Archives for October 2010

Landscape as Rhetoric

Hidcote Manor in England has its own rhetoric, dividing the garden into separate rooms.

Landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn in her book The Language of Landscape wrote “Landscape is a play with many actors–flowers, people, trees, rocks–who come and go across the stage, some staying a day, a week, a season, others remaining for eighty to two hundred or a thousand years.”

If we look at English landscape style as a play, the drama began in all seriousness in the 16th century and evolved over the next three hundred years.  The form of the 18th century, the picturesque,  Americans adopted in the 19th century, largely through the encouragement of the American seed and nursery companies of that time.

That became one story of American gardening.

Spirn writes: “Like myths and laws, landscape narratives organize reality, justify actions, instruct persuade, even compel people to perform in certain ways. Landscapes are literature in the broadest sense, texts that can be read on many levels.”

In the 1862  March issue of his garden magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote “All of our readers have heard of the excellence of English gardening.”

Since by then the English had been writing about landscape gardening for decades,  the world looked to the English garden as a model, or a form of rhetoric that appealed to others.  The English wrote about their view of landscape, based on the way they used land and plants.

How do you describe your garden, your landscape?  What is your rhetoric of the garden?  How do use space and plants around your home? What story are you telling?



Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery Built in the English Style

You see this lake in the middle of the Forest Hills Cemetery, designed in the English picturesque view.

You may think of a cemetery as a sad place, and therefore you visit seldom. That was not the case in the early 19th century when there was a movement to make cemeteries park-like, where people would come and enjoy the fresh air on Sunday afternoon.

In fact, the Boston Globe recently ran an article called ‘Forest Hills looks to breathe new life into cemetery.’

In 1840 Boston wanted a park-like cemetery like Mount Auburn in Cambridge. The city built Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, part of Boston.

Long before Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park or Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the rural cemetery movement took off, modeled after the English park.

The rural cemetery meant a burial site that was designed as a park, with curved walkways, statuesque trees, rolling hills of grass, and sometimes a lake or pond.  It was to give the urban dweller a place outside the city to stroll on Sunday afternoon.

Another example of a rural cemetery is the most famous, Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Less well known the Portsmouth, NH’s Proprietor’s Cemetery is another.  The Proprietor’s Cemetery, one of the five cemeteries that make up  South Cemetery, at the corner of South and Sagamore Sts, opened in 1831. Portsmouth historian J. Dennis Robinson says of the Proprietor’s Cemetery, “It looks like the most designed cemetery.”

Several years later, in 1848, the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston was built.   Its two hundred fifty acres still  stand as a grand example of the rural  cemetery.

Since a rural cemetery had to be located outside a city, Forest Hills was built in Roxbury, an area then outside of Boston.  When Roxbury became part of Boston in 1868, the cemetery changed from a municipal burial ground to a private cemetery.

Cecily Miller, Director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust, says, “As the cities became more populated and commercial, there emerged a need for people to connect with nature.”  The rural cemetery encouraged visitors to stroll the grounds and enjoy the fresh air.

Henry A. S. Dearborn, the designer of the Forest Hills Cemetery, had also been the President of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. He therefore knew about trees and shrubs, both native and exotic, and English landscape design. He shared an emerging interest in ornamental horticulture, using plants to decorate a property, as a form of art.

The grounds at Forest Hills appear terraced with various levels, some of which show off the beautiful Roxbury ledge.  Roads and pathways weave through the property.   Because of the grading of the cemetery, a visitor may wander down a path, not sure what will appear next, and come upon a group of trees.  That surprise is part of the picturesque view, which the rural cemetery illustrated.  It was designed so that a visitor would enjoy a bit of nature.

In the center of the cemetery is a lake, surrounded by trees.  The water gives the visitor a true feel of an open space.  The large trees on the site, including a weeping beech which dates from the nineteenth century, create a sense of park in the cemetery.  A large hemlock grove stands near a bell tower.  Oaks and maples were planted as part of the landscape as well.  Miller says, “The large trees give a canopy to the property.”

Forest Hills sponsors many events during the year, trying to get you to visit. Worth your time to check it out and well worth a visit



The Formal Garden vs. the More Natural Look

Perhaps you like the well trimmed look in the garden. Shrubs must be a certain look, the lawn cut a particular way, perennials cut back after they bloom, and trees trimmed to control their growth.  The trimming in the landscape reached its highest point in the 17th century  at Versailles where the French trimmed shrubs and trees to make the most outstanding formal gardens

But not everyone liked the well trimmed look.

