A Garden Miscellany

An Illustrated Guide to the Elements of the Garden


By Suzanne Staubach

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A sweet, alphabetical handbook to all things green.” —The New York Post

Do you know a folly from a ha-ha? Can an allée be pleached? Does a skep belong on a plinth? Answers to these questions—plus a gazebo-ful of information, stories, and visual delights—await in this charming exploration of the stuff gardens are made of. Garden historian Suzanne Staubach covers everything from arbors to water features, reveling in the anecdotes that accompany each element. Filled with revelations and fanciful illustrations by Julia Yellow, A Garden Miscellany promises new discoveries with each reading—a book to be returned to again and again.



If gardens were musical compositions, this book would be a look at the notes. Gardens have many notes, many parts. Paths, borders, beds, containers, pergolas, plants. Not all gardens, of course, include the same elements, but they do include some combination.

Gardens separated by millennia share remarkable similarities. My son sits with my granddaughters in the leafy shade of their grape arbor on a hot day, much as an Egyptian family sat under their grape arbor thousands of years ago. My cottage garden is a space of curves, but in the front, I have four beds in the universal quadripartite layout going back to the time of Cyrus the Great, circa sixth century BCE. Interpretations of each element vary in time and place and with individual gardeners, but the likenesses are strong.

With the benefit of world travel and interconnectivity, we can create gardens in styles from distant lands or times. Often, a specialty garden is part of a larger garden. Thus, within the greater landscape, we can incorporate a rock garden or a Japanese garden, so I count those sub-gardens also as elements.

There is much to discover in gardening. There is enough information, enough to learn, that each chapter of this book could be its own book. I have tried to distill the stories to their essence, to the anatomy underlying the gardens we visit and the gardens we make.

As I wrote, I wanted to add everything to my own garden. Oh, for a pond! Or a shepherd’s hut! For a week, I thought nothing would do but a pavilion. Gardening is dreaming.


Suzanne (Suzy) Staubach
Willow Tree Pottery, Ashford, Connecticut


Allées can have the illusion of greater length if the path is narrowed at the dest ination end and the trees ar e grown at descending heights.

Derived from aller, the French verb meaning to go, allée refers to a straight walkway or avenue, a promenade, usually lined with trees, occasionally with shrubs. Allées lead the garden visitor from a specific place, such as the entrance of a house, to a feature, such as a fountain or statue. The avenue can connect two gardens, serve as the drive to an estate, or guide movement through a park.

An allée can be the main axis of the garden, or sited elsewhere. In most cases, it is bordered on both sides by a single variety of tree or shrub. Specimens should be precisely and evenly planted in two rows, each plant directly opposite the plant on the other side of the allée. To be successful, measurements between the trees should be exact. Allées can have the illusion of greater length if the path is narrowed at the destination end and the trees are grown at descending heights. This is particularly useful for small formal gardens. As always in horticulture, and especially with an allée, one must take into account the size of the trees at maturity.

André Le Nôtre, gardener to Louis XIV (the Sun King) is credited with popularizing the allée and forever associating it with French gardens, though other designers were working in the same idiom at the time. Le Nôtre designed the spare-no-expense gardens at Versailles, which were meant to show off the king’s wealth and power. Versailles was also designed to keep the nobles where the king could watch over them and hold their power in check. Strolling the magnificent allées that stretched across the gardens became a fashionable way for these men and women of the court to see and be seen. Le Nôtre’s work at Versailles was inspired by the Italian Renaissance allées, lined with slim cypress trees. These in turn were, perhaps, inspired by the allées of the ancient Persians.

The seventeenth-century diarist, author, and gardener John Evelyn, writing in Elysium Britannicum, or The Royal Gardens (his magnum opus, a never-finished book of advice for gardeners), admonished that “alleys” must not be interrupted, as they “do with their length alone afford a most gracious and pleasant perspective, whilst they serve to decline and concur in a point, especially if planted with (tall) trees, then which nothing can be more ravishing and agreeable.” Who would not want a garden element that is “ravishing and agreeable”?

