Who was the quiet american gardener?

Lawrence Johnston circa 1927 in Mrs Winthrop's garden with Frank Adams © Hidcote Manor Garden

Lawrence Johnston circa 1927 in Mrs Winthrop's garden with Frank Adams

It took Lawrence Johnston nearly 40 years to create his garden at Hidcote. He started it soon after his mother bought the estate in 1907 and it quickly grew to be his life's work - becoming one of England's most influential 20th-century gardens.

From soldier to gardener

Johnston had an interesting life. Although both of his parents were American he was actually born in Paris. After studying Classics at Cambridge he became a naturalised British citizen and fought in the Boer War and First World War. Following his retirement from the army, Johnston had the time and money to pursue his other interests like painting, music, travelling, entertaining and playing his favourite sport - tennis. However, he always found the time and energy to devote to his garden.

When Johnston started gardening here he found the estate was very exposed. To provide shelter from the wind, he planted evergreen oaks and hedges of holly, hornbeam, beech and yew. These divided the garden into a series of compartments or 'rooms', built around two main corridors that gave breath-taking views over the surrounding countryside.

A garden of rooms
Each of the garden rooms had its own character and atmosphere, with surprises and discoveries around every corner. Johnston followed the design principles of the fashionable Arts and Crafts movement.

He intentionally made those areas close to the house formal in design and structure, with those further away more naturalistic. The architectural lines of the hedges and structures such as steps and pavilions show how Johnston was inspired by his many journeys to France and Italy.

Overseas inspiration
Other than gardening, Johnston's passion was travelling. He travelled a lot - from the stunning Dracensburg mountains in South Africa to the dangerous Himalya in China. He never forgot about his garden though and took back mementos of his plant hunting expeditions. He would carefully select only the finest plants to bring back to Hidcote.

As well as developing Hidcote, he created another garden at Serre de la Madone in the south of France. Johnston would spend the winter at 'Serre' where he could take advantage of the warmer climate to grow more tender plants.

Would you give your garden to the National Trust?
That's what Johnston did in 1948. He retired soon after to Serre de la Madone, where he died 10 years later. He's buried next to his mother in the small churchyard at Mickleton, just a short distance from the garden he created.