style of confident rationalism, the garden fashion of Louis XIV; willpower that levels land and brings nature onto an axis.
At her own estate, Bunny blended French and English garden design. It’s stunning in symmetry and detail, with sundials and water features that draw the eye precisely where she intended. It’s laid on a grid, geometric and logical. But it touches English style, curated in its wildness.
She shaped her world to look authentic, yet perfect. This English or ‘informal’ style of gardening, faces an equally rigorous task of shaping the natural world to become almost imperceptibly perfect, effortless.
Dancing the line between the two typically separated styles, she incorporated Biot jars and tranquil sitting areas, French potagers and espaliered fruit trees. But every corner of her beloved garden was designed to grow ever-so-slightly wild, but beautiful in that wildness.
In fine gardens, all the plants seem in harmony. The nascent blue-green leaves of lavender lays low and accents the spring flowers around it. But then the surrounding flowers exhale as summer waxes, allowing the long thin necks of lavender to stick out purple and full. When the scent-laden sticks dry and turn gray, their punctuating shape adds to the aesthetic of their surroundings. Even in decay, a garden is beautiful.
A well designed garden, to my taste, relishes wildness. Perhaps it’s because I am a mediocre gardener. But I like the ruggedness of a cottage garden, beautiful even if it becomes unkempt. Burnett seemed similarly partial to the English style, describing a gorgeous and decidedly un-tidy garden of infinite glory.
Although intended for children, The Secret Garden feverishly inspires me to admire flowers and eagerly watch every unfolding aspect of the seasons.
“And the roses—the roses!” Burnett writes. “Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades—they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds—and buds—tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.”
The world is full of not-so-secret gardens, with not-so-imagined flowers. Bunny Mellon’s gardens, Xu Tollemache’s Helmingham estate, the Chelsea Physic Garden–my list of inspiring gardens keeps growing.
Each offers new design, personality, and beauty that I can take back to my own. At the very least they offer fresh, green respite. Sitting amidst the peace and beauty of a garden, bits of my own anxieties and self-criticisms shed away. It cultivates gratitude and admiration in me, rippling through the rest of my life.
As Burnett so eloquently put, “Two things cannot be in one place. Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”