What I learned from Penelope Hobhouse

I mentioned in the last post that I'm watching the Penelope Hobhouse DVD, The Art and Practice of Gardening.

Ostensibly produced for an American audience, the DVD tackles various gardening themes like chapters in a book. I have disc 2 (that's what Netflix sent me) and it covers flowers gardens, bones, color, "useful" gardens, small gardens, country gardens and design basics. I've watched it several times now.

Below I recount some miscellaneous things I took away from the first three chapters of the DVD, either explicit in the program, or inferred by me. I'll make another post that covers the other chapters and offers a summary review to counterbalance the negative reviews on Netflix.

I. Flower Gardening
II. Bones
III. Color

I. Flower Gardening:

The British think Americans say a plant volunteers, while they say a plant self-sows. I think Americans say both.

"Soft-stemmed" is H'house's word for a plant that comes up from the ground in one season whether it be annual or perennial, as opposed to deciduous which is ambiguous, e.g., loses leaves, or dies to the ground?

She advocates paths in straight lines and right angles. Plants eventually blur hard edges and leave a good structure intact.

Nice color theme for a garden: pink, pale blue, lavender, some shocking purple.

Some red-foliaged plant named atriplex volunteered pleasingly in many gardens. [The only atriplex I know is Calif-native A. lentiformis ssp. breweri, Salt Bush; H'house's Atriplex is something else]. Orach? ADDED: Kim says Atriplex hortensis. Thanks, Kim!

Try hot color combinations in the shade. Apparently, "a lot Americans are gardening in dry shade and finding it very difficult". House shows us a garden of red dahlias and yellow lilies, yellow inulas, and gold carex enclosed by tall hedges. The foliage is mostly green, but I see some gold and there is a red phormium and more of the Atriplex hortensis.

Mirror-image planting can become subtly intriguing when the plants grow every which way, and/or when the symmetry is ever so slightly altered.

Color-theme combination: yellow and white, being aware that garden whites are never pure. Blue-white, yellow-white, etc.--always lots of tints.

Alchemilla mollis holds water and dew attractively in the leaves.

Chrysanthemums allowed to self-sow at will bring informality to an otherwise formal, highly structured garden.

Marco Polo Stufano is the name of a famous flower gardener back east, at Wave Hill.

Consider making a garden "involved with round things, with soft things, with fluffy things": Hydrangea 'Anabelle', round yew mounds, a cut-leaf buckthorn, Achillea, myrtle standards--interrupt it with a featured phormium.

Use plants with foliage texture that is alike but different as bones in your design. This strategy works well in principle, even when the leaf-shape and coloration is different. He cites a cut-leaf buckthorn + spiraea as an example. (These must be east coast plants.) Using large plants, only one such pair can create the desired effect.

Let a clematis wander where it may through your garden. It doesn't need a hard structure to climb on.

However large a perennial is when you put it in, it still needs three years to reach its peak.

Remove dead leaves at the bottom of the plant, not just the leaves that you can see. If you're going to do that sort of thing at all.

Flower gardening is all about adaptation because any shrubs planted in the flower garden will grow and change the aspect of the plants around it.


Plants can be as important as the hardscape to the bones of the garden--and cheaper to obtain. Anything that frames a border or extends a color scheme is "bones".

Gardening is theater. It should be dramatic.

Topiary can give you many shades of green which is a good color to manipulate.

Longwood Gardens is the most famous flower garden in America? Never heard of it. I think the place looks indescribably boring. They do have quite the tulip show, however.

Tall, flowering grasses soften regularly placed topiary yews at the end of the season.

Use whites and greens to simplify and cool things down in transition zones between different parts of the garden. Tulips, dogwood, styrax.

Do not hesitate to replace very old boxwood to maintain bones.

Helen Dillon cuts her boxwood (four of them) into domes to create a central feature in a small garden area. She also clips yews into pyramids.

Flowering plants used repetitively are bones.

Don't be afraid of planting out hedges from small pots; they don't take long to grow into shape. More satisfying than starting with large plants. Allees of hornbeam grow faster and work more informally than yew.


Color theory is something you learn about, and then forget the details of. Like grammar. You don't have to think about it once you get it down.

Repeating color is just like architecture in a garden. It becomes just as important as the repetition of form or texture, etc.

Color controls the perception of dimension in a garden.

You rarely work with pure hues in a garden; always tints (paler than pure), shades (darker than pure), graynesses, etc.

Harmonies: created by using plants which all have the same pigment. Consider blue. Crimson has blue pigment, so use crimson with blue and violet to create harmony.

Deliberate contrasts: complimentary colors are made brighter by proximity. I knew that already, but it bears repeating.

