“Few things are more annoying than dogmatism; and dogmatism is nowhere more misplaced than in horticulture. The wise gardener is he whom years of experience have succeeded in teaching that plants, no less than people have perverse individualities of their own, and that, though general rules may be laid down, yet it is impossible ever to predict with any certainty that any given treatment is bound to secure success or failure.” Reginald Farrer in My Rock Garden.
No season was ever greater proof of this quote from Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) than this spring and summer. We couldn’t complain about early or late blooming, because all bloom was operating on some mysterious energy. Some plants bloomed late, and some early. People who planned wedding dates with available garden flowers in mind found themselves in difficult straits.
Last week I opened A Century of Gardeners by Betty Massingham that I bought at the Friends of the Heath Library Book Sale at the Heath Fair. The brief biography was so tantalizing I ran to my bookshelf and there was A Rage for Rock Gardening: The story of Reginal Farrer, gardener, writer and plant collector by Nicola Shulman. I’m afraid the term rock gardening put me off to such an extent that I hardly opened the book when it was given to me as a gift years ago. That was a mistake because if Massingham’s book tantalized, Shulman’s book delighted in the ways I assume Farrer was able to do.
Born in 1880 his youth was difficult because he was born with a cleft palate which affected his speech. The corrective surgeries that were available at the time sound barbaric, dealing with “hot tongs, sulfuric acid and metal bridles.” Because of this he was schooled at home and learned to deal with physical hardships, a different type of which he met up with on his plant hunting travels..
He was self taught in botany and at the age of 14 he rebuilt his parents rock garden. Unlike my vision of a few rocks on a slope with bits of basket of gold alyssum stuck in beetween which is what my first and only rock garden looked like, Farrer’s rock gardens were designed to coddle alpine plants. His book was written when he was 22 and it was well received. However, fame as a novelist is what he longed for. The five novels he wrote did not give him fame or even critical applause. His relationship with his father, never close or easy, deteriorated to such a degree that he was finally forced to earn money on his own.
Needing money he took to writing garden books – books about his plant hunting and planting aesthetic. Along with William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll he is responsible for changing the whole approach to gardening. The Victorian way was bedding out, turning flower beds into complex and brilliantly colored carpets. The way we garden now, more naturally, with the gardener working with the plant instead of working to subdue the plant, is thanks to Farrer as well as his more famous colleagues.
His other books include In a Yorkshire Garden, Alpines and Bog Plants, On the Eaves of the World and The Rainbow Bridge. His writing about plants was as new and unique as his garden style. For him plants had personalities. They sulked or were capricious.I will have to search them out as well as Farrer’s Last Journey by E.H.M. Cox about his expedition to upper Burma. The novel failed him, but his literary talents bloomed when he wrote about plants.
I want to thank Carolyngail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago for hosting Muse Day which I always look forward to. I keep my eyes open for something to share – and love seeing what muses are inspiring other gardeners.