Archives for February 2012

Bedding-out Represented the Victorian Age for the American Garden

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden wrote: “The bedding-out system was an indespensable part of the high Victorian style of gardening which became first established in the 1850s.”

Today's Missouri Botanical Garden

The Missouri Botanical Garden today features a bedding-out garden area.

Bedding-out, or carpet beds, meant masses of one plant that showed a bold flower or strong leaf shape and tint.  The plants were arranged in a design that looked like the intricate patterns of a carpet.

This style of gardening meant high maintenance since the plants had to be  kept a certain height for an appropriate display. Sometimes clipping occurred as much as every three days.

The plants included varieties that came from Britian’s colonial expansion as well from plant collectors, representatives of  Botanic Gardens, who traveled the world for new exotic plants.

The image [above] comes from the Missouri Botanical Garden which was started by horticulturist Henry Shaw (1800-1889) in the nineteenth century.  He sought to educate people about gardening and show them the possibilities of what a garden could be.  His model was the English gardenesque style, which included annuals, shrubs, and trees in a collection so that the visitor could appreciate that plant variety.  He eventually gave his garden to the city of St. Louis and today it is a wonderful public garden.

The carpet bedding at the Missouri Botanical Garden as you see it fits well in that Victorian tradition of American gardening.


A Book on the Victorian English Garden Reflects Nineteenth Century America

In my quest to learn more about the Victorian garden, I just finished reading a book with that very name, Tom Carter’s The Victorian Garden.

What I liked about it was the connection of  text with sidebars on almost every page.  Carter introduced long passages from garden writers of the day quite regularly.

England’s cultural and scientific life influenced what was happening in horticulture at that time, like the availability of cheaper glass made greenhouses and conservatories essential too for the middle class.

Plant collectors who traveled the world for Botanic Gardens like Kew brought back plants that often found a place in a home garden.  Also England opened up colonial territories at that time. Thus more plants became available to the English gardener.

The upsurge of science encouraged  new hybrids for vegetables.  Carter wrote: “The increased availability of vegetables resulted in part from the breeding and sale of more productive strains with a longer cropping season.”

The increase in the number of garden publications made gardening a more familiar topic.  According to Carter,  Gardener’s Chronicle, edited by John Lindley, proved to be the most influential horticultural journal for mass circulation, appealing to an increasingly affluent middle class.

Annual flowers in the landscape took off in the second half of the century, especially in the form of carpet bedding on the lawn.

The Victorian period began in the late 1830s, lasting til the end of the century, and of course had its expression in the United States. American gardening took on a Victorian look with the lawn, carpet beds, urns, vines climbing up the porch, rock gardens, and flowering shrubs.

In reading Carter’s book I thought of the many parallels  happening here in the United States at that time.

The lawn, of course, was an essential ingredient of the English garden, and also for American gardening.  Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of 1883: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of more account with us.”

We saw ourselves more Victorian than the Victorians.


Nineteenth Century California Nursery Appealed to Plant Collectors

Garden historian Thomas A.Brown published a wonderful collection of California nurseries from the nineteenth century .

The seed and nusery business began on the West Coast right after  California joined  the United States in 1850 .

To meet the increase in population that now wanted a garden, the San Jose Nursery published the first nursery catalog in 1853.

I spent a year at the Smithsonian, researching my book Seduction of the English Garden, and while there, came across a bibliography of the seed and nursery industry, which is now online [image below].  Though there were few women in the business. the collection includes California nuserywoman  Theodosia B. Shepherd.

The following is from the SI Bibliography on Shepherd: “Mrs. Shepherd was born in Keosauqua, Iowa.  She married W. E. Shepherd of Oskaloosa, Iowa, on September 9, 1866.  They had four children, a son and three daughters.  The family moved to California for Mrs. Shepherd’s health in 1873.  For financial reasons, she began to sell objects she had collected in the California woods, including sea mosses, shells, birds, etc.  In 1881, she sent a package of curiosities to the seedsman Peter Henderson.  He encouraged her to start growing some seeds, because he saw California as a great seed and bulb growing area.  In 1884 Mrs. Shepherd began her career as a professional seed and bulb grower.  In 1892, she had eight acres under cultivation.  Her chief customers were Eastern seedsmen.  Some of her specialties were begonias, Smilax, Calla lilies, Cobaea scandans, Mexican orchids, and cacti.  In 1902, she incorporated her business.  She died on September 6, 1906 at age sixty one.”

She consulted with a famous East coast seedsman Peter Henderson.

