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Gardens - Garden Boundaries

( Originally Published 1901 )

" A garden fair . . . with Wandis long and small
Railèd about, and so with trees set
Was all the place ; and Hawthorne hedges knet,
That lyf was none walking there forbye
That might within scarce any wight espy."


ONE who reads what I have written in these pages of a garden enclosed, will scarcely doubt that to me every garden must have boundaries, definite and high. Three old farm boundaries were of necessity garden boundaries in early days—our stone walls, rail fences, and hedge-rows. The first two seem typically American; the third is an English hedge fashion. Throughout New England the great boulders were blasted to clear the rocky fields ; and these, with the smaller loose stones, were gathered into vast stone walls. We still see these walls around fields and as the boundaries of kitchen gardens and farm flower gardens, and delightful walls they are, resourceful of beauty to the inventive gardener. I know one lovely garden in old Narragansett, on a farm which is now the country-seat of folk of great wealth, where the old stone walls are the pride of the place ; and the carefully kept garden seems set in a beautiful frame of soft gray stones and flowering vines. These walls would be more beautiful still if our climate would let us have the wall gardens of old England, but everything here becomes too dry in summer for wall gardens to flourish.

Rhode Island farmers for two centuries have cleared and sheltered the scanty soil of their state by blasting the ledges, and gathering the great stones of ledge and field into splendid stone walls. Their beauty is a gift to the farmer's descendants in reward for his hours of bitter and wearying toil. One of these fine stone walls, six feet in height, has stood secure and unbroken through a century of upheavals of winter frosts — which it was too broad and firmly built to heed. It stretches from the Post Road in old Narragansett, through field and meadow, and by the side of the oak grove, to the very edge of the bay. To the waterside one afternoon in June there strolled, a few years ago, a beautiful young girl and a somewhat conscious but determined young man. They seated themselves on the stone wall under the flickering shadow of a great Locust tree, then in full bloom. The air was sweet with the honeyed fragrance of the lovely pendent clusters of bloom, and bird and bee and butterfly hovered around,—it was paradise. The beauty and fitness of the scene so stimulated the young man's fancy to thoughts and words of love that he soon burst forth to his companion in an impassioned avowal of his desire to make her his wife. He had often pictured to himself that some time he would say to her these words, and he had seen also in his hopes the looks of tender affection with which she would reply. What was his amazement to be-hold that, instead of blushes and tender glances, his words of love were met by an apparently frenzied stare of horror and disgust, that seemed to pierce through him, as his beloved one sprung at one bound from her seat by his side on the high stone wall, and ran away at full speed, screaming out, Oh, kill him ! kill him ! "

Now that was certainly more than disconcerting to the warmest of lovers, and with a half-formed dread that the suddenness of his proposal of love had turned her brain, he ran after her, albeit somewhat coolly, and soon learned the reason for her extraordinary behavior. Emulous of the tempting serpent of old, a great black snake, Mr. Bascanion constrictor, had said complaisantly to himself: " Now here are a fair young Adam and Eve who have entered uninvited my Garden of Eden, and the man fancies it is not good for him to be alone, but I will have a word to say about that. I will come to her with honied words." So he thrust himself up between the stones of the wall, and advanced persuasively upon them, behind the man's back. But a Yankee Eve of the year i 890 A.D. is not that simple creature, the Eve of the year B.C.; and even the Father of Evil would have to be great of guile to succeed in his wiles with her.

A farm servant was promptly despatched to watch for the ill-mannered and intrusive snake who—as is the fashion of a snake — had grown to be as big as a boa-constrictor after he vanished ; and at the end of the week once more the heel of man had bruised the serpent's head, and the third party in this love episode lay dead in his six feet of ugliness, a silent witness to the truth of the story.

Throughout Narragansett, Locust trees have a fashion of fringing the stone walls with close young growth, and shading them with occasional taller trees.

These form an ideal garden boundary. The stone walls also gather a beautiful growth of Clematis, Brier, wild Peas, and Grapes; but they form a clinging-place for that devil's brood, Poison Ivy, which is so persistent in growth and so difficult to exterminate.

The old worm fence was distinctly American; it had a zigzag series of chestnut rails, with stakes of twisted cedar saplings which were sometimes " chunked" by moss - covered boulders just peeping from the earth. This worm fence secured to the nature lover and to wild life a strip of land eight or ten feet wide, whereon plant, bird, beast, reptile, and insect flourished and re-produced. It has been,within a few years, a gardening fashion to preserve these old " Virginia " fences on country places of considerable elegance. Planted with Clematis, Honeysuckle, Trumpet vine, Wistaria, and the free-growing new Japanese Roses, they are wonderfully effective.

