"The main purpose of a garden is to give its owner the best and highest kind of earthly pleasure"
On a cold, slate-grey winter's day, with the northwest wind whipping across the frozen lake, there's nothing I like better than to curl up in front of the fire with Frankly (my faithful spaniel) and immerse myself in the bygone world of some of my favourite garden writers. It's my version of comfort food, and has the same effect as a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes swimming in butter, but with fewer calories.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) is often the first author I reach for, but she's not much in fashion these days, perhaps due to her undeniably Victorian delivery; in fact you're more apt to find a book about her than by her. Trained as a painter at the South Kensington School of Art, London, she didn't begin to garden until her mid-50s, when failing eyesight forced her to forego her canvases. An admirer of William Robinson, who spearheaded the revolt against late-Victorian carpet bedding in favour of hardy perennials in mixed borders, she quickly teamed up with the much younger architect Sir Edward Lutyens (1869-1944), who took care of the hardscaping, leaving her free to devote herself to plants. Her poor eyesight resulted in using flowers in drifts for a sweep of colour—a principle we take for granted today. She herself said that her lack of vision (her natural focus was five centimetres) made her other senses more acute: She was able to tell what kind of trees were growing near her by the sound of the wind in their leaves, and blindfolded, she could even differentiate rose cultivars by their scent.
Late in life, Miss Jekyll corresponded and traded plants with another great gardener of the age, E. A. "Gussie" Bowles (1865-1954), who wrote three books about the seasonal changes in his garden (Myddleton House, north of London) that are still in print, and well worth reading. You'll recognize his name from the more than 40 plants that bear the Bowles handle, seven of which hold Royal Horticultural Society Awards of Garden Merit.
Incidentally, once you're initiated into the Jekyll clique, you can't do any better than Kitchen Essays (1922), written by Gertrude's sister-in-law, Lady Agnes Jekyll (1861-1937), which transports you smoothly from the garden to the second-most important room of the house.