Designing Gardens

by Arabella Lennox-Boyd

Published by Frances Lincoln

216 pages, 2002

Buy it online




Life's Work

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Gardening books range from the purely practical -- for those who want help getting their hands dirty -- to books intended almost entirely for the armchair gardener: photographic strolls through gardens so wonderful it's almost impossible to imagine them, let alone imagine creating them. Designing Gardens skillfully manages to fall into both categories. Author Arabella Lennox-Boyd ranks among the top gardeners in Britain (which might safely translate to: "the world" when it's gardening we're talking about) and the gardens she has designed clearly fall into the "too wonderful to be imagined" category, with architectural drawings and careful explanations accompanying Andrew Lawson's stellar photos, Lennox-Boyd makes the unimaginable imaginable.

While, unlike Lennox-Boyd, most of us will never have the opportunity to potter about in Lady Victoria de Rothschild's garden at Ascott House or in the gardens at Eaton Hall, the Duke and Duchess of Westminster's estate home, the author takes us through her challenges and presents us with her solutions. The resulting book feels like a very good course in understanding landscape architecture or, at the very least, offers us an up close and personal view inside the mind of one of the world's most respected gardeners.

What is incomparable in Designing Gardens is the duration of the projects Lennox-Boyd shares with us. In many cases she was presented with an old -- even historic -- garden that had become overgrown, dated or had somehow just grown unsuitable for the more modern demands of the property in question. She was, for example, asked to help restore the gardens at Château le Belvedere, "the home of the King and Queen of the Belgians". It lies, writes Lennox-Boyd "on the outskirts of Brussels, surrounded by a park. A Neo-Palladian mansion, it was built in the late eighteenth century and presented to King Leopold II in the nineteenth century. A few years after Queen Paola, then the Princess of Liège, went to live there in the late 1970s, she asked me to help her with the garden. It was my first large project."

Lennox-Boyd goes on to tell us about her early design challenges with Château le Belvedere, which along with the lay of the land, took into consideration the Queen's desires and personality. "The idea of designing a garden in the form of a Persian carpet took shape. The pattern of the 'carpet' would be made up of yew and box hedges combined with trees, and many different flowering plants would give it colour." She describes how she attacked her plan, how it took shape and how obstacles that popped up had to be worked around or avoided. The photos we see are contemporary ones: a garden Lennox-Boyd has been working on for nearly 30 years, sharing with us the evolution of the garden and how she anticipates reshaping elements of it over the coming years.

This is common to many of the gardens we tour with Lennox-Boyd. We see these beautiful estate gardens literally after decades of work. Gardens in England, Italy, Spain, Barbados: in all types of climates for a wide range of clients with a wider range of needs. It's a breathtaking -- even inspirational -- tour.

The chapters outlining these various gardens are prefaced by a section called simply: "Principles." This beautifully illustrated section breaks garden design into its most basic elements: "Garden Structure" covers site assessment, hard and soft landscaping, reason in design and how to sustain inspiration over the years. She then breaks design elements down to their core, discussing steps and terraces, methods of paving, paths, walls and fences, openings (gates, doors and arches), bridges and ha-has (and, yes: Designing Gardens does, in fact, tell you what a ha-ha is, in case you don't know), pergolas and arbours, climbing structures, garden furniture, ornaments and containers, using water as a design element as well as trees and hedges.

The section on planting is comprehensive, without being zone specific. This is planting with regard to design or, as the author tells us: "If the structural elements in the design of the garden are its flesh and bones, the planting is its clothing and the most immediately striking element."

Designing Gardens could not have been written by any other gardener. Not only a tremendous showcase of a fabulous body of work, but the generous sharing of Lennox-Boyd's most essential thoughts on garden creation. | November 2002


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.