The Garden at Bishop's Close

The botanical garden at Elk Rock, Dunthorpe

‘If you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.’ (Chinese Proverb)

If you love to wander through an old botanical garden, perhaps with a favorite book tucked under your arm, then I have a couple of recommendations for you.


First, the garden: Just outside of Portland there is a botanical garden of astonishing beauty. The historic Elk Rock Garden was the dream of Scottish gardener and entrepreneur, Peter Kerr. When he died in 1957, his daughters donated the house and grounds in trust, on the condition that it always be open to the public.

How incredibly, wonderfully generous of them.

‘If you would be happy…’

(For more about the history and care of this important legacy in the Pacific Northwest, read here )

Elk Rock Garden and manor house occupies about thirteen acres on a bluff overlooking the beautiful Willamette River

Elk Rock Garden and manor house occupies about thirteen acres on a bluff overlooking the beautiful Willamette River

The book you might tuck under your arm for this leisurely garden stroll is by Nan Fairbrother.

One of my favorite writers, Fairbrother pops up in my blog pages now and again. I think it is because I always return to her books and find new insights and delights.

Nan Fairbrother, Men and Gardens

In her book Men and Gardens, (1956) this writer/philosopher/landscape architect has assembled a fascinating compendium of quotations from other writers on the topic of gardens and landscape architecture. Along the way she adds in her own erudite commentary, metaphysical meanderings, and humorous asides.

Subjects are loosely grouped under such headings as:

=Why Men Have Gardened

=Enclosed Fantastic: Gardens of Tudor England

=Early Seventeenth-Century Garden Literature

=Seats of Romantic Gentlemen: the Simple Life in Satin Slippers

Fairbrother’s beautiful prose, at turns poetic, then vigorous and questing, carries us almost effortlessly along through a tour of Chaucer to Traherne to Darwin and—oh, yes—even that indefatigable seventeenth-century traveler Celia Fiennes:

‘Celia Fiennes is a somewhat monotonous writer,’ writes Fairbrother; ‘her highest praise is “neat”…but despite her limitations she gives a first-hand account of the houses and gardens of England in the late seventeenth century, seen through the mind of a lively, curious, and not very intelligent woman of the lesser aristocracy…’

Oh, she is wickedly funny, that Fairbrother.


“It is the greatest fun to meet one’s fellow gardeners of four centuries ago and find them just as enthusiastic as we are.” (Men and Gardens)

More than that, it gives us a delightful feeling of continuity with the great, the fertile, the fixated minds of the past. What has gone before us, we ask? What has endured as something worthy of our brief attentions? What has always brought the human spirit comfort and joy?

Fairbrother explores these questions, and more.

‘But why have men found happiness in gardens? Why, in such different lands and different ages, have so many paths led to this green and quiet enclosure for growing plants?’

One of the many unusual and lovely rare species at the Elk Rock botanical gardens

One of the many unusual and lovely rare species at the Elk Rock botanical gardens

In my short novel A Garden for Allegra, the young, bemused main character is a passionate gardener. She, through the medium of writing a journal, ponders similar questions.

A Chinese 'Sweetshrub' Calycanthaceae

A lovely bloom from Chinese ‘Sweetshrub’ Calycanthaceae

‘It’s a living tapestry we create,’ [Allegra] wrote, ‘not just because the garden breathes and gives life back to its cultivators in the form of oxygen…but it gives us much more than the simple sustainment of an existence. The garden inspires us, life begets life, so that we breathe in the air that nourishes our creative souls.’

Peter Kerr house and garden

Nan Fairbrother also recognized this as a gift, so to speak, from the garden–that we can be an artist in our own world.

‘Gardening ‘is “a Kind of Creation”,….and it is a form of art which everyone, rightly or wrongly, considers to be within his talents. As with furnishing our houses, we all feel we can perfectly well lay out a garden, even though we should never presume to paint a picture or write a poem.’  (Men and Gardens)


‘I dare say many other occupations would do as well to bring us back to quiet, but if we are gardeners, it is our gardens we use to “sway our spirits to peace.” Our very conception of a garden is of a place serene. We think of noisy cities, pounding seas, wind-tossed woods, but whenever we think of a garden it is serene, peaceful and calm, and above all, kind. For a garden is one of the very few expressions of man’s nature which is altogether benign, and I think no one would be frightened of his fellows in a garden.’ (Men and Gardens)

By the end of the book, Fairbrother has read some of the greatest minds on the subject. She has visited some of the most inspiring gardens from Versailles to ‘a small and somewhat self-conscious herb plot outside the windows of a country tea shop‘. She has pondered the humble cabbage and the preciosity of Dutch tulips. She has noted that seventeenth-century gardening books begin, invariably, with a quote from Traherne:

‘All bliss consists in this…’

and Victorian era gardening books are typically prefaced with Keats:

‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever…’

Even with all of this, Fairbrother is no closer to answering the questions (for herself) that she posed at the beginning. Yet she is already planning her next garden of the future. And that, as she writes, ‘must wait for another volume.’

Just as my proclivity for quoting Fairbrother must wait for another blog.

‘If you would be happy all your life plant a garden….’



7 thoughts on “Green Thoughts

  1. I know the feeling well. We’ve lived in our home for fourteen years, and whenever I think about moving, I realize that I could easily walk away from the house — but I’d miss the garden.

    Have you been to San Francisco? The Japanese garden is amazing.

    • I haven’t visited the Japanese Garden in SF; but will have to put that on my list. We do have a lovely Japanese Garden here in Portland, and I try to visit it in spring and (my favorite time) autumn. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  2. What a lovely post! I have the privilege of working in Antrim Castle Gardens here in Northern Ireland and it means I can take my book each lunchtime, find a bench and have some ‘me’ time. Nothing quite like it!

    • That sounds like a dream job…what a beautiful garden with a fascinating history! I have such soft spot for old gardens and the people who lovingly tend them. Thank you for visiting, Cathy; I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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