Our garden is putting in order by a man who bears a remarkably good character, has a very fine complexion, and asks something less than the first. The shrubs which border the gravel walk, he says, are only sweetbriar and roses, and the latter of an indifferent sort; we mean to get a few of a better kind, therefore, and at my own particular desire he procures us some syringas. I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line. We talk also of a laburnum. The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive currants and gooseberry bushes, and a spot is found very proper for raspberries.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
February 8, 1807
Vistors to Jane Austen’s home, Chawton Cottage, will by struck by the happily situated and profusely blooming gardens surrounding the house. Summer finds the flowers, most what Austen herself would have known and loved, filling the area with color and scent. Cornflowers, poppies and marigolds share ground with roses, daisies, hollyhocks, and a profusion of other heirloom blooms.
In Constance Hill’s 1901, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, we find this beautiful description, “A large garden lay behind the house where, we are told, “there was a pleasant, irregular mixture of hedgerow, and gravel walk, and orchard, and long grass for mowing, arising from two or three little enclosures having been thrown together.” “I remember the garden well,” writes Miss Lefroy. “A very high thick hedge divided it from the (Winchester) road, and round it was a pleasant shrubbery walk, with a rough bench or two where no doubt Mrs. Austen and Cassandra and Jane spent many a summer afternoon.” We have sat in what was once this “shrubbery walk,” beneath the shade of great over-arching trees, one of which, an oak, is said to have been planted by Jane herself.
Writing to her sister during the month of May  she says: “The whole of the shrubbery border will soon be very gay with pinks and sweet-williams, in addition to the columbines already in bloom. The syringas, too, are coming out. . . . You cannot imagine – it is not in human nature to imagine – what a nice walk we have round the orchard. The rows of beech look very well indeed, and so does the young quickset hedge in the garden. I hear to-day that an apricot has been detected on one of the trees.” Was it a “Moor Park,” we wonder, such as Mrs. Norris and Dr. Grant quarrelled over?
By the time the family went to live at Chawton, Mrs. Austen had handed over the management of the house-keeping to her daughters. She was then nearly seventy years of age, but “she found plenty of occupation for herself,” writes Miss Lefroy, “in gardening and needlework. The former was, with her, no idle pastime, no mere cutting of roses and tying up of flowers. She dug up her own potatoes, and I have no doubt she planted them, for the kitchen garden was as much her delight as the flower borders, and I have heard my mother say that when at work, she wore a green round frock like a day-labourer’s.”
Of the garden current vistors to Chawton will find, former curator Jean Bowden wrote in 1990,
“The garden at Jane Austen’s house is a joy to me… I am trying to grow plants which were introduced into England before Jane died in 1817, especially old shrub roses…I also sow old-fashioned annuals each year… like Love-in-the-Mist, Larkspur, cornflowers and Candytuft. Luckily, Columbines seed themselves all round the village – a nice very dark red one, almost black, and we also have some pink ones and pure white ones. Jane mentions Sweet Williams (Dianthus) and I grow these too, but they are more trouble as they are biennials and need replacing every other year.
Jane, as you know, mentioned lots of plants which she knew and loved, in her letters, and we have: “Laburnum rich, in streaming gold; Syringa Iv’ry pure” – she meant Philadelphus, or Mock Orange here.
It was a very sad day when the last of the two oak trees planted by Jane Austen had to be cut down because it was unsafe. That was in 1986. However, I rescued a self-sown seedling and replanted it in a better position, on the west lawn.
There are lots of wild strawberries growing around the barns, and there are usually enough for my supper each night, in season. As I pick them, I can hear Jane “talking” to Cassandra in her letter of June 1811: “I had the agreeable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe – had you been at home, this would have been a pleasure lost!”*
The key to creating a garden Austen would have felt at home in is, as Bowden writes, to choose flowers which were common during her lifetime. These would include: Syringa, Lilic, cornflowers, columbines, Sweet Williams, old fashioned roses, Hollyhocks, pinks and small daisies. Shrubberies take time to grow and groom, but can be a lovely addition to any yard. Fruit trees are also charming accents, providing small patches of shade and the promise of produce in the summer. Combine these old fashioned plants in your flower beds and sit back to enjoy a colorful display each year. The perfect place to relax and read your favorite novel.
Start with a plan for your garden, like this excellent layout from Springhill Nursery (below). It will give you an idea of where you want your plants to grow. To plant a successful flower garden, you will want plants that bloom at different times throughout the growing season, as well as a variety of color and height. An internet search for Heirloom plants and Cottage Gardens will provide innumerable resources for choosing your garden’s shape and inhabitants.
Other helps include the soon to be published In the Garden with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson, author of Tea with Jane Austen (Pre-order available now: ISBN-10: 097904751X
ISBN-13: 978-0979047510) and Jane Austen and the English Landscape by Mavis Batey. Those who live in the United Kingdom, or plan to visit this summer might also like to take Linda Thorne’s The Gardens of Jane Austen’s England 2008.
For information about these tours, contact email@example.com or www.soaneandpartners.co.uk.
*Excerpted from Living in Chawton Cottage, by Jean Bowden, JASNA Persuasions #12, 1990, Pages 79-86