Penelope Hobhouse Reaps What She Sows

Esteemed British garden designer learns as she teaches

Penelope Hobhouse is one of English horticulture's grande dames. She is somewhat formidable in knowledge and opinion. She is very English.

But it soon became plain, as we chatted at length in her home at Bettiscombe in Dorset, that she is also highly international in outlook and experience, having designed gardens in France, Australia, Italy, as well as Maine, and Austin, Texas.

She has, of course, designed many gardens in Britain, including her own marvelous mix of rectilinear formality and luxuriant planting here at Bettiscombe.

But our conversation immediately launched into her love affair with America and American gardening - particularly its developments of wild, native, or "natural" gardening. Her lecture tours in the US, and design of gardens for American clients, have been an education for her. They have, she says, "taught me such a huge amount."

This phenomenally energetic designer, lecturer, author, and host of an American HGTV series on gardening is, like the best teachers, an indefatigable learner. Her books are a kind of autobiography of her development as a gardener. Her latest is "Penelope Hobhouse's Natural Planting," (Henry Holt, $45).

"It's Penelope Hobhouse feeling her way towards 'natural planting,' " she says. It signals a shift in her philosophy. "I must say," she continues "that in the last few years I have become much less traditional. In fact, the book is not very much about gardening though I don't know that people will realize it till they've bought it."

Though her garden designs have "bones" - strong formal order within the structure - she clearly relishes the informality that comes naturally to plants. At its most extreme, what she calls "natural planting" is "wild gardening." Her book, whatever she says, is about gardening, and gardeners.

One is central: William Robinson, the 19th to 20th-century English father of "natural planting." But the book does have a botanical element to it, and it strongly advocates greater awareness of where plants originate, how they associate in nature, and what conditions they need. Placing plants associatively in this way seems to her more important now than subtle color relationships.

The notion of natural planting has two sources. One is "Robinsonian" gardening. This sought to replace laborious Victorian bedding of bright annuals with (theoretically) self-sustaining drifts of perennial plants that get along well together.

The other is her experience of informal gardens in Germany, and particularly in America. She sees American gardening as having two opposite poles that need reconciliation: One is a profound obsession with the English garden, with its roses and herbaceous borders. The other is a vigorous reaction against this.

"There is," she argues, not without some exaggeration, "a lot of anti-English feeling because everybody thinks English gardens are the best in the world - which is really a myth." This "anti" feeling "is very strong particularly among young [American] designers who don't want anything traditional, anything from Europe; structure, formality, straight lines, right angles."

She ironically exaggerates the American fondness for wild gardens: "Americans want, if possible, to have a 'native garden.' They think that if they make a path winding through a wood ... and plant a few trilliums, they've got 'a garden.' "

"So it's my job," she goes on, "to remind them that gardening is a fine art and before you can do the wild gardening you must learn the classical way to garden, or buy a book and look at Italian or Islamic gardens ... and at traditional English gardens - then you'll be ready to become a painter with plants in the wild."

She believes some people "go over the top" with "native planting." They think, she says, "that in the middle of Milwaukee if they make a little town garden and fill it with native plants - which looks of course completely mad - they've done some good. It's a sort of moral thing. Whereas the place to save these plants is in their natural habitat out on the prairies. You can't have a sort of wild life garden in a suburban street."

But then Hobhouse is not one to bother much with little gardens on suburban streets. Though it must be said that she has designed several remarkable small urban gardens, described in "Penelope Hobhouse's Garden Designs," (Henry Holt). But on the whole, she thinks big and works for wealthy clients.

Her books make you want to stop reading, go outside, and reorganize your own garden. They make few concessions to beginners. Her books are for serious, long-term, committed gardeners.

When she lectures or designs in the States, she is invited as an archetypal English gardener. Which she is. She and her husband, now deceased, revived and ran an archetypal English garden, Tintinhull, in Somerset. She knows her plant history, having written a book on the subject (her own favorite), "Plants in Garden History" (Pavilion Books).

She is also sensitively conscious that English gardening in America or Australia is "extremely difficult." This is why, when it is successfully done, she has unbounded admiration for the professionalism involved. There is "a fantastically high standard in the best American gardens," she says.

Again she generalizes: "Here [in England] you know, it's all a little bit amateurish. Many gardeners - rather like me - find it so easy climate-wise. We just rush out and stick in a plant. Americans have to really consider it hard. A plant which might flower for us for six weeks, might flower for three days for them. It means that they have to become experts if they're going to garden."

But all gardeners today need to become experts, she suggests.

She cites a German client who wanted a garden of shrub roses, typically "English." But since the client visits the garden only about twice a year, she misses the roses at their short, blooming peak. So it seems that Americans are not alone in problematically wanting to emulate the mythical English garden. Even the English, if Hobhouse is typical, are beginning to disbelieve this myth. Up to a point, anyway.

* Penelope Hobhouse's gardening show appears on HGTV Sundays. The next two will be aired March 29 and April 5 at 4:30 Eastern Standard Time.

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