History and the Garden: Formality and Symmetry


History can be a surprising source of inspiration for our garden-making.


In her book The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift describes the process of creating a garden inspired by the history of gardening in her corner of England. Swift’s garden has separate garden “rooms” inspired by medieval gardens, Tudor gardens, and more.

But we don’t need to be quite so ambitious.

Even a quick journey through the history of garden styles can provide new ideas.

The following historical styles are united in their emphasis on formal symmetry and pattern.



Medicinal Herb Gardens

During the Middle Ages gardens were more like pharmacies.

Here is an article about medicinal plants that would have been grown in a monastic garden that we can still grow today.

Here is an article about the design of herb gardens over the years.


Tudor Knot Gardens

In an age when gardeners had access to fewer ornamental plants, garden designs were almost modern in their minimalism and simplicity. The streamlined symmetry creates a very formal effect.

The Tudor Knot garden shown here has an elaborate pattern but very little color. More about Tudor garden designs can be found here.


American Colonial Gardens

The gardens at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia have been recreated to show us the combination of symmetry, formality, and productivity that characterized these early American gardens.

Here’s an example of merging past and present with colonial style.


Victorian Carpet Bedding

The term “carpet bedding” might be new to you, but you are likely familiar with the style. Popularized by wealthy Victorians with glasshouses for growing their own annual flowers, carpet bedding is the gardening practice of laying out colorful annuals to mimic the patterns of a carpet.

We still see something like this style used in many municipal plantings and large-scale landscapes in our public places.

Here is an article about this traditional form. This style is the opposite of naturalistic gardening. Its impact comes with its bold use of monochromatic color and striking shapes. Find a brief history of carpet bedding here.


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The Longest Lasting Color in the Garden


It’s the Holy Grail of gardening, isn’t it?

That plant that blooms and blooms and blooms all summer long.

Over the years, I have mostly given up on it, deciding such a thing doesn’t really exist. I’ve accepted the notion of the gardener as a conductor of a symphony, planting layers of plants so that color and flower come in waves through the year.

I do still believe that we are conductors in our gardens. And I do still believe in orchestrating a garden that pleases us as much as possible all year long.

But this year I have also discovered that some plants really do give and give and give, month after month.

Here are five plants that have surprised me this summer with their continuous bloom:


  • Agastache ‘Peachie Keen’: This agastache variety is new to me this year. I planted quite a few of them as very small plugs in the new border outside my kitchen. I have been absolutely astonished at how quickly they grew and how they have flowered all summer with the prettiest peach-colored flowers. I feel as if I’ve found a miracle plant.


  • Calamintha nepeta: This is another new-to-me plant. I bought a tray of small seedlings labeled as the variety ‘White Cloud,’ but either the plants were mislabeled or ‘White Cloud’ sometimes flowers lavender-blue. Online sources advise shearing back the spreading plants after they flower, but mine haven’t stopped flowering all summer long.


  • Verbena bonariensis: Of course, I must mention this favorite. Summer after summer, I am amazed at how beautiful this plant is all season long. Even after the vivid purple flowers fade a bit, the seedheads look beautiful in fall.


  • Dahlia ‘Happy Single First Love’: Though I have grown various dahlias for years, this variety is new to me this summer. I planted several in the new kitchen border. It looked amazing early in the summer as the dark, perfect foliage grew in. The leaves are almost black and add beautiful shadows to the border. Then these dahlias started blooming before any of my other dahlias were in flower, and they show no signs of stopping. I am keeping them deadheaded as flowers fade, but I think they will keep-on-keeping-on.


  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’: None of the pictures I found in books or online prepared me for how lovely this medium-sized ornamental grass is. The foliage is silvery green and white and absolutely shines. It makes everything planted nearby look better.


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Less Really Is More


… in the garden, at least.

Though I’m still not convinced the old adage holds true when it comes to books.

But in the garden?

Even a collector gardener like myself, someone who longs for one of everything, learns in time that gardens looks and feel their best when we plant them with greater numbers of fewer varieties.

In other words: plant densely but with more of the same thing.

Follow this guideline, and your garden will look intentional and less like a hodge podge.


Here are a few ways I follow this guideline in my own garden here at Maplehurst:


  • In the most public and visible borders around my home, I use the least variety. These beds are planted exclusively with ornamental grasses, boxwood shrubs, with a bit of color from self-seeding verbena bonariensis (pictured above). The look of these beds doesn’t change much over the course of the season, but they don’t need much care from me in order to look neat.


