Russell Page

I’ve never been comfortable with the g-word, in any of its varations. For most of my life, my understanding of gardens and gardeners and gardening has been skewed by, I guess, some childrens’ book idea of vegetables and flowers. As if gardening came down to just one thing: reaping what you sowed.

Why my many visits to places like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden never reframed that definition, I can’t say. But through reading garden-based memoirs, I now have a better grasp of all that gardening entails. In the introduction to Second Nature, Michael Pollan writes:

I began gardening for the same reasons people usually do: for the satisfaction of pulling bunches of carrots from one’s own ground; the desire to make a patch of land more hospitable or productive; the urge to recover a place remembered from childhood, and the basic need to keep the forest from swallowing up one’s house.

Do I want to pull carrots? No. Do I want to improve patches of land? Yes. So if garden, as verb or a noun, still makes my head spin, it’s only because of this inclusiveness. What does it mean for me to say that I garden? That I have a garden? That I am a gardener?

An Education

Russell Page was born in Lincolnshire in 1906. He studied in London and Paris, created gardens in Europe and the US, and wrote his autobiography, The Education of a Gardener, in 1962. I just finished reading it and I recommend it to anyone who thinks seriously about the space around their house. The book was suggested to me last year but I must admit that I stayed away because of the g-word in the title. That’s unfortunate, because once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Immediately, I felt a strong connection with Page and the way he thought about design, land, and plants. For the first time, I found myself thinking: If this is how a Gardener thinks and how a Gardener works, then I’m ready to be a Gardener.

Better yet, a garden-maker. In the book’s foreward, Page thanks his wife, “who insisted that some account of a garden-maker’s activites would be of interest to amateurs and professional gardeners.” Maker of Gardens. That would look pretty good on a headstone—except that Page’s grave is unmarked, at his request.

An underlying theme to Page’s writing is the humble recognition that he’s never starting from scratch, and that time itself is, if not an enemy, a slippery friend.

I know that I cannot make anything new. To make a garden is to organise all the elements present and add fresh ones, but first of all, I must absorb as best I can all that I see, the sky and the skyline, the soil, the colour of the grass and the shape and nature of the trees.

Absorb it, then make it. The Education of a Gardener is a reflection on a career but it’s much more than a chronological run-through of life events. In chapters like, “In search of style,” and “Near the house,” he dances through themes with aspirational ideas and practical know-how, and expounds on specifics, like pathway sizes or the reflections from unnatural surfaces.

On Planting: Trees

My favorite chapter in the book is about trees, which begins by trying to reconcile the gap between “good design” and “good planting.” As far as plants go, trees are what I’m drawn to the most. This was something I recognized before reading Page, but his descriptions helped me to understand why:

Choosing the right kind of tree and planting it in the right place presents a great many difficulties. You have to calculate ahead, decide what silhouette, what weight and colour of foliage you want, how extensive a shadow can you afford and where will this shadow fall. Are you prepared to wait while a gawky young subject grows to maturity and the stature your composition requires?

Are you prepared to wait? It’s such a great challenge. Early in the book, he mentions drawing, something that he recommends doing as way to better understand plants. “His scribblings” help him anticipate the future, and he elegantly states something that I had tried to capture in a previous post about time. Page:

I have to keep three dimensions always in my mind and indeed the gardener’s fourth — growth in time.

Which makes a good haiku:

Keep three dimensions
always in mind and indeed
the gardener’s fourth

To Garden

“The word ‘garden’ conveys the idea of a fixed place,” Page wrote, “where plants take root and grow—rest and stability are of its essence.” Page spent decades planning and planting, but he was too busy to ever have a garden of his own. I don’t know if he was restless, but perhaps gardening provided a balance—it at least represented vast potential:

To plant trees is to give body and life to one’s dreams of a better world. There is an infinity of possibilities and it would be outside my scope to attempt to make a catalogue or book of recipes. The possibilities lie rather in your attitude and approach to the problem.

Absorb, make, garden. 