The Intimate Garden: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews, Design

The Intimate Garden: Twenty Years and Four Seasons in Our Garden by Gordon and Mary Hayward belongs to the rare breed of landscape design book that is actually helpful:

  • One private residential garden–not little glimpses of a dozen gardens
  • The garden was developed over many years. (They figured it out as they went along)
  • They tell you the problem, solutions considered, and what they finally implemented
  • They tell you about their mistakes, and how they corrected them
  • There is a labeled map of the whole garden

I only know of one other book with the same scope that is so helpful, and that is Mary Keen’s Creating a Garden. But Mary Keen lives in Great Britain, and even while drooling over the gorgeous photos of her garden, I’m always wondering, “Is that hardy here?”

The Haywards, on the other hand, live in Vermont, in Zone 4, and I can be fairly certain that if a plant grows for them, it will grow for me. This is a wonderful book to read in the winter, as the authors take great pains to orient you to the map and to photos that illustrate the points they are making. It as close as you can get to walking through a garden from the comfort of your armchair.

The authors believe, as I do, that a garden needs paths to give it structure and to engage the visitor. They go even further and say every garden needs an itinerary, and use design tricks to persuade the stroller to prefer one path over another. I think there should be many ways through a garden, and sometimes walking through my own garden in the opposite direction from the way I usually take helps me notice things I would otherwise pass over. On the other hand, borrowed views usually work best from certain vantage points, which means they must be approached from a specific direction, so I can see the rationale for subtly guiding the viewer.

Their garden is a mix of formal and informal elements that I find very appealing. It is also comforting to know that they didn’t get out a big piece of graph paper one day and scribble an oval here, a rectangle here, and arbor here, and we’re done! No, first a good friend points out that the apple tree out back lines up with the door. Then they find some stumps strangely appealing and incorporate them into the design. Another time they are unexpectedly given four flowering crabapples and wander around the yard wondering what they should do with them. At several points after clearing brush or removing trees, they realize they have a good view, and so begin brainstorming ways to take advantage of it.

This approach gives me hope that if I live in the same spot long enough, walking around, musing and meditating, eventually I will create a garden that feels like a garden. Their “before” pictures also give me hope. It is easy to understand why Gordon’s mother burst into tears the first time she saw the place. Between the weathered, unpainted house siding and the abandoned cars parked in the grass, it looked like a dump.

There are a lot of similarities between the Haywards’ land and my own situation. Both locations are rural, hilly properties that have been in use by farmers for many years, with resultant accumulations of old out buildings, agricultural junk, and overgrown vegetation. What they do seem to have a good deal more of is money. Money to hire stone wall builders and backhoe operators and even general gardening help. They probably also have more land than you do. Their garden proper is over an acre, plus they bought a ten acre field, presumably to preserve their view. And they have an unspecified amount of land across the road, where they pile their compost, plant forced bulbs, and maintain a nursery bed. Handy.

The fact that they have such a large garden should not discourage you, because the ideas from one small part of their garden could be applied to what would be a more significant part of your garden. They also have a very small garden in back of the cottage they own in England. (What did I tell you about money?) They approach the design of this garden in a similar fashion to their much larger Vermont garden. The same ideas work, only on a smaller scale.

And there’s more help in the appendices. The first appendix could be expanded into a book of its own. It’s all about how they maintain their garden: what they do in each season, their favorite tools, Mary’s weeding rules, Gordon’s pruning principles, and the like. The next several appendices are plant lists of various sorts, but the final appendix describes how Gordon approaches garden design for clients.

For a northern, cold climate gardener, you couldn’t ask for a better book to guide you through the long term design of a residential property. Well, yes, you could. How wonderful it would be if every region of the country had a landscape book similar in scope and approach to this one. The further away you are from the geography of New England, the less easy it will be for you to relate to the views of their garden, though I am convinced the design principles would still be valid.

Many images from the book can be seen at their website, and some of Gordon’s articles are also reprinted there. It will give you a good taste for the riches this book has to offer.