Edith Wharton’s allée at her Berkshire home, The Mount, is classic in execution and relies heavily on structure. The lime walkway of pleached European linden trees connects two gardens: the colorful French Flower Garden and the sunken Italian Garden. It runs north to south, parallel to her house rather than from it, and is overlooked by her balustraded terrace. Pleached trees are planted in a line and the branches are pruned and woven together, creating a sort of hedge. These trees provided shade for Wharton’s guests, and add a strong note of formality.

Many different trees can be used to create an allée: hawthorn, linden, laburnum, and hornbeam are traditional; oak, beech, and maples are stately and fitting for long drives and promenades; slim white birch can be used for airiness. Allées can be made of fastigiate or columnar varieties of trees. Shrubs such as yew, rhododendrons, or hydrangea are also successful.

These trees and shrubs can be pleached; clipped into cubes, balls, or pyramids; allowed to grow together over the allée to form a tunnel; or grown to great girth and height. Deciduous species work best if you want to form a tunnel. The late English garden designer and writer Rosemary Verey famously used yellow laburnum trees underplanted with purple allium for her allée at Barnsley House in the Cotswolds.

Careful consideration should be given to the surface of the allée. Shade and foot traffic make a lawn path difficult. Brick, stones, pavers, gravel, and bark mulch all work well. Since you are planting in shade thick with tree roots, underplant with species that will thrive in such conditions: small bulbs, ground covers, and shallow-rooted plants such as vinca.

Because they require considerable maintenance if clipped or pleached, as well as extensive space, allées are most often seen in great formal gardens and parks of generous acreage, supported by trained staff and adequate funds. However, with imagination and a careful choice of trees or shrubs, allées can enhance small gardens, too. A fieldstone path with a dozen or so plants of panicle hydrangea ‘Limelight’ underplanted with catmint or vinca minor would be lovely.


An arbor is a freestanding structure for growing climbing plants, usually with two sides, sometimes three, and a top. There are typically four uprights, but arbors can be made with as few as two uprights or more than four. The front and back are open, unless there’s a third side. The sides and top are often made of lath or lattice. Arbor tops can be flat, arched, or pointed. Sometimes there are facing benches on the sides, or if there are three sides, one bench on the back. An arbor offers a practical way to cultivate climbing and vining plants, but it also provides shade and, draped in blossoms and greenery, provides unsurpassed beauty in the garden.

Arbors are different from pergolas in that pergolas are more ornamental, structurally more substantial, and include a floor. A pergola can be treated as an arbor, but an arbor is not a pergola.

With roots in the Old French erbier, meaning grassy plot, meadow, or kitchen garden, and the Latin arbor, for tree, arbor evolved by the mid-fourteenth century to mean a shaded nook, a bower formed by intertwining trees, shrubs, or vines—likely because such edifices were so prevalent and had become synonymous with the space they inhabited.

The earliest depictions we have of arbors are from the ancient Egyptians, as early as the Old Kingdom 4000 years ago. Arbors then grew grapes, which were eaten fresh, dried for raisins, or made into wine. An early hieroglyph for both vineyard and wine is a stylized rendering of an arbor, consisting of two forked poles supporting a transom across the top, plump bunches of grapes hanging down, with a dangling bucket to suggest harvest. This charming grape arbor ideogram appears twice on the iconic Rosetta Stone. Middle Kingdom tomb images show grapevines trained into rounded bowers in the shape of an inverted bowl, so that the vines themselves form the arbor. Other images show an arbor constructed in the center of an orchard.

Though these arbors were for food production, the Egyptians also enjoyed the cool shade they provided, a welcome respite from their hot climate. The Romans, who liked to dine al fresco, were talented architects and garden designers and often included arbors in their courtyard gardens. Monastery and peasant gardens of the Middle Ages utilized arbors, as did the grand gardens of the Renaissance. “Right on into the New Period, vineyard arbours were the centre and chief ornament of all gardens,” Marie-Luise Gothein writes in her comprehensive classic, A History of Garden Art.

