Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Louise Beebe Wilder

It is remarkable how passion soon becomes obsession. I began my series, "Old Ladies Who Garden," with the idea that I would read the works of famous female horticulturalists, know their stories, find their images and post.

I have come across one of the greatest garden writers of all time, Louise Beebe Wilder (1878-1938). I have two of her ten gardening books, Color in My Garden and The Fragrant Path, and while reading through these works I've painted an imaginary picture of what she must have looked like. She's short, with soft features, friendly and charming with rough hands from doing the work herself. Her eyes sparkle and she's perhaps a little bit sexy even as she advances into her old age. (My doppleganger?) But sadly, and this is where my obsession begins, I can't find any images of her. Instead, I can only found a photo of her home, Balderbrae in Pomona, New York, which has a bit of a modern history, having been owned in the 1980s by designer David Easton and which was sold recently for more than a 1.5 million dollars. The real estate notes brag that it was once the former home of my lady Louise, but apart from the reissue of some of her books, which I heartily recommend, Louise seems to be lost.

The 1990 version of Wilder's 1918 Colour in My Garden is a lovely book. In fact, a few of my friends might receive copies this year for Christmas because, not only is it fun to read, but also recreated in it are 24 of the original oil paintings that the gardener commissioned from her artist friend and neighbor Anna Winegar. (It's interesting that Louise documented her garden in this way but somehow eluded the camera herself--I'm still searching and I may beg some of my colleagues at the Smithsonian to help.) Louise apparently was a women of means, married to architect Walter Robb Wilder, who worked for a time with McKim and White. Her 220-acre farm had a walled garden and her husband designed many of the stone features and ornaments, including a fountain with a series of pools and pergolas for the roses.

But despite her upper class digs and means, she followed a decidedly down-home path when writing about how to garden. Simply put. Louis says choose and select your plants by the colors of the season. She also maintains that by knowing precisely the flowering moment for each, you fill in your beds so that you create what she calls "pictures." The gardener is an artist, her palette the plants.

"It is true," she writes, "that in the natural progress of the seasons we have certain colours predominating at certain periods. The earliest colour scheme, of the garden as of the world beyond its walls, is yellow and white; this is followed by the rose colour of late spring and early summer when fruit blossoms and then Roses adorn the World. Next come the blue and yellow of midsummer which deepen to scarlet, gold, and purple as autumn lavishly spreads the colours. . . This much simplifies our work, since there are always plenty of good and willing flowers decked in the prevailing colours of the season."

In setting forth her easy-to-use prescriptions, Louise notes the way the blues and violets all seem to seek shady spots where the shadows best highlight their "piercing distinctness;" while yellow, orange and scarlets show "their greatest advantage in full sunshine." In other words, a beginning gardener can distinguish sun from shade plants based merely on their color.

Now I'm picturing the amazing success of my false Forget-me-nots, the spreading Brunneras, tucked away beneath dark greens of the euyonomus bush and old Aunt Rhody. Every time they flower in the early spring, I'm delighted with the touch of cool color they bring to that dark corner. And so perhaps I might try other blues, like campanula, larkspur, anchusa and delphinium in that unlikely spot.

And then of course most helpful of all might be her charts, "Periods of Flowering." Keeping notes throughout the seasons, she created a list for each week of the year from April through October of plants "upon which we may count for a display." Oh, Louise, where have you been all my gardening life? The Putterer


  1. My favorite is Helen Van Pelt Wilson. She quotes Wilder in her "The Fragrant Year". She has one of the best shade gardening books, and her book about her own landscaping at her own home IS the best. This is the lady who got me started gardening. I love these classic writers who are well read and researched, and give strong and definite opinions on their loves and hates in the garden. Enjoy her too.

  2. Oh thanks for the tip. I just love old ladies who garden. I'll check Helen out.

  3. I like her son's books, too, especially the one about his grandfather.