How Many Garden Tools Do You Really Need?

After my talk at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show last month, I received a swag, or a bag of goodies to take home and enjoy, as a gift from the Show planners.

To my surprise I found in the bag a new hand garden trowel with a metal end and wooden handle. It looked like a wonderful addition to my collection of garden tools.

Do you have the garden tools you need to do the work? Or are you like me, in possession of many tools you no longer use?

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden about the effort of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries to sell garden tools to the Victorian gardener. She says, “While gardeners of the early nineteenth century could get by with just Leopold, Allison VicGara simple spade, a rake, a fork, a hoe, shears, a watering pot, and a wheel barrel, the average gardener of the 1870s was advised to invest in more than 30 different tools – pruning knives and budding knives, seed servers and hand-weeders, wooden rakes for the lawn and steel ones for the beds.”

By the mid nineteenth century mass production made garden tools available cheaply. Machines in large factories produced the tools instead of the local metal worker or carpenter.

Advertising and marketing of garden tools took off after 1860 when colorful chromolithographs caught the attention of the consumer. The back pages of seed and nursey catalogs carried the ads.

No wonder the Victorian gardener had to have so many tools.

How many garden tools do you really need?



Late Nineteenth Century Saw Renewed Interest in Perennial Borders

In the seacoast city Portsmouth, New Hampshire there are several historic gardens in the downtown area. With its long tradition as an important early city in America you can see Colonial, Georgian, and Victorian styles of architecture and landscape.

In 1912 the National Society of the Colonial Dames acquired the Moffatt-Ladd House, with its garden, which in its present form dates to the 1840s.

Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900) kept a journal of what he planted in the garden. He included borders of perennials, which had become a popular form of gardening, replacing the use of annuals. Both English writer William Robinson and landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll had encouraged perennial borders in  the 1870s.

In Rochester, New York nurseryman George Ellwanger (1816-1906) wrote a book called The Garden’s Story (1889) in which he argued against both the stiff formal garden and carpet, or ribbon, beds. He noted that “the objectionable forms of gardening are being superseded by a more natural style–a revival of the old-fashioned hardy flower borders, masses of stately perennials.”

Today you can see that style in the garden at the the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth planted with borders of stately persennials instead of the dreaded carpet beds and ribbon beds of annuals. [below]

The perennial border at the Moffat-Ladd, as it looks today.

The perennial bordesr at the Moffatt-Ladd, as it looks today.

Today the English Lawn in California Faces a Water Crisis

Scott-gardeners_monthly_1886-extraextrasmallWe all know that the lawn has long been a part of the home landscape here in the US.

The lawn, in fact, dates back to the beginning of our country, but really took off in the mid-nineteenth century when suburbs developed around large cities.

At that time the homes of California too just like homes across the country began to showcase landscapes that included a lawn.

California now faces a crisis of drought which puts the coveted lawn in jeopardy.

A Boston Globe article this past Sunday, April 5, called “Drought may reshape image of California” calls for some drastic measures to preserve water in California.  Of course, elliminating the lawn is near the top of the list.

Governor Jerry Brown says, “You just can’t live the way you always have.”

It is hard to give up the lawn since it has been part of America’s relationship with nature for so long.  That green space out front is part of American history.

It is the English that taught us how to landscape with the lawn.  In the nineteenth century America followed the Romantic English style of gardening, which, of course, included the lawn. In 1841 The Gardener’s Chronicle, an English garden magazine edited by horticulturist John Lindley, said, “Gardening is admitted to be better understood in Great Britain than in any other country, and the number of works on the subject prove the patronage it receives.”

A bit later English writer and landscape gardener William Robinson, referred to as the father of the English flower garden, wrote in 1870, “The lawn is the heart of the true English Garden.”

Scott gardener's_monthly_1886 extraextrasmallScott gardener's_monthly_1886 extrasmallScott gardener's_monthly_1886 extrasmallScott-gardeners_monthly_1886-extraextrasmall


The cover of Clifford Clark’s book Home illustrates the lawn as integral in the nineteenth century home landscape.

At the same time the American landscape designer Frank J. Scott published his famous book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds. By the end of the century the book went through several printings and by then had become essential reading for the middle class homeowner. Scott wrote, “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty in the grounds of the suburban home.”

More recently historian Margaret Marsh said in her book Suburban Lives, “Frank Scott did not want suburbanites to turn their grounds into miniature farms. Rather, he wanted to teach them to create communities that were also large parks, where passersby as well as residents could enjoy the beauty of each lawn and garden. Suburbanites, Scott insisted, have a public as well as a private duty to create a beautiful lawn and garden.”

Scott seemed to imply that the lawn was a way of building a sense of community with your neighbor.

Perhaps it is that view of the lawn that has motivated homeowners for so long in keeping that neatly trimmed lawn.

The Globe article ended by reporting that recently Palm Springs ordered a 50 per cent cut in water use by city agencies.  Thus, the city plans to use native plants for the summer months to replace the lawns and annual flowers that surround city buildings.

Chicago Gave America the Prairie Style of Landscape

The English lawn came to Chicago in the 1850s.

