You are here

A Garden Editor's 25 Gardening Insights

Elvin McDonald, Traditional Home's garden editor from 1995-2002, helps us celebrate our 25th anniversary by sharing insights from his memoir-in-progress

Written by Elvin McDonald
  • Help us celebrate the 25th anniversary of Traditional Home by enjoying 25 Gardening Insights from a garden editor's memoir, Blue Norther by Elvin McDonald, which he is currently writing, having retired as Botanical Educator and Ambassador for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. He served as Traditional Home's garden editor from 1995 to 2002 and continues as gardens consultant.

    My first story for TH—March 1996 featuring British style—was to profile Rosemary Verey so that readers would understand why she was the gardener with whom Prince Charles himself liked to garden at High Grove. Rosemary and I were already friends and had even contemplated my living at Barnsley House in the Cotswolds for one season; mornings we would garden, afternoons we would put together a book on garden furniture—as distinct from the “pool and patio” type.

    Therein lie my first insights: Every garden needs a sturdy bench, probably made of wood from a renewable resource, that is long enough for the tallest member of the family to stretch out for a nap. The mere sight of a bench can serve to  remind the gardener it's time to take a break. 

    This image, a classic Lutyens bench in John Brookes' gardens at Denmans in West Sussex, introduces the idea of adding garden color with paint instead of flowers.

  • Create an Outdoor Room

    At my home a rug painted on the deck inspired treating the space as an outdoor sitting room. A collection of different rose-scented geraniums adds sensory awareness—and illustrates massing for maximum effect.

  • Define the Beds

    Kitchen gardens can be beautiful. Rosemary Verey took the grandness of the fabled potager at the Chateau de Villandry in France and expressed its wondrous embroidery in a modest sunny plot of no more than 100x50 feet. Dwarf boxwood defines the beds. She was particularly proud of the apple trees espaliered into goblet shapes.

  • Try a Tuteur

    A tuteur fashioned from twigs gives sweet peas a lift in Rosemary's potager.

  • Keep Planning Simple  

    When questions flew at Rosemary asking how she did the knot garden outside her sitting room it was her habit to dismiss the achievement as nothing more than a simple sketch, which she demonstrated forthwith on the back of her hand using a green felt-tip pen, her trademark when autographing books. In a similar vein, renown garden designer Russell Page said as he pulled an envelope out of his jacket, “I can lay out the bones of the greatest garden in the world on the back of this. The work is getting the details right, using locally adapted plants.”

  • Put it Away

    “Don't put it down, put it away” is every gardener's wish. Rosemary encouraged the practice with this wall in her potting shed—a place for every tool and every tool in its place...almost.

  • Mass for Effect  

    “Mass for effect” was preached a generation before Rosemary by Vita Sackville-West who with her husband Harold Nicolson set out one of the great gardens of the world, Sissinghurst in Kent. Vita wrote, “I believe in exaggeration; I believe in big groups, big masses. I am sure it is more effective to plant twelve tulips together than to split them into groups of six; more effective to concentrate all the delphiniums into one bed, than to dot them about at intervals of twos and threes.”

    At the Robinson garden in New England, shown here, ribbons of blue catmint make an effective substitute for lavender that is often used as hedging in milder climates. 

  • Give Your Garden a Water Feature

    Every garden needs a water feature, a bird bath at the bare minimum. This image, taken in the Harrison garden, Attica, Indiana, shows a fountain by Utah artist Gary Prince. 


  • Allot 25 Percent

    Joanne Lawson, a landscape architect whose handiwork has been featured in TH, advised this rule of thumb: Allot 25 percent of a property budget for building the hardscape and then the plantings. A few bushes as “foundation” plantings, a couple of shade trees and a concrete slab patio do not a garden make.

    When Nicole de Vesian retired at age 72 as chief stylist at Hermes in Paris she bought a property sited at the base of a fortressed village in the south of France. She purposely invested time and money in creating a garden suited to the sun-stricken site and endlessly inviting as a place to savor life.

  • Create a Cutting Garden

    If you like bouquets of fresh flowers for the house, allot a working space to grow a cutting garden. The image shows orange lilies and blue hydrangeas in a kitchen garden on Long Island. A raised bed in mostly sun makes a great beginning.

  • Grow Dahlias for Drama

    Dahlia tubers are planted in late spring and reach their zenith as summer nights are cooling toward fall. Enjoy one gorgeous bloom in a bud vase or gather several into a sumptuous bouquet.

