Archives for August 2011

The Argument about Natives and Exotics in the Garden Continues.

I recently read an article in the Boston Globe that made me rethink the idea of excluding exotic plants from the landscape and choosing only native plants.

Leon Neyfakh, the author of the Globe article “The Invasive Species War”, uses the analogy of war to illustrate the level of disagreement among environmentalists and horticulturalists.  He even employs the argument that exluding non-native plants is like telling people who were not born in the US to go home.

I must say the article struck a bell.

When in the 1840s English plant collector Robert Fortune (1812-1880) traveled to China to hunt for tea and other plants to send home to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, he came upon a plant that the Chinese revered and which he subsequently called Weigela.  Today it is a mainstay for the American garden.

Philadelphia neweryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his 1872 edtion of his Gardener’s Monthly that the Weigela  was among the most important evergreens and shrubs for the landscape.

The plant breeder Proven Winners today offers this Weigela called 'Wine and Roses'.

Though the Weigela is not native, we love it.  Proven Winners has come out with newer varieties in the past few years, including Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’.  There is renewed interest in the plant.

We should not be too quick to exclude all exotic plants. Many have found a happy home here in America.


The Media Dictate Garden Fashion

Though we may think we are original in our garden design or garden style,  the media often dictate garden fashion.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in 1870 in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly “We are advocates of fashions in flowers as well as of fashions in dress. Still, so far as fashions in flowers are concerned, we feel that our magazine, and others like it, rule, or ought to rule the leader of fashion. The great public are too lazy to think for themselves, or unable to do it.”

I must say that I agree with Meehan.  The garden that I cultivate often shows a new plant variety I first learned of in the media.

This summer is no exception.

The new Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ is growing in my garden for the first time.  I love it.  You can also see it nearby in a mass planting at the gardens of Prescott Park in Portsmouth, NH.

The ‘Cherry Brandy’ came from England’s Thompson and Morgan plant breeders after a 15-year testing period.  This plant won a Fleuroselect Novelty Award as well.

Park Seed now sells it in the United States.  Their spring catalog reads, “After growing Cherry Brandy, you’ll never look at Rudbeckia the same way again.”

I must say that the flower does catch your atention. When I first saw, I couldn’t believe that it was a Rudbeckia.

So here I am wrting about a new annual, from England, now selling well in the United States, and I grow it in my own garden.

I guess that makes me someone who follows what flower is in fashion, much like Meehan mentioned in 1870.


A bed in Portsmouth, NH's Prescott Park planted at the front with Rudbeckia 'Cherry Brandy".



Bernard McMahon Pioneered Garden Writing in America

In the nineteenth century it was important that garden books come from practical gardeners who wrote about their experience in the garden.

One such garden writer was Bernard McMahon who was born in Ireland and came to America in 1796.  He settled in Philadelphia where he ran a seed and nursery business.

Thomas Jefferson, among many botanists and horticulturalists of the day,  visited McMahon’s seed store.

In 1806 McMahon wrote a book called American Gardener’s Calendar, which became such an important garden book that it was

A new edition of McMahon's book, first introduced in 1806.

published in several additions throughout the century.

Philadelphia nuseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1872: “Bernard McMahon is our first grand horticulturalist – the earliest Adam of us all.”  Though that line may seem an extreme bit of praise, his words show you the respect that McMahon enjoyed for decades.

McMahon copied English garden writers and divided his book by the months of the year, specifying the work that had to be done in the garden or field for a particular month. McMahon borrowed particularly from John Abercrombie, author of Every Man his own Gardener, first published in England in 1767 under the name of Thomas Mawe.

Meehan wrote that even though McMahon copied Abercrombie’s work “the real merit of McMahon is the adaptation of this great book to American readers.”

Bernard McMahon’s contribution cannot be understated. He  was a seedsman who provided an early book for American gardeners, a book based largely on the English garden style.

He insisted on  “open spaces of grass-ground”  in the landscape in the English garden design.

McMahon, ever the gardener, wrote in his book about propagating hawthorns, based on his 20 years of experience.  What reader could resist such practical advice?


More on English Garden Style Found in Nineteenth Century Quebec

We just returned from a few days in Quebec.  After an eight hour drive up, we found a French-speaking city on the St. Lawrence River  with a history of English landscape tradition as well.

Of course we visited the famous Quebec sites where the French and the English once battled for the city, including the Plains of Abraham, which today stands as a park for all to enjoy.  The wall that separates parts of the old city takes your breath away because of its height.