The home landscape in the Victorian decades that followed resembled the home landscape design of the east coast at the same time.

By the end of the century the University of Illinois landscape instructor Wilhem Miller proposed that native plants, like grasses, be used in the landscape. He called it the ‘prairie style’ of landscape. He eventually wrote a book about it entitled The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, published in 1914. [below]

Miller loved the English garden with its natural style.  He considered the use of native plants perfectly suited in that kind of design.

Thus from the American midwest began this movement to use native plants in the landscape. By the early 1900s landscape architect and plantsman Jens Jenson (1860-1951) had already begun to design home landscapes in that kind of design, preferring native plants, in the more natural rather than geometric look.

Miller rightly recognized Jenson’s early contribution.  Miller called Jensen “probably the first designer who consciously took the prairie as a leading motive.”

On my recent trip to Chicago I stayed in Naperville, about an hour drive southwest of Chicago.

While driving around the streets of Naperville, I noticed along Book Road an area the size of a couple of city blocks, that  looked like prairie fields, where a pathway provided a walker a view of nothing but fields of native plants in various sizes. It was a beautiful sight.

Today Naperville continues that tradition of using prairie plants in the landacape, in this case, through its public park-like areas.

Miller 3In her book Chicago Gardens: The Early History Cathy Jean Maloney writes, “Chicago’s prairie-style landscape architects designed properties across the nation, but have been rediscovered only in the past few decades.”

That recognition of the prairie style reinforces the importance of native plants in the landscape.




By the late 19th Century Garden Catalogs also Sold Social Class

Today you accept advertising as a fact of life.

In the late nineteenth century advertising as we know it today appeared and spread across the country.

The ad sold a product but also with that product a feeling, a hope, or a dream.  The advertiser connected the product with an image that would make the consumer feel the purchase was worthwhile.

The seed and nursery industries of that period sold garden products in the same way.

The garden industry, epecially in its catalogs which were considered advertising,  also sold an image of a person, a home, a landscape that were each important to the culture. They helped to shape the culture in that way.

Stephen Fox in his book The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators wrote about late nineteenth century advertising in America. He said, “Ads necessarily reflected the times, and as an independent force that helped shape the times.”

Notice this catalog cover  from the Crosman Brothers Seed Company in Rochester, New York [below].

Catalog cover of the Crosman Brothers Seed Catalog of 1894 [thanks to New York Botanical Garden]

Catalog cover of the Crosman Brothers Seed Catalog of 1894 [thanks to New York Botanical Garden Library] 

 A child from an upper class family appears on the cover. We know her social status from her clothes, which include both a fancy hat and a pair of dark gloves.

She just might  be reading a Crosman catalog. If you look closely, you can see the front cover.

As Fox would say, Crosman also sold social class.

Thus by the late 1800s gardening for the middle class meant Crosman seeds.

Its cover image sold seeds but seeds for a particular class of customer. Or, if you bought the company’s seeds, you could feel like a member of this class.

What do you think about this catalog cover?


Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Seed Firm Lauded for its Company Landscape

It was not uncommon for nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries to create a landscape at their nursery, greenhouse or trial garden that would also give a visitor an idea of what the home landscape for that time should look like.

Phildelphia’s Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784, cultivated its own landscape over several decades.

Here is the company catalog from 1883. [Below]

Notice the lawn and lush plantings in the cover’s illustration, whereby the Company recommended that same design for the home landscape as well.

1883 Landreth Catalog

1883 Landreth Catalog

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan also recognized the fine example of modern landscape gardening on the Landreth home office.  He wrote in the November, 1881 issue of his monthly: “The pleasure grounds of David Landreth & Sons, connected with their seed farm near Bristol, twenty-four miles north of Philadelphia, and facing the River Delaware, is an excellent specimen of landscape gardening…Numerous flower beds, vases, rockeries, etc. are planted with choice blooming and ornamental foliage plants lighten up the grounds, which are kept in admirable style. The lawn grass, I found greener than upon the places in the same neighborhood.”

The lawn, of course, was an important element in modern landscape gardening for any home.

Thus, the seed companies, like Landreth, which also sold grass seed, had to provide the customer with an example of what the lawn could look like.  Meehan even recognized the quality of Landreth’s lawn.

Meehan wrote about the long history of the Landreth Company’s landscape. He said, “The Park has been made and planted within the past thirty five years.”   The term ‘Park’ first referred to the English practice of maintaining an area in the landscape where deer could roam freely , but eventually the term simply meant an area of lawn, cultivated for the enjoyment and pleasure of a visitor.



Old Fashioned Hellebore Appears at Spring Flower Show

The early spring array of flowers for the garden includes the Hellebore, a perennial from Europe and Western Asia. Today the plant enjoys a spot in the American garden as well.

It was therefore no surprise that the Hellebore appeared this spring in landscape designs at the Flower and Garden Show in Hartford, Boston and Chicago.

Nineteenth century English garden periodicals as well as an early American garden book wrote about the plant and how best to grow it in the garden.

