Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
July, 2010
Regional Report

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Experiment with combining vegetables and flowers in your garden.

Garden Inspiration from Jane Austen

What we plant and how we arrange the plants in our gardens is influenced by many factors. We draw our inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Recently, I attended a Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and heard a lecture by Kim Wilson, author of In the Garden with Jane Austin (Jones Books, 2008, $22.95). From the lecture and book, I was struck by how many elements of late 18th- and early 19th-century gardens are still appropriate in our gardens today.

If we look at both Jane Austen's life and her work, we see that she took a keen interest in both flower gardening and kitchen gardening alike. The Austens grew their own food whenever they could and had flower gardens wherever they lived. Austen also saw the garden as more than a source of food or flowers, as her characters often find gardens as a place of refuge or spiritual refreshment. As Fanny Price observed in Mansfield Park, "To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment." We know that Jane herself experienced this firsthand from a letter to her sister, "[T]he Garden is quite a Love. I live in [the] room downstairs, it is particularly pleasant, from opening upon the garden. I go & refresh myself every now & then, and then come back to Solitary Coolness."

Austen would have been acquainted with a wide variety of English gardens during her life, including those of great estates, cottage gardens, gardens in town, and public gardens and parks. In her book, Wilson gives us explanations and examples of each as well as ways of re-creating them in some fashion.

For many, it is the cottage garden of Austen's era that still has such resonance for us today, with its medley of flowers, trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, fruit, and vegetables mingled into a cornucopia of utility and beauty. Of course, there is a range of options when one considers a "cottage garden," from that of the laborer's subsistence garden to those of the more well-to-do. The elements of Austen's garden at Chawton Cottage (now a museum), where she wrote many of her novels, provides us with a framework of the ideal cottage garden.

The comfortable, rambling house is surrounded by shady walks and bright flowers. One element from this era is the "shrubbery," trees and shrubs planted around the perimeter of a property, with a gravel walk running through it. These were designed so that ladies could comfortably stroll or sit peacefully. What a lovely concept! We may expect more vigorous exercise today, but what we may also need just as much is the calming environment of a shrubbery. Other areas at Chawton Cottage include beds of roses, flower borders, a dye garden, and a kitchen garden.

To what extent we combine or separate these elements in our own gardens today is a matter of personal preference, but the romantic notion of the cottage garden continues to capture our imaginations. There is merit in a concept that has stood the test of time, and the integrated garden that is both pretty and practical, plus providing a place of renewal, will never go out of style.

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