On Long Island, east of Riverhead, where there are few stones to form stone walls, are curious and picturesque hedge-rows, which are a most interesting and characteristic feature of the landscape, and they are beautiful also, as I have seen them once or twice, at the end of an old garden. These hedge-rows were thus formed : when a field was cleared, a row of young saplings of varied growth, chiefly Oak, Elder, and Ash, was left to form the hedge These young trees were cut and bent over parallel to the ground, and sometimes interlaced together with dry branches and vines. Each year these trees were lopped, and new sprouts and branches permitted to grow only in the line of the hedge. Soon a tangle of briers and wild vines overgrew and netted them all into a close, impenetrable, luxuriant mass. They were, to use Wordsworth's phrase, " scarcely hedge-rows, but lines of sportive woods run wild." In this close green wall birds build their nests, and in their shelter burrow wild hares, and there open Violets and other firstlings of the spring. The twisted tree trunks in these old hedges are sometimes three or four feet in diameter one way, and but a foot or more the other ; they were a shiftless field-border, as they took up so much land, but they were sheep-proof. The custom of making a dividing line by a row of bent and polled trees still remains, even where the close, tangled hedge-row has disappeared with the flocks of sheep.

These hedge-rows were an English fashion seen in Hertfordshire and Suffolk. On commons and re-claimed land they took the place of the quickset hedges seen around richer farm lands. The bending and interlacing was called plashing ; the polling, shrouding. English farmers and gardeners paid in-finite attention to their hedges, both as a protection to their fields and as a means of firewood.

There is something very pleasant in the thought that these English gentlemen who settled eastern Long Island, the Gardiners, Sylvesters, Coxes, and others, retained on their farm lands in the new world the customs of their English homes, pleasanter still to know that their descendants for centuries kept up these homely farm fashions. The old hedge-rows on Long Island are an historical record, a landmark —long may they linger. On some of the finest estates on the island they have been carefully preserved, to form the lower boundary of a garden, where, laid out with a shaded, grassy walk dividing it from the flower beds, they form the loveliest of garden limits. Planted skilfully with great Art to look like great Nature, with edging of Elder and Wild Rose, with native vines and an occasional con-genial garden ally, they are truly unique.

Yew was used for the most famous English hedges; and as neither Yew nor Holly thrive here — though both will grow — I fancy that is why we have ever had in comparison so few hedges, and have really no very ancient ones, though in old letters and account books we read of the planting of hedges on fine estates. George Washington tried it, so did Adams, and Jefferson, and Quincy. Osage Orange, Bar-berry, and Privet were in nurserymen's lists, but it has not been till within twenty or thirty years that Privet has become so popular. In Southern gardens, Cypress made close, good garden hedges ; and Cedar hedges fifty or sixty years old are seen. Lilac hedges were unsatisfactory, save in isolated cases, as the one at Indian Hill. The japan Quinces, and other of the Japanese shrubs, were tried in hedges in the mid-century, with doubtful success as hedges, though they form lovely rows of flowering shrubs. Snow-balls and Snowberries, Flowering Currant, Altheas, and Locust, all have been used for hedge-planting, so we certainly have tried faithfully enough to have hedges in America. Locust hedges are most graceful, they cannot be clipped closely. I saw one lovely creation of Locust, set with an occasional Rose Acacia — and the Locust thus supported the brittle Acacia. If it were successful, it would be, when in bloom, a dream of beauty. Hemlock hedges are ever fine, as are hemlock trees everywhere, but will not bear too close clipping. Other evergreens, among them the varied Spruces, have been set in hedges, but have not proved satisfactory enough to be much used.

Buckthorn was a century ago much used for hedges and arches. When Josiah Quincy, President of Harvard College, was in Congress in 1809, he obtained from an English gardener, in Georgetown, Buckthorn plants for hedges in his Massachusetts home, which hedges were an object of great beauty for many years.

The traveller Kalm found Privet hedges in Pennsylvania in 1760. In Scotland Privet is called Primprint. Primet and Primprivet were other old names. Box was called Primpe. These were all derivative of prim, meaning precise. Our Privet hedges, new as they are, are of great beauty and satisfaction, and soon will rival the English Yew hedges.

I have never yet seen the garden in which there was not some boundary or line which could be filled to advantage by a hedge. In garden great or garden small, the hedge should ever have a place. Often a featureless garden, blooming well, yet somehow unattractive, has been completely transformed by the planting of hedges. They seem, too, to give such an orderly aspect to the garden. In level countries hedges are specially valuable. I cannot understand why some denounce clipped hedges and trees as against nature. A clipped hedge is just as natural as the cut grass of a lawn, and is closely akin to it. Others think hedges "too set" ; to me their finality is their charm.

Hedges need to be well kept to be pleasing. Chaucer in his day in praising a " hegge " said that : —

"Every branche and leaf must grow by mesure
Pleine as a bord, of an height by and by."

In England, hedge-clipping has ever been a gardening art.

In the old English garden the topiarist was an important functionary. Besides his clipping shears he had to have what old-time cooks called judgment or faculty. In English gardens many specimens of topiary work still exist, maintained usually as relics of the past rather than as a modern notion of the beautiful. The old gardens at Levens Hall, page 404, contain some of the most remarkable examples.

