Problems with the English Lawn in America

Problems with the English lawn in America.

Time to think about the lawn.

We need to figure out how to help it survive. We need to mow it. Then we need to trim the edge of it as well. They are the chores that we hope will keep the lawn looking perfect.

The lawn remains a reminder of America’s love of the English garden.

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.”

Yet Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premiere nineteenth century landscape gardener, knew that Americans could not cultivate a lawn like the English.

In the new book Flora Illustrata landscape architect Judith Major writes, “Downing admitted in The Horticulturist that the hot, sunny American summer does not favor the type of fine lawns that thrive under British conditions, yet writers on landscape architecture continued to promote the lawn.”

During the nineteenth century garden writers, who were sometimes also seed company or nursery owners as well, sought to sell grass seed. The lawn became the essential planting in the home landscape.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August, 1878, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment.”

On that same page and above his words appeared this illustration of a house with its required well trimmed front lawn. [Below]

Lawn and House in VIL Monthly 1878, August

Lawn and House in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1878, August

Thus he encouraged the lawn both in his words and his magazine illustration.

Here is another Vick black line drawing from his seed catalog of 1880. [below] Notice again the central role the lawn plays.

Vick's Floral Guide 1880

Vick’s Floral Guide 1880

So it was no surprise that Downing had a difficult battle trying to convince Americans that a lawn like the English cultivate was not possible on American soil.

To this day, however, we have not stopped in our quest for that perfect lawn.

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18th Century England Collected American Plants

18th century England collected American plants

It is June and the flowers of the rhododendron seem to be putting on an extraordinary show this year.

In fact wherever I see rhodies right now, the flowers are stunning.

At one time the English garden included a special area called the “American garden” where such plants as our rhododendrons took center stage. The English loved them.

American plants filled this garden.

Mark Laird writes in the book Flora Illustrata, “[From the eighteenth century] the impact on gardening in Rhododentron, Mountain AmericanEngland was profound and led, among other things, to shrubberies – eventually called ‘American gardens.’ These were ‘theatres’ or display plantations of acclimatized woodsy plants, especially ericaceous plants such as Rhododendron and Kalmia.”

In both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the English sent plant collectors around the world in search of plants for their gardens.

Ships sailed to South America, Africa, Asia, and of course, North America carrying horticultural collectors in search of new and unusual plants.

Two rhododendrons blooming in my garden

Two rhododendrons blooming in my garden

Laird writes that the exchange of plants with England effected the nursery business in this country. If the English liked the plant, it was more likely to appear in the nursery trade here.

He said, “The introduction of American plants to Europe changed the nature of landscape gardening in England, with explorations having an equally profound effect on the nursery trade and horticultural activities in the early Republic.”

Though the English loved and knew our plants, that was not the case with American gardeners.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870: “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

So you might say that at one time American plants were treasured more by the English than the American gardener.

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Two Factors Made English Garden Possible

Two factors made English garden possible

Everyone loves the English garden.

Philadelphia nuseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) said that the English taught us how to garden.

However, an editorial in the 1896 issue of the magazine Garden and Forest laid out the two problems in trying to create an English garden in America.

The editorial said, “American are unlike English conditions, and especially so in two important ways, namely, the price of labor and the character of the climate.”

Hired gardeners who worked in the gardens of England were a common feature for centuries.  That was an expense that the owner of the property would undertake to maintain a garden.

For example, in the nineteenth century at Chatsworth the Duke of Devonshire hired Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) as his head gardener, who in turn hired other gardeners to work the acres of woods, fields, and lawn.  Thomas Jefferson considered Chatsworth his favorite English garden.

In nineteenth century America garden help was not cheap.  Plus, not many people wanted to become professional gardeners.

When English gardeners came to America before 1900, there was no long history of hiring professional gardeners so many of them became farmers.

The second issue is the climate. The climate of England is temperate which makes possible a lawn like that of Chatsworth. [below]  The weather is mild throughout the summer months.

In America the soil in various parts of the country is often clay and the temperature is such that the growing conditions may be dry most of the time. In the Northeast the summers turn hot and the winters frigid. That is not the case in England.

The article concluded “Together they make the perfect English garden quite difficult on American soil.”

