Archives for December 2010

England: “The Garden of the World”

[left: At Connecticut’s mid-19th century Roseland Cottage the V-shaped bed of annuals, bordered by boxwood shrubs, gives a bit of the popular Victorian garden style.] 

Eighteenth  century England initiated the natural or picturesque view of the landscape, with its  signature lawn, curved walks, groups of shrubs, and carefully placed trees.

English landscape designer Edward Kemp (1817-1891) in his book of the mid 1800s How to Lay out a Small Garden believed that the natural view, or the old landscape garden view, should also include straight lines and symmetrical patterns where needed.  He opts for a blending of the two design styles  at a time when flower beds on the lawn became popular, creating the Victorian garden design.

America’s gardens reflected the change.

The Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1866 wrote: “Even in England, the garden of the world, and particularly the parent of the ‘natural style’, this system of Landscape gardening is falling into discredit..  Artificial work is now very popular in gardens; and the new gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society are almost as artificially arranged as the Dutch gardens of old.”

And so America also launched into a period of carpet bedding and ribbon design on the lawn, where plants were arranged by size and color and kept trimmed to a desired height.

Today in Woodstock, Connecticut you can see a 19th century garden, called Roseland Cottage,  designed with a formality about it but still with a trace of the picturesque style. The north  lawn, which was once used for croquet, extends behind the house.

Do you like both the natural and a more artful, or clearly designed,  expression in the landscape, or prefer one over the other? Nineteenth century English and American garden writers and designers debated the question for decades.  At the end of the century there was a clear return to formality, both in England and America.

[left: The garden at Roseland Cottage, a combination of both natural and formal design, was laid out in 1850. The original boxwood shrubs survive.] 



Nineteenth Century America Delights in Edward Kemp’s Book

At Chatsworth, the classic English garden with a blend of both natural and symmetrical design, you see this straight hedgerow, fronted by a statue.

Edward Kemp, the 19th century English garden designer, trained at the classic garden Chatsworth under Joseph Paxton.  He also assisted Paxton with the design of Birkenhead Park, which inspired American Frederick Law Olmsted.  In 1858  Kemp became one of the judges for the Central Park Competition in New York.

But it was because of Kemp’s famous book How to Lay Out a Small Garden that I mention him here.

The Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1864 praised the newest edition of Kemp’s book. Meehan wrote: “The task of an author is either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of illustrating them. The latter would seem to have been the object that Mr. Kemp had in view when he prepared the excellent  work now before us, one of the best books on pure garden design in the English language.”

Thus Kemp, an English garden designer, went on to  inspire a host of American gardeners, much as he had in England.  His design ideas followed the natural landscape tradition of William Kent and John Claudius Loudon, but also admitted of symmetry in the garden where it would prove useful.

Meehan writes: “After laying down the principles upon which the art of landscape gardening is based, Mr. Kemp proceeds to show how they are to be applied and for this purpose he gives a variety of plans and details from his own practice.”

Kemp said in the book: “To regard a garden otherwise than a work of art, would tend to a radical perversion of Nature.”

The book became popular for American gardeners for the rest of the 19th century, and seed and nursery catalogs  frequently recommended it.

And so the story of how Americans grew to love the English garden continues with this chapter on Edward Kemp.

If you want to read his book,   check it out on Google Books



The Myth of the English Cottage Garden

There is a fascination in America with the English cottage garden.

As I was reading about the history of English cottage gardens, I discovered  the garden might be more a myth than a reality.

E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger in their  book The Invention of Tradition claim that the cottage garden style is a late-nineteenth century “invented tradition”, rooted in a nostalgic imagining of a rural past.  They put the blame on English garden writers William Robinson and Gertrud Jekyll.  Both wrote about small-scale romantic gardens, which they associated with the honest and down to earth virtues of the traditional English cottage.

There was a political need to create the myth of the cottage garden in order to combat the growing urbanism, and the loss of a rural identity in England.

The poor, rural gardener, however, housed in the thatched cottage and surrounded by an informal planting style , was more concerned with battling against poverty and had little time to engage in ornamental planting at a time when gardening was mainly for food or medicinal needs.