By the nineteenth century in the United States and UK, arbors were ubiquitous, entering our collective imaginations. Planted with roses, honeysuckle, morning glories, trumpet vines, or clematis, they might mark an opening in a picket fence and perhaps include a gate. You could find them on a meandering garden path in the midst of hollyhocks and snapdragons or at one end of the vegetable garden. They were usually made of wood, but gardeners of the Victorian era who had the means often installed Gothic arbors with lavish embellishment. Grape arbors were a key element in the tiny but productive city gardens of newly arrived immigrants, particularly Italians who might also use arbors to grow their beloved giant cucuzza squash.

Arbors today are constructed in many styles and materials to suit various types of landscaping. Manufactured arbors can be made of wood, powdered metal, steel, wrought iron, and vinyl, but many gardeners opt to make their own or have one custom made. The structures are typically anchored in the ground to withstand harsh weather and the weight of the plants they often support.

Many arbors are sited in full sun because they produce some shade. They can be connected to the garden by fencing, a wall, hedges, a path, or borders on either side. The placement of an arbor has a significant effect on how a garden is navigated and viewed. It can encourage guests to stroll through to see what’s on the other side. It can frame a view of an urn or statue. It can invite one to linger a moment and sit if there is a bench. An arbor can separate areas of the garden or define a space. Often, especially in a small garden, an arbor is the main focal point. In cold climates, a well-made arbor adds winter interest even after the leaves and flowers of the vines have disappeared. And, as professional photographers know, an arbor can add romance and magic to photos.


Besides being for leisure and enjoyment, an arboretum is usually for study, education, and often research.

You could say an arboretum is a botanical garden of trees. It is a place for the scientific study and public exhibition of a collection of trees, or trees and shrubs. The collection can include natives, exotics, a combination of natives and exotics, or a particular grouping of trees, such as conifers or oaks. Arboretums are usually planted on large acreages—parks, campuses, private estates—but small properties can also be successfully planted with a tree collection.

Hatshepsut, the great female pharaoh of Egypt in the fifteenth century BCE, commissioned an expedition of five ships to sail south to Punt (believed to be present-day Somalia or Eritrea). Here, thirty-one frankincense trees were dug, shipped back in individual baskets, and planted at her palace. This is the first recorded instance of exotic trees being transplanted. Ancient Egyptians also collected exotic trees from Sudan and Syria for royal gardens. Other early peoples such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans collected trees.

We do not know for certain when the beautiful Trsteno Arboretum, on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, was begun, but records show that it was already flourishing by 1492. Legend tells us that the Gozze (Gučetić) family, a local clan of nobles, poets, artists, philosophers, and intellectuals, asked the seafarers who sailed from nearby Dubrovnik to bring back seeds from their travels to plant on the family’s estate. Though this ancient arboretum has suffered grave losses of trees from wars, weather, and arson, it continues to thrive with over 200 specimens of Mediterranean and tropical trees that attract visitors from around the world.

The word arboretum, from the Latin arbor, came into usage in the nineteenth century. Some etymologists credit John Claudius Loudon, the eighteenth-century London-based gardener, writer, magazine publisher, and landscape designer, with coining it. Drawing upon his own master work published in 1838, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, he designed the Derby Arboretum in Derby, England, as a public park.

Loudon made planting mounds and serpentine paths, giving the Derby Arboretum a spacious and inviting feel. He collected 800 species of trees and shrubs, one of each, from around the world, then arranged them in the arboretum by their botanical family groups. He also produced a catalog of the trees and shrubs for visitors so they would know what they were looking at and could gain some botanical education.

Arboreta can be found throughout the world, including the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, Eastwoodhill Arboretum in New Zealand, Kew Gardens in London, and dozens more. Many were the beneficiaries of the plant hunters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were created to hold the bounty of their explorations.