In discussing Frank Cabot’s garden in Quebec, Boston landscape designer Sally Muspratt  once wrote in the Journal of New England Garden History that in Quebec are “gardens appropriate to each of the powerful cultures which shaped the Province of Quebec: the Edenic gardens of nuts and berries of the native Indians, the laboriously cleared fields of the habitants, the formal allees, tapis verts, and rondeux of the aristocratic French conquerors, the perennial beds and wild gardens of the Scots-English settlers, and the garden visions of the well-travelled summer residents.”

My interest in the English garden infuence inspired the daily site-seeing plans for the few days we were there. I found the English style reflected in three nineteenth century houses and landscape.

Villa Bagatelle

Villa Bagatelle shows the picturesque English architectural style of the nineteenth century.  Today the Canadians use the house for art exhibits.

Henry Stuart House

The Stuart House, an authentic English cottage, dates back to 1849.  The House lies along  Quebec’s main artery, Grand Allee. I loved its wild garden.

Domaine Cataraqui

The Domaine Cataraqui, also built in the nineteenth century,  sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence whose waters you can see below the expansive lawn along the front.  The English picturesque landscape style required the lawn.

I sought out these three houses because they all dated from the nineteenth century and were built in an English style. Their landscapes as well reflect the English garden style of that time, with features like a  lawn, a wild garden, and a woodland garden.



Quebec Features Nineteenth Century English Style

On our recent trip to Quebec, where we enjoyed the food and where the historical sites seemed endless, two parks stand out as examples of the nineteenth century English garden style.

St. John of Arc Park, near the Old City, features a statue of the French heroine in the center of an extended lawn, divided in quarters.  The beds

St. Joan of Arc Park

however along the pathways reflect the English style borders.  The colors and mass planting of the borders made the experience of the park refreshing after our long walk to find the park.  A bench in the shade under a tree provided a resting point that we needed.

The borders included 150 different species of perennials, annuals, and bulbs.  The individual varieties were grouped together, using color as a predominant guiding principle.

In the St. Roch Garden the carpet bed design of the words ‘St. Roch’ took me by surprise.  We found this park, quite by accident, even though I knew it was in the area and outside the main tourist attraction sites.

St. Rock Garden

On a post, not far from the bed, you could see a list of all the plants included in the design for the St. Roch plantings including alternanthera, impatiens, ipomaea, and santolina.  What a treat for a gardener to see the names of the plants.

Both the borders of flowering plants and later the  carpet bedding were popular forms of garden design in mid to late nineteenth century England.

From our visit I must say that I found that  Quebec exhibits impressive examples of nineteenth century English garden style.


Celia Thaxter Wrote of Her Love for Flowers

I just picked up New Hampshire poet Celia Thaxter’s book An Island Garden. I wanted to read it again.  Perhaps I was looking for inspiration.

Somehow Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) represents the Victorian gardener in late nineteenth century America.

The gold-stamped cover of Celia Thaxter's book, An Island Garden, published in 1894

The love of flowers became an essential characteristic for Victorian women. We only have to see the brilliant colors in the seed and nursery catalog covers of that time to get a sense of how important the yellows, blues, whites, and reds were to the customers, mostly women.

Celia wrote in her book: “Often I hear people say ‘How do you make your plants flourish like this?’ as they admire the little flower patch I cultivate in summer, or the window gardens that bloom for me in winter; ‘I can never make my plants blossom like this! What is your secret?’ And I answer with one word, ‘Love’.”

The love she writes about means the perseverance and care that she gives the flowers in her garden. She writes: “I am fully and intensely aware that plants are conscious of love and respond to it as they do to nothing else.”

As I look at late nineteenth century seed and nursery catalog covers, the colors of the flowers that they feature stand out first and foremost. The bolder, the better.

Here is a cover from the Huntington Seed Company’s 1894 catalog, the year that Celia wrote her book on the garden.

Celia Thaxter wrote of her love for her garden in such a way the reader can’t help but feel it: “When in these fresh mornings I go into my garden before any one is awake, I go for the time being into perfect happiness. In this hour divinely fresh and still, the fair face of every flower salutes me with a silent joy that fills me with infinite content.”

In Celia’s words I did find that inspiration. How about you?



Celia Thaxter Mentioned Rochester Seedsman James Vick’s Death

Rochester,NY Seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)

You can see from  her book An Island Garden  how nineteenth century New Hampshire poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) took pride in her garden of perennials and annuals on Appledore Island, a few miles off the coast. The garden reflected the Victorian style of the period with its focus on a stream of colorful flowers blooming throughout the summer.

Celia received some of her seeds from the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882), who sent out several illustrated catalogs each year.