In England’s Gardeners’ Chronicle an article by Thomas Moore appeared in the April 5, 1879 issue. Moore wrote “The present paper originated in a boxful of Hellebore flowers… These being supplemented by specimens from Mr. Barr, led to a visit to Mr. Barr’s bulb grounds at Tooting, where probably is to be found the most complete collection of Hellebores which at present exists, since it contains all that can be purchased both at home and abroad, or obtained from the most likely sources by other means.”

Since it was the variety called Helleborus viridis that appeared at the Spring Flower Shows, I was most interested in Moore’s comments about that plant. Here is a photo of the plant from the Boston Show. Notice its light green flowers.  [below]

Helleborus viridis at this springs's Boston Flower and Garden Show

Helleborus viridis at this spring’s Boston Flower and Garden Show

Moore wrote, “Leaving Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, in its several forms out of the question, the only Hellebores which are of much importance for the ornamentation of flower gardens are the forms – species or varieties it matters not – which are associated together as the respective representations of H. orientalis, H. viridis, and H. foetidus.”

H. viridis, an old variety of the Hellebore, can still provide color to the early spring garden.

Helleborus viridis

Helleborus viridis

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon wrote in his  book American Gardener, published in 1806, that the best time to transplant Helleborus viridis is in September.   Since his book is based largely on English garden authors from the eighteenth century, English gardeners grew H. viridis well before 1800.  Thus it has had a long garden tradition, first in the English garden and then later in the American garden.

Two New Features Characterized the Seventeenth Century English Garden

Hyams The English GardenI just returned from my trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden Show.

While there I met several people who never realized that the American garden included so much history.

My response was that the kind of garden we cultivate illustrates as much history as anything else in which we express ourselves, like music and painting.

The English garden, for example,  went through an evolution of sorts in the seventeenth century,and was marked by two new features.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams writes that at that time there were  “Two great movements in English gardening, movements which were, for a long time, to work against each other but which, in the long run, would both contribute to the making of English gardens in their final perfection as paradise. On the one hand there was a beginning of movement against order, against regularity, and on the other hand the planting of the first gardens of plants, collections for botanical purposes, or simply to satisfy the collecting instinct.”

A rejection of the formal, symmetrical garden became the first feature. The new garden therefore assumed the name of natural, a design that one might see in nature.

The second feature included the English love of collecting plants.  At that time there were plenty to be had including plants from America like Phlox and False Blue Indigo.  The English even cultivated special ‘American gardens’ where they showcased such plants.


Chromos Became Middle Class Art Form in the late Nineteenth Century

The art form called chromolithography provided colorful illustrations for the nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs.

After 1850 chromos, as they were called, became a part of every business, whether for the sale of sewing machines, clothing, pots and pans, or seeds and plants. Companies flooded the market with chromos of both their products and their buildings.  People loved them, and collected them.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “Families displayed their histories (framed photographs, marriage certificates, and the like) and their taste as consumers (lithograph prints…) in parlors that doubled as family museums…Women created these collections, as well as other parlor artifacts and activities.”

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered several chromos depicting flowers from his catalog’s collection of seeds.

He thus used the latest  marketing form for his seed company. When chromolithography entered the scene, Vick was an early adopter, featuring a chromolithograph on his seed catalog cover of 1873.

He encouraged his customers to write in for a chromo he offered that they could frame and put in a suitable spot on the wall in their homes.

Over several years he offered a few different chromos.

Here is Vick’s Chromo E, which measured 19 by 24 inches [below]:

Vick chromo of 1873

Vick Chromo E  [1873]

In his seed catalog of 1874 Vick detailed the history of how he came to offer these chromos to his customers.

He wrote the following story in an article simply entitled “Our Chromos.”

Vick said “For many years we have endeavored to use every means within our power to increase the love and culture of flowers among the people. While walking among our ruined flowers one morning after an unusally early frost in September, and picking here and there a specimen that had escaped destruction, we could not help feeling sad that our flowers were done, especially as there were some that we would have to describe from recollection. We at once determined that the next season we would secure the services of a first-class flower-artist, and in oil colors preserve on canvas the most truthful representations possible of the leading varieties of flowers. In this we were quite successful, and our office blossomed, regardless of cold or storms, we were delighted for a time. Soon, however, the paintings failed to afford the full measure of pleasure we anticipated, because we were enjoying them alone, with the exception of a few friends or customers who happened to call; but our thousands of customers received no satisfaction from them. We at once determined to make an effort to have them chromoed in the highest style of the art, so they would be as perfect as the oil painting. In this we were also successful, and for several years we have been furnishing Chromos of these paintings to our customers.”

Thus he made his oil paintings of the flowers available to his customers as chromolithographs, or as Vick put it, he “chromoed” them.

They were quite popular for his Company. He sold over 100,000.




Chicago Calls

This week I will be in Chicago for a couple of talks about my book America’s Romance with the English Garden.

On Thursday, March 19 at 7 p.m. I will make a presentation at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

The next day Friday, March 20 I will speak at the Chicago Flower and  Garden Show in Chicago at 12:30 p.m.

If you attend either of these two events, please stop and say hello.


Chicago Flower Show