Giving nature a chance was the theme of the new English naturalistic approach to the landscape garden in the early 18th century. That view, of course, did not require the  extreme pruning of shrubs and trees.

In the collection of essays and poems in the book Genius of the Place,which discusses the English landscape garden from 1620-1820,   Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an early advocate of the more naturalistic view of the landscape, also prefered a less formal look. He wrote in 1712: “We see the Marks of the Scissors upon every Plant and Bush. I do not know whether I am singular in my Opinion, but, for my own part, I would rather look upon a Tree in all its Luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a Mathematical Figure.”

And so the English landscape view moved away from the more formal, trimmed look to a more picturesque view where the visitor to the garden saw nature, like extensive lawns, and spotted trees, perhaps a lake or fountain, but not a heavily trimmed array of plants.

That view also became important in America in the 19th century, when the estates on the Hudson River, outside New York, cultivated the same look.   A local nurseryman named Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)  designed some of the properties. Downing, who would become the most famous early American landscape designer, admitted his inspiration came from the modern or picturesque English view.  He wrote: “As the modern style owes its origin mainly to the English, so it has also been developed and carried to its greatest perfection in the British Islands.”

Today you may like the well trimmed look in the landscape, but a more natural view where the plants are allowed to grow as they will, with a minimum of attention, is still a desirable view, and can often create a pleasing garden. And it’s alright for you to landscape that way



Gardening as Art

Art expresses the colors of nature in this 1888 catalog of American seedsman W. W. Rawson, Boston.

The fact that you garden is amazing in a society like ours where immediate gratification is the rule.  You know that gardening makes you confront the cycles of life: birth, growth, suffering, and death.   All of that is in a plant you handle in your garden, at this time, in this space.

Gardening is also the work of an artist.

The 19th century seed and nursery owners wrote to motivate middle class Americans to garden. Here is a passage from Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Chronicle in 1861: “To regard a garden otherwise than as a work of art, would tend to a radical perversion of its nature. A garden is for comfort and convenience, luxury and use, as well as for making a beautiful picture. It is to express civilization, and care, and design, and refinement. It is a blending of art with nature.”

The gardener as artist is certainly not a new meaning. William Kent (1684 – 1748) was an artist and landscape designer, and instrumental in changing English landscape design, from the formal symmetrical look, to a more natural, open space. Rousham in England still stands today as an example of his work of landscape as art.

English writer Joseph Addison (1672-1719) is quoted in the book of readings in English landscape garden history called Genius of the Place in these words: “You must know, Sir, that I look upon the Pleasure which we take in a Garden, as one of the most innocent Delights in human life.”

So how is your garden a work of art?  The garden evolved with your thoughts and  your choice of plants, color and layout.



Boston Ivy, a Vine to Cover any Wall

Boston ivy growing on a wall in my garden in the Northeast.

You like to see vines in the garden. They add that vertical dimension that contrasts so well with your  flowerbeds and containers.

You probably have your favotite vine.  Maybe it’s Boston ivy.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden that Boston ivy adds a touch of the picturesque to a landscape.  It was, of course, the picturesque that was the style of English landscape gardening, beginning in the mid 18th century and then spread to America in the 19th century.

In 1869 the old Veitch Nursery Company in London introduced Parthenocissus tricuspidata or Boston ivy, which came from Japan, a country that had just opened its doors to the West.  It was a time when botanical gardens and botanical societies supported plant collectors, some sent also by the Veitch Nursery, who traveled to Asia as well as the United States to provide new plants. Eventually Boston ivy became part of the American plant palette.

The Boston ivy offers both leafy growth that can cover a wall during the growing season and later an amazing array of autumn color. This ivy clings to stone and brick by means of adhesive tendrils quite easily. On a wall the leaves overlap to make a dense cover.  Though it takes a year or more to root in, once established, it can grow 50 feet or more.

The glossy dark green leaves of the Boston ivy turn bright yellow, gold, orange, and red in the fall. The Boston ivy is planted mainly for its foliage, which is shiny and 3 lobed.  There are small greenish flowers, followed by bluish black or black berries. The Boston ivy only requires trimming for maintenance. It does well in full sun or partial shade and grows in well-drained, loamy, or even poor soils.

Other common names for the Boston ivy are Cottage Ivy, Japanese Ivy, Japanese Creeper and Boston Creeper. Today you can see it clinging to the walls of academic buildings at Harvard University and Boston University, where it seems to add a certain sophistication to the buildings.