The following notice appeared in the Portsmouth Chronicle of January 4, 1881:“We have received ‘Vick’s Illustrated Floral Guide” for 1881. It is an elegant book of 126 pages, one colored flower plate, and 600 illustrations, with descriptions of the best flowers and vegetables and directions for growing.  Of the many ‘guides’ and seed and plant catalogues sent out by our seedsmen and nurserymen, and that are doing so much to inform the people and beautify our country, none are so instructive as Vicks Floral Guide.  Its paper is the choicest, its illustrations handsome enough for a gift book, or a place on the parlor table. Published by James Vick, Rochester, N.Y.”

Celia Thaxter  wrote in one of her letters in 1882 how sad she was when she learned of Vick’s death. Like many of his customers, she also considered him much more than a seed pedler and more like a friend.

The back cover of the 1881 edition of Vick's seed catalog

Vick’s business spread throughout the country, including a small island garden off the coast of New Hampshire.


Nineteenth Century Poet Celia Thaxter Gardened in Victorian Style

After 1870 Americans adopted the Victorian garden from the English style of the day.  The home landscape had to have colorful flowers, often in carpet bedding, but the essential was color, and lots of it.

On Appledore Island, ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire you’ll find the Victorian garden of nineteenth century American poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).  Though her house is gone, the garden has been restored.  Mainland NH garden club members now maintain it.

For the garden enthusiast it is joy to see the original site of the Thaxter garden with so many of the plant varieties she used.   Dr. John Kingsbury of Cornell University restored the garden in 1977 as closely as possible to the garden plan that Celia presented in her book, An Island Gardenwritten in 1894.

Celia Thaxter

During the summer you can take a boat excursion, sponsored by Cornell, to view the garden. When you arrive from Portsmouth at the garden, which is a few hundred yards from where the boat docks, each visitor receives a diagram of the original garden.  It is amazing how close the restoration has been made.  You see the hollyhocks rise above the poppies and other flowers at a corner of the fence near the rocks.

At Appledore  Thaxter entertained writers and artists at the summer hotel her family ran on the island.

Childe  Hassam (1859-1935), the American Impressionist from Boston, was a frequent visitor to Appledore at that time.  He was a friend of Celia’s and agreed to illustrate her garden book.  When you stand in Celia’s garden, you can pick out the large rock along the shore that appeared in so many of his paintings.  He began coming to Appledore in 1870.


Celia Thaxter's garden on Appledore, off the coast of NH, has been restored and now NH garden club volunteers maintain it.

Celia ‘s garden expressed the Victorian middle class woman’s preference for bright colors in both the annuals and the perennials she chose to plant. Each spring the seed catalogs provided her with flower selections.  The seed catalogs, like James Vick’s from Rochester, NY,  both encouraged and enabled her Victorian garden at Appledore.




New Book Traces the History of the American Garden

I just finished the new garden book American Eden by garden designer and historian Wade Graham.

Graham traces the history of the garden in America from Jefferson’s Monticello to New York’s High Line Park that just opened.  The writing flows easily as you move through decades and then centuries to mark important garden moments.

Throughout the book Graham uses the English definition of garden that includes the landscape.

What I liked about the book is that Graham creates a context for the narrative through the personalities we meet.  He introduces the reader to many gardeners, besides of course landscape designers and architects, who formed the American garden aesthetic.  For example novelist Edith Wharton, the high priestess of the Gilded Age, contributed a return to the more formal garden,specifically in an Italian style. Her contemporary, landscape architect Charles Platt  agreed that garden design ought to have that formal look, rejecting, much like England’s garden writer William Robinson and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, the elaborate Victorian flower beds.

Several pages highlight Martha Stewart  because of her skill at making the garden the new status symbol, epecially on Long Island where new money enabled elaborate, formal landscapes and where one neighbor’s garden competes with the next.

Graham does not forget the revered father of the American park Frederick Law Olmsted.  He writes: “If Jefferson’s garden was created in the service of enlightenment and Downing’s in the service of domesticity, Olmsted and Vaux’s was created in the service of therapy.”  Olmsted saw nature, his park, as the way for the urban dweller to feel refreshed and renewed.  Reasons that still motivate a gardener.

After discussion of the lawn’s threat to the environment, Graham admits the continued importance of the lawn for the American garden, because it is stubbornly and deeply lodged in the American psyche.  Through all the centuries of the American garden the lawn has been the one enduring feature.

The book ends with a summary of its thesis: gardens are “expressions of self, and self-image, signals meant to be seen and understood.”  People make gardens both  to enjoy them and to show off to others who they are.

With an appropropriate nod to new horticultural movements, which sometimes focus on agriculture like local food, Graham writes that the mind-set today is “pro-urban and pro-nature—in sum, pro garden.” I like that expression, “pro-garden”.

You see in this book how different forms of the garden emerged in America.  If anything, the garden keeps evolving in what we still call the natural versus the formal look, and sometimes a mix of the two.

Without question this book will help you see your garden in a new way.