In a few old gardens in America, especially in Southern towns, traces of the topiary work of early years can be seen; these overgrown, uncertain shapes have a curious influence, and the sentiment awakened is beautifully described by Gabriele d' Annunzio:-

"We walked among evergreens, among ancient Box trees, Laurels, Myrtles, whose wild old age had forgotten its early discipline. In a few places here and there was some trace of the symmetrical shapes carved once upon a time by the gardener's shears, and with a melancholy not unlike his who searches on old tombstones for the effigies of the forgotten dead, I noted carefully among the silent plants those traces of humanity not altogether obliterated."

The height of topiary art in America is reached in the lovely garden, often called the Italian garden, of Hollis H. Hunnewell, Esq., at Wellesley, Massachusetts. Vernon Lee tells in her charming essay on "Italian Gardens " of the beauty of gardens without flowers, and this garden of Mr. Hunnewell is an admirable example. Though the effect of the black and white of the pictured representations shown on these pages is perhaps somewhat sombre, there is nothing sad or sombre in the garden itself. The clear gleam of marble pavilions and balustrades, the formal rows of flower jars with their hundreds of Century plants, and the lovely light on the lovely lake, serve as a delightful contrast to the clear, clean lusty green of the clipped trees. This garden is a beautiful example of the art of the topiarist, not in its grotesque forms, but in the shapes liked by Lord Bacon, pyramids, columns, and "hedges in welts," carefully studied to be both stately and graceful. I first saw this garden thirty years ago; it was interesting then in its well thought-out plan, and in the perfection of every inch of its slow growth ; but how much more beautiful now, when the gar-den's promise is fulfilled.

The editor of Country Life says that the most notable attempt at modern topiary work in England is at Ascott, the seat of Mr. Leopold de Rothschild, but the examples there have not attained a growth at all approaching those at Wellesley. Mr. Hunnewell writes thus of his garden :

" It was after a visit to Elvaston nearly fifty years ago that I conceived the idea of making a collection of trees for topiary work in imitation of what I had witnessed at that celebrated estate. As suitable trees for that purpose could not be obtained at the nurseries in this country, and as the English Yew is not reliable in our New England climate, I was obliged to make the best selection possible from such trees as had proved hardy here—the Pines, Spruces, Hemlocks, Junipers, Arbor-vitae, Cedars, and Japanese Retinosporas. The trees were all very small, and for the first twenty years their growth was shortened twice annually, causing them to take a close and compact habit, comparing favorably in that respect with the Yew. Many of them are now more than forty feet in height and sixty feet in circumference, the Hemlocks especially proving highly successful."

This beautiful example of art in nature is ever open to visitors, and the number of such visitors is very large. It is, however, but one of the many beauties of the great estate, with its fine garden of Roses, its pavilion of splendid Rhododendrons and Azaleas, its uncommon and very successful rock garden, and its magnificent plantation of rare trees. There are also many rows of fine hedges and arches in various portions of the grounds, hedges of clipped Cedar and Hemlock, many of them twenty feet high, which compare well in condition, symmetry, and extent with the finest English hedges on the finest English estates.

Through the great number of formal gardens laid out within a few years in America, the topiary art has had a certain revival. In California, with the lavish foliage, it may be seen in considerable perfection, though of scant beauty, as here shown.

Happy is the garden surrounded by a brick wall or with terrace wall of brick. How well every color looks by the side of old brick ; even scarlet, bright pink, and rose-pink flowers, which seem impossible, do very well when held to the wall by clear green leaves. Flowering vines are perfect when trained on old soft-red brick enclosing walls ; white-flowered vines are specially lovely thereon, Clematis, white Roses, and the rarely beautiful white Wistaria. How lovely is my Virgin's-bower when growing on brick ; how Hollyhocks stand up beside it. Brick posts, too, are good in a fence, and, better still, in a pergola. A portion of the fine terrace wall at Van Cortlandt Manor is shown facing page 286. This wall was put in about fifty years ago ; ere that there had been a grass bank, which is ever a trial in a garden ; for it is hard to mow the grass on such a bank, and it never looks neat ; it should be planted with some vine.

A very curious garden wall is the serpentine brick wall still standing at the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville. It is about seven feet high, and closes in the garden and green of the row of houses occupied by members of the faculty ; originally it may have extended around the entire college grounds. I present a view from the street in order to show its contour distinctly ; within the garden its outlines are obscured by vines and flowers. The first thought in the mind of the observer is that its reason for curving is that it could be built much more lightly, and hence more cheaply, than a straight wall ; then it seems a possible idealization in brick of the old Virginia rail fence. But I do not look to domestic patterns and influences for its production ; it is to me a good example of the old-time domination of French ideas which was so marked and so disquieting in America. In France, after the peace of 1762, the Marquis de Geradin was revolutionizing gardening. His own garden at Ermenonville and his description of it exercised important influence in England and America, as in France. Jefferson was the planner and architect of the University of Virginia; and it is stated that he built this serpentine wall. Whether he did or not, it is another example of French influences in architecture in the United States. This French school, above everything else, replaced straight lines with carefully curving and winding lines.

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