Archives for November 2010

Reissue of a Garden Classic: The Wild Garden

Do books help you understand gardening? Who is your favorite author?

Nineteenth century England produced horticulturalists, landscape designers, and garden writers who contributed to the long tradition of the preeminence of the English garden style.  William Robinson (1838-1935) was among that group.

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 recently issued a new edition of his most famous book, “The Wild Garden”, first appearing in 1870.

Robinson knew everybody who was famous in the world of botany and horticulture, like Charles Darwin, as well as Americans like Asa Gray, Charles S. Sargent, and Frederick Law Olmsted.  Many American seed and nursery catalogs of that time also mentioned the importance of his writing.

His 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 introdution to the new edition.  He says, “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.

Robinson confronts the issue of what are native plants and how exotic plants, or those brought from other cultures, may well become part of the landscape.  He suggests beginning with local flora, but also makes allowance for exotics as part of the garden.

The setting that Robinson describes for the wild garden, or placing plants where they will thrive, could be any place in the  landscape, but especially near woods, meadows, or water.  Plant choice in such places is important to create a more natural look as the plants mature.

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.

Does his idea make sense to you in your garden?  What plants do you let go in your garden for a great sweep of flora, which tends to amaze a garden visitor?



Repton Introduces Formal Look into the Picturesque

[left: Repton’s Red Book in which he presented his before and after landscape design for a client.] 

You might think that the English garden has a definable style. Not really.

At one time it was natural, another more formal, and then a combination.

English landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818) introduced formal features into the picturesque style of garden design.  According to the fabulous anthology on the English garden Genius of the Place, Repton used “older elements of design like terraces, raised flowerbeds, even geometrical planning, and the conservatory”, in order to make the garden more usable.

Repton comes at a transition point for the picturesque style, which had depended on the long lawn, clumps of trees, and the use of water to create  a landscape that resembled  a landscape painting.

John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, the editors of Genius, characterize Repton as anticipating”  the ‘gardenesque’ style of John Claudius Loudon and William Robinson.”

Into the early 19th century Loudon became the voice for English garden style.  He  published many books on horticulture and an important garden magazine.

Loudon inspired American garden designer Andrew Jackson Downing, as well as Missouri horticulturalist Henry Shaw (1880-1889), who created what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden.

English gardening over the two hundred years of 1620 to 1820 saw many influences, both from within and outside the country.  The style evolved, but the connection with others, like poets and painters, is clearly there.

What have been some of the influences on your garden?



19th Century Seed Catalog Cover Highlights Lawn

Notice the lawn on this late 1890s seed catalog cover from Buckbee in Illinois.

You take care of your lawn, perhaps reluctantly, because it is important to you and the neighborhood.

American homeowners have been cultivating a lawn for over two hundred years.

The lawn also played an important part in the English garden style from the 17th century, if not earlier.  That’s how we learned about it.

In 19th century America, seed and nursery companies sold the  importance of the lawn both in the essays and the images in their mail order catalogs.

Nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1880 issue of his  magazine Gardener’s Monthly spelled out the importance of the lawn for every home landscape: “To properly make a lasting lawn, and to keep it in good order taxes the highest skill of the horticulturist, and when well executed, is the masterpiece of ornamental gardening. Without it all other improvements look insignificant. It forms the green carpet upon which all ornaments are to be placed, and its bright verdant hue imparts beauty to all.”

A few years later, in 1898, the cover  on the catalog from the Illinois seed company Buckbee showed an image of a home landscape with a lawn, thus pointing out the lawn’s  importance to the gardener.

When home owners read about the lawn in garden magazines and saw the lawn in illustrations in garden catalogs, it was no wonder that the lawn assumed an important role in home landscape.  The lawn became the normal way to define the home landscape.

Most nineteenth century garden books also offered a similar message about the lawn.

Though it’s not easy to go against mainstream ideas, today there seems to be more tolerance for questioning the lawn’s place in the landscape.  Some gardeners no longer maintain a lawn, because they have chosen native plants, including ornamental grasses, to replace the lawn.

What do you think?



William Kent, 18th Century English Artist and Landscape Gardener

A pond at Rousham’s Vale of Venus. 

Landscape gardening in 18th century England moved in a new direction with the inspiration of artist William Kent (1685-1748).

Kent considered landscape gardening an art, as expressed in nature, with no symmetry or  straight lines, but like nature, in curves.

Writer Horace Walpole in the important collection of English landscape essays The Genius of the Place said about Kent: “Kent leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”

Kent designed the house and landscape of England’s Rousham, which still stands as a mecca for those eager to see Kent’s work.

What I liked about Rousham on my visit was its lack of any commercial presence.  You can visit the  gardens and not be coaxed into buying a Rousham souvenir.

Last winter I heard English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s  lecture at Boston’s Trinity Church where he referred to Rousham as a garden of inspiration.  For his new book entitled Spirit: Garden Inspiration, Dan traveled the world to see uplifting landscapes.

Rousham  encourages a visitor to  walk the grounds.  And walk I did, enjoying every moment, and inspired along every path.

Because Kent created it as a work of  art, Rousham’s grand landscape in the English picturesque style offers a sense of rest.

What makes your garden an inspiration to you?  Is there a sense of peace you feel when you are in it?



