Archives for January 2012

Downton Abbey’s Landscape Looks Like Chatsworth

I have enjoyed a few episodes of the PBS TV program Downton Abbey.

When I see the manor house in its grassy setting in the program’s opening, the  landscape reminds me of Chatsworth in northern England.

England's Highclere Castle, location for the TV series 'Downton Abbey'.

Chatsworth is the classic landscape  that has survived three hundred years.  It features an extensive lawn,  a rock garden bigger than you’ve ever seen, a cascading water feature, a conservatory, as well as several sculptured pieces throughout the gardens.

Recently in London’s Telegraph the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who are the owners of Chatsworth, talked about how there is renewed interest in Chatsworth because of of the TV series Downton Abbey.

I can understand that.

Chatsworth represents the classic English landscape, developed over decades and maintained to the present day like a living museum.

The actual setting for the show is Highclere Castle, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose castle is located one hour from London.  The house dates to the nineteenth century, but its landscape design began much earlier.

What the show is doing of course is giving millions of viewers a sense of the classic English garden style.


The Formal English Garden Returned at the End of the Nineteenth Century

In 1879 Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick included this formal garden design in his magazine [below].  Though carpet bedding and the wild garden were current topics at that time, the insertion of this image indicated some gardeners preferred a more formal look to the landscape.





By the end of the nineteenth century English landscape architect Reginald Bloomfield promoted a return to the  formal look to the garden.  He rejected  the naturalistic design proposed by the landscape gardeners like William Robinson and the perennial borders of Gertrude Jekyll as well as the elaborate vulgarities of the Victorian garden style like carpet bedding.

Reginald Bloomfield (1856-1942)

In the early 1890s Bloomfield wrote in his book  The Formal Garden in England : “Until quite recently little attention has been paid to the formal garden.”

He saw it as his duty to restore the formal garden design to the English landscape which he preferred to the naturalistic style, favored by landscape designers for decades.

Bloomfield wrote: “Till the end of the eighteenth century a tradition of good taste existed in England-a tradition not confined to any one class, but shown not less in the sampler of the village school than in the architecture of the great lord’s house.”

So a battle between proponents of the naturalistic design and the formal design surfaced at a time when gardeners were looking for direction. Do I choose the one or the other?

With Bloomfield there was no question.

Today we think either style may be appropriate for a particular site, and perhaps a combination of the two.

The English move to a formal garden design also happened in America with landscape architects like Charles Platt.

So the choice between the naturalistic view and the formal view took sides at the turn of the century both in England and America.

The situation is not much different today when the homeowner faces the question of a formal garden versus one with a more naturalistic bent, including less lawn and more native plants.



What Did Cardinal Newman Say about Gardening?

During England’s Victorian period learning became equated with living a moral life. Books and magazines became important.

At the same time among the middle class a quest for knowledge about gardening emerged.

One of my favorite English figures of the nineteenth century is Saint John Cardinal Newman who wrote about learning in his book The Idea of the University, a book I first encountered in graduate school and loved reading.

Saint John Cardinal Newman (1801-1890)

Tom Carter in his wonderfullly-illustrated book The Victorian Garden includes this  quote of 1864 from Cardinal Newman: “Virtue is the child of Knowledge: Vice of Ignorance: therefore education, periodical literature, railroad traveling, ventilation, and the art of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral and happy.”

Last year the Catholic Church canonized Cardinal Newman in a ceremony at St. Peter’s in Rome.

Though he did not talk about garden literature, his quote reflects how the Victorians became an eager audience for garden literature, including John Claudius Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine which first appeared in 1826.

America, reflecting our own Victorian period, was not far behind in publishing books and magazines about gardening.

In 1806 Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon put out  his book American Gardener’s Calendar, based laregly on an English gardening book. Boston nurseryman C. M. Hovey in 1837 published his Magazine of Horticulture that ran for decades. It mirrored Loudon’s magazine in format and content, something Hovey recognized from the first issue.

Both appealed to a middle class readership eager to learn about gardening.




This Definition of American Gardening in the Nineteenth Century May Surprise You.

A particular time period colors any definition of gardening, but it also reveals how a culture values plants and  sees their role in the landscape.

Philadelphia nurseryman and writer Thomas Meehan defined gardening in the 1882 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in this way: “Pretty flowers and handsome trees, beautiful lawns and artistically designed grounds, are the essential elements of gardening.”

Meehan includes what we frequently call the garden, but also the landscape in his meaning of  ‘gardening’.

The English definition of gardening often included the entire landscape as well, the lawn, trees, shrubs, kitchen garden, and flower garden.

Today gardening in this Delaware landscape means an elaborate knot design.

The meaning of gardening from Meehan runs as a theme in his magazine throughout its decades in publication. Each month he would write about the lawn, trees, landscape design, and,of course, flowers.

How do you define gardening?


No Fence Restricted the American Lawn

I have often mentioned that the lawn has become the major remnant of the English garden still present in the American landscape.

We have no fences containing that lawn. It is free to run into the neighbor’s lawn. That is the American contribution to the English lawn.

English gardener and  writer Joan Parry Dutton recognized that in her book  Enjoying America’s Garden which she wrote after her visit to America in the 1950s.

She said: “If I were asked if there was one single feature of American gardens as a whole which had caught my attention, I would unhestitatingly say the lack of hedges.”  Hedges meant any kind of enclosure  including a wooden or metal fence.

In earlier American gardening it was a different situation where animals roamed the property on farms and suburban areas outside cities. There a fencing of some sort was necessary especially for maintaining a vegetable garden close to the house.

America’s premier nineteenth century nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, no fan of fences, once wrote: “To fence off a small plot around a fine house, in the midst of a lawn of fifty acres, is a perversity which we could never reconcile, with even the lowest perception of beauty.”