Update: I just received this in an email from Gordon Hayward:

Thanks so much for sending along the link to your blog. I’ve just returned from it and thank you for your generous comments about The Intimate Garden. By the way, we have turned that appendix on how we maintain our garden into a book that just came out six weeks ago from WW Norton. It’s titled Tending Your Garden: A Year-Round Guide to Garden Maintenance. Perhaps your readers would like to know about that. Thanks again for including us in your blog. We are redesigning our website. A new very handsome site will be up in the next 2 weeks or so.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Ted B April 9, 2007, 3:26 pm


I didn’t mean to imply I can’t grow any of the plants from these books, just not all of them.

The main difference it seems between gardening here and New England/New York is we are a bit colder and drier in the winter and hotter and drier in the summer. Also the limestone bedrock here means most soils and well water are alkaline so all the ericaceous plants can be a challenge.

Pam, Thanks for the recommendation – I’m always up for a new garden book.

BTW – Gordon Hayward is also a good presenter, If you notice he’s speaking in your area – go see him!

Kathy Purdy April 9, 2007, 6:27 am

Carol, just so you know, you can click on the photo or the text link in this review and it gives me the same commission as if you went to the “store.”

For anyone interested in the other books the Haywards wrote, they are all in my store under Great Garden Writers > Gordon Hayward.

LostRoses April 8, 2007, 10:28 pm

Kathy, I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative garden book also. Thanks for the informative review!

Carol April 8, 2007, 7:27 pm

Kathy, I am weak when it comes to gardening books, I’m about to click over to your Amazon store and get this one. Wonderful review. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic of “making a garden” as I try to make my suburban lot less like a yard (with a big vegetable garden) and more like a garden throughout.

Kathy Purdy April 8, 2007, 6:49 pm

Hi, Pam–
No, it doesn’t go on about individual plants. The most you get is something along the lines of “we planted Cornus kousa here but they died after their second winter, so then we tried . . .”

Kathy Purdy April 8, 2007, 6:47 pm

Hi, Ted–
Thanks for commenting. I have read all the books you suggested, and I am surprised you can’t grow the at least most of the plants that Winterrowd and Eck grow in Vermont. Denver has cold temperatures but is much dryer in the winter, which makes a big difference in plants being able to winter over.

Pam/Digging April 8, 2007, 6:36 pm

I’ll look for The Undaunted Gardener, Ted. Thanks for the tip. You might like A Yard Full of Sun, by Scott Calhoun. Its subtitle reads: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand. It’s a good personal memoir about creating a garden (and house) in Arizona. Lovely pics as well.

Kathy, I don’t at all mind reading about gardens in other regions and substituting, in my mind’s eye, plants for my area that could achieve the same effect. The thing I don’t like is having to wade through chapters of text devoted to specific plants that I can never grow in my area.

Ted B April 8, 2007, 11:50 am

I really like this book also. Both inspiring and usefull. I have several other of Gordon’s books and enjoy them all, but this is the best of the bunch.

This genre of garden writing is my favorite – Exploring a personal garden while providing a lot of information.

A few other that I really like along the same lines are:

A Year at North Hill, by Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck. A great garden made by two plantsmen in rural Vermont

The Undaunted Garden, by Lauren Springer. A cottagey garden in Denver. (Might be good for Pam)

A Getle Plea for Chaos, by Mirabel Osler. A wild and wonderful garden on the border of Wales and England.

Even though all the books use plants that won’t do well for me in Wisconsin, it’s the gardeners relationship with thier garden that inspires me.

I haven’t read the Mary Keen book but will track it down.

Kathy Purdy April 8, 2007, 9:44 am

There is an appendix that lists all the major plants used in the garden, and another that gives the dates of (peak?) bloom. But in the text itself, specific plants aren’t mentioned unless they were especially part of the problem–or the solution. Most of the time the discussion is focused on how a particular type of plant–trees, shrubs, grasses, etc.–was used to a certain effect.

The thing is, it most definitely looks like a New England garden, designed for a New England climate. So a Texan gardener such as yourself has to make plant substitutions in her head, imagine a different color palette, and a different maintenance schedule. To some people this skill comes naturally; to others, it just about makes the book unusable. That’s why I said it would be even better to have a book like this for each region. Maybe you’ll write the book for Texas.

Pam/Digging April 8, 2007, 9:27 am

That does look like a useful design book for all regions. How much of the book is devoted to actual plant choices, which would be less useful to someone, like me, who lives in the Southwest?