Archives for February 2011

Nineteenth Century New Jersey Grand Estate

[left:Philadelphia nurseryman and writer Thomas Meehan (1826-1901)] 

Thomas Meehan, nurseryman and editor of the Gardener’s Monthly, included an article in the 1880 issue of his magazine about John Hoey’s grand estate in New Jersey called Hollywood Club.

Hoey, president of the Adams Express Company in New York , had developed his landscape of 200 acres over several years. He had over 2 million plants on the property, many annuals that were carefully trimmed  and spread out in  ribbon gardens, flowerbeds, and containers.

Meehan wrote, after his visit there, “For the sake of the fine old art we would there were a few more like him.”

In that line he endorsed the formal landscape with straight lines, flowerbeds designed in symmetry, and well trimmed shrubs, much like the gardenesque style promoted earlier in the century by English writer and horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon.  Hoey had all of that.

Meehan wrote about his visit to Hoey’s property at a time when garden writers were concerned about the use of annuals versus the use of native plants.

The English horticulturalist William Robison’s had just published his book Wild Garden which criticized the excessive maintenance in annual flowerbeds.  He considered it much better for the gardener to use native plants which take care of themselves once they are established.

Doesn’t that argument sound familiar?

Meehan, however, in his magazine story preferred the old formal flowerbeds on the lawn.  The more annuals, the better.

And the debate goes on.



Is a Petunia Toxic?

I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia flower looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read this week in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1868.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeard in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit wrote that, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  The plant had arrived because by 1868  flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 seed catalog of James Vick from Rochester, NY lists eight varieties of petunias.  He wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

A new petunia variety from Proven Winners called Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ grows in my backyard on this wrought iron table [left photo]. 

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with much in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is still a popular summer garden variety.



Four Kinds of Gardeners

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly for February of 1866 Philadelphia nurseryman and writer Thomas Meehan said, “The four great classes into which America’s Horticulture divides itself are the Amateur, the landscape gardener, the vegetable and fruit growers for market, and the nurseryman and seed trade.”





Each of the four contributed to the state of nineteenth century horticulture.

The amateur meant the home gardener who grew flowers and vegetables.

On the other hand the landscape gardener cultivated the lawn, shrubs, and trees, much like the English had done for decades under the same name. The seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  illustrated a home landscape in the English style[ pictured above]  in his  1878 magazine Illustrated Monthly. Vick often wrote about  landscape gardening.

The market gardener grew fruits and vegetables to sell in the market, especially in the cities.

What struck me is  that Meehan identifies a fourth group, the  seed and nursery trade.  This group of gardeners formed an important part of the development of nineteenth century horticulture.  They were not just salesmen, but instrumental in enabling the landscape and garden of the city homeowner, the suburb, and the farm.  They taught America how to garden. Meehan recognized that.



Preacher Encourages Gardening

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1866 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included a letter from  a clergyman who lived in Adrian, Michigan.

[left: Catalog from the Joseph Breck Seed Company which began in Boston in 1818.]


The clergyman wrote: “First get Buist and Breck, take the Monthly, buy a select list of seeds and plants, and go to work. You have preached patience, practice it now.”

So he recommends his fellow men of the cloth seek out a Breck seed catalog  and order some seeds and start gardening.

The Joseph Breck Seed Company started in early nineteenth century Boston while Robert Buist operated his seed company in Philadelphia for decades  and then passed the business on to his son.

To this day we spread the word about gardening to our family and friends. The companies that help us are the ones we recommend.

And the cycle continues. They, in turn, recommend the same companies.

Mass marketed gardening emerged for the first time when nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries  introduced the mail order catalog as a means to connect with gardeners whether in the city, the suburbs, or on the farm.

Since all advertising, and the catalog was first and foremost an ad,  sells cultural values, in the process the seed and plant merchants sold the English garden style, especially the lawn .

So when the Michigan preacher recommended Breck and Buist, he too promoted the English style of gardening and landscape.



Seed Company and Nursery Owners as Teachers

The owners of the nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries considered themselves teachers, and looked on gardeners as their students.  So catalogs from the companies did not hesitate to instruct.

Seedsman Peter Henderson on this 1899 catalog cover [left] showed the crops in the field, but also the English style landscape around the home.

Nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his garden publication Gardener’s Monthly wrote in 1866: “We commence our eighth annual volume with the feeling of a novice new to his work. We direct the same pen, and the same page conveys our teachings to those who read.”

In 1885 the Baltimore horticulturalist, who once worked for seedsman Robert Buist,  William D. Brackenridge wrote in the same magazine: “The country has arrived at a high state of progress in horticulture …by the descriptive and illustrated catalogs spread broadcast over the length and breadth of the land by the almost innumerable nurserymen and florists found in every section of our diversified and fertile country.”

Gardeners depended on the seed and nursery trade, not only for garden products, but also for instructions on how to plant and care for trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, and, of course, the lawn.

In turn, the seed and nursery industries depended on important English  horticultural figures, English garden innovations like the Wardian case, and the books and magazines of English garden writers.

The American seed and nursery industries of the ninteeenth century  taught us well since to this day we love the English garden.



Modern Style of Planting Shrubs

This Weigela rosea [left]  bursts with spring color in my New England garden. The shrub variety came to America in 1848 from England where three years earlier plant hunter Robert Fortune had brought it from China. 

Walter Elder, a Philadelphia horticulturalist, wrote many articles in nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s popular magazine Gardener’s Monthly, published in the same city.

In the 1865 issue of GM, Elder wrote about landscape,” The modern is the most  admirable and ennobling mode of embellishing large grounds with flowering shrubbery, namely massing them in groups of various dimensions and forms. All sharp points are avoided; even at the junction of two roads or paths, sharp, projecting points are rounded and made blunt, if a group of shrubbery is to be planted there.”

He goes on, “Where there is a fine view in the distance to be seen from the mansion, it would not do to plant trees to hide it, but the lawn can be ornamented with groups of shrubs.”

And so seedsmen and nurserymen in their catalogs, books, and magazines taught America landscape principles. In this case they instruct gardeners on how to plant shrubs in the English picturesque or gardenesque manner.



English Gardener Joseph Paxton Admired in America

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) head gardener at Chatsworth, writer, and garden designer. 

The history of English landscape design owes much to Joseph Paxton, the simple gardener who became the head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate Chatsworth, and one of the most famous horticulturists in England.

Paxton designed Birkenhead Park, which Frederick Law Olmsted visited,  and his greatest achievement,  the Crystal Palace, the cast-iron and glass building erected in London’s Hyde Park, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.

His publication Magazine of Botany would see many years of circulation.

But he was also famous in America, even though there is no record that he ever came here.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly wrote about Paxton’s death in 1865.  He said: “Paxton, by his example and success, has been one of the best friends the working gardener ever had, elevating him and his profession to a point never before attained, and is entitled to the honor of a Saint in the Horticultural Calendar, and to be held in ‘everlasting remembrance’ “.

The fact that Meehan mentioned Paxton in his magazine illustrates  how important English gardening was to America. It was as if Paxton was one of our own.

In a sense he was, since American nurserymen and seedsmen considered the English garden style the most important.