Historical Inspiration for Modern Gardeners

How do we, as gardeners, approach  a gardening project with the wealth of garden history that we have, whether in actual experience or photographs, been exposed to? With so many styles to consider, so many plants now available to choose from, it certainly makes for great freedom and creativity. 

In a small plot in front of a house in an urban setting; a gardener may choose an amorphic, irregular arrangement of plants in a design without a single straight line, or anything approaching symmetry. Here,  the tall climbing roses cascading along a wall, and the rounded clumps of peony foliage and spikey spires of hollyhocks or delphiniums would provide their own structure. Their varied leaf forms would give a variety of color and  texture. This would follow the inspiration of the English cottage garden. Or; another gardener, in the same plot, might choose a geometric pattern of clipped boxwood hedges, separated by neat gravel paths. Each boxwood enclosed space could be planted with colorful annual begonias, or the grey foliage and violet flowers of lavender. Here the inspiration might be the formal geometric patterns of the great baroque gardens and their love of symmetry. Yet another gardener might design a striking backdrop of tall decorative grasses, a diagonal swath of dark paving stones, and a band of low, lustrous-green broad-leaved plants such as hosta or ladies’ mantle. The inspiration here might be a modern garden designer, or even an abstract painting. All three would be completely original and wonderful expressions of an avid gardener, and yet each, completely different from each other.

Original Artwork by Fritz Rohn

In another, more expansive situation, perhaps an entire yard, where the terrain, soil type, exposure to sun and other existing conditions must be taken into account, there still would be the same degree of freedom to follow the design path of choice. With an entire yard, or even larger property, the importance of “Listening to the genie of the place,” or letting the land “Speak to you” before deciding a plan is, as always, essential. Having done this though; the space for one’s own individual design is still enormous. A gardener merely needs to fit their taste and style into the criteria of the site. Hence; a wide  flagstone-paved path might lead straight to an entry door of a house, where a pair of classical “campagna” shaped urns, copying an ancient Roman design, might flank the front entry. These would of course be well planted. Hence this entry would be drawing on the renaissance and baroque tradition. 

To the side of this formal “Classical” and symmetrical area, it could certainly be appropriate to have a curving path to the side of the house with a wooden, quite rustic and  weathered, fence and gate. This might lead along a side garden where climbing roses cascade over a trellis, hollyhocks project upwards hiding  an unattractive electrical service, and rounded clumps of peonies are planted.  Hydrangea shrubs, and  areas of lower, flowering annuals might be set in an asymmetrical curved area, not following any straight line, or including any symmetrical pairings. A single large, rounded terracotta pot might be placed as an ornament in a prominent, but not centralized, position. This would add a different material, and hence more interest to this area, in the same “feel”, yet not matching too closely, the rustic wooden fence entry.  This space would be following the tradition of the English cottage garden, yet, though in close proximity to the classical-inspired entry, would not be out of place. 

In the same yard, yet further down the curving path to the side of the house, past the cottage garden inspired area, a slight vista might open up to a deep back area behind the dwelling. Here some existing, or even purposely created, variety in terrain; perhaps a steeply rising slope, or  a sharp downward incline, or a grouping of tall pyramidal evergreens might be wanted. These would give variety to the view that would be built upon by perhaps adding shrubs to soften the steepness of the incline,  or the abruptness of the verticality of the tall evergreens, and thereby increase the appearance of depth, or distance.   At some point in the mid-distance  of the area, where perhaps a vertical bit of terrain rises, one side of this vertical area might be added to, with a group of tall shrubs to screen an area beyond. This would create a zone that is not at first seen, but must be explored, thus adding another element of interest. One would, of course, want to walk and explore, to see what lies beyond. 

In such a garden, the furthest back area might be given some focal point, perhaps a large bench, a single modern sculpture, or even a pool if that is desired. These features would draw the eye and tempt a walk. This whole area at the rear of the dwelling would then be taking inspiration, whether consciously or not, from the great English tradition of the landscape garden. 

Original Artwork by Fritz Rohn

Hence in one relatively  small plot, a gardener of today might  draw from three great gardening traditions for  their own creative design, yet successfully avoid conflict between these so different styles.  Beyond merely drawing on these past traditions, a gardener today is  still able to retain their own personal, individual taste; planting the plants they know and love, perhaps incorporating an old wrought iron garden bench inherited from a grandmother, or a contemporary abstract sculpture by an admired artist, or an antique stone statue acquired from a favored antique shop.  

There is, of course, an unlimited variety of scenarios for a gardener’s design of their own abode in our time. We have the luxury of knowing, through so many well done books on the history of gardens, the many traditions that have preceded us.  We all can, and do, draw on these great traditions whether we know it or not.  They are impossible to escape, and thankfully so, as they do enrich our gardens, and hence, our lives.

Phoebe Eilis Rohn
Phoebe Eilis Rohn

Phoebe’s antique career also began with ‘Two Rohn Girls Antiques’ together with sister Chloë, but it took her a bit longer to come back to work in the business full time. Since the start of Montage, she has frequently been referred to as a ‘vacation antiques dealer’ scheduling trips home to America, Italy, and England to coincide with her favorite antiques shows. In 2020 she went a step further and opened her own antiques Pop-Up in Osnabrück Germany.