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth, made possible by the temperate climate and a staff of gardeners.

So though we can certainly admire the English garden, it is not easy to replicate it in America.

Thus, it is no surprise that over the decades American gardening developed its own style and fashion.

 

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Public Garden Reflects Early 20th Century Formal Design

Public garden reflects early 20th century formal design.

Sometimes a treasure close to home receives only a fraction of the attention it deserves.

That’s the case with the public garden at the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass. This garden is so close that I cannot figure out why it took me so long to pay a visit.

Its formal look dates to 1902 when Boston architect Charles Platt built both the house and the garden.

That first decade of the twentieth century was a time for renewed interest in the formal look of the garden. Garden designers were moving away from the more natural look that had dominated the garden for many decades both in England and in America.

Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Since 1991 the historic preservation group called Trustees of Reservations has owned the property, with its historic house and garden. The goal of the Trustees, founded by Boston conservationist Charles Eliot in the late nineteenth century, is to preserve the history of exceptional Massachusetts’ houses and gardens for future generations. Here TOR has done a marvelous job of preserving Platt’s formal garden.

A lawn surrounds the house, but behind the house you see the formal garden.   The garden includes four parterres, each enclosed by a highly pruned boxwood hedge two feet tall. Inside the parterres many perennials provide color throughout the summer and into the fall.

Platt promoted the Italian design for the American garden. In the Bradley garden Platt also designed a red brick lattice wall in the Italianate style. The wall, about four feet high, surrounds the entire garden with its lawn, walkways, and flowerbeds. The wall, with its open spaces, provides an effect of filtered light into the garden.

trustees of reservationsThis year happens to be the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the Trustees of Reservations. Thus during the next few months there will be special events at TOR’s 114 special historical places and tracks of land owned by TOR.

 

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Victorians Welcomed Wild Gardens

Victorians welcomed wild gardens.

Among the nineteenth century English horticulturists, landscape gardeners, and garden writers who contributed to the long tradition of the preeminence of the English garden style you will find William Robinson (1838-1935).

Robinson, who trained in Irish gardens and came to England where he worked in London’s  Royal Botanic Garden, published both a garden magazine and several books. Timber Press issued a new edition of his most famous book, The Wild Garden, first appearing in 1870.

WILD GARDEN COVER #2

Many American seed and nursery catalogs of that time also mentioned the importance of his writing, even mentioning the wild garden.

Victorians loved the idea of the wild garden. Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers writes, “By the late 1870s the pendulum of garden fashion was swinging away from Italianate terraces and formal parterres filled with tender exotics towards the wild garden, championed by William Robinson.”

Robinson’s book presents a message, still important today: use plants that will take care of themselves, once they get established.

American garden writer and landscape designer Rick Darke provides an introduction to the new edition.  He writes, “For all of us seeking creative, practical approaches to today’s challenges and opportunities, William Robinson’s inspired response to the same issues more than a century ago offer historical perspective and suggest current strategies.”

Robinson wrote  his disapproval of garden trends in England, like carpet bedding or borders with annuals, that demanded intense maintenance, and at the same time created an artificial or unnatural look.  He wanted a return to a garden where the plants could just grow as they wanted, with minimum pruning, no staking, and generally less demand for garden maintenance.

Lily of the valley, growing with blue hosta, between two trees in my garden.

This summer lily of the valley, with blue hosta at each end, appeared between two trees in my garden.

The theme of Robinson’s book seems quite relevant today. He calls the kind of planting he recommends the wild garden or naturalizing, a term popular today. 

The lily of the valley is an example of a hardy plant he suggests for taking over an area. Just let it spread to create a delightful springtime look.  Lily of the valley, though not a native plant, can serve the landscape well.

I recently found this surprise in my back yard. Lily of the valley appeared to fill the crevice between these two tree trunks. (left) Thus a bit of the wild garden found its way into my own garden.

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Victorian Flower Fascination Continues

Victorian flower fascination continues.

Victorians loved their flowers. The showier, the brighter, the better.

So argues Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers.

The basis of that devotion to flowers stems from the view that flowers express a link to the Creator.