Art historian Anne Helmreich in her book The English Garden and National Identity also discusses the English garden at the end of thee nineteenth century and agrees.  She writes, “The cottage garden was conceptualized within the frame of an idealized vision of rural life by middle and upper class homeowners.”

But the myth lives in.  Books and articles about the cottage garden continue to appear.  An amazing garden blog called Grounded Design featured a recent post on the cottage garden.

The English cottage garden is deeply embedded in the American psyche. We just like it.

What do you think?



English Cottage Gardens in America

This cottage-style garden pathway shows plants leaning over toward the walkway, which Hensel describes as an important characteristic of the English cottage garden.

Americans love the English cottage garden.

Margaret Hensel in her book English Cottage Gardening says, “Over the years I have discovered dozens of the most wonderful cottage gardens here in the United States, every sort from tiny dooryards on Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Cod to Midwestern back yards and San Francisco terraces.”

This summer the garden magazine Horticulture included an article “Cottage Courageous”  about what plants to include in a cottage garden. The article said, “Creative plant choices make a cottage garden possible no matter the climate.”

The English cottage garden offers a quaintness,  a carefree characteristic, and plant variety.

What plants do you see as a must-have for a cottage garden?



Everybody Loves an English Cottage Garden

Last year I did a Master Plan for a home landscape in Maine. The owner, after seeing my drawing, said, “Oh, it has an English cottage garden feeling about it.”

Just what is the English cottage garden?

American landscape designer Margaret Hensel’s popular book English Cottage Gardening gives us some insight.  Hensel based her book on the years she spent exploring villages and country lanes in England, seeing hundreds of cottage gardens. She says “The magic [in an English cottage garden] is not in having the biggest garden on the block, but in making whatever space you do have as beautiful as it possibly can be.”

Since Hensel contrasts the cottage garden with a stiff, formal garden, she concludes that it has to be a less structured place where plants are free to grow.  The plants need not be expensive, perhaps a gift  from a neighbor.  The focus throughout is on the visual appeal of  the many plants close together, all of different colors and sizes, but somehow blending.

The cottage garden features flowers that  bloom during spring, summer, and fall. Among the flowers Hensel recommends are delphiniums, roses, hollyhocks, old-fashioned pinks, and oriental poppies.

The cottage garden is small and close to the house, usually not with a lawn.  The house is the heart of the garden, and so the plants can surround the house and even  lean over a bit on the all-important walkway.

Do you have an English cottage garden?  What defines such a garden for you?  What are your favorite plants in your English cottage garden?



Best Seeds in Town

At the turn of the nineteenth century the Shakers in America pioneered the paper seed packet as a way to sell their seeds. It worked.

To this day we still buy seeds in colorful packets.

The nineteenth century seed companies, mostly on the East coast, copied the Shakers’ seed packet idea.  This wonderful  image from Everitt’s 1892 seed catalog illustrates the competition among the seed merchants, each fishing with a different bait, or marketing strategy.

The important names in the American nineteenth century seed trade include Henderson, Burpee, Childs, and Vick.  Vick had some of his seeds shipped from England because, following his trips to England, he thought their quality was better than American seeds.

The companies sent mail order catalogs around the country to market their seeds and pioneered the mail order business in America. Though competition followed because the number of seed companies increased, the strategy of the seed packet worked for them.

Today what is your source for purchasing seeds?  What company is your favorite?



A Landscape Unlike Anything Before

[ left: Horace Walpole (1717-1797) English art historian, writer, and gardenist.] 

You love the English garden style, but did you know it took time to achieve that look.

The new naturalistic English garden design of the eighteenth century style evolved over decades.  The style was unlike anything earlier.

Horace Walpole, the writer and garden enthusiast or ‘gardenist’, was important in the new English garden style. He advocated for the more natural, less formal approach, which he claimed was uniquely English, and not dependent on the Chinese or Italian garden design.

