Garden Design: How to Make a Peter Rabbit Garden

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• The Life of Beatrix Potter
• Beatrix Potter’s Herbs and Flowers

Is your herb garden worthy of the quirky Peter Rabbit? Has he slipped under the garden gate to munch on the greens or sleep under the sage? If not, perhaps you haven’t hit on the right combination of plants. Gardeners in all parts of the United States have used Beatrix Potter’s rascally rabbit and the other characters of her children’s tales as an intriguing starting point for little herb plots that delight visitors young and old.

Take Beverly Anderson of Williams­ton, Michigan. Her Peter Rabbit herb garden gives her a chance to indulge two passions–gardening and grandchildren. “I wanted a garden where I didn’t have to say no, where the children could walk in and hug the bunnies,” she explained. “It’s really a high priority to share gardening and a love of nature with my grandchildren.”

Herbs from Potter tales are arranged around statues of the animal characters in a long, raised bed that runs alongside Beverly’s barn. Mother Rabbit and the little bunnies sit in front of annual and perennial chamomiles, Egyptian top onions, and Hidcote lavender, which she chose for its deep lavender blue color. A collection of thymes, blooming over several months and in several colors, cascades over weathered barn timbers used for edging. Rosemary, mint, sage, and germander grow between currant bushes planted at one end and a parsley border at the other. Propped up near a grouping of Benjamin Bunny’s family, a slate spells out “Please touch the herbs.”

Although poor Peter was a little rabbit whose eyes were bigger than his stomach, he did enjoy his vegetables. That’s what prompted Katie Leonaitis to want to plant a Peter Rabbit garden at her son’s elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia. Like Peter, many of the schoolchildren have no gardens of their own, but after selecting a sunny spot on the school grounds, with Katie’s help they made a garden based on the fine example of Mr. McGregor. Raised beds edged with landscaping timbers now hold parsley, sage, rosemary, cham­omile, thyme, lemon balm, lavender, germander, mint, and ­parsley, while ca­len­dulas, snapdragons, nasturtiums, and ­violets bloom in gay profusion. In early spring, the children sow quick-growing radishes, lettuce, carrots, and peas that grow up on trellises. They also plant cabbage transplants and onion sets. To carry the project over from year to year, volunteers sow bush bean and cucumber seeds during the heat of August while school is closed. These start to bear as doors open in the fall and just as the crab apples are ripening. Peter Rabbit himself, in the form of a 30-inch weatherproof concrete statue stained a soft brown, presides over the garden and surveys the progress of the crops. Children who thought they disliked vegetables have begun to happily eat their own produce, flavored with herbs.

A wall topped by a white picket fence surrounds Jeanne Quick’s Peter Rabbit garden in a quiet neighborhood in San Diego, California. In the front yard, custom-made, 5-foot topiaries of boxwood, myrtle, eugenia, and other plants depict Peter (with a carrot in his paw), Benjamin, and Cousin Ribby. They are surrounded by foxgloves, salvias, stocks, lavenders, catmints, thymes, cham­o­miles, chives, parsley, nasturtiums, basil, pansies, scented geraniums, miniature roses, and other perennial flowers. More topiary figures of Tom Kitten in a straw hat, Mittens, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck with her clutch of eggs, and Pig Wig look as though they’re wandering along a red brick walkway. Tiggy’s topiary wash basket carries a patchwork quilt of white and purple alyssum. The topiaries, which grow in the ground year round, are pruned frequently to the shape of their chicken-wire frames. Signs identify the characters.

“You know what it’s like to wake up and open the door in the morning? It’s like opening a storybook,” Jeanne said with a laugh. “I’m a big collector of Beatrix Potter, and I adore plants, herbs in particular. This garden has been most intriguing–just to see the kids and the expressions on their faces.”

The only problem with this remarkable garden is the traffic problem that it has created; drivers slow down to catch a glimpse, and sometimes they come to a full stop to stare in amazement.

The wide diversity of plants mentioned in Beatrix Potter’s tales, ranging from vegetables, herbs, and flowers to fruits and woody ornamentals, allows for many interpretations of the Peter Rabbit theme. A cottage garden of mixed herbs, flowers, and vegetables delightfully achieves the notion.

A diminutive scarecrow dressed in a little blue coat, felt slippers, and a tam-‘o-shanter like that shown in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny could add charm while still scaring away contemporary crows. Child-size tables and chairs or benches for picnics or tea parties–or perhaps a grandmother-size rocker–would be a perfect spot for reading stories to favorite little people while sipping sweet mint tea. A Peter Rabbit garden is as irresistible to young people as Mr. McGregor’s garden was to a naughty little rabbit.

Geri Laufer reads, writes, and gardens in ­Atlanta, Georgia.

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