The Education of a Gardener.

This classic book of garden literature by Russell Page should be on every gardener’s bedside table.


I re-read it every few years and always enjoy it. Russell Page was a garden designer and landscape artist and he was probably the most influential of his generation. He designed gardens for all the great and the good in his time.( Well, not necessarily the good, he designed one for those well- known Nazi sympathisers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). He was heavily influenced by the formality of Eastern and French gardens. He insisted on restraint in planting. He is still so highly regarded that his style of gardening has become the paradigm for good taste. I blame him for the vogue for box hedging and geometric garden designs. He was very aware of his influence and importance and although I love this book, I dislike the way he patronises us and instructs us as to what is tasteful and what not. It is all very well repeating Pope’ s dictum about consulting the genius of the place and designing a garden that is in keeping with the house, but his commissions were for grand places, not for the 1930 s semi.

For instance, to be in keeping with a Victorian house you would have to give your garden over to bedding out which only municipal parks adopt these days. Here is an example of carpet bedding in the Abbey gardens at Bury St Edmunds. What private gardener could or would want to attempt this?

The Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds.

The Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds.

And what about my higgledy piggledy house built in 1500? How should my garden look to be in harmony with an early sixteenth century house that would have belonged to a yeoman farmer? I suppose I should have chickens and a pig sty and a midden. My front garden should be full of cabbages and herbs of course. Everyone grew herbs, or simples as they were called, for self- medication. I grow culinary herbs but I am not interested in growing herbs to heal the dropsy. I recently bought a Devil’s Bit Scabious because it is beautiful and bees love it. I didn’t buy it because Gerard tells me that ‘Divel’s Bit ‘clenseth away slimie flegme that sticketh in the jaws‘. If I am unfortunate enough to find myself with slimie flegme sticking to my jaws I will go to the doctor. And I will never grow horrible Hypericum or ‘Saint James his Wort’ as Gerard calls it. Even if a ‘decoction of it gargarised‘ is a remedy against swellings and ‘impostumations‘ of the throat.

A friend of mine has a little sixteenth century cottage and she is determined that her garden will be authentic. She only grows sixteenth century plants, preferably ones mentioned by Shakespeare. In her front garden she has a pretty knot garden and she is very proud of that. In fact, it is entirely inappropriate for the garden of a small cottage. A knot garden was the fashion accessory for the rich. Here is one looking just right in the grounds of the Tudor Helmingham Hall.

Knot Garden. Helmingham Hall. Suffolk.

Knot Garden. Helmingham Hall. Suffolk.


I really think it is an affectation to grow only the plants that were available in the sixteenth century. We are so lucky to live in an age when we can grow plants from all round the world and we no longer need to use our gardens to scratch out an existence. Our gardens have a completely different purpose. I have had friendly disagreements with a friend about having a garden in keeping with the period of the house. She thinks that a cottage garden is appropriate for a house like mine. And although my front garden is what you might call a cottage garden, I don’ t think this is authentic for a sixteenth century house and I am planning on a complete makeover next year.
The idea of a picturesque cottage garden is a Victorian and early twentieth century construct. It represents an imaginary past seen through the eyes of artists such as Alfred Parsons, Helen Allingham and Earnest Arthur Rowe.

Off Marketing. Helen Allingham

Off Marketing. Helen Allingham

I once read a gardening book and I cannot remember who wrote it, where the author objected to Eucalyptus trees in an English garden. He said they are as inappropriate as an ostrich on a grouse moor. And I wondered why pick on Eucalyptus trees? We grow plants from all over the world and our gardens are enriched by them.

So whenever I read Russell Page, I find myself picking an argument with him. I can’t have and do not want a garden that harmonises with my house. And neither do I want it organised on a geometric grid pattern like a Persian carpet. And I don’t want box hedges, I loathe the things. I want my garden to take you on a roundabout path that meanders here and there and never in a straight line. I don’t want long vistas; I want a surprise round every corner. I don’ t want blocks of colour or a restricted palette of plants that are repeated. I don’t want restraint. I want a rich tapestry of horticultural delights. And I don’t want to be sneered at and told that I am a plant collector and not an artist and have no aesthetic sense. I wrote a post about the thorny problem of  taste and another one to foster a debate about whether the garden is an art form, both of which provoked much comment. I think most of us object to the implication that our beloved gardens are not aesthetically pleasing. I know Page trained at the Slade under the great Tonks and without doubt he designed beautiful gardens. But the implication that he is the arbiter of good taste in the garden and that any garden that doesn’t measure up to his standards is not artistic, is annoying.