Denise Otis in her book  Grounds for Pleasure seems to agree.  She wrote: “Although it is almost never used and is probably seen more by passersby than by its owners, the open front lawn yard retains it hold upon the American sense of fitness; and yet it was only a little less than a hundred and fifty years ago that the fences came down.”

Fences may have been popular in colonial times, but by the nineteenth century move to the suburbs, the fence became a thing of the past.  The American garden enjoyed the open lawn that seemed endless as it flowed into the neighbor’s green.


Rochester Seedsman James Vick Taught Landscape Design in His Catalog and Magazine

A middle class homeowner in the nineteenth century needed to make sure a lawn, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees accented the outside of the home.

But where to find the proper method to dig, spread seed,  and plant?

The answer lay in the garden catalogs.

It was not uncommon for seed and nursery catalogs to offer essays on how to landscape a home property.

No one in the seed trade spent as much time writing about residential landscape design as Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882).

Phildephia nurseryman and editor of Gardener’s Monthly Thomas Meehan recognized Vick’s skill in landscape advice in the January 1873 issue of GM. Meehan wrote: “Vick’s Illustrated Floral Guide.- It is a pleasure to handle so beautiful a catalogue as Mr. Vick always issues, – and then independently of its value as a seed catalogue, it is filled with directions and hints for ornamental grounds, that it is equal to a good garden book at the same time.”

Vick taught the principles of English garden style, borrowed mainly  from Andrew Jackson Downing, whose design reflected  the English picturesque style.

Illustration from Vick's catalogue.

The image [above] from Vick’s catalog illustrates the middle class lawn, carefully spotted trees and a few shrubs.

And so Vick advocated English garden design in essays and illustrations in both his catalog and his magazine called Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

He became an important source of landscape design in the nineteenth century.

Today the Cultural Landscape Foundation recognizes Vick as a pioneer in landscape design, an honor Vick deserves.


Nineteenth Century American Garden Writers Couldn’t Compare with the English

The long tradition of the English garden gave American gardening a model to replicate in the nineteenth century.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan recognized  how important that tradition had become to the American gardener in garden design style, plants, but especially garden literature.

Meehan wrote the following in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1874: “At times, when reading in English horticultural magazines the immense amount of interesting matter freely contributed to the great cause, and which has been the great means of making English horticulture the great power it is today, we have wondered whether the time would ever come when American horticulture would ever be blessed by the same true love.”

He seemed to lament that in the history of gardening in America we had so few important writers.

Peter Henderson's Seed Catalog 1897

Then he offered his readers a sign of hope.

In that same issue he included essays by three leaders in  American horticulture of that time, each of them a seedsman or nurseryman.  He wrote: “This issue of the Monthly gives us hope. So many distinquised names, as well as matter from less known but non less valued contributors, have never appeared in one number before.”

In that issue he included the writing of Peter Henderson, Charles Mason Hovey, and Franklin Reuben Elliott.

He made the point that American gardening had these three horticultural giants as part of our own emerging garden style.

Like other seedsmen and nurserymen, Henderson, Hovey and Elliott taught America how to garden and design the home landscape.

Boston nurseryman and garden writer/editor Hovey boasted in that same issue of GM: “French authors as well English will find some things in American books which are worth reading.”

The American garden tradition owes much to such seedsmen and nurserymen of the nineteenth century, eager to develop an American style for the garden.


Nineteenth Century American Garden Catalogs Offered Native Plants

The argument that it is essential to use native plants in the garden has a long history in this country.

In the nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the July 1875 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “It has been the habit to overlook our beautiful native plants, until some European florist told us they were beautiful, when we would send to Europe for seeds of our own productions.  This is being changed.  Our own seedsmen get them for us direct from their native places.  Vick’s catalogue offers many rare California beauties for the first time.”

Meehan recognized Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s offerings in his catalog as a step toward making native plants available to the American gardener.

It would not be the last time we would hear the need to grow our native plants.

Certainly early on Philadelphia naturalist John Bartram (1699-1777) saw native plants as essential for the American garden because of their ease of care and beauty, but especially because they were available.

Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz have written a new book called The Midwestern Native Garden that repeats the argument: grow native plants.

Why is it people keep singing the same song?

Maybe we need to hear it over and over again so that it becomes familiar, a message that will motivate us in our gardens.


The English Sold Plants for the Nineteenth Century American Garden

Since American gardening in the nineteenth century was closely linked to garden fashion in England, it ought be no surprise that the English sold American seedsmen and nurserymen new plants.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1875 Gardener’s Monthly: “Most of the new plants described are of English introduction.  It is, however, so easy in these days of fast steamships to get plants from Europe that the magazine in making notes of new things hardly thinks it worth while to make any distinction; moreover it is not necessary, as American florists and nurserymen soon get anything good that is noticed in our pages.”

English plants fit easily into American gardens.

Clematis Jackmanii, probably the most famous 19th century variety of clematis, came from Japan to England. Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

In a later issue of the magazine that same year, Meehan singled out the Clematis vine from England.  He wrote: “The most popular plant in England just now appears to be the Clematis. Large numbers of hybrids have been introduced, and they are employed for bedding purposes, as well as for numberless forms of ornamental work.”

It would not be long before varieties ot Clematis, including Clematis Jackmanii, a species from Japan first introduced to English gardens in 1863, would also be advertised in American seed and nursery catalogs.

According to the website AboutClematis Clematis Jackmanii remains today the most popular variety of clematis in the American garden.

Not too far from my house that same clematis variety that started out long ago in the English garden climbs up the lamppost in front of a two-story brick home.  The flowers cover the post in summer with their blue color.