by RUTH ROGERS CLAUSEN portrait by CHRISTOPHER WEIL
“The best recommendation I can give to those who have taken up the delightful, absorbing, intensely gratifying, maddening, and exhausting activity of gardening is to dig, plant, weed, work, and… read, read, read.” So writes Elisabeth Sheldon in Time and the Gardener (Beacon Press, 2003). Reading Sheldon’s own work is like having a friendly chat over the back fence, sharing trials and tribulations of the gardening kind–the sort of conversation where you find out it’s not just you who has lost the easiest plant in the world to grow, three times no less!
Sheldon’s husband, George, worked for the State Department, and his career took the couple around the world. A born teacher, Elisabeth Sheldon’s unwillingness to conform to the stodgy rules of rote-method learning delighted English-language students in Saigon, Turkey, Algeria, and Italy. It was during their two-year stay in Algiers that Sheldon first imagined having a “proper perennial garden, as my father had before me.” So she read all the gardening books that she could find–mostly British. Back in the United States, the Sheldons settled in a Victorian farmhouse on 100 acres in the Finger Lakes region of New York State (USDA Zone 5). She confronted harsh, bitter winters unheard of in Britain, as well as backbreaking labor on a difficult site. Her dream garden sometimes seemed more like a nightmare, but gradually she tamed it and created the 250-foot-Iong perennial border that would become a demonstration garden and destination for passionate gardeners from far and wide.
In 1979, Sheldon started a small nursery, Ridge House Gardens, selling mostly herbaceous plants that were not easy to come by at that time. (The perennials boom that has fueled their availability nationwide did not begin in earnest until the late 1980s.) To fill out her plant list, she started seeds she obtained from institutions such as the Royal Horticultural Society and the North American Rock Garden Society. She nurtured them under lights on heating coils in an unheated bedroom. Favorites included Helianthemum, Dianthus, and Delphinium, which were seldom found on nursery lists. A customer suggested that she write about her plants, and in 1989 the award-winning A Proper Garden (Stackpole Books) was published, based on her own experience. At that same time the small, work-intensive nursery closed. (Though even years later I would meet loyal customers still waxing eloquent about Sheldon’s plants.)
Her knowledge, engaging style, and wit prompted a demand for essays and articles for the gardening press over the next decade. Garden clubs and horticultural symposia sought her as a speaker. She was a fun presenter, always encouraging novices and politely cutting through any pomposity of so-called experts.
Sheldon had studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago, and her education became invaluable in garden design and consulting projects. In her own garden, she had trouble incorporating vibrant “rudbeckias, Heliopsis, and flaming ‘Enchantment’ lilies” into her long border of cool colors. A decade ago, red and orange flowers–hot colors–were considered garish and not quite nice for conservative northern gardens. Many Americans still wanted to emulate the British, whose soft light is kind to the cool pastels that wash out under the harsh sun more common here. Sheldon’s solution, later immortalized in The Flamboyant Garden (HenryHolt, 1997), was to isolate the “gaudy” flowers. Thus was born the “Hot Garden”: a small area in full sun enclosed by a gray board fence and bisected with brick paths. Here an exotic jungle (including jazzy marigolds, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, dahlias, and zinnias) explodes with heat and color. It is adored by hummingbirds of every hue and visited by butterflies in abundance. On the hot and brilliantly sunny day I visited, I opened the gate and let out an involuntary gasp. That you reach this special place through a cool woodland only intensifies the drama of the utterly intoxicating experience.
Sheldon, now in her eighties, still follows her own best advice. Although her eyesight has almost gone, she still spends many hours each day on her hands and knees, weeding. “The garden looks a little bit shaggier than it used to,” she says–but indeed it still bears the stamp of the artistic, exceptional woman who has tended it for so many years. H