So, are the colours sublime ... or just plain snobby?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The saying goes that in the ideal mansion the cooking would be French, the plumbing German and the decor Italian. And the English? Why, they would be the gardeners, of course! We British do love to think of ourselves as having both a natural talent and a tradition for gardening.

No matter how tiny our patch, we will garden it out of existence. One of my neighbours has seven garden sheds on his little plot - there is not even room for a deckchair on the handkerchief of lawn that remains visible between the outbuildings of his semi. Not that he could ever sit down and rest, for those sheds are full of gadgets clamouring to be used. Hence the appalling noise pollution of suburbia for much of the year. It is impossible to read a book outside because of trimmers, strimmers, hedge-clippers, all buzzing away like virtuous bluebottles.

Snobbery compounds the silliness of gardeners. That dreadful heroine Gertrude Jekyll set out the ground-rules for one-upmanship that have distinguished our horticulture. It is notable that her books were originally mostly published in the Twenties and Thirties and then remained out of print, justly neglected, for half a century, until they were revived in the Eighties, another decade anxious about nouveau-riche vulgarity.

Gertrude Jekyll was careful to make clear the difference between going in for "commonplace gardening" (Heaven forbid!) and "gardening that may rightly claim to rank as a fine art". No vulgar colours in the border, thank you! "Nothing brilliant ... all restrained ... refined..." was what she prescribed in 1923. Her ideal flower was catmint, "a plant that can hardly be over-praised".

Gertrude Jekyll's herbaceous borders complemented the suburban fascism of houses designed by Lutyens, originator of nasty gables and Cotswold windows, architectural Noddy to Prince Charles's Big-Ears. Her gardens set a kind of complementary seal of approval on Lutyens and his imitators, on the safe fantasies of an ideal English past.

A more attractive, but hopelessly romantic, gardener for the house with stately-home aspirations was Inigo Triggs, who specialised in historical research and in re-creating gardens of the past. He was a dab hand at this, and his pice de resistance was his own house, Little Boarhunt, near Lippock, off the London-Portsmouth road. It had been a farmhouse called Fry's Farm, but Inigo soon dug up a legend about King John hunting boar in the district and renamed his property suitably. He bought it in 1910. By 1911 his garden had grown, and a few years later it seemed an ancient setting, with a rose-garden where the farmyard had been, a sunken garden where the old coaching road had driven through the landscape, and herbaceous borders aplenty. "Well done for Inigo Triggs!" you cry.

Yes, except that such pseudo-historical nonsense is largely to blame for the "traditional cottage-gardens" that blot the landscape and deceive tourists. What Inigo Triggs and Gertrude Jekyll offered was the rapid clothing of new suburban architecture in garments of genteel good taste, so that in no time the expanses of raw earth looked as if they had been cultivated landscape from time immemorial. Hence, too, the dishonest insistence on garden furniture made of natural stone or rustic logs, "honest" materials which real rural life was jettisoning as fast as it could in favour of bakelite and aluminium. Gertrude was damning about incipient vulgarity in garden paintwork: she insisted on a dull and tasteful shade of green. And what a denunciation of yellow varnish! "Garish and ridiculous". So there! If you were an aspiring tradesperson who had purchased a modest suburban pile, you knew how to make your home blend in with the traditions of the gentry.

Or what you thought were those traditions, for the herbaceous border defeated the elegance of the Georgian lawn and the excitement of the Gothic folly. It has conquered pretty well everything by now, obscuring decent architecture with its hideous gentility, encouraging all those braying accents on their annual visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, smothering this country under endless vistas of arum lilies, red-hot pokers and golden rod. And catmint. Don't forget the catmint.