Learn From The Experts: Gertrude Jekyll

Ilona Erwin

Formidable in her time, Gertrude Jekyll has had an immense impact on modern gardening. Her name is still venerated even when her writings and what remains of her garden designs might be unknown to most gardeners. Of the many gardens she designed, some sources report 400, few remain intact today.

Gardening In a Bygone Age

Gertrude Jekyll Portrait

Gertrude Jekyll by William Nicholson

Paint upon a palette, delighting our eyes with soul-satisfying pictures, a treasure of well set jewels a sympathy with growing things, fashioned into a dream of beauty, a place of perfect rest and refreshment of mind and body. This sense of beauty is a gift of God.

The kind of gardening that Miss Jekyll was familiar with employed many professional gardeners and their helpers. At Munstead, a staff of four kept up with her five acre property.

Today, most gardens cannot afford either the labor or the material for such lavish displays.Yet, her ideas of color, planting with large drifts, and natural transitions are well known and highly utilized in today’s designs.

Giving Garden Designers A New Vocabulary

Much can still be gained from her translation of plants into artistic vocabulary. For example, one idea I really like is the design concept of “a full stop”, the arresting feature plant at the end of a border.

Her art training, especially the close observation of the painter J.W. Turner, gave her an unfailing sense of color effects. Included in her arsenal of effects was the use of blue and yellow flowers to create a sense of light. Such a color combination is also found in Monet’s art.

It wasn’t just her artistic talents that led to her great fame and admiration by generations of gardeners, but her thoughtful philosophy and observant remarks which invite us to take time to enjoy our labors.

It is said her influence changed the way we see gardens and much of our landscape today. Only Capability Brown is attributed with a greater effect on our landscapes.

Jekyll’s Garden Designs

Gertrude Jekyll's Garden, Munstead Wood

Gertrude Jekyll’s Garden by Helen Allingham

The Pansy Garden, Munstead Wood, Surrey, Home of Gertrude Jekyll

The Pansy Garden in Munstead Wood by Thomas H. Hunn

To devise these living pictures with simple well-known flowers seems to me to be the best thing to do in gardening.

Munstead Wood in Surrey
Vann in Surrey
Lindisfarne Castle
Castle Drogo, Devon
Hestercombe Gardens, Somerset
Upton Grey, Hampshire – Jekyll’s “Lost Garden”
Durmast House, Burley, New Forest, Hampshire

Munstead Wood is considered the home of the English country garden

Besides landscape designs, she selected good examples of plants which you might recognize with the names including “Miss Jekyll” or “Munstead” in them. One of my favorite strains of blue Nigella is one such selection. Look for   “Munstead Lavender“, which has excellent color and form.

Short Biography of Gertrude Jekyll

Living from 1843 to 1932, Gertrude Jekyll participated in the Arts and Crafts movement, and brought her artistic training and sense of beauty into the garden world in a way that popularized a very complex approach to garden design.

Not only were plants appreciated for their beauty, but they were combined in form, color, and effect as a painter used medium and brushstrokes on a canvas. She became one of the premier landscapers of her day.

Jekyll designed scene

Raised with a home education, she was born to wealthy merchant class parents and had a Victorian upbringing that included training for a career. It is well known that her eyesight failed her, and it became necessary to use her training in a less vision-taxing way.

As she applied herself to the making of gardens, Jekyll also tirelessly wrote books and articles that educated gardeners of her time and long afterward in the application of important design elements commonly learned by artists, and to this time relatively unknown to home gardeners.

Well known for her collaboration with Edwin Lutyens, they designed some of the best home and gardens of their time.

Her early years were spent in rural Surrey, and it was there she returned, after attending school in London and broadening her education with travels to the continent and beyond, upon her father’s death in 1876. Munstead Heath was to become her home and where she created her acclaimed garden. It was there she died in 1932, at her home, ‘Munstead Wood’.

To give an idea of the breadth of her talents, an excerpt from her obituary in ‘The Times’ on December 10, 1932:

Indeed, there was little her skilful fingers could not bring to perfection, from a piece of finely wrought decorative silver down to the making of her gardening boots. She could toss an omelette and brew Turkish coffee or elderberry wine, compose a liqueur, or manufacture her own incomparable pot-pourri. Embroideries designed by herself, repairs to ancient church work so skilful that they amounted to creation, patchworks of intricate pattern, quilting of medieval fineness, shell pictures such as only a real artist could conceive…


old cottage in Elstead, Surrey

Photo taken by Gertrude Jekyll. She documented the Surrey countryside, common labor, and cottages with photography.

Miss Jekyll’s Quotable Lessons

Making Living Pictures

“In garden arrangement, as in all other kinds of decorative work, one has not only to acquire a knowledge of what to do, but also to gain some wisdom in perceiving what it is well to let alone”

Jekyll advises a manipulation of a plants habit to create better bloom than might have been expected:
“the tall Sunflower is trained down over them —this pulling down, as in the case of so many plants, causing them to throw up flower-stalks from the axils of every pair of leaves; so that in September the whole thing is a sheet of bloom.”

“It is extremely interesting to work out gardens in which some special colouring predominates, it opens out a whole new range of garden delights … besides my small grey garden I badly want others, and especially a gold garden, a blue garden and a green garden.”  ~Gertrude Jekyll

Portrait Drawing

Portrait Drawing of Gertrude Jekyll

It is said she could be rather curt (as implied by her cousin, Miss Nelly Baring), and I half believe it. While she had something to say about learning to dig, I think her patience had run thin, because I’ve written a small treatise on the right way to dig a hole.
“It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig! Better to go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it.”

Yet, I attempt to do so in the article linked by the button below:

How To Dig A Hole

In Her Own Words

  • “The best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to life up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness.”
  • “What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.” ~ Gertrude Jekyll
  • One thing that I love in her writings is the way she takes notes and gives the reader descriptions of what she personally finds curious and admirable in nature: “If you will take any flower you please, and look it over and turn it about and smell it and feel it and try to find out all its secrets, not of flower only, but of leaf, bud and stem as well, you will discover many wonderful things.”
flower border byJekyll

A summer border

“…the bending, berried heads of the wild Iris, opening like fantastic dragons mouths, and
pouring out the red, bead-like seeds upon the ground”

Of paired perennials Gypsophila and Gladiolus:

“like clouds of flowery mist settled down upon the flower borders shooting up behind and among it is a tall salmon-coloured Gladiolus” ~G. Jekyll, 1899

Color opinion:

“A border may be brilliant with bright-coloured flowers alone, but if it is to be a picture, it wants some of its brightness to be relieved by something quiet, in good harmony, but comparatively neutral.”

Miss Jekyll's Boots by William Nicholson

Miss Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson

…good gardening means patience and dogged determination.
There must be many failures and losses, but by always pushing on there will also be the reward of success

Lecturer Richard Bisgrove consulted many previously unpublished garden plans of Miss Jekyll’s to make a marvelous resource revealing her genius for combining plants and creating garden pictures.

Read More About Jekyll’s Landscape Legacy

Feature photo

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.