I wouldn’ t want a painting by Mark Rothko or even Mondrian, even if I could afford them. Give me a Breughal scene or a Bosschaert flower painting any time, or even a painting by poor, mad Richard Dadd. Paintings that you can gaze at for hours and get lost in the detail. And it’ s the same with gardens; I don’ t want broad strokes or geometrical regularity. I want intricacy, a tapestry of beautiful flowers. I believe we should follow our own eyes and create a garden that pleases us without worrying whether it matches Page’ s criteria.  I have to point out that Page didn’ t even have his own garden. In my book, you can’ t call yourself a gardener if you don’t garden, anymore than you can be an artist if you don’t paint, or a writer if you don’ t write.

I set out to do a book review and end up doing an iconoclastic rant. I looked on line to see whether amongst all the reverential descriptions of this book anyone felt like me. I found one written by Beth of GardenFancy, a blog I now follow, but didn’ t know about back in 2014, when she wrote this book review. Beth seems to agree with me on many points, but instead of a rant she gives an excellent and measured review.  So if you want to know more about the book, here is where you can find the information. If you read this Beth, please give us a link.

Last week I went to see an amazing garden, East Ruston in North Norfolk. It has been criticised in some quarters by the taste police, for being too flamboyant, a mishmash of styles and not restrained enough. I love it and will write about it in my next post.
In the meantime, after all I have said; if you haven’t already, do read The Education of a Gardener. It is elegantly written and full of information. Even if like me, you don’ t agree with all he says, you have to read it to know what you are disagreeing with. And after all, it is a great book.

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41 Responses to The Education of a Gardener.

  1. Bodger says:

    Thanks for this, I struggle to read opinions so very opposite to my own (Capabily Brown, anyone?) I think that a book review should be like a restaurant critic. The good write up is where I’ll go if I want supper in a strange town but the hatchet jobs are by far the more entertaining. I’m another plant collector, striving for self control. Tired of being told that my garden needs only five species, since horticulture must be self expression and that makes it art. I love both Mondrian and Dadd, making my plot a disaster to the purist. I’ll defend my style with vigour and a shovel, if neccesary.

    • Chloris says:

      Actually, I set out to do a book review and then went off on a tangent. (Or a tandem, as a friend who keeps me entertained with her malapropisms once said.) I haven’ t told you much about the book, just my reactions to it. That is the delight of writing a blog, you can say what you like.
      I am interested to hear that you strive for self-control, I’ ve long ago given up on that. Good to hear that you are not a purist and that you have your own style. And that you are prepared to defend it with a shovel. Hurrah!

  2. Oh, my. I think I will have to come back and read this again later. I’ve only had one cup of coffee and my brain is still half asleep. I thought we were strolling down a nice country lane with birdsong from every direction and suddenly we were swinging through the trees. The turmoil was quite invigorating, but perhaps a bit much after post-debate nightmares.

    • Chloris says:

      Oh goodness Marian, I didn’ t mean to scare you. I only mean it in a light -hearted way. I’ m always slightly tongue in cheek when I write these things. I do think it’ s fun to stir up debate now and then though..

  3. Christina says:

    As I learn more from the gardens I dislike I usually learn more about my opinions from reading a book I disagree with. Many of his gardens in Italy were pastiches of a former time that he didn’t understand but he, hopefully, pleased his clients. A great read (your post, not his book) Thank you.

  4. Liz, I love this! A friend gave me that book years ago, I must read it again. As an American and a Landscape Architect (sorry, but true – admittedly a weird one) some of Russell Page sailed right over my head. I will start the search and read Russell again.

    • Chloris says:

      I have nothing against landscape architects Amy. It’ s just that Page is so pedantic. Do read it again, I woulld love to hear your opinion.

      • Not sure if you know of Jon Spence, writer of Becoming Jane Austen? He gave me the book and instructed me I must read it. He spent a lot of time in England as was a big fan of Russell Page, I agree with you about all the foofy designs! Bah. Will search!

  5. gardenfancyblog says:

    Hi Chloris, Thanks so much for linking to my blog! I’m so glad you enjoyed my review. The blog page with my review of “The Education of a Gardener” is here:

    (BTW, if you want to include a link to a specific page, just go to that page and highlight and copy that whole address at the top of your browser, and paste it into your “add link” box or directly into your text. The link adding box allows for a shorter address in your text, but the whole address can appear in your text without looking too annoying, IMO.)

    And we’re in complete agreement about Page’s book. He was a snob and certainly wasn’t a gardener. But I think his book is still worth reading, as are the memoirs of many of his generation and social milieu, just from a cultural and historical perspective.

    Best Regards,

    • Chloris says:

      Beth, you wrote a really excellent book review, I enjoyed reading it. I know you are an avid reader, and have an extensive library of gardening books, just like me. I remember you posting about it. And you find this book interesting for the same reasons as me.

