Gardens and Artists / by Jeannine Cook

It is hard to decide whether a gardener-artist is better off than just a gardener.  Most of the famous garden designers, from Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716-83),via William Robinson (1838-1935), Gertrude Jekyll and into the famed 20th century English gardeners, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher LLoyd, Penelope Hobhouse, etc., are famed not only for their horticultural knowledge, but also for their skills in design. In essence, they were or are just as much artists as gardeners.

That happy combination can be found in many countries where gardening has been of great importance - France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, the United States and countries where the British gardening heritage has taken root, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.  On a personal basis, however, I can never decide whether it is of help to be an artist or not when I am planning and working in my flower garden.

Every time I open a plant catalogue or book, or walk into a plant nursery, I feel a double pull.   I love the plants and feel very comfortable with a great number of them, since I have gardened in the tropics, northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Northeast US and now the South East.  But, and it is a big but when it comes to the purse strings, my artist's eye gets fired up and I can see the plants already installed in my garden, blooming and harmonising with others that I already have there.  This capacity to imagine the "fait accompli" makes for hard choices, I find.  I often wonder if I were not so able to visualise the scene as an artist, I would be a little more hard-headed in my purchases!

This predicament was driven home to me this week when I received a heavy, delightful gardening book I had ordered. Heirloom Gardening in the South by William C. Welch and Greg Grant, published in 2011 by the Agrilife Research and Extension Services at Texas A & M University.  Not only do they briefly evoke the different heritages of Southern gardening, from the Native American, African, Italian and English, but they then have a huge listing of plants and trees they deem of heirloom status for the South.  Oh, oh, did my artist's eye and brain go into overdrive! 

Crinum powellii

Crinum powellii

Suffice to say, I now have long lists of plants and bulbs to think about using in the ongoing creation of what I hope is a garden worthy of an artist.  A garden that not only looks beautiful and peaceful for humans, with plants I can then paint and draw, but also a garden which attracts the really important visitors.  And who are those connoisseurs?  Why, birds, butterflies, moths, lizards, frogs, toads, snakes and even tortoises – all the delightful inhabitants who instinctively know when their environment is "right" for them.  That is always a wonderful challenge for any artist.