Scourse writes, “It had been an accepted  fact ‘that the most highly adorned productions of Flora’s kingdom were called into existence’ only at the appearance of man and his intellect capable of contemplating floral beauty.”

Now that we have begun our summer adventure in the garden which, of course, includes cultivating flowers, whether perennial or annual, you see how important a role flowers play in the garden.

Victorian Flowers

Victorian Flowers from the Burpee Seed Catalog of 1887

We love our flowers today as much as the Victorians.

Scourse writes, “In some aspects we still view flowers and nature in very much the same way as the Victorians: we thrill at the exotic, the macabre and the concept of wilderness (still in the comfort of an armchair, albeit via a different medium). Sentimental renderings of rustic cottage gardens, ‘laughing streams, and flower-bedecked fields,’ harvest mice and pastel-tinted, honeysuckle hedgerows still abound, together with nostalgia for a pre-Industrial lifestyle.”

Right now garden centers and nurseries abound in colorful selections of flowers, eager to go home with us.

Flowers still impact your eyes, your nose, and even your touch.

The Victorian fascination with flowers continues.

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New Book Celebrates NYBG’s Library

New book celebrates NYBG’s Library

Recently I came across the new book Flora Illustrata at the Boston Athenaeum.flora (1)

The book highlights the resources of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the  New York Botanical Garden.

The editors, Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, filled the book with articles that deal with the history of the library and how its archives, dating from the twelfth century to the present, have served the garden community for over one hundred years.

A central theme in the book is the relationship between a botanical garden and books. Books trace the history of botany, botanical art, and, of course, botanical gardens wherever they are located.

Botanical gardens are first and foremost a center of learning. It is there that we come to understand the plants and garden design important to a particular culture.

The articles cover an array of topics that demonstrate the richness of archival material at the NYBG Library.  I was particularly impressed with the excellent treatment of the development of the American garden. The authors each used materials from the Library’s vast collection.

Landscape historian Mark Laird lays out the beginnings of the study of American plants by American naturalists. He writes, “From the early nineteenth century onward, American-born researchers began producing their own botanical and horticultural books thereby breaking a long tradition of foreigners being the primary writers on New World botany and horticulture.”

Judith Major, Professor Emeritus in Landscape Architecture at Kansas State University, describes how it became clear to America’s nineteenth century landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) that “societal, economic, and climatic differences made English books on landscape gardening useless in America.”

Garden art historian Elizabeth Eustis makes note of the NYBG’s large collection of seed and nursery catalogs that shed light on the history of the garden in America. She provides many examples of botanical art from the catalogs. Thus she demonstrates that the catalog becomes not just a listing of seeds and plants for sale, but also a cultural artifact through which we can understand the time period and its important plants and gardens as well as horticulturists.

We owe a great deal to the NYBG for its goal of teaching us the history of gardens and plants, but also serving as a resource to learn about the important figures in garden history, both in Europe and in America.

 

New Fountain at NYBG Library [courtesy photo]

New fountain at the entrance to the NYBG Library [courtesy photo]

NYBG copublished the book with Yale University Press. This volume fits well in Yale’s catalog of garden history titles. The book illustrates the excellent editing and design that truly distinguish this academic press.

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Victorian Flowers Decorate Forever Stamps

Victorian flowers decorate forever stamps.

Recently I bought first class stamps at our local post office, something I have done many times.

This batch of stamps however surprised me. Victorian flowers decorated each stamp in the packet I received.

Each stamp looked like a work of art. That’s what they were: botanical art from the late nineteenth century.

The U.S. Post Office used chromolithographs of flowers from the seed and nursery catalogs from the 1880s into the twentieth century for these new stamps, just issued in January.

stamps 2016

Depicted on the stamps, top row from left:corn lilies, tulips, stocks, roses and petunias. Pictured bottom row from left: tulips, dahlias, japanese Iris, tulips and daffodils and jonquils. [Courtesy of the US Postal Service]

The late nineteenth century was a time when many businesses used chromolithographs to promote their products in ads, catalog covers, trade cards, and posters. The garden industry was no different, including in the catalog brightly colored chromos, as they were called, depicting their flowers. Often the artist responsible for these images was never named.