  • Go Green

    Be “green” as you garden, recycle and repurpose. In western Pennsylvania, landscape architect Lindsay Bond Totten engaged a sculptor to carve out a new life for a fallen tree.

  • Go for Gloxinias

    Porches are great for plants any time temperatures are comfortable for people. The florist gloxinias shown in this image are quintessential summer porch plants, which grow from tubers that are easily wintered over like dahlias. Gloxinias belong to the gesneriad family, numerous members of which are on the ascendancy for all kinds of gardens, indoors and out; visit

  • Create “Full Stops”

    Rosemary Verey was keen on the idea that a vital ingredient in garden design is to insert features that make you come to a “full stop.” The image, shot at Kiftsgate Court Gardens, also in Gloucestershire, has borders of antique roses leading to a hornbeam arch framing a sitting lady sculpture by Simon Verrity—about three “full stops.”

  • Try Raised Beds—and Color

    I copied the Kiftsgate idea by bordering my front walk with raised beds filled with red geraniums and blue petunias and painting the front door in lipstick red to get the “full stop” effect.

  • Compose an Ode to an Urn

    It's a traditional gesture of graciousness to plant urns or other containers at the front door. This image shows a planting I installed in matching urns flanking the entry steps at Terrace Hill, the Iowa governor's residence. To assure good looks with minimum maintenance I used plants that do not require deadheading: flowering kalanchoes around a grasslike red cordyline.

  • Create a View from Above

    Pattern gardens have traditionally been sited so as to be seen from above, as from a second story or higher vantage point. In this image I am admiring a miniature parterre at Filoli Gardens, Woodside, California. It measures 30 inches square and sits in its inspiration, a 30x30-foot garden.

  • Experience the Meditative Effects of Gardening

    The miniature pattern gardens at Filoli are maintained by one dedicated volunteer (a man) who nips and trims as needed on weekly visits. This Western idea of training plants has a correlation with the Eastern of dwarfing woody plants into bonsai or penjing. Caring for such plants is often likened to meditation or Zen gardening.

  • Garden Indoors 

    Land is not a requisite to be a gardener. In the New York City apartment of Broadway musical composer and director Mark Bramble, HID lamps on a ceiling track move back and forth to light a veritable greenhouse of thriving plants. Two 20-watt fluorescents in a reflector placed 12-18 inches above a table or shelf can constitute a garden with small African violets, miniature gloxinias, ferns and orchids.

  • Create a Refuge

    Design an overall property planting plan by including numerous places to leave home without getting in your car. This image shows the tea house I made in my garden by adding French doors and two walls of windows to a preexisting, prefabricated tool shed.

  • Collect Coleus

    'Alabama Red' coleus, shown here with a bright green plectranthus with quilted leaves, represents a new wave of interest in a foliage plant largely ignored in the 20th century. The big difference about 'Alabama Red' is that it is more for sun than shade and a rooted cutting set in the ground when the weather is warm enough for tomatoes will become a small shrub by midsummer. Coleus was the subject of my first regular gardening column at TH and that has led to the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden's having the world's largest collection of different coleus, over 600 at last count!

  • Design Waves (Not Clumps!)

    I was proud for TH to publish the gardens of Piet and Anja Oudolf at their home in Hummelo, northeast of Amsterdam. In this image Piet is showing me his planting diagram for a new perennial border at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's testing grounds near London. His commission was to “design one scheme you think we will like and design one that is what you would like.” They chose Piet's, which shows waves of the same plant rather than clumps of this and that dotted about.

  • Share Your Garden

    Here I am with Georgie van de Kamp on the day she hosted a maypole for the neighborhood school kids in her garden in the California Central Valley.

  • Plant a Tree

    Widowed in her 70s, Georgie traded a high-maintenance city garden for an acreage populated by many native plants and where she continued to plant trees like these Oriental persimmons well into her 90s. Trees more than any other type plant are routinely planted by old gardeners on behalf of future generations.

  • Right Plant, Right Place 

    Don't be a plant snob. Because it is so widely used in public plantings, I rarely if ever set dusty miller in my garden—until this spring. When it was time to plant the 38 terra-cotta drain tiles that raise the central bed in front of the gray dining pavilion, what I found at my neighborhood garden center that was the right size, right habit, right price, and a neutral color was dusty miller. Its grayness cools hot flower colors and turns luminous at dusk and in moonlight. You could say it is my garden's silver lining.