Bunny Mellon never formally studied landscaping; yet she grew to be one of the most celebrated gardeners in America. Her list of accomplishments is staggering, ranging from installations on family properties in Virginia, Nantucket and Antigua, to private residences in Paris, to the White House Rose Garden. There is much to be learned from her trial-and-error approach to horticulture. And now, a new book entitled Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon offers a glimpse into how she developed her aesthetic while providing readers with practicable tips on design.
This intimate look at the private musings of Mellon comes from the perspective of three people who knew her well — garden historian Linda Jane Holden, grandson Thomas Lloyd and family friend and interior designer Bryan Huffman. When it comes to inspiring, it doesn’t get much better. Packed with Bunny’s writings and own garden photos, the book is a treasure trove of information for the home gardener.
BUNNY MELLON’S GARDEN
According to its authors, the book’s goal is to give people a baseline understanding about how to think about spaces and specifically, how to think about gardens. It provides fundamentals that anyone can apply and incorporate into their landscape. Key among them is Bunny Mellon’s belief that nothing was supposed to look perfect.
“Imperfectly perfect,” was her maxim instead.
Oak Spring Farm, one of Bunny’s most famous gardens, is at the heart of the book.
The walled garden/Photo: Oak Spring Garden Foundation
ABOUT OAK SPRING GARDEN
Located in Upperville, Virginia, Oak Spring is a 1/2-acre garden consisting of a main stone house and a U-shaped group of buildings. A whitewashed stone wall ties the whole ‘hamlet’ together.
The property is divided into three descending terraces, all bisected by a central walkway. Each is composed of different elements, including a large flagstone terrace, several parterre gardens, flower borders, a croquet lawn and a vegetable and herb garden. The latter includes a garden potting shed that Bunny referred to as the Honey House.
In addition to all this, there is a spectacular tunnel of clipped crab apples that connects the formal garden to the greenhouse. Measuring an astonishing 130 feet long, the allée is composed of Mary Potter crab apples, 30 to each side, trained across a metal arbor. Bunny used the same trees in the White House Rose Garden.
The crab apple allée/Photo: Oak Spring Garden Foundation
Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon describes in detail how Bunny created each section of the property. Below are six design take-aways from her notes that are sure to up the game in your own garden.
HAVING A PLAN
In life, it’s important to have a plan. And Bunny championed the garden plan as a framework for experimentation.
Plan of Oak Spring/Oak Spring Garden Foundation
For instance, she believed that a good garden plan should address such fundamental questions as where will the garden be located? What are its boundaries and sight lines? And how will it be maintained? All of these factors are important to iron out before beginning a project. Bunny understood that a garden should be organized. Most importantly, a gardener should never purchase things at random.
In Bunny’s experience, to become a good gardener, you had to spend every day in the garden. And every day, she toured her property and took notes.
In a similar vein, she used disposable cameras, developed the photos herself, then made comments that she gave to her gardeners. Bunny felt that the camera saw things in a different way from the human eye. She was constantly photographing areas that troubled her, then examining them in detail as she worked to perfect each section.
LIGHT AND SHADOW
Light, and the idea of how shadows affect the shapes and parts of the garden, were a key element of Bunny’s designs. She experimented constantly with shadows, moving baskets around to observe different locations throughout the day (and seasons) before planting. Bunny believed light had a great effect on mood and consequently on the success of a garden. Sometimes she watched shadows and the shapes they created for years until she got it just right.
Light and shadow play important roles in the garden.
GARDENS AS ANIMAL SANCTUARY
The Sunday Kitchen, located on a terrace outside the main dwelling includes Bunny’s favorite tree on the property, a hardy orange. One of many plants on the property chosen for their suitability for wildlife, its thorns provide protection for birds.
Great gardens make room for wildlife.
In fact, nurturing habitats for wildlife played a central role in how Bunny thought about her gardens. She strove to create safe spots within her gardens not only for animals, but also for her to observe them. Birds and little animals played a huge part in her enchanted gardens, many of which were inspired by fairy tale books from her childhood.
PLANNING THE UNPLANNED
All paths at Oak Grove are intentionally rough to denote that un-planned feel. Often composed of fieldstone, they allow plants to grow through the cracks. Bunny purposely designed her paths to look down long distances. These pathways always led to a focal point that established perspective while adding an air of mystery to the garden.
Paths add mystery, especially when there’s a focal point.
Oak Spring’s Butterfly-shaped garden is just one example of the element of whimsy that figured in all of Bunny’s gardens. “Make your own vision,” she used to say. Key among those were childhood memories. She drew upon these to create fairy-tale like spaces including miniature gardens, insect-shaped flower beds, undulating lawns and serpentine paths and waterways that faded into the distance.
Memories make gardens personal.
Bunny created many seating areas around the property, all the while paying special attention to the height and mass of her arrangements as related to the garden. That being said, she never allowed one space to remain the same for very long. Instead, she adapted and changed them all the time.
Moving your seating areas around opens up new perspectives on the garden.
AN EYE ON THE HORIZON
But most of all, it was the horizon itself that figured prominently in all of Bunny’s garden planning. A borrowed view was crucial to her design and helped establish the height and breadth of her plantings. Boundary lines, formed by hedges or walls defined her gardens while also defining the space left behind. The relationship of boundary lines to the open sky was crucial to her compositions.
The sky is one of the most important borrowed views.
This is only a cursory view of the incredible amount of garden information to be found in this fascinating book. To learn more about Bunny Mellon’s techniques and to see the many beautiful photos of her gardens, check out Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, available at amazon.com. (This is my recommendation, only. And I do not receive compensation.)
Bunny Mellon died in March 2014. She was 103. Oak Springs is funded by an endowment from Bunny Mellon and is not open to the public. It does, however, host symposiums and workshops and is developing online access.