This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Perhaps there is no other department of gardening of which so little has been said in the horticultural press as that which embraces our hardy evergreens and flowering shrubs, nor a department in which has been exhibited less alteration - to say nothing of decided progress - in the matter of planting or arrangement. And yet pleasure-ground and garden scenery is greatly dependent for character and distinctive features on the absence or presence of the fine assortment of shrubs which have been collected into British gardens. The evergreen or shrub garden, judging from the almost entire exclusion of such terms from our garden vocabulary, and from the very few instances where such a garden exists as would warrant such a designation, does not appear yet to hold that place in our gardens of which, after a little thought, it cannot fail to be considered worthy. To do what may be considered justice to the merits and decorative capabilities of shrubs is, to our mind, as yet a department of gardening that affords ample scope for improved arrangement and effect.
And it is all the more worthy of the genius and attention of gardeners, when it is considered how wonderfully almost every other matter connected with gardens has been pushed forward to a point which, to all appearance, is the extreme confine of improvement. In reply to this it may justly be said, Go where you will, wherever a villa or a mansion is reared, you will generally find a profusion of hardy evergreen and flowering shrubs, showing that they are esteemed as befitting objects with which to clothe the landscape with beauty, in a measure to shelter from the storm, and to screen from the obtrusive gaze of the passer-by. In this way, and for this purpose, millions of shrubs are annually reared and disposed of at a comparatively cheap rate: so much is this the case, that they are looked upon as the safest of all hardy nursery stock. This fact must certainly be admitted, and at first sight it seems to tell against the position taken up by the foregoing remarks. But look again. While the ingenuity of garden proprietors and gardeners has for many years been taxed to the utmost to invent and introduce some new arrangement of tender and half-hardy plants, to add some scarcely perceptible touch of improvement to some ribbon border, or to alter the nibbling up of a border with box patterns, and then rush into print to tell of their new thing, like the Athenians of old, we seldom or never hear of anything new, improved, or praiseworthy in the arrangement of our many beautiful and more permanent though far less troublesome shrubs.
Almost without an exception they are still to be found planted in belts and lumpy clumps, and often pellmell, without much regard to colour and outline. Too often they are allowed to grow into unmeaning thickets, merging their individual characters into a tangled mass; and in their struggle for existence the more robust and rapid growers ultimately overpower and kill the weaker, and at last have to be hacked down, in order that the survivors may have a chance of again growing up into something like their natural forms and symmetry. We have no intention of deprecating the introduction of large masses - even dense and compact - of evergreens into extensive grounds, where such are in unison with accompanying features, and when not left to show nothing but a smooth surface, unrelieved of its painful monotony, especially as such masses are nearly always composed of one or at most two varieties of shrubs. But in any form such banks or surfaces of evergreens are even more bearable than the neglected and monotonous mixed shrubbery.
At the same time, it would be as appropriate to call a lawn a grass - garden as to call such lumps of monotonous shrubs by the name of an evergreen-garden. Indeed, such arrangements of shrubs and other appropriate accompaniments are seldom ever met with in a style to warrant such a designation; and it is because we have the conviction that they are beyond all doubt well worthy of being constituted into a garden capable of yielding a never-failing source of enjoyment, that we are anxious to call special attention to the fact.
We have gardens set apart for Roses; and although the Rose justly lays claim to a regal position in Flora's court, a Rose-garden from November till April is about the most ungainly-looking garden that can be imagined. We have parterre-gardens, with their unsurpassed boldness of effect, for four months of the twelve. We have our gardens for spring bulbs and other spring flowers, with all their charms and buoyant effect upon the mind. We have our herbaceous borders, which for half the year present little else than bare earth and labels. All these we have, and can scarcely afford to neglect any one of them, without creating an undesirable blank. But where shall we look for our shrub or evergreen gardens? True, we occasionally meet with grass plots in which are planted here and there a few shrubs, surrounded with a ring of bare earth, and, in botanic gardens, decorated with an ungainly label. Under such circumstances, each specimen assumes its natural form, and is tolerably perfect; but their arrangement can scarcely be called even a step towards an ideal of a shrub-garden, nor does it bear any trace of the thought exercised in the disposition of other classes of plants of much less value, and of much more ephemeral character.
We have long been under the impression, that to devote a space in garden-grounds to an evergreen or shrub garden, now that we have so many and such varied plants with which to furnish it, would be to add a most desirable and interesting feature. And if half the thought in laying it out and in planting it were exercised that has been bestowed on tracing out figures and scrolls on grass, and in planting them with shortlived flowering-plants, we cannot be far wrong in saying that something most pleasing and desirable would be the result. It is not our intention at present to enter into what we may consider the chief details of such a garden. Locality, soil, and the contour of the grounds at various places, would, as in other gardens, have to determine the more minute details of the shrub or evergreen garden. But just by way of indicating what we are anxious should become more popular than it is, let us suppose for instance that we have before us - what is very common - a flower-garden in a sunken panel, surrounded with sloping banks of grass, and in some cases banks clothed thickly with the Portugal and common Laurels. These banks are as even and smooth in surface as a well-trained eye and a deft knife, or a pair of shears, can make them; the enclosed design is on as level a surface as lines and levels can make it; and the walks and figures are all that compass and square can produce in formality and uniformity.
The planting is as much unrelieved as are the sloping banks of grass or tortured evergreens. If this were transformed into an evergreen garden, we would depart from these principles of construction and planting as much as such a piece of ground would allow. If the surrounding banks were formally clothed with dwarf shrubs, it would be to bring out more distinctly the character and different tints of taller and easy-growing evergreen shrubs or trees. The enclosure itself we will suppose laid out in a thoroughly free-and-easy style, and would banish from its precincts such a formal tracery as box-edgings, and substitute those beautiful-looking Ivies which exist now in nearly all the colours of the rainbow; to say nothing of the many other beautiful dwarf evergreen subjects that make exquisite edgings, such as hardy Heaths, Cotoneasters, Euonymus, Daphnes, Andromeda, and scores of others that might easily be named, and all of which in their turn might be used as carpeting for beds, in which could be planted at easy distances our most symmetrical and graceful shrubs, so that each could grow into their natural forms and beauty, and not be subject to any such knifing or clipping as would destroy their native tendency.
What a bountiful amount of material do Rhododendrons furnish, from the very dwarf est to the most stately objects! How beautiful our variegated golden and silver shrubs would appear at mid-winter, contrasted with the dwarfer dark-greens, and vice versa! What a variety of surface, both in colour and character, could be produced even in a very small space, and that, too, while every atom of surface except the walks would be instinct with life and beauty the livelong year, and most conspicuously so when winter has stripped other gardens of their garlands, and caused many, as it were, to creep below the brown earth till the following summer. With these faint hints as to what we wish to advocate, we for the present leave the subject to our readers, fully convinced that the shrub or evergreen garden is one calculated to add a great charm to all gardens, when such can be called into existence.