  6. Tina says:

    An enjoyable post! I’m so glad that someone else hates box hedges–I detest them! The garden should bring joy to the gardener and all she invites to her garden. ‘Nuff said.

    • Chloris says:

      Absolutely Tina, you have summed it up in a nutshell. As for box hedges, the box blight which is sweeping the country makes many of them here even more unappealing. And anyway, why do people want to hedge their plants in? Are they worried they might escape and run round the garden do you think?

  7. Cathy says:

    Your post had me giggling Chloris! I agree on the whole with your preferences for a garden, but all the different views and styles certainly provide us with food for thought and inspiration (and reason to groan and moan too sometimes!) so I am pleased to occasionally see gardens that are not at all my cup of tea, even if it is just to reconfirm my own ideas of what a garden should be. Thanks for an enjoyable read again!

    • Chloris says:

      Oh I agree Cathy. I love to look at all kinds of gardens, even if they are in a style I wouldn’ t want in my own garden. I can still appreciate them. I am glad we all have different ways of gardening; I’m all for diversity.

  8. Now I am not sure whether I can bear to read this or not. I think I’d be too annoyed. I see that you can get the book in Kindle form though (for less than amazon’s second hand prices)

  9. Cathy says:

    You may consider it a bit of a rant, but for those of us who know you it was a most enlightening and enjoyable read – your post, not the book, that is!! I think it could have been our friend Beverley Nichols who linked eucalyptus with ostriches – sounds like his style. I look forward to reading about your visit to East Ruston – probably my most favourite garden ever, and only the second one that has brought tears (of joy) to my eyes (the other being my own, when I found buds on my wisteria for the first time). It had the overall feel of everything I would want from a garden but on a bigger and grander scale (the size of those pots…) – they clearly had the money to spend, but we all have to cut our coats according to our cloth and that’s fine. Alan was so hands-on there and clearly loves his garden and sharing it with visitors, regardless of their coats.

  10. Chloris says:

    Thank you Cathy, I am glad you enjoyed it. I am glad you loved East Ruston. I know a lot of East Anglian horticulturists and you would be surprised how many of them are dismissive of it. Sour grapes perhaps? I love it too. I heard Alan Gray talking earlier this year and his enthusism for his garden and all his plants is catching. He does an excellent talk.

  11. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable, and interesting, post and lovely pictures. xx

  12. Sam says:

    A very entertaining post/rant 🙂 I do agree that gardens should please the gardener and not be constrained by anything (other than horticultural restrictions). My taste might be different to yours, or another’s, but it doesn’t mean that any of them are wrong. As for historically accurate gardens, don’t get me started..! I remember being horrified when the National Trust dug up a brilliantly sited patch of grass by the cafe at Ham House where children used to play, so they could revert the garden to how it would have been back in the day (can’t remember the year). And who decides what is authentic anyway?! Would love to go to East Ruston. Look forward to hearing about it.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Sam. This whole question of taste in the garden one is always a topic that inspires strong feeling. I agree with your comments.
      I am still going to do a post on East Ruston but I got side tracked today by the realisation that it is Michaelmas Day.

  13. annamadeit says:

    Wonderful post, Chloris! I have read this book, and quite enjoyed it. Even though my garden, and those I work on, are on an entirely different scale than his, the book is chockfull of gold nuggets. My greatest appreciation of it was due to its historical context, and the fantastic journey his life took him on. My own garden is more of a learning lab than a garden, and anyone who has ever visited it knows that it shows absolutely NO restraint – in any way. It is in constant flux, and represents my own horticultural learning curve – nothing else. That said, I use what I learn when solving gardening problems for others. My education was in architecture, and a lot of what Russel Page touts is very familiar. But, in its wonderful way, gardening is a much more freewheeling art than architecture. Although I too start out looking for the genius loci, etc., so many other requirements and influences inform its final form. Although it’s always nice when gardens relate to the house, above all, I think it needs to relate to the needs, wants, abilities, and personalities of its owners and caregivers. Russel Page would probably avert his eye in horror if he saw the liberties I take in shaping my vignettes, but so be it. I really don’t mind. As a complement to his own writing, I bought a book that written to document the few remaining and restored gardens of his. It contains many of those great, illustrative photos that are missing in his own book , and I especially enjoyed learning about his fascination with reflecting pools. Thanks again for writing on this – I have been thinking of dedicating a post to him, myself. You beat me to it! You can find that other book here, if interested:

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for such an interesting comment. I agree there is much to enjoy in Page’ s book. I didn’ t do a proper review, I just used the book as a starting point for some thoughts of my own. Please do a post yourself, I would enjoy reading it. Thanks for the link.

