Archives for September 2010

Comstock, Ferre, & Co. Still in the Seed Business

This summer I visited the seed business Comstock, Ferre, & Co. in Wethersfield, CT, near Hartford.  James Lockwood Belden started the business in 1820, and in 1845 William Comstock and Henry Ferre took it over.

What impressed me was the age of the buildings on the property. Sure, it’s an old seed company, but it is one whose buildings are still around to see. When I was there, new owners from Missouri had just bought the company and planned to offer many traditional plant varieties.  I am happy that they intend to keep the name.

Nineteenth century seed companies were big businesses that used the latest in packaging, mailing, and rail delivery in order to succeed.  Cornell University Professor of Horticulture L. H. Bailey wrote at the end of the 19th century: “The development of the seed trade is coincident with the development of the postal service.”

Comstock’s catalog of 1856 said: “We take every precaution to grow the seeds pure, and of the very best quality in every respect. We warrant our stock of seeds to be fresh and pure.”  The catalog became their major advertisement.

Nineteenth century seed companies form an important chapter  in the history of gardening in this country.  They didn’t just sell us seeds, they sold us the how and why to garden as well.  Every home needed a garden.

When American seed companies wrote about the garden, their inspiration often came from British writers.  The model for the middle-class American garden was the English garden style, with kitchen gardens, flower borders, and lawn.

Seed business Comstock, Ferre & Co. in Wethersfield, CT, started in 1820.



English Garden on Cape Cod

The English garden at St. Mary’s Church is a Cape Cod tourist destination.

Perhaps it was the fact that the Pope spent a few days recently  in England that made me think of this summer when I visited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.  I kept seeing notices in the tourist information that the Church had an old English garden. I had to see the garden.

In 1946 the Reverend Robert Wood Nicholson  began the garden which surrounds the stone church. Actually, it is a series of gardens with wood bridges and brick pathways, and even a gazebo.  Beautiful stonework everywhere. The garden is well maintained and includes a rock garden, herb garden, a meadow, a pond, and many native plants.

So what makes this an English garden? That was my question. Perhaps it is the ‘quaintness’ of the garden design. It is small, but quit  welcoming.   The garden  is certainly worth seeing.



Roses, Essential for an English Garden, Grown in Maine

In Maine the  Old Sheep Meadows Nursery  features rose varieties  that have grown through the tough winters of the northeast. Many roses fill the display gardens at the Nursery,located in the small town of Alfred. A visit is a must for anyone interested in roses.

What struck me about  the Nursery is that the garden design was, according to its promotional material, the English garden. The English cultivated displays of roses, in the cottage garden or  country garden, especially from mid nineteenth century when plants became more available to a mass market and the middle class gardener.

The Nursery owner Michal Graber  says “If you’re going to adapt English gardening to America, you have to find the right plant for the right place.  Just because it’s found in England doesn’t mean it will grow here”.  The Old Sheep Meadows  Nursery offers 500 roses, several heirloom varieties.  If they can grow in Maine, they have proven how tough they are.

Garden historian Ursula Buchan in her book English Garden said that if there is one genus of plants which can be said to be essential to the English garden, it must be the rose.

In the garden at Maine’s Old Sheep Meadows Nursery you will see this pink climber rose ‘John Davis ‘with ‘William Baffin’ on the right.



English Maze at Maine Children’s Garden

This summer the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens opened its Children’s Garden, a 2-acre $1.7 million garden, in the planning for several years.  Special features include a maze that is ground level, and based on Veronica’s Maze, a 16th century embroidery featured on the Great Bed at the house that is part of the grounds of  Parham Park in southern England.  The child simply follows a path, cut out in a lawn.

Lots of other activites for children fill the garden, including a contest called Beanpole Olympics where a child can guess which bean plant will grow the tallest.

Chickens make this garden extra special.  Something not too many botanical gardens feature. There are eight chickens, egg layers that will start laying in late winter.

What’s so special about this garden is the  maze, based on a 16th century English embroidery design. An English design became the inspiration for an American garden.

The maze at the new Children’s Garden, part of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, north of Portland. [Image courtesy of CMBG.



Mina Lobata, Late Summer Vine

The Mina lobata vine came from England to America, where it remains a popular later summer or fall vine.

