Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, by Penelope Hobhouse. Boston: David R. Godine. 336 pp. $20. It ``looks like the wreaths of foam tossed aside by a mountain torrent,'' Gertrude Jekyll said of the foam-flower Tiarella cordifolia. About St. Bruno's Lily, Paradisea liliastrum, she wrote, ``The lovely little mountain lily -- fit emblem of a pure-souled saint -- stands upright with a royal grace of dignity, and bears with an air of modest pride its lovely milk-white blooms and abundant sheaves of narrow blue-green leaves.''
Penelope Hobhouse's collected excerpts from Gertrude Jekyll's 14 books should be approached as an introduction to Miss Jekyll's rich descriptive prose and as a textbook for today's small property owner. (At the turn of the century, one of Miss Jekyll's own herbaceous borders at Munstead in Surrey was 200 feet by 14 feet and required constant attention by several gardeners.) Hobhouse has corrected and updated the names of plants which Jekyll used to create her ``garden pictures,'' and she has extracted Jekyll's core ideas on plant colors and textures.
A veteran Jekyll admirer accustomed to the flowing imagery in her books may be annoyed, initially, by Hobhouse's frequent interjections and interpretations. However, respect grows for Hobhouse's extensive horticultural knowledge and her translation of Jekyll's methods for the modern home gardener. Hobhouse knows her stuff, and to ignore this is to miss the whole point of the book.
To help today's gardener maintain the principles which Miss Jekyll used to create and inspire the most beautiful English ``cottage gardens'' of this century, Hobhouse suggests new dwarf hybrids or carefree plants. Lamb's Ears (Stachys lanata) is among the many gray and silver foliage plants Miss Jekyll used as transitions and for color emphasis. The flower stems of this plant must be kept cut back so the plant will spread and become what Miss Jekyll called a ``silver carpet.''
Today, there is the low-maintenance Stachys lanata Silver Carpet, which does not flower. (It is obvious our British friends are still far beyond us in floral gardens, and I have been unable to find this plant or many others recommended by Hobhouse in the stacks of American garden catalogs I receive. Britain's Bressingham Nursery lists this Stachys along with five other varieties.)
Many of the over 300 gardens which Jekyll designed were in conjunction with architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Miss Jekyll's informal drifts and masses of plants artistically chosen for their contrasting forms and harmonious, blended colors relieve the severity of Lutyen's firm frameworks of hedges, walls, stairs, and pools. This partnership and the gardens they created is described by Jane Brown (``Gardens of a Golden Afternoon,'' New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, $30.50) and details their design aspect, while Hobhouse focuses on the horticultural elements within the designs.
Penelope Hobhouse's compilation of the pictures Miss Jekyll painted both with her gardens and her prose has brought together the essence of her planting ideas for woodlands, stone walls, arbors, and water. Using a chapter for each month of the year (as Miss Jekyll did in her first book ``Wood and Garden,'' 1897), Hobhouse covers the blossoming times, color, and arrangement of Jekyllian plants. ``Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening'' will whet the amateur's appetite and send Jekyll students galloping back to the originals which have happily been reprinted.
Penelope Doan writes on gardening from Dahlia Farm Road, Monroe, Maine.