Archives for November 2011

Nineteenth Century Suburbs Became Attractive Because They Offered a Garden

The nineteenth century seed and nusery catalogs often included an image of a suburban home with a lawn and garden.  That illustration confirmed what was happening around large cities across the country.  People were moving to suburbs because they wanted a lawn and garden which meant a chance to be closer to nature.

Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1876: “Those who have now their town house for winter, and country seat for summer, are among the rarest of American citizens. Gardening at country seats is almost of the past. There is little demand for that class of horticultural talent that this system called for.  On the other hand it is a pleasure to note that suburban gardening is largely on the increase.  The small places, from one to ten acres, are more numerous than they used to be.”

In his new book Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston Michael Rawson devotes a chapter to growth of the suburbs in nineteenth century Boston. He writes, “The independent pastoral suburb was more than just a new kind of place. It represented a new set of relationships between people and nature.”

People left the cities to find that link with nature, which often meant a lawn and a garden, in keeping with what horticulturalists like seedsmen and nursery owners promoted.  The landscape style of course was English with a lawn and flowerbeds of annuals dotting the lawn in true Victorian style.


Woodlands in Philadelphia Reflected Modern English Landscape Style

The English influence on American gardening began with the Colonial period on the East Coast.

Much of the garden design followed the geometric, old fashioned style of straight lines and symmetry in the landscape.

A few versions of the modern, more natural approach to the landscape appeared as well.

Woodlands became an early example of that design style.

Woodlands, Thomas Hamilton's property in late 1700s Philadelphia with its extensive lawn. Engraving by William Birch from The Country Seats of the United States of North America (1808)

Woodlands in Philadelphia was the garden of Thomas Hamilton (1745-1813). His landscape followed the modern, picturesque English view of extensive lawns, winding paths, and water features.  He also included a plant collection that totaled 13,000 plants.

Thomas Jefferson visited Woodlands, probably for ideas for his own landscape which he designed at Monticello, also in the English picturesque view.

Well before the nineteenth century we can see evidence of the English influence on American gardening, including  colonial gardens and plantations in the south, and also gardens of the wealthy around large cities in the northeast like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.


Mount Auburn Cemetery Designed in the English Picturesque Style

Mount Auburn Cemetery in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts  has always been a special place for  me.  The Cemetery dates from 1831.

Over the years I have visited it many times.

The weeping purple European Beech tree that greets you as you enter certainly stands out as a wonder.  You can walk under its branches.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery in the Fall - photo courtesy of Friends of Mt. Auburn

Dorchester nurseryman and President of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Marshall Wilder (1798-1886), a popular speaker and writer,  once said “It was intended by the founders of the Garden and Cemetery at Mount Auburn that these grounds should ultimtely offer an example of the best style of landscape or picturesque gardening.”

The same English picturesque landscape style also served later as the model for Central Park.  Frederick Law Olmsted loved the natural landscape with the extended lawn, careful placement of trees, water, and curved walkways.

The seed and nursery industries of the nineteenth century were just going along with the prominent ideas on the landscape and the garden when they wrote essays and included illustrations of the landscape that were often in the same style.

To visit Mount Auburn today  is to step back in  time, but also to experience the English picturesque landscape.


Smith College Opens its Annual Chrysanthemum Show

Just returned from the Smith College annual Fall Chrysanthemum Show in Northampton, Massachusetts which runs through November 20.

Chrysanthemum 'Golden Empress', one of many mums you will see at Smith's Annual Chrysanthemum Show.

It is a worthwhile show to visit.  The number of plants and the colors of the flower take your breath away.

I thought of the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs and what they had to say about this marvelous flower.

The following quote from the Robert Buist Seed Catalog of 1895 came from my work at the catalog collection at the Library of the Department of Agriculture.

Buist’s catalog of that year  said: “It has not been many years since the Chrysanthemum was regarded by the masses as being unworthy of cultivation, the flowers although of brilliant colors were common in their appearance, and their color obnoxious; but today our Chrysanthemum exhibitions throughout the country are great and fashionable events, and it may be classed as the great American favorite. This change in sentiment is owing to the great improvements made in the coloring, size, and exquisite form of the flower.”

The improvements in the flower certainly show at the Smith College exhibition.

In 1891 American gardener James Morton wrote in his book  Chrysanthemum Culture for America  that “numerous works have been devoted to this favorite flower, but they are chiefly of English origin, and in view of the great difference in our climatic conditions, they can only with uncertainty be adopted as guides in our country”.  So he wrote his book for American gardeners.

Morton mentioned a yellow mum called ‘Golden Empress’.  You will see several pots of it at the Smith Exhibit.


Seedsman Peter Henderson Proposed Victorian Garden Design in His Book


Peter Henderson (1823-1890), a Scottish immigrant gardener, became one of the most successful seed company owners in nineteenth century America.

His five-story seed company was located on Cortlandt Street in New York.  He had gardens in New Jersey where he would trial his seeds.

It was not uncommon for seed companies and nurseries to present landscape advice in their catalogs, books, and magazines.

In his popular  book Gardening for Pleasure, first published in 1883,  Henderson included a  landscape plan for a two acre lot.

He wrote: “The more modern style of flower borders has quite displaced [herbacuous borders], and they are now but little seen, unless in very old gardens, or in botanical collections.”

He advocated the carpet-bed style of planting on the lawn, as you can see in the cover illustrating  his book.

The seven plant varieties, all annuals,  he proposed included a dark-leafed Canna in the center and Alternanthera versicolor at the edge, bordering the lawn.

He had exhibited a f lowerbed with the same annuals at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Landscape design is tied into what is in fashion at a particular time.  In Henderson’s advice Victorian carpet bedding with annuals was popular in both England and America and so that was the landscape style he recommended.


19th Century Nurseryman Hovey Recognized English Designer Loudon as Inspiration

John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) English garden writer and landscape designer

In Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1876 we read what an important figure English gardem writer John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) was to American landscape gardening.

In the July issue of GM the Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey wrote:  “Loudon’s books have moulded and formed the present English taste for landscape art, as they have also influenced to a great degree the taste in our own country.”

New York nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing frequently mentioned his ideas came from the writings of Loudon.  Downing was America’s  most important landscape designer in the nineteenth century.

Hovey recognized the role that Loudon played in the evolution of the American garden.


Newspapers of 19th Century America Enabled a Media Produced Garden through the Catalog

Nineteenth century newspapers  were the first mass medium of communication for the country.

Cheap printing that made the daily newspaper popular also enabled more seed  company and nursery catalogs.  That made possible for the first time a mass media produced garden and landscape.  People wanted what they read about and saw in the catalogs.

In her new book Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers historic gardens coordinator Marcia Carmichael from Old World Wisconsin writes: “By 1880, the family kitchen garden of German settlers [in Wisconsin] showed evidence of the influences of mainstream America. The kitchen garden was relegated to the side yard. Plantings in neat rows replaced the traditional rectangular beds, allowing for mechanical cultivation, if desired.”

Vegetable gardening in James Vick's 1874 seed catalogue

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included an illustraton in his popular catalog of 1874 when he began the section on ‘Vegetables’.

In the image you see rows of vegetables, the popular form of vegetable gardening according to the seed and nursery industry.

Since the mass communication forms of newspaper and magazine, and of course, the catalogs, the media have guided the way America gardens.

Is it any different today?