  14. snowbird says:

    How I love it when you go off on one! Cheering you on I was! Everyone is unique and so should our gardens be, I’m certainly with you, I can’t abide being told how to think.
    I am looking at my little box hedges, that are still struggling to grow in an entirely different light now….lol…xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Oh I am sorry I didn’ t mean to be rude about your box hedge. I only meant I don’ t care for them myself because I can’ t be bothered to trim then and being an untidy sort of person I don’ t like to see my plants imprisoned by a hedge. I like them to look as if they can run away if they want to. But what a good thing we all like different things, how boring if our gardens were all the same. And as Bodger commented about her taste, I will defend your right to fill your garden with as many box hedges as you like, with my shovel if necessary.

  15. Kris P says:

    Another great post! I was impressed when I saw that Page’s book received Doris Lessing’s endorsement but, based on your post, I suspect I wouldn’t find much of value in his admonitions about landscape design. My guess is that Page wouldn’t have been much impressed by American architecture, much less American gardens. Although US gardeners have been heavily influenced by British garden style in the past and may still be in many respects (I have books by Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey and Christopher Lloyd on my shelf among others and often watch Gardeners’ World on YouTube), I think the trend here is in the direction of fitting the garden to the site, by which I mean climate and cultural conditions. Home design is of some concern but then home styles here may be more eclectic – and changeable – than is the case in the UK. There is a certain amount of pressure from some native plant enthusiasts to stick to native plants but most gardeners I know find that too restrictive and climate change and variables like urban heat sinks make a natives-only policy difficult to apply. I try to focus on plants that are adapted to my climate but I admittedly push the envelope even there.

    • Chloris says:

      I know American gardeners have been influenced by English gardens in the past but now many people here try to make their gardens look like an American prairie under the influence of Piet Oudolf. We all copy each other, I have quite a few books by American garden writers. I love Henry Mitchell, Eleanor Perenyi, Louise Beeber White and Michael Pollan to name but a few. Of course we have to grow what suits our ground and climate, but otherwise I think we should let our imaginations soar. A garden confined to native plants would be pretty dull here, but we have a limited native flora. It certainly wouldn’ t satisfy me- or you either.You are a plantaholic like me.

  16. Great post. I have never read this book and I doubt now that I will. We have fairly similar tastes, I think – I also dislike box hedges and geometric designs. I only wonder why you reread this book on a regular basis – do you just want to avoid getting too relaxed and mellow?

  17. bittster says:

    An excellent post. I can’t wait to read the book and be equally offended!
    You’ve made several good points on taste and ‘appropriate’ styles and I’m feeling much better about my mess of a garden which will never compliment the style of our house. But I’ll also cling to my little boxwood hedges and if we’re being honest I was considering adding a few balls as well.
    I surprised myself by not liking the photo from the Abbey gardens. I would have thought I’d enjoy the overload of color, but the beds all seem to look more like infected pimples spotting the lawn. Well tended pimples, but “beautiful” never really came to mind.

    • Chloris says:

      I don’ t suppose you would like the Abbey gardens planting style, I don’ t know any gardener who would want this in their garden. However much you like colour you want foliage too. And you don’ t want to have to dig up your whole garden in autumn.
      And good, you should cling to your box hedges, My point is that our gardens should reflect our own tastes. Actually I like box balls, specially if it snows in winter and they look like snow balls.

  18. pbmgarden says:

    Thanks for the introduction to Russell Page. What fun would gardening be if we had to follow all the rules or even current trends.

  19. Chloris says:

    I agree Susie. We garden to express our own creativity. I dislike gardens that reflect the latest trends rather than the owner’ s taste.

  20. homeslip says:

    Oh this reminded me of Lucia Mapp only planting flowers mentioned by poor Ophelia in her Shakespeare garden. Please don’t get me started on taste in the garden or anywhere come to that. I will look out for Russell Page in Wisley library. As for my own garden, I like to think it represents my learning curve as a ‘gardener’ over the last 25 years.

    • Chloris says:

      Lovely that you should mention Mapp. Are you a fellow EF Benson fan? I absolutely adore him and never tire of rereading his books. Of course your garden should represent your own taste and your own education of a gardener.

  21. Brian Skeys says:

    I bought this book in a charity shop, I could not get into it, this is probably just me! I prefer to read and re-read Christopher Lloyd. I thought East Ruston was wonderful, it truly reflects its owners, which I think a garden should do, it doesn’t matter what other people think. Two other examples are Highgrove and The Lasket.

  22. Chloris says:

    Well, I know what you mean, I wouldn’ t have persevered with it if I hadn’ t been told that it is a classic. But I think it is worth reading, although there are plenty of garden writers that I’ d go to first.

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