I think every serious gardener should own one book by Rosemary Verey (b.1918-d.2001), or at least borrow one from the local public library once a year. Mrs. Verey was one of the great 20th century plantswomen, and her works include not only many books and articles, but her magnificent gardens at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire, England.
As a young woman, Rosemary Verey enrolled in a program of Mathematics and Economics at the University of London in the mid-1930s. An unexpected marriage proposal from David Verey, a friend of her brother, changed her mind about pursuing a college degree. She and David Verey, an architect and architectural historian, married in 1939. From Mrs. Verey’s own account, her marriage was more of a deep friendship and partnership than a love match, but they remained happily married until David Verey’s death in 1984.
By 1949, Rosemary and David Verey had four children. Then, in 1950, David Verey’s father bequeathed to him the family estate, Barnsley House, a beautiful 17th century stone-built former rectory. The Vereys moved into Barnsley House in 1951. For the first ten years at Barnsley House, Rosemary Verey concentrated on being a proper English country wife and mother. She learned to become a good cook, and she grassed over her mother-in-law’s former flower borders to provide more riding room for the children and their ponies.
Sometime during 1960 or 1961, Rosemary and David Verey must have begun discussions regarding the Barnsley House landscaping and gardens; because, in 1961, David Verey arranged for Rosemary to meet with Percy Cane, a noted English garden designer. Mrs. Verey listened to Percy Cane, taking to heart, particularly, his advice to create the longest possible vistas within the garden, but, in the end, she decided to tackle the project herself. She was then 43 years old and had 11 acres of property to consider.
Today, Barnsley House is said to have the finest “small” garden in Great Britain. Although a familiar concept to anyone who has visited Williamsburg, Mrs. Verey re-introduced the potager, or decorative kitchen garden, to England. Her vegetable and herb plantings were surrounded by boxwood hedges, and the vegetables and herbs themselves were planted with an eye to interest of color and design. For example, she deliberately planted a row of red lettuce next to a row of silvery-green cabbage in order for both vegetables to bring out the visual charm of the other; or she would plant curly-leaved, deep green parsley next to the yellow-green, elliptically-shaped leaves of golden sage.
Rosemary Verey gardened on alkaline soil in what Americans would term USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Her gardens also experienced less intense sunlight and temperature extremes than we experience here in Zones 5-7; nevertheless, she considered four-season interest an essential to pleasing garden design, regardless of location, and she also planted extensively in layers (i.e., early-blooming bulbs were interplanted with mid-season perennials, while annuals were tucked under leggy shrubs–there was constantly something interesting to view among the garden tapestries, and every inch of space was used creatively).
I first came upon Rosemary Verey’s work when I purchased her book, The Art of Planting, back in the early 1990s. I was taking a course in landscape design at the time, and though the class was introduced to principles of design drawing, hardscapes, and using plants for structure and balance, little attention was paid to plant combinations. Upon thumbing through Mrs. Verey’s book–even before reading her accompanying prose–I knew I had discovered a treasure. For me, it was an epiphany: I finally understood the foundations of successful perennial and mixed border planting.
Although a number of Mrs. Verey’s horticultural selections aren’t available commercially in the U.S., many unusual and hardy plants featured in her books can now be tracked down thanks to internet searches. It’s also possible, and sometimes preferable, to use her examples simply as guidelines. Some of her combinations wouldn’t be in bloom at the same time here; others would require more shade than her climate allowed.
Still, Rosemary Verey–and her works–are extraordinary. As you look through the photos in her books, consider that here is a woman who lacked any professional training in garden design, and who didn’t publish her first gardening book until she was 62 years old. Her dedication and her accomplishments are an inspiration to all enthusiastic gardeners, regardless of age. If she could do it, so can each of us.