Published: 14 February 2013
Inspiration between the Leaves
We have a look at the classic horticulture book 'The Education of a Gardener' by Russell Page which inspired, and educated, a generation of gardeners.
The Education of a Gardener, 1962.
In the first of an occasional series, The Gardening Times will feature some of the books that have inspired gardeners and horticulturists over the years. 
 
As Editor I will start the ball rolling by looking again at a book that gave me a real insight into the importance of good design; in particular the relationship to a landscape site and how the selection of a planting scheme must complement the design around the site and throughout the seasons. 
 
The book under the spotlight is ‘The Education of a Gardener’ written by Russell Page (1906-1985) in 1962. It was first published by Collins, then by the Readers Union Group for their Gardeners Book Club members.
 
This work is written in a language that may appear flamboyant, even extravagant but it should be remembered that it is set in the time when Russell Page was extolling the value of large specimen trees set in extensive gardens overlooking magnificent panoramic views or his client’s estate. This may be reminiscent of a bygone era but the design concepts that Page describes are also relevant for the smaller spaces found attached to the majority of properties being built today.
 
The forward and introduction to this book reads like a who’s who of recent gardening history with references to Roy Hay, Fred Whitsey, Geoffrey Jellicoe and Mark Fenwick. These were the people that Russell Page admired for their skill and knowledge and he collaborated with them on several different projects over the years. 
 
His gardening projects took him to France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy plus much further afield where he would meet potential clients and design wonderfully romantic gardens in stunning locations.
 
Russell Page stated that his career as a leading garden designer started quite modestly “My apprenticeship to the art of garden composition was on a small scale. I was given a grass slope, a few cartloads of the local ironstone, a few bags of cement and a piped water supply with which to make a small rock and stream garden”.


Plant Knowledge

On the subject of learning the plants, he says that by holding specimens in his hands “I began to suspect from their ’feel’ and their appearance what kind of conditions they would enjoy and guess their place of origin”. This hands-on approach is still important and highlights to gardeners of today just how essential it is to handle plants rather than just studying the details in a book. 



Another reference relating to the importance of planting up a garden is his comment ‘’unlike a painting or sculpture or buildings a garden grows. Its appearance changes, some in six weeks, some in six hundred years. There are few gardens that can be left alone’’ This shows his understanding for making the correct plant selection appropriate for the site, and once planted, the future care and maintenance that is required to give a good visual impression of the plants when viewed from different points around the garden.

Design Detail

In the chapter ’Notes on composition and design’ Page comments on how a retaining wall, when over five feet high with a flight of steps constructed at the wrong angle ‘’is apt to look pretentious unless your garden is in the grand manner and on a grand scale’’, how many of us should take account of that thought in our own gardens today! 
 
Russell Page designed some great gardens in his time and it is worth trying to understand why his designs work so well as completed commissions. To me the evidence to their success is not only written in his wonderful descriptions but also in his photographs that illustrate this book. They are in black and white and clearly highlight the points he has made in his writing by showing the attention to the details that are so important in any design.
 
One photograph that has inspired me for a long time is that of a feature garden Russell Page designed and created for an international exhibition in Paris; here the large central pool is surrounded by flowing curved banks on which dense planting schemes had been used to give interesting shapes and colour for visitors to view from every point around the low boundary fence. I have used his pool concept and replaced it with a curved lawn on several design commissions during my landscaping days. 



Those that are involved in the design of gardens will find Russell Page a writer with a great story and he will spark ideas that can still be used to great effect. 
Reported by Chris Allen  
   
 

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