The Mina lobata vine, which blooms now at the end of the summer, grows as an annual in colder parts of the country.  It climbs several feet and is covered with long erect flowers in colors of red, orange, and yellow.

I first saw this vine in the gardens at the Burpee trial farm called Fordhook in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t believe how the flower’s color covered the trellis at the end of each row of plants.  There must have been 10 vines.

The plant came to the US in 1887.  According to the Currie Seed Company magazine, “The plant must have been flowering in the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society of London by 1841, when it first came to England from Mexico.”

We looked to England for this plant, and the plant merchants sent it to the American garden.  Currie’s magazine summed it when they wrote: “This is one of the most beautiful climbing plants we are acquainted with and one that is well worthy the attention of all plant lovers.”

It got my attention. Today I grow the Mina lobata vine in my garden.



Lawn Became Essential for a Home

James Vick’s seed catalog of the 1870s from Rochester, NY sold the lawn mower, which, of course, assumed the importance of the lawn.

Rose Standish Nichols says in her book English Pleasure Gardens that the lawn was beginning to take a central feature in the garden during the reign of James I (1603-25) and the reign of his son Charles 1 (1625-1649). English garden style also assumed the presence of the bowling green, or a special grassed area for playing bowls. Nichols writes: “A garden with any pretensions was always supplemented by a bowling-green, usually shaded by trees and varying in proportions.”

The lawn became essential in English garden style for anyone with taste.

The 19th century American seed companies and nurseries sold lawn seed for the grass each landscape needed.  The companies sold us the English style of landscape with its lawn which, by then, had become the  most recognizable feature of the English landscape.

Today the lawn is difficult to maintain in many parts of the country, but we feel it is important. Perhaps because the seed and nursery companies of the 19th century were such great salesmen.



English Garden during the Stuarts

Rose Standish Nichols in her book English Pleasure Gardens moves into the next period of the English garden, the Stuarts (1603-1714).  She writes: “In the days of the Stuarts the Elizabethan gardens underwent certain modifications according to the predominance of French, Italian, or Dutch fashions…In garden design suggestions were less welcomed from the ancient Greeks and Romans than from contemporary horticulturalists.”

Today we also look to contemporary sources of information to guide us as gardeners.  We want to be modern. We read. We go online. We attend lectures. All in the search to be up to date on the latest trends in gardening.

This exhibit from the Boston Spring Flower Show illustrated the trend in using low, stepable herbs instead of grass in a walkway.



19th Century Nurseries and Seed Companies Encourage English Garden Design

Seed companies and nurseries in the 19th century often had their own publication like a monthly horitultural magazine.  Vick had hisIllustrated Montly and Park also had a magazine.  The  John Lewis Childs Seed Company from Floral Park, Queens Co, New York had a magazine called The Mayflower. In an aticle from the 1896 issue of The Mayflower the editor said: “The American people will be much better off when they appreciate the garden as the English do.”  For over two hundred years the English had developed into serious gardeners , and, according to The Mayflower, America needed to recognize that tradition.  And so it happened that all things related to gardening when connected with the “English” style seemed better to us.  Certainly not by accident, but by the encourgement of seed companies like the Childs in New York.

The Mayflower was a company magazine, published by the John Lewis Childs Company in New York, in the 19th century.



Plant Collecting in England and America

Plant collecting reached a level in England in the early 18th century that it had never had before because of the shipping industry.  Plants could be gather from remote countries like America, shipped across the sea, and planted in an English garden as part of a garden the English called an ‘American garden’, a spot just for plants from America.

Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden says that  by the time of Lord Petre’s death in 1742, it is estimated that he had accumulated 219,925 plants in his extensive nurseries and grounds, most of them exotics. In 1739 he had the first camellia from Japan.

Today Monrovia, an important grower for US gardens, collects and sells plants from around the world, including varieties that horticulturalist Dan Hinkley has supplied. Hinkley travels the world, looking for plants suitable for American gardens. Below is one of the newest listings from Monrovia, Pink Yuletide Camellia, for 2011.

So the English practice of plant collecting continues today at American nurseries, eager to supply American gardeners with the newest and the latest in ornamentals.

The new 2011 camellia called Pink Yuletide from Monrovia, a US grower.