Isabel Wakelin Urban Chase in her book Horace Walpole: Gardenist wrote: “When eighteenth century owners of landed estates first began to design gardens along naturalistic lines, they had no traditional experience to draw upon. They were working in an unfamiliar medium. They were also under the handicap of using plants, shrubs, and trees, many of them recently introduced into England, about which they knew little or nothing.

“While some succeeded better than others, it was largely owing to chance, or the beauty of the locality, or to some amount of natural artistic ability rather than to any definite rules for irregular garden design which had as yet been evolved. As Walpole remarked: ‘It is surprising how much beauty has been struck out, with how few absurdities.’ ”

So in the history of the English garden there was a sense of not knowing how to do things, bending the rules of the old form of design, and just going ahead with what landscape gardeners considered a new art form.

Today we gardeners can also push forward into an unknown zone, to experiment with how the new garden, the new landscape, will look, in a time when we are more concerned about issues like sustainability.

What do you think about the movement of a true American landscape design?



Robinson Inspired American Garden Writer Katherine S. White

In 20th century America we continued to  value the English garden design, first marketed in the 19th century.

In the 1950s the editor of The New Yorker, Katherine S. White, wrote a series of garden articles for the magazine, which her husband, E.B. White, after her death, compiled in a book called Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Katherine White attributed the rise of the English garden style in America to both William Robinson and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll(1843-1932).

White wrote in one essay, “If in planting any of the shrubs or trees I have mentioned, you and I strive to obtain a natural effect, to follow the contours of the land, or to study the region we live in so as to make our planting suit it, if we naturalize garden flowers in our woodlands or bring wild flowers into our gardens or strive to make our garden blend gradually into a forest or field, we probably owe our ideas, though all unconsciously, to two great English gardeners and garden writers of the past.

“They are William Robinson, the author of The English Flower Garden, which was published in 1883 and is still a garden classic, and his younger friend Miss Gertrude Jekyll.  It was these two, more than any others, who taught Victorian England, and eventually America, to make a garden, as Mr. Robinson put it, a reflection of ‘the beauty of the great garden of the world.’ ”

Thus American garden writer Katherine White paid tribute to the influence of the English garden, as expressed in the work of Robinson and Jekyll.

How does your garden reflect  the design history of the English garden?



Images from Robinson’s Book Appear in Garden Catalogs

[left: The white Japanese anemone as it appeared in Robinson’s book The Wild Garden, the 1881 edition 

You probably like to read articles, books, blogs, whatever you can find, to become a better gardener.

James Vick (1818-1882) the Rochester, New York seedsman, saw it as his duty to teach his customers about gardening and the landscape.

He endorsed English horticulturalist William Robinson’s book The Wild Garden in his own seed catalog and monthly garden magazine.

The  image included here of the low white Japanese anemone from Robinson’s book also  appeared in Vick’s garden magazine of 1880 as the same illustration.

Vick is but one example of the  nineteenth century American seedsmen and nurserymen who saw it as their duty to teach Americans the English style of gardening.

Pittsburgh seedsman B. A. Elliott also held up the English garden as the model for the American gardener.  He wrote “We wish to acknowledge our obligation to Mr. William Robinson, of London, England, who has very kindly allowed us to use many of the beautiful engravings made for his most delightful of books, The Wild Garden. We are also indebted to this great champion of hardy flowers for some of the ideas advanced here, culled from his numerous works on gardening, which have done much to make English gardens what they are — the most beautiful in the world.”

Robinson wrote in the Introduction to his  book: “In this illustrated edition, by aid of careful drawings, I have endeavored to suggest in what the system [of the wild garden] consists.”

The Japanese anemone is a perennial that grows quite easily in the Northeast, makes a great ground cover, plus, has a showy white flower in spring.

If you grow this white Japanese anemone, you continue the English garden tradition in your own garden, at least the English garden version of William Robinson.

After buying a cutting of this plant a long time ago at a local yard sale, I  have grown the Japanese anemone for many years.  Believe me when I saw it  has spread quite a bit.  I have had to compost some of it.

Do you also grow this white Japanese anemone ? What do you like about it?