The garden writer Allen Lacy devoted his later years to the tiny (less than an acre) Linwood Arboretum. Here he wanted to showcase trees and shrubs not usually planted by homeowners and inspire his neighbors to become a bit more adventuresome in their landscaping. He also wanted an arboretum that was frequently seen—it is in a busy part of town—and could be casually enjoyed by passersby. Linwood demonstrates how effective a small arboretum can be. Arboreta were a popular addition to estates during the Country House era, but we see from Lacy that it is possible to have an arboretum on a suburban plot.

Besides being for leisure and enjoyment, an arboretum is usually for study, education, and often research. This requires design considerations that do not apply to other gardens, such as grouping by taxonomy, the necessity of labels, and the need to allow enough space between specimens for optimum growth conditions. Nevertheless, an arboretum is a garden for people, so aesthetic considerations and ease of movement are also important. This can lead to design tensions.

When the arboretum at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK was being expanded and rejuvenated in the nineteenth century, director Sir William Hooker brought in the watercolorist-turned-landscape designer, William Andrews Nesfield, as the designer. Once Nesfield realized that the trees were to be displayed according to their taxonomical relationships, he had second thoughts about accepting the commission. Such strictures were an affront to his artistic landscape skills. Hooker, for his part, scoffed that Nesfield was too focused on geometry. Nevertheless, Nesfield came up with plans that were largely satisfactory to both, with sunken paths (invisible from a distance), planting mounds, glades, and three vistas. He was even able to include a shrub parterre as a nod to formal garden design.

Included in most arboreta are paths that invite visitors through and bring them close enough to individual specimen trees to see the bark and leaves and structure. Planting mounds, though not necessary, are popular. Some sort of identification signage is also important. Small aluminum signs with the common name and Latin name are often affixed to the trees. Maps are useful and fun.

Day to day, an arboretum is less labor intensive than a garden of herbaceous and mixed borders. It has four-season interest, with winter, especially in temperate climates, often the most dramatic time of year. Public arboreta are important resources for gardeners, scientists, and visitors. The appearance of pocket arboreta in small towns and neighborhoods is, happily, a growing trend.

Arboretum Time

Time is a factor in all gardens but especially in an arboretum. Trees take many years to reach their full height and girth. It is not uncommon for trees to live 150 years, with some species living many centuries. When you plant an arboretum, although you will be able to enjoy it yourself, you are planting for the future. But trees can be felled by disease, wind, lightning, fire, and heavy snows. The loss of a mature tree, or a number of mature trees, will leave gaping absences in the plan and can be emotionally upsetting for arborists and visitors alike. You cannot replace a giant white oak toppled by the winds of a hurricane as easily as a treasured daylily devoured by deer.


It was the Romans who had a genius for the form and used it in their building projects—most famously their aqueducts.

A weathered stone or brick arch, be it freestanding or incorporated into a wall, lends an air of antiquity to a landscape. It gives a sense of permanence and majesty. Long after a garden has reverted to brambles or forest, the arch will remain. A masonry arch is an element of classic proportions and beauty, as well as a symbol of strength. It draws the eye to look beyond, enticing the viewer to pass through to the other side. It is a place to pause and pose for a photo.

The arch shapes we most often encounter in gardens are wood or metal arbors, but here we will discuss the classic masonry arch, a marriage of physics and geometry. An arch is a curve that spans an opening. It can span greater expanses than a lintel and support more weight. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians understood the arch, but it was the Romans who had a genius for the form and used it in their building projects—most famously their aqueducts, many of which still stand after two millennia.

The Roman arch or sprung arch can be rounded, somewhat flattened, or an inverted U. It exerts a downward and outward thrust and requires buttressing on the sides to keep it from collapsing. A Roman arch works well as an opening in a garden wall, with the wall acting as the buttress. Roman arches can be lined up next to each other, each serving as the buttress for the next, as with a portico. Roman arches are also used as niches in walls to hold an urn or shelter a bench, as the opening in an outdoor oven, or as the span of a stone bridge.