Defining English Landscape Style

Defining ‘English landscape style’ depends on what time period you are discussing.

The new, long-awaited reference book Keywords in American Landscape Design, tackles terms that are important in the history of landscape in this country. In defining the term ‘ English style’, the book relies on  English garden writer John Claudius Loudon’s early definition (1838). Loudon described the English style as irregular or natural, in which the grounds were formed in imitation of nature.  Thus a contrast to a formal or symmetrical design distinguishes English landscape style in the early 1800s.

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815 – 1852), the American nurseryman, author, and landscape designer,  in his work also calls the English style the modern or natural design.

From the 18th century the English style was  picturesque and more closely resembled nature.  That design became important in America in the 19th century, especially in the writing by seedsmen and nurserymen.

Charles Mason Hovey, a nineteenth century Boston nurseryman, edited  an early garden magazine modeled after Loudon’s famous English magazine.  Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan one day visited  Hovey.  Later in his own magazine Gardener’s Monthly, Meehan referred to Hovey as “for many years the chief representative of horticulture in America, who did yeoman service in its cause.” In 1840  Hovey  also called the modern style of gardening the English style.

When you reject a formal, clipped look, or symmetrical focus,  in the landscape and prefer  a more informal look, could  you call the natural or less formal, the English style?



Frederick Law Olmsted Loved the English Picturesque Landscape

New York’s Central Park, designed in the English picturesque stye

You love the look of Central Park, the premier public promenade in America, created to voice democracy, a green space open to all.

The genius behind Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, had earlier in his career visited Birkenhead Park in Liverpool.  Chatsworth’s head gardener in the 1800s, Joseph Paxton, also designed Birkenhead.

Thus a connection arises  between Chatsworth and Central Park.  Both share a similar English style, a picturesque view, created by lawn, trees, walkways, and , of course, water.

The definition of the English term ‘picturesque’ means as if you were looking at a painting of nature, a work of art, created by a landscape designer.  The term came from the the essays of Englishman William Gilpin (1724-1804)

Last week I attended a lecture at the Arnold Arboretum about Olmsted.  The speaker, Alan Banks, Supervisory Park Ranger at “Fairsted”, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site  in Brookline, MA, said that  Gilpin’s writing influenced Olmsted.

So Central Park expresses the English garden style. For over a century and half park visitors continue to enjoy a bit of escape from city life to a refreshing walk in nature.

Do you have a favorite park? What makes it special?  Is it one of Olmsted’s?



Downing on Chatsworth

The lawn at England’s famous Chatsworth seems to go on forever.

You need inspiration for a garden or landscape.  You borrow ideas from other places you have seen.

Visiting gardens is thus something every gardener does.

In 1850 Andrew Jackson Downing visited England’s Chatsworth,begun in 1617. He wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire. has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world”. He then goes on to describe in detail the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the garden.

Downing, a New York nurseryman, writer, and landscape designer, admired the English garden style.  He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist J. C. Loudon, who published a garden magazine and many books.

What style does your garden represent?  Who is your inspiration for the garden?



Finding the Unexpected at Chatsworth

Chatsworth, outside one of the greenhouses

As you know, Chatsworth is the grand dame of English landscape design. For the past five hundred years people have sought to walk its grounds of picturesque charm.

So it was a suprise to me last summer when visiting for the first time, I found something I did not expect.

The lawn that stretches for what  seems forever, the waterfall that descends a hill that looks more like a mountain,  are big moments in a visit to Chatsworth.

As I left the house, and headed toward the greenhouse, I turned a corner, and there  in front of me was a yellow flowering arch. I walked under it, and thought  how someone had designed this feature to let a visitor to the garden see even something small as beauty.  A moment in the garden I will remember.

To this day I cannot identify the tree or vine that covers the arch. Perhaps you know what it is?



The Chrysanthemum Traveled from China to England

This mum called ‘Pink Graceland” was part of last year’s annual Chrysanthemum Show at Smith College, Northampton, MA.

Fall chrysanthemums now appear in all kinds of colors including purple and red.  You see them wherever you go. It seems like you can’t get away from them.  The chrysanthemum has truly become the fall favorite for garden display.

The chrysanthemum appeared in the early nineteenth century in England as an exotic plant from China. By that time the British had long been traveling to China, for many reasons, including collecting plants for English gardens.

Eventually the chrysanthemum made its way to American gardens.  The Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey wrote in 1846 “few plants afford more gratification than a good collection of chrysanthemums.”  Nurseryman Thomas Meehan said in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1863 that chrysanthemums were indispensable for autumn decoration of the flower garden.  The garden scene is not much different today.

Later in the nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs featured collections of this plant for the gardener and thus it became a mainstay of the American garden. The fascination this plant creates has been around for a long time.

The flower comes in various shapes and sizes, including small pompons as little as a dime, to huge ‘spider’ shaped varieties.  Some look like daisies.

In cold climates like the northeast mums, as they are called, are treated as annuals unless you start to grow them outdoors in the spring as a perennial, and them trim them regularly to avoid a leggy growth.

What usually happens however is that each autumn you make a trip to the garden center to purchase mums to replace the summer annuals that can’t take the cooler nights of the fall.

Recently James Roush, a guest blogger on Garden Rant, wrote how he hates this plant.  What about you?  What is it that you like or dislike about it?