Archives for July 2011

Nineteenth Century Delaware Businessman Builds English Landscape

While on a trip to the University of Delaware located in Newark I visited the nineteenth century Gothic mansion called Rockwood near Wilmington.

Joseph Shipley (1795-1867)

In 1851 after 20 years in the import/export  business in Liverpool, Joseph Shipley returned to his native Delaware and built a Gothic home with a picturesque landscape, modeled after the style he had treasured at his home in England.  He called his home Rockwood.  It still stands today with the help of volunteers to preserve it.

The design of the naturalistic rather than formal landscape followed the recommendations of Edward Kemp, English author and garden designer who worked with the famous head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton.

Among his books Shipley also had Andrew Jackson Downing’s, the American landscape designer whose ideas on the garden and the landscape came directly from the English plantsman and writer extraordinaire John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843).  Landscape designer and historian Wade Graham  wrote in his new book American Eden: “Downing brought the exalted taste of England to American soil.”

The Gothic style mansion called Rockwood in Wilmington, Delaware.

The curved driveway that hides the house until you are almost on top of it, the signature trees spotted carefully, flowering shrubs, a flower garden, a walled  kitchen garden, and, of course, an extensive lawn make Rockwood’s  landscape an early example of the English picturesque style in America.

The catalogs and magazines published by the nineteenth century seed and nursery industries would also recommend that same style of landscape.

Shipley bought plants for his property from Robert Buist, a Philadelphia seedsmen. Landscape historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote in her Master’s thesis from Cornell that  “Buist had definite tastes, and clearly promoted the picturesque landscape aesthetic.”

Like other wealthy estate owners on the East coast, Shipley became an early advocate of the English garden style.  As the style evolved later in the century into a Victorian design with showy flower beds on the lawn, American middle class would take up that practice as well.

A trip to Rockwood takes you back in time and illustrates an early example of the English landscape on American soil.


English Greenhouses Promoted to American Readers

I picked up a recent issue of Horticulture magazine, a periodical I enjoy reading to keep updated on gardening trends.

The English company Hartley Botanic hand built this greenhouse for a gardener.

Within the first few pages I saw an ad for the English company Hartley Botanic, purveyor of greenhouses, and also approved by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

What struck me immediately was how the word ‘English’ in this case makes this greenhouse somehow better than an American version.  I am not sure that is true, but that is not the issue.

This ad higlights the English worksmanship of a greenhouse, but also the history of gardening in England which included greenhouses. Wealthy English plant collectors in the eighteenth century built conservatories to house their tender plants. By the first half of the nineteeth century when glass became cheaper, greenhouses also appealed to the middle class gardener.

Here in America by mid ninteenth century seed and nursery catalogs  listed plants that could overwinter in a greenhouse.

Advertising incorporates values important to the culture.  In this case of the ad for English greenhouses, we see English garden style still relevant, important, and in some sense the model for American gardening.


Nasturtiums Grew in My Wardian Case

Last week while I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden, I had lunch and then stopped in at the Gift Shop. Often I find treasures surface in a such a Shop when least expected.

And so it happened.

Small greenhouse on sale at the Chicago Botanic Garden Gift Shop last week.

The Shop had for sale a small glass case for plants.  It resembled the Wardian case from early nineteenth century England.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century English gardeners, fascinated with botany and plant collecting, coveted plants from Asia and America.  Plants however had a difficult time surviving for a long distance on a ship.  London physician Dr Nathaniel Ward (1791-1868) discovered that a covered glass container for the plants would provide air and moisture for a considerable period of time.

According to Sarah Rose’s book For All the Tea in China British plant collector Robert Fortune (1812-1880) used the Wardian case to send back the tea seeds he found in China.  It worked in keeping the seeds and subsequent plants alive on the sea voyage.

Earlier in the summer while reading Rose’s book I experimented with some nasturtium seeds in a jar. I filled the jar about half full with a layer each of stones, peat most, and the potting soil in which I planted a couple of seeds. I sprinkled a bit of water on top, covered it, and put it in the corner of the garden for a couple of weeks.

My recent Wardian case experiment with nasturtium seeds worked.

When I checked after several days, I saw the green stems and leaves of the nasturtium. I opened the bottle to give the plant some air.

The Chicago Botanic Garden had a fancier version, but the principles were the same with my jar.

After the Wardian case appeared on the scene, plant collecting for the English garden was never the same.  America too profited because the plants collected for the English garden, like the Weigela shrub from China,  later traveled across the sea to our gardens.

Seed and nursery catalogs then advertised them as the newest, must-have plant.  Made available by the Wardian case.


Chicago Botanic Features English Garden

Last week on my trip to the Midwest I had an opportunity to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The size of the garden takes your breath away.  In addition, the many separate areas of plants in the garden amid extensive water views and fields tell you that this is one grand garden.

My intention was to visit the English walled garden, designed 20 years ago by English landscape designer John Brookes.

The day started with clouds and what seemed to me a threat of rain, but no rain came. I was happy for that.