The catenary arch (from the Latin word for chain, because it is described by tracing the arc of a chain which is suspended at two points, and then inverted) is self-supporting. It requires no buttressing. It is the simplest arch to build and exceedingly strong. Many consider it to be nature’s most beautiful curve.

Most gardeners hire a professional mason if they want a stone or brick arch, but once the principles are understood, anyone, with care, can build one, especially a catenary arch. Wedge-shaped bricks and stones are commercially available, which simplifies the construction.

Arches are built on forms and rely on a keystone tightly fitted into the exact center of the top. Alternating stones or bricks are added to each side. When the two sides meet, this central, wedge-shaped keystone is added, locking the arch together. Once the keystone is in place the form is removed—always a dramatic moment. To spectators, it seems the arch will surely collapse.

There are talented masons who specialize in building stone arches. Artists also make ceramic or cement arches that are then tiled. Many large or elaborate arches are created as commissions, often for public gardens or as community projects. You can purchase ready-made arches, or “ruins” of arches. These include gothic designs with points at the top, like church windows. And on a lucky day, one can find an old arch at a salvage yard, ready to be brought home and reassembled.


When landscape designers speak of a garden’s aspect, they are referring to the compass point it faces. A garden’s aspect affects the amount and timing of the sun it receives and the direction shadows fall at various times of day. Aspect influences which plants will grow best. It also influences the time of day the garden can be most enjoyed. A garden with an eastern aspect would generally be sunniest in the morning. This would be a nice spot to drink your morning tea or coffee. Similarly, a garden with a western aspect would generally be sunny at the end of the day, pleasant for dining al fresco or after-work weeding. A garden with a southern aspect will generally have plenty of sun, and a garden with a northern aspect will likely be cool and shady.

Most houses are not sited on a strict aspect and might face south-southwest or north-northeast instead of directly north or south. A compass is helpful in determining your aspect. You will also want to observe where the sun rises and sets. It is important to track the shadows cast by the house, nearby buildings, and trees. Keep an hourly record of the sun and shade for a year. You might have a wonderful south-facing aspect, but surrounding large trees or tall buildings could prevent the sun from reaching your ground.

If your summers tend to be hot, you might prefer a garden with a northern aspect, though your plant palette will be more limited than with a south-facing yard. In the southern hemisphere, the principle is the same but the north and south conditions are reversed.

Whether you are deciding where to plant a garden, how to site a house to be built, whether or not to purchase a particular home, or how a garden will be used, the aspect of a home and its yard is one of a property’s most important elements. It can influence how best to design, plant, and use the space.


Because an axis is linear and predictable, it offers a sense of calm.

An axis is the key element defining and organizing a formal garden. It is an imaginary line which orients and describes the space. The main axis often runs through the house, leading straight out into the gardens both front and back if the doors are aligned. It can lead out from a terrace, deck, or porch. An axis does not have to be a walk, but it often is. It can be a lawn or long terrace, or a series of enclosed lawns, with symmetrical plantings on both sides. To add interest, an axis can have stopping points. It can widen into a gravel circle planted with herbs. Three or four arbors planted with clematis and roses could be placed over an axis.

In addition to the main axis, there are usually cross axes leading to other parts of the garden and bound by additional gardens or features. Thus, with a main axis and secondary axes, the garden designer can create garden compartments, and direct movement through the garden. An axis defines the views from the house, and it can also be used to create internal vistas. It controls the experience of the garden. Because an axis is linear and predictable, it offers a sense of calm. The surprises—a statue at the end of the axis, parterres on each side of a cross axis, an opening in a hedge revealing a view—are created by the garden designer.

