Archives for August 2010

The Elizabethan Garden

Nichols says in her book English Pleasure Gardens: “The fruitful age of Queen Elizabeth [who was the monarch from 1558 to 1603] brought both the planning and the planting of the loveliest English gardens very nearly to perfection.” What does she mean in that statement?

The English shipping industry  enabled the emergence of plant collecting. Now the English would cultivate plants from other countries, including America.  Gardening would begin to assume a more important role as hobby, as art, as source of learning, and even as a political statement.

The introduction of terraces for the garden was important at this time as well.  I remember an image of Haddon Hall, which dates from the 12th century, in the seed catalog from the Vick Seed Company in Rochester, NY of the 1870s.  Vick illustrates in this case his love of the English garden, with this image below of the  garden steps in the terraced Elizabethan garden of Haddon Hall.



From Formal Garden Design to a more Natural View

Rousham in England, designed by William Kent in the 18th century in the new natural landscape style.

Rose Standish Nichols writes in her book of 1902 English Pleasure Gardens, just reissued,  about the tension between a formal garden design and the more natural look, “Finally [as if the Romans had had enough], in Italy during the third century, as in England at the close of the eighteenth century, formality and artificiality were carried to meaningless extremes of magnificence [like topiary, statutory, fountains,groves], and provoked much abuse and ridicule..The poets Horace and Martial, like Pope and Addison in more recent days [18th century], wearying of the restraint imposed upon nature and the over luxurious, pompous life established in the villa pseudo urbana, advocated return to the simplicities of the villa rustica.”

The extreme formal look in the garden, which then seemed so artificial, opened the door to a more natural, uncluttered view of the garden.  That view became important in England  in the eighteenth century.

The prior formality in the garden gave way in the late 18th century and into the 19th century to a more natural look to the landscape called, first picturesque and then gardenesque, where trees, shrubs, and lawn provided a less cluttered look, a look more like an artist’s painting of a natural landscape.  America also witnessed the natural view of landscape, especially expressed in the writing of New York nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing.




Knot gardens as rows of trimmed hedges like yew or boxwood were popular in the Elizabethan garden, according to Nichols’ English Pleasure Gardens, which I am still reading. It is the topiary style, where the plant is trimmed in such a way as to produce a particular effect in the garden. She says, “Topiary work added much to the variety of the parterre. The firm foliage of the dark evergreens, clipped sometimes into a straight hedge, sometimes into the most fantastic shapes, formed a background in charming contrast to the waving masses of brilliantly coloured flowers.”

Today if you visit Roseland Cottage in Stockbridge, Connecticut you can see swirls of well-clipped boxwood hedges with annuals planted in the center.  The garden, established in the 1840s, was based on the ideas of nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, who often admitted his preference for the English style of garden.

Built in the 1850s, Roseland Cottage in Stockbridge, CT still shows it rows of boxwood, inspired by A. J. Downing.




The dahlia is my favorite flower. Here is the dahlia called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ in a container in my garden.

The flower of the dahlia plant has amazed American gardeners with its color and form, and ease of growing, for more than 150 years. Each September, a two-day dahlia show in Rhode Island draws  visitors from as far away as New York and New Jersey just to view the form, size, and shades of color of the blooms, carefully marked and standing tall in glass vases.

In the 1885 issue of its company magazine, the Currie Brothers Seed Company, which was based in Milwaukee and had a large national business, wrote: “There is at present a very rapidly growing sentiment in favor of the single in preference to the double Dahlias now so long in cultivation.  They have for the past few years been exceedingly popular in England, and continue to rise in the estimation of horticulturalists there.” Currie Brothers was telling its readers that the trends in gardening in England were important for the American gardener who wanted to have an up-to-date garden.  The point here was not simply the irresistible dahlia, but the role of the English garden for the American audience.  It was the seed company that wrote about the dahlia to its middle-class customers in suburbs and farms around the country.



Grottos, as at Stourhead

Rose Standish Nichols writes in her 1902 book English Pleasure Gardens, just reissued: “Grottoes or artificial caves [in the gardens of early Rome] cooled by streams of fresh water served as musea, or thinking-places for  philosophers, where they could meditate in solitude, hidden from observation, protected from interruption, and sheltered from the heat of the midday sun in summer.”

Stourhead has its own grotto as well, built in the eighteenth century.  The English of that period showed their affection for Italian garden design, even in the rocks of a grotto.

Italian garden design was important to the English, just as the English design became important to American gardeners in the nineteenth century with the help of the seed and nursery industries.  It still is  today.

Inside the grotto at Stourhead.

View from in the grotto at Stourhead looking at the lake.



Graeco-Roman garden tradition for the English garden

am reading a new edition of the book  English Pleasure Gardens by the American garden writer Rose Standish Nichols, which first appeared in 1902. She wrote: “The Graeco-Roman style of garden brought to its perfection in the first century before Christ-the period of the conquest of England-is the most interesting to us  as showing the style likely to have been introduced by the Romans into Great Britain.”  That style included water fountains and statuary in the garden

The important point she makes is that the English garden has beginnings in the Roman garden tradition, which itself shows much influence from Greece.  Gardening styles depend on the gardens of other cultures. We impact one another in that way.

From Virgil’s Georgics Book III, Shepherd with Flocks. (5th century illustration) His book is dedicated to the topic of agriculture.

At England’s grand landscape at Stourhead the building called the Pantheon, constructed in the mid 1700s, has a distinct Greek name,  at a time when the English continued to show an interest in the classics.  Many were reading Latin writers such as  Virgil’s work  on farming and gardens.

Any country’s garden style has origins  in how people before them gardened.  That style often comes from other cultures. Here in America we look at our nineteenth century garden style as a reflection of the English style,  which  had evolved over centuries, and in the nineteenth century was called picturesque, then gardenesque, and finally formal.

Today where do you get your ideas for gardening?



Queen Anne’s Lace

Right now you might see it along an expressway entrance, bordering a parking lot, in a field, or perhaps in your own garden. This seems to be a great year for the plant called Queen Anne’s Lace. It is everywhere.

Queen Anne’s Lace, or daucus carota, is a weed but to some people it is a wildflower. The plant, also called wild carrot, is in the carrot family with  ts delicate parsley-like leaves and a long root

This is however an aggressive plant that you do not want to encourage. It is on the plant invasive list for many states around the country for a reason.

Though many people treat it as a weed, it is also known as a wildflower.  It is in the classic volume on recognizing wildflowers called “A Field Guide to Wildflowers” by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny.

The plant was introduced into this country during colonial times. It probably came across the ocean in sacks of grain, perhaps with the Pilgrims. It’s now established in every state. It might be a beautiful wildflower in a meadow setting but not in the garden.

Queen Anne’s Lace, typically, near a fence



Annuals in Hartford

In mid June Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest municipal rose garden in the country, begun in 1904, celebrated its rose weekend.  Though by then some of the roses had gone, the garden impressed me as an example of community gardening.  Volunteers tend the rose garden, and several others in the Park, like the annual and perennial beds.  They do an outstanding job, if you could measure their success by the crowd there that hot sunny afternoon.  All kinds of “Ooos” and “Ahhhhs”, which would make any gardener happy to hear.

Near the greenhouse I saw this example of carpet bedding in the shape of an American flag.  Among the short plant varieties is, I think, Portulaca.  They need to be kept trimmed to keep the effect.

Carpet bedding was a popular form for flower gardens in nineteenth century England.  We adopted the practice here as well.  Today Elizabeth Park continues that tradition of the English garden.

The English tradition of carpet bedding lives on in Hartford in this flag.