Flower color is ephemeral. The whole plant is important. Greens and grays are always the background, and both come in many shades and hues.

Sun and shade alter the color of the plant, a consideration to make when a plant is half in sun, and half in shade.

Always think about the whole picture, not just the association of one or two plants.

In Helen Dillon's garden:

A border of crimson and orange flowers backed by purple and bronze foliage looks fabulous.

The blue border: supposedly impossible to obtain, blue borders are never entirely correct, so they become ongoing projects. Silver brightens blue. Mauves, deep blues go well together, don't listen to what other people say. Use white to relieve the blue. Let love-in-a-mist self sow. Echinops, eryngium, a variegated dogwood--all fabulous in a blue border. Cream flowers and leaves. Splashes of pink.

Yellow garden: use white and silver and blue foliage (glaucus) with hostas and sea kale and kniphofia. I see white lychnis. HELEN DILLON SAID IT WAS A DISASTER TO HAVE REDS MIXED UP IN THE YELLOW GARDEN--A DISASTER, she repeated herself several times. Thank you, Helen Dillon. Note to my readers: If you don't see a problem with red + yellow, you really need to give that some serious thought. You might be grossing people out who visit your garden and are too polite to tell you they feel ill in your space. Touches of orange is very important in a yellow garden. A few eryngium here and there work well in the yellow garden. Helen Dillon grows a San Francisco native plant in her yellow garden, the Ceanothus thyrsiflorus v. griseus 'Diamond Heights'. (This is a variegated plant of yellow and green that appeared spontaneously in San Francisco's Diamond Heights neighborhood in the 1980s. It seems to be growing like a climber in her garden which is unusual because it's usually prostrate.)

Red garden: Use dark purple and bronze foliage to show off all manner of red flowers. Many reds have blue pigments. Some people say blue-reds and orange-reds create a clash, but she likes it. Rosa glauca is vital to have in a red garden. More of that red Atriplex hortensis. Dahlias.

Repetition of foliage "allows more muddle behind". For example, in Dillon's red garden, the regular repetition of purple foliage lets her "get away with" the clashy "muddles" of blue-reds and orange-reds.

Dillon says, "I get away with all those muddles of red behind and hold it together with a repetition [of purple foliage] in front."

And House replies, "Well I don't think it's a muddle, but I think you're holding it together."

(In this way House reminds me of people who always manage to find something conciliatory-sounding or un-effacing to say in any instance when the speaker is saying something mildly self-deprecating or perhaps just being frank. Like acquiescence or empathy would be inadequate, or possibly construed as being rude. It strikes me as a strange courtesy. It almost pre-supposes a kind of passive-aggressive behavior on the part of the speaker. Or maybe it's a strategy employed by the commenter to maintain a boundary between her and the speaker. "Hey, don't overshare your sad story with me, lady. I'm not a shoulder for you to cry on.")

"If you get the foliage right, the flowers look after themselves."

Link to Part 2.


Unknown said...

I am ALL about: "If you get the foliage right, the flowers look after themselves." I'm with you on mixing McDonald's colors, too. All that crap promoting soft blues and pinks, though... not so much. *grin*

Atriplex hortensis, aka red orach, aka mountain orach, aka mountain spinach... whatever the heck you want to call it, it's a very cool plant. It reseeds with abandon in my garden, but who cares when you can just harvest the ones you don't want and make a salad out of them? I can't find a pic of the grown plants, but you can get a feel for them from this post that shows seedlings.

Sea kale is edible, too. Something about blanching the plants when they're young and eating the leaves that way. Whatever. It just looks cool. This post includes a shot from my garden when it was in flower last year.

Okay, now I feel like a schoolteacher in a bad way. Past my bedtime. :)

chuck b. said...

Ah, thanks for the tip on Atriplex hortensis!

Christopher C. NC said...

I have a DISASTER on my hands, yellow Stella D'oro Daylilies next to the red Knockout Roses. They are both close to de Shasta Daisy, which might help mitigate the DISASTER.

I'm really just sticking things in the ground where I can now and imagine much will be rearranged over time.

Phillip Oliver said...

Are you ready for this? A lady recently asked me to come up with a design for the front foundation area of her house. And guess what? She LOVES red and yellow! So, what to do when the client wants that? I'm just getting into designing for other people and I'm new at this so I'm at a loss. I do, however, think that an individuals garden should be what they like but then you might have your name attached to it. Complications! I do know that I could never let Penelope Snobhouse anywhere near my garden!

lisa said...

Lots of interesting points, Chuck...I appreciate your "cliff notes". Although I never pay much attention to color schemes when I plant, it seems a lot of "happy accidents" come my way and it all works out. (Mostly :)