Land might slope away from the house, dip here and there, or rise to a higher point. To accommodate this change in terrain, you can add steps to your axis. This could be a place to set a few urns or flowerpots, and slow your visitors’ pace. You can make a small sunken garden where the land dips, creating drama. But always, the axis is a straight line, laid out with logic internal to the space—the organizing principle from which all else in a formal garden flows.

An axis makes a small urban garden feel larger and more spacious than one designed as a single space. It pulls one out of the house and into the garden.

Balcony Garden

Balconies are an extension of an interior upper floor supported by corbels, brackets, or supports made of concrete, wood, or steel. They are enclosed by a waist-high metal railing, balustrades, or a wall. They may or may not have a roof. A gallery is similar to a balcony, but is supported from the ground level. It can be larger than a balcony and often stretches across one entire side of a building. A gallery can be on a ground floor, with one or two balconies above.

Architectural historians believe balconies were first built by the ancient Greeks to enhance the ventilation of their houses. Romans adopted them, too. During the Middle Ages, sturdy, roofed balconies were attached to fortresses during battle. They also became stylish additions to European residences.

In the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare romanticized balconies in his play Romeo and Juliet. Today, faux balconies constructed outside windows are called Juliet balconies.

One of the most famous balconies is the one at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where the Pope steps out and gives his blessing to the crowds below. Similarly, balconies encircle Islamic minarets from which the Islamic faithful are called to prayer. Carved wooden balconies draped with ivy geraniums are a defining feature of widely photographed Swiss chalets. Originating in the German, Swiss, and French Alps, they were copied in England and France, with many features appearing in houses of the Arts and Crafts Movement. A-frames, which became popular during the second-house movement of the 1950s and 1960s, were sometimes dressed up as faux chalets with balconies.

Perhaps the most iconic balconies are those of Paris, France, and of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Enclosed by lacy, wrought iron railings, they are festooned with bright flowers, often scarlet geraniums (pelargoniums), begonias, roses, or bougainvillea planted in pots and window boxes. Today, many multistory apartment buildings throughout the world feature private balconies for residents.


  • “The right amount of useful advice and, when applicable, educational historical tidbits… Julia Yellow’s whimsical illustrations, generously scattered throughout, ensure the work remains charming as well as informative. This is both a pleasure to read and a valuable resource to fall back on for the enthusiastic gardener.” —Publishers Weekly

    “A sweet, alphabetical handbook to all things green, from arbors and arches to water features and yards. The painterly illustrations, quirky factoids and genuinely helpful tips make this an ideal gift for anyone who has a garden…or just imagines escaping to one.” —The New York Post

    “Lovely illustrations make this informative book a pleasure to return to again and again.” —The Seattle Times

    “Any gardener will enjoy the clever, useful prose and storytelling illustrations…The pretty cover, with gold foil detailing, already seems wrapped for giving.” —The Oregonian

    “A perfect gift for the gardener in your life, with little anecdotes about odd garden features, and charming illustrations.” —The Multnomah County Library

    “Quirky illustrations and headings either bring levity to what might appear to be a dry topic, or diminish its intellectual heft, depending on your point of view… the perspective is enlightening and helps to paint a fuller picture of the items we use almost daily.” The English Garden

    “A unique book that blends the practical with the poetic.” Horticulture

    “Filled with revelations and fanciful illustrations, this whimsical book is part garden guide and part coffee table art. Whether used as a reference guide or a quick pleasure read, it promises new discoveries with each opening.” —Michigan Gardener

On Sale
Oct 29, 2019
Page Count
220 pages
Timber Press

Suzanne Staubach

Suzanne Staubach

About the Author

Suzanne Staubach writes, pots, and gardens in the rural northeastern hills of Connecticut. Staubach was a bookseller for 34 years as the manager and trade buyer for the UConn Co-op. She was one of the founding members of the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair, serving as co-chair. She served as President of the New England Booksellers Association, Vice President of the American Booksellers Association, and Vice President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression. In 2008 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Connecticut Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress. She is currently on the Connecticut Center for the Book’s Advisory panel and a judge for the non-fiction award. 

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