Brookes designed this English garden as six separate garden rooms.  In that way the visitor experiences different expressions of the English garden. From what I saw that  idea works.

Though Brookes defines English garden here by more modern gardening in England, I found the experience a delight.

The six rooms were fun to enter. Each created a different feel with the use of pathways, vertical supports, pergolas, garden furniture and accessories, statuary, and, of course, plants.

The two gardens that stand out now that I am back home are the daisy garden and the courtyard garden.

The daisy garden is one among the six that make up the English walled garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The daisy garden featured a vase on a pedestal as the center, surrounded by beds of daisies, both annual and perennial.  The colors, of course mostly white and yellow, brightened the area.  The lively annual rudbeckia hirta ‘Tiger Eve Gold’ caught my attention.

The courtyard garden included an archway opening, a bench, and show-stop red geraniums in containers. All of it encouraged the visitor to walk through and enjoy.

The Chicago Botanic Garden's walled English garden includes this courtyard garden.

Brookes surrounds the garden with a wall, mostly made of red brick with occasional clay tubes used in certain areas.

Though the plants have changed over the years since the garden was first installed, the bones of the English walled garden remain.  The garden rooms make for a restful setting for any visitor.

When you visit this garden, you learn about the use of walls  in English gardening, begun with Catholic monks who cultivated herbs within their monastery walls, before Henry VIII confiscated their properties in the sixteenth century.  The walls provided protection from unwanted animals, and, of course, from the winds.

I can’t end without a  thank you to the generous staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Here in the US you can see an example of the English garden right in Chicago.



Gardeners Still Collect Plants

Plant collecting has always been a passion for gardeners.

The nineteenth century American seed and nusery catalogs often wrote about new plant varieties called ‘novelties’  in hopes that the customer would

This garden on the tour for the American Hosta Society's annual convention in June featured over 1300 hostas.

buy.  Must have worked because the catalogs made that theme a constant.

Mount Hope Nursery in Rochester, New York wrote in the 1860 edition of its catalog: “The taste for hardy perennial border plants, is growing, and we have for some years been paying special attention to this class. Our collection now embraces the most ornamental species and varieties in cultivation, as far as we have been able to procure them.”

Seed companies and nurseries knew that gardeners needed the latest plant.

A couple of weeks ago,as a  New England Hosta Society volunteer, I was a bus captain for the American Hosta Society’s national convention in Marlborough, Mass. Great fun visiting gardens.

What amazed me was how many hostas each gardener owned.  The owners took pride in showcasing the newest hosta variety in their garden.

The photo here is from a Rhode Island tour garden  that featured over 1300 hosta varieties.

As in the nineteenth century, gardeners treasure their plants as part of a collection.

Maybe it’s part of human nature to collect.


New Book Defines American Garden Style

Reading garden history has helped me to understand gardening today.

In his new book American Eden Wade Graham reaffirms what I have often written about here. Nineteenth century American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) became a voice for the ideas of English garden writer John Claudius Loudon.  Graham writes: “To begin to assess the

American Eden by Wade Graham, a new book on why we garden the way we do.

legacy of Andrew Jackson Downing  and the middle 19th century on our contemporary American landscape you don’t have to look far: the nearest lawn will do, and it is most likely very near.”

Downing taught us the principles of English garden style, including the lawn,  expressed as the romantic, picturesque landscape that would later influence Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of Central Park.

If it were possible to define any national garden style in our country, Graham admits it is the lawn.


English Garden Magazine

Recently I received in the mail a subscription offer to a magazine called The English Garden.

That such a magazine would seek an American audience is certainly no surprise to me.

These words that appear in the flyer describe the magazine’s content: “THE ENGLISH GARDEN is both a celebration of traditional gardens in England, as well as a practical guide to instilling the ‘English-look’ into your garden.”

The articles in the magazine would help me achieve an English garden style right in my own garden.

This magazine captures the long standing American gardener’s interest in and, might I say, love for the English garden.


More Thoughts on the Lawn

Now that I am cutting the lawn more because of days of rain, my thoughts seem to drift to how we inherited the lawn in the first place.

This 1889 Henderson seed catalog cover featured the lawn.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in December of 1870: “Those of our citizens who have visited Europe and particularly those who have visited rural and suburban England, understand how very far our best lawns are from being what they may be made, and how much a fine lawn contributes to the beauty of any residence, and what many such do for a neighborhood.”

English garden style, particularly in middle class suburbs,  provided the model for what American lawns should look like.

In his book The American Family Home, 1800-1960 historian Clifford Edward Clark adds another reason when he writes: “By the 1860s and 1870s, a large front lawn had become an important symbol of status for the well-to-do middle class family.”

I am mowing a lawn that connects my landscape with the history of American gardening, dating back to the nineteenth century, as promoted in seed and nursery catalogs as in the 1889 Henderson Seed Company catalog cover above.  At that time the English garden provided the model for America’s lawn.

How often do you hear people taking pride in a well kept lawn.

Perhaps Clark’s idea of the lawn as a symbol of status, and I would add pride,  is not far from the mark.

But the lawn is still a lot of work. Why is that so?