This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
I AM garden-bred, for in the early fifties my father's garden was one of the show-places in Chicago; but I have no recollection of a fondness for gardening during my youth. A strenuous business life of more than thirty-five years in that bustling city so impaired my health that my physician prescribed a retirement and enjoined a life in the open air. Being happily anchored by a growing family, a roving, open-air life was out of the question. How was I to occupy my mind, hitherto in constant activity, and still remain in one place? I did not have to consider long. The subtle influence of the garden of my youth - so long dormant - asserted itself, and an ever-increasing love for shrub and flower and arboreal life seemed to say to me: 'Why not build and maintain a country home - one of your own creation - exhibiting your own individuality? Why not make it your garden, not a gardener's garden?"
The die was cast and a hunt for the site began. The towering bluffs and wooded ravines bordering Lake Michigan north of Chicago afforded abundant opportunities for selection, and a view of the lake over the wavering foliage of the ravine tree-tops caused the selection of a site for the future "Egandale." The natural beauties of the site were further enhanced by a wooded ravine constituting two-thirds of the boundary lines, whose trees afford a massive bank of foliage which is ever refreshing to the eye.
All this happened fifteen years ago. I had the place, but no knowledge of how to develop it. Flowers, shrubs and trees did not grow among my business affairs. Nevertheless, I was determined that the place should be of my own creation, and so I resolved to go ahead and make my own mistakes in my own way. And I made three important ones.
A dense undergrowth confronted me. The woodman had discovered my prize years prior and had appropriated every tree on the main land large enough to convert into cord-wood. Of ancestral trees there were none; but my knowledge of them, being confined to hearsay, caused me to imagine every long-shanked oak that grew from a decapitated stump capable of being converted into one. I considered that a plethora of ancestral oaks would be the crowning glory of a lawn, so I left any towering tree that possessed a head.
The house as It looked in 1891. Note the useless trees In the front yard and the awkward curve in the driveway.
The house in 1900, showing improvement in front lawn by the massing of shrubbery.
My next mistake was in road-making. In laying out my entrance roadway I substituted an uncouth curve for a graceful one to save a worthless oak that happily died about the time I discovered my error.
In the third place, I wanted a rockery, and wanted it where all could see it; so I placed it near the center of the lawn. Men, teams and a derrick were engaged, and soon boulders, gathered nearby, were piled up, one upon another, and a circular rim eight feet in diameter and six feet high was erected and filled with soil. It was fearfully and wonderfully made, and looked it - not then, however, for I thought it a thing of beauty that would last forever. I grew flowers on top, but neglected to furnish a step-ladder that they might be seen.
I soon grew tired of the stork-like trees, that seemed to make no headway, and they were grubbed out. I bought exotics from nurserymen and planted them here and there until my lawn was littered up worse than ever. My man got dizzy dodging them with the lawnmower. I was not satisfied. Something seemed wrong. The place had an unfinished look. I was regaining my health, had open-air exercise, but there was a screw loose somewhere.
What little reading I had done in the horticultural line had educated me faster than I had improved the place. Fortunately I came across a copy of the American Garden, edited in those days by a certain professor now at Cornell University. In a leading article on landscape gardening, this man advocated an open center and massing at the boundaries. Here was an inkling of the cause of my dissatisfaction. I had not opened or massed anywhere. I had cluttered.
When spring came there was an upheaval. The lawn was opened up and plantings made in groups at the sides. My lawn seemed to have doubled in size. Heretofore the mind was confused when looking down the grounds. Now there was a peaceful quietness as the eye glanced along the unbroken greensward to the bordering mass of leafy trees.
The rockery had become a scarecrow. Even the wild geese in their migratory flights steered to the right or left of it. I took a lot of pleasure in demolishing it. A spur of the ravine ran into the lawn a hundred feet or so, dividing the southern end into two deep bays. I reasoned that the same forces that made the spur might have deposited some rocks at its head; and I recalled an outcrop I had seen on the side of a hill in California, where Nature supplied the rocks and the birds the plants. So I placed some rocks in this spot and endeavoured to imitate it.
Up to this point I had practically lost four years of precious time. But now a new era began. The experience, however, had been worth a great deal. It enabled me to warn my friends against the errors with which I had struggled.