  • In the more private and personal border at the back of my house, I plant a wider assortment. Here, the ornamental grasses and verbena bonariensis are joined with perennials like spring bulbs, bearded iris, calamint, dwarf dahlias, and agastache. This area requires more care in order to look its best, but the reward for that care is seasonal change and variety.



The “less is more” guideline isn’t a rule.

There is no formula for the exact right number of plants.

If your space is small, you will probably use fewer varieties. If your space is large, you will use more because the larger space will still allow you to plant in large drifts and repeat certain plants.

The key no matter how you follow this guideline in your own garden is to use repetition.

If certain plants repeat themselves around your space, then the whole–whether your style is more simple or more riotous–will feel comfortable and peaceful.

Like the chorus of a wonderful song.

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Design Your Garden Like Your Living Room


When I was in middle school, I wanted to grow up to be an interior designer.

Though I didn’t stick with that particular dream, I have continued to appreciate books and television shows about home interiors. One of the things I’ve heard designers say over and over is this:

“Don’t be afraid to move the sofa away from the wall.”

In other words, most of us use the walls as our guide when arranging our furniture, but we don’t have to do that. Our rooms might feel more comfortable and function better if we pull the sofa out toward the middle, perhaps creating a cozy conversation nook or maybe freeing up space behind the sofa for some other use.

But it usually takes a designer’s trained eye and experienced advice before most of us even consider ignoring the dictates of our walls.

The same is true in the garden.

We may not have walls to work with, but we do have boundaries.

A typical small backyard often has a fence lined with flower borders and a patch of green grass in the center. But just as it is with our sofas, we don’t have to push our gardens up against the walls.

And in a larger yard, the decision to plant and plan according to the outer boundaries can be a substantial opportunity wasted.

I’ve learned the hard way here at Maplehurst that I should have begun my gardening close to the house and moved outward from there. At the very least, I should have planned views, paths, and planting areas with the axes of my home’s doors and windows in mind.

Instead, back in the beginning, I was more likely to plant trees, shrubs, and even flowers out along the edges. It was as if I felt some need to pretty up the farthest view, but I never stopped to consider whether I wouldn’t rather have entirely different views.

For instance, I’ve always disliked the far view of my children’s playset and trampoline. Recently, I realized that if I planted a long, slightly serpentine shrub border connecting two young trees (an ornamental cherry and a Japanese Stewartia), I could define a more intimate space, have something much nicer to see from my kitchen window, and obscure the far edge of our yard.

Instead of an unobstructed view all the way to the trampoline at the edge of the yard, I am hoping that a shrub border will give the sense of something enticing just beyond the line of sight.

Like pulling the sofa away from the wall.

No one need know it’s only dust bunnies back there or a trampoline. And maybe one day I’ll have a woodland garden growing where the trampoline stands now.

Always, there are more garden dreams to dream.

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Unsung Heroes: The Best Plants You’ve Never Grown


We celebrate certain garden plants in our songs and stories, our poems and our myths.

Roses. Tulips. He-loves-me, he-loves-me-not daisies.

And yet, we cannot make gardens out of these stars only.

After all, even the brightest stars need a backdrop of inky black in which to shine.

What our gardens need are the unsung heroes. These are not the main characters in our myths and legends. These are the plants that weave and knit our gardens together. These are the backdrops, the matrix that sets other plants to best advantage.

These are the best garden plants you have possibly never heard of before:


Echinops (Globe thistle): striking blue spherical flowers

Calamintha nepeta (Calamint): with blue or white flowers, this is a wonderful groundcover for smothering and crowding out weeds

Echinacea pallida (Coneflower): a longer-lived echinacea with beautiful, pale, and gracefully drooping petals

Actaea (Bugbane): tall spiked bottlebrush flowers

Agastache (giant hyssop): pollinator-friendly purple flower spikes

Perovskia (Russian sage): striking, silvery purple late-summer color

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feathergrass): not quite hardy in colder zones and invasive in the southwest, this is still a wonderful ground-covering grass for some gardens

Anemone hupehensis (Japanese anemone): a shade-loving favorite for beautiful flowers in later summer and fall

Sedum (stonecrop): late summer and fall blooms on a distinctive, flat-topped plant; ‘Autumn Joy’ is a much-loved variety

Thalictrum rochebruneanum (meadow rue): a delicate, statuesque stunner

Miscanthus sinensis (silver grass): offers a bold, clumping backdrop for flowers

Panicum virgatum (switchgrass): delicate, grassy foliage

Allium (ornamental onion): starburst and pompom exclamation points for the garden

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