The images on these stamps come from the seed and nursery catalog collection at the New York Botanical Garden, one of the largest such archives in the country.

Botanical art on stams 2016

An example of the botanical art on new first class stamps, issued in January 2016.

No surprise that I have been using the stamps for the past few weeks.

These stamps provide a lesson in garden history by focusing on the botanical art used to sell flowers in Victorian America.

We now have them thanks to the U.S. Post Office.

U.S. Post Office

U.S. Post Office

 

 

 

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New Short Video Shows Pollinators

New short video shows pollinators.

Pollinators remain an important contributor in any garden. According to the New England Wild Flower Society, eighty percent of flowering plants depend on pollination. Yet organic farmer Jane Sorenson from River Barry Farm in Fairfax, Vermont says, “There are fewer bugs today than only a few years ago.”

That is all the more reason today to plant a pollinator-friendly garden. Pollinators include more than butterflies and birds, according to entomologist and author Eric Grissell.

Pollinators also include ants, wasps, and, of course, bees. Grissell writes in his book Bees, Wasps, and Ants, “It seems as if the usual state of human affairs is at work: an attraction for the bright, shiny aspects of nature in preference to the bugs that do the basic work of keeping our gardens functioning as nature meant them to.”

In April 1879 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly , “Most of our garden flowers are honey-producing, as well as many of our wild plants and weeds. The main question is, what can we plant to produce the most food for bees, at the least expense.” He made a point then, which remains relevant today as well.

Plant for bloom of some sort during the whole gardening season. Use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources like annuals, perennials, shrubs, both native and exotic.

Situate the garden in a sunny area with windbreaks.

Provide where possible a water source like a birdbath. Pollinators do not live by nectar alone. They need water and shelter as well as food, and food requirements differ depending on the life stage of the pollinator.

Finally, pesticides can create problems in a pollinator-garden. Eliminate or minimize the impact of any pesticide in the garden.

Providing for pollinators doesn’t have to be complicated. Most of the plants you could use are available at a local nursery and easy to maintain.

After you plant your pollinator-friendly garden, register it online with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a nationwide call to action.

Diane Blazek, Executive Director of the National Garden Bureau and one of the founders of the Challenge, says, “Once you plant it. Share it. A garden can be an acre, or a container, as long it includes a pollinator-friendly plant.”

Here is the new short video called “The Beauty of Pollination.” Enjoy.

 

 

Victorian Garden Ads Seldom Depicted Women Working

Victorian garden ads seldom depicted women working.

Recently I received this photo in a press kit to promote a new garden tool. Notice the woman here is raking in the garden while her son observes his mother’s work. [below]

[Courtesy of PR Newswire]

Women depicted as gardeners who were actually working in the garden was something I did not see very often as I read dozens of nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs in doing research for my book.

I saw many illustrations of women, often cutting flowers to take into the house.  Sometimes women appeared as players in a lawn game like croquet.

Susan Groag Bell wrote an article called “Women create gardens in male landscapes: A revisionist approach to eighteenth-century English garden history.” It appeared in the journal Feminist Studies.

There she said “The discussion of gardening by women in the nineteenth century is not in the landscape books of the period, but rather in their letters, garden notebooks, botanical paintings, and embroideries. From these texts we know that women were actively involved in gardening.”

English writer Jennifer Davies in her book The Victorian Flower Garden does mention Victorian suburban women gardeners as a target audience for garden products.  She says, “Manufacturers were not slow to identify a new market in suburban lady gardeners. Advertisements for lawn mowers appeared with the wording ‘suitable for a Lady’ or with an illustration of a lady pushing a mower.”

Most of the illustrations of women in Victorian American seed and nursery catalogs did not show a woman at work in the garden. Notice the woman in this 1888 catalog illustration from Boston’s Rawson Seed Company. [below]  She’s cutting flowers.

Rawson_1888_garden very small

Illustrations similar to this Rawson image appeared frequently in the catalogs in Victorian America.

Today in selling tools for the garden, women are often depicted as actually working in the garden like digging a hole, weeding, or planting.

The change is not in a woman’s work in the garden, but in the advertiser’s image of woman as gardener.