Boston ivy was first called Ampelopsis veitchii, and it appeared as such in the Peter Henderson 1896 catalog as well as the John Lewis Childs catalog of the same year.

American gardeners have loved this vine for over 150 years.  Boston ivy must be doing something right.



Trimmed Boxwood in the English Landscape

In the gardens of Hampton Court above you can see clipped boxwood everywhere.

When you look for a shrub to use as an edging, you might think of Buxus, or boxwood.  If there is an essential shrub for a formal edging for the English landscape, it has to be boxwood.

The book The Genius of the Place, a collection of poems and essays by  English writers about the English Landscape Garden from 1620 to 1820, includes a section by the eighteenth century English writer Daniel Defoe, from his work called  A Tour Thro’ The Whole Island of Great Britain.  He wrote: “Nothing making so fair and regular an Edging as Box, or is so soon brought to its Perfection.”  In that section he was discussing the gardens at Hampton Court.

Last summer I had an opportunity to visit  Hampton Court, home since the eighteenth century to the monarchy and located in the London suburb of Richmond.  The gardens have, of course, been restored and maintained meticulously, and include many rows of well-trimmed boxwood.

Boxwood shrubs assumed at important role in American landscape  as well. The nurseryman Thomas Meehan from Philadelphia wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in March of 1861: “This is the proper season to lay down box edgings. To make them properly, the soil along the line of the edge should be first dug, and then trod very hard and firm, so that the soil may sink evenly together, or the line will present ugly looking undulations in time.”

Boxwood continues to serve as an edging in the landscape.  Here in the Northeast at the end of August I purchased six potted boxwood plants called Buxus sermpiverens, the label’s name for  this evergreen shrub reads ‘Common English Boxwood’. I plan to use them next spring in an edging along the driveway.

Do you use box edging in your garden?  How do you keep it trimmed?



Coleus, an Indispensable Annual for Nineteenth Century Gardens

The Coleus, in Burpee’s 1893 catalog, remained a popular plant for beds and containers during America’s Victorian period.

You already know that the leaves of the coleus give color and form to any bed or container.  But did you know that the coleus was popular in nineteenth century gardens both in England and America?

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century. Nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine  Gardener’s Monthly said in 1861: “Coleus Blumei mixed or edged with Perilla Nankinensis will make a fine bed, the latter if used for edging should be frequently stopped or pegged down, and not allowed to bloom.”

Eventually more coleus varieties appeared in the garden catalogs.

The James Vick Seed Catalog of the 1870s does not list the coleus among the plant offerings, but in the company magazine of  1887, after the elder Vick’s death, a column appears about how to propagate the coleus.  The writer said, “My practice is to grow fine healthy plants this summer, and in August or September, before frost, take cuttings for my winter stock.”

The Dingee and Conard catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them.  In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects.  We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

Leopold writes that two major gardening themes, beds and borders, defined the form and shape of Victorian gardens. The Coleus had no small role among the plant choices that both English and American gardeners used.

What is it that you like about this plant? Why must you have the coleus in your garden, or your containers?  How did the coleus grow for you this summer?



First American Grand Lawn: Middleton, SC

First American Grand Lawn: Middleton, SC

Today at Middleton, South Carolina [below] you can still see the 18th century lawn that extends down to the water’s edge.

American colonists adopted the formal English landscape design for both the wealthy,educated homeowner as well the commoner.  So, at Colonial Williamsburg today, for example, you can see the beautiful formal gardens in the landscape of the Governor’s Palace.  The formal style is what the English of the 17th century had developed after seeing the landscapes of the French, Dutch, and the Italians.

In the 18th century the English moved to a more natural or picturesque view, with a lawn, carefully placed trees, groups of shrubs, informal walkways, and sometimes a lake or pond.

According to architectural historian James D. Kornwolf, American colonial and federal gardens are usually regarded as symmetrically formal, characterized by terraces, parterres and allees of poplar or box.  But that he says was not the case entirely.

One exception to the formal English look in early American landscape design was Middleton, South Carolina which displayed a picturesque landscape, with its large green turf. carefully planted down to the water.  Middleton became an early example of the importance of the lawn, and the new English style of garden.  You can still visit Middleton today.  Kownwolf says that Middleton’s gardens and those at Drayton Hall form the earliest known picturesque gardens in America, both probably dating from around 1740.

The lawn  forms the essential element in the English picturesque garden style, replicated in America, both in this early Colonial garden and the gardens of today, around the country. An article appeared just this summer in the Boston Globe called Secrets to a Gorgeous Lawn, and so the lawn tradition continues