In her catalog of 1885 Theodosia wrote: “To all flower lovers who may receive this catalogue I send greeting, with the hope that they may find in its pages many things they desire to add to their collections.

I have greatly increased my stock of Cacti and Rare Succulent Plants.”

Notice she referred to gardeners  as collectors.  Like the English had done for decades, nineteenth century American gardeners too collected plants.  The newer, the better.

Not much has changed today.  When I visit a garden, new plants often take center stage as I walk around the garden.

Though California developed an impressive seed and plant industry in the nineteenth century. the model for the business was based on what owners of seed companies and nurseries did on the  East coast. The catalog became the salesman. The hunt for newer plants went on in every company whether located on the Atlantic or the Pacific.


Recent Nursery Trade Show Surprised Me

The northeast annual trade show for the green industry called New England Grows holds a special place in my gardening life.

I look forward to this Boston event each year.  A couple of weeeks ago this year’s show took place during the mildest weather in the fifteen years I have been attending: high temperatures and no snow. I loved it.

As I walked the aisles of vendors selling garden products and services, I came upon the Netherland Bulb Company.

The company offers bulbs, including dahlias, under a special branding called the Biltmore Collection.

The bulbs with the Biltmore image on the box.

What struck me when I first saw the image on the colorful box was the landscape of the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Biltmore landscape in keeping with his preference for the English picturesque view of extensive lawn and carefully placed trees and shrubs.

We still love that image, because there it is on the cover of the package of bulbs.

That English garden style has an attractiion that persists.  It motivates us in gardening and landscape, and in this case, at least the company hopes, in buying new plants for the garden.


California Nurseries in the 19th Century Sold Plants from the East Coast

After 1850 a booming seed and nursery business appeared on the West coast. That same year when California became part of the United States,  local nurseries began to import plants from states in the Northeast and Europe.

The trains after 1869 provided the largest variety of plants for the California nursery business.

American gardening on the Pacific coast resembled gardens from the Atlantic coast area.

California native poppy

California garden historian Tom Brown wrote, “Virtually ninety-five percent of the plants seen today are introduced species and varieties, and a great percentage of these were introduced before 1900.”

As was the case in states across the country, most of the nurseries in California developed after 1880.

Brown also wrote: “It was found that plants that had to be kept in heated greenhouses in Massachusetts and could therefore be afforded only by the wealthy, or were even symbols of wealth, were perfectly hardy out of doors in much of California and could be grown by anyone.”  Thus California gardens resembled those on the East coast.

Luckily, from the nineteenth century a native California poppy, Eschoscholtzia Californica, [above illustration from Renee’s Garden] often made its way into the seed and nursery catalogs around the country.  In his catalog of 1874 Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick wrote of this flower: “A very showy class of hardy annuals.”  And so it is even today in many American gardens.

East coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston featured early nineteenth century nurseries that sold seeds and plants, but as the country expanded, local seed companies and nurseries developed to meet the needs of gardeners. And so it was  in California that with the rush of new settlers, most of whom came from the East, new gardens appeared as well, stocked with their familiar plants from the East coast.


Nineteenth Century Gardener Defined the English Garden

The nineteenth century English garden asssumed a natural design, with the lawn, and where possible, a vista.

In 1840 British landscape designer Charles McIntosh in his book  The Flower Garden wrote: “It is generally understood, that the style termed English in gardening consists in an artful imitation of nature, and is consequently much dependent on aspect and accessaries.  In the true English style, accordingly, we have neither the Italian terrace, the French parterre, nor the Dutch clipt evergreens.”

McIntosh seemed clearer on what the style was not, rather than what it was.

Illustration of English garden and Pleasure Ground from Charles McIntosh's book (1840)

The English garden demanded a design.

If one called the English garden natural, that did not mean there was no plan or  one did not care about what happened in the landscape in the pursuit of the  ‘natural’.  It was that one took great pains in creating a look that was natural, with curves rather than straight lines.


California Gardens in 1877 Resembled an East Coast Landscape

You may think that the popular English garden style in the nineteenth century was limited to the Atlantic coast.

Not true.

California garden historian Thomas Brown wrote that in the nineteenth century California planted gardens in both the English gardenesque style as well as the Italian landscape design.

Plant pedlers used this illustration in their books to sell plants

In 1877 Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly included a letter from California.  The writer detailed a San Francisco garden whose description read much like a landscape of a wealthy East coast gardener.

“It is a superb collection [of plants] for any place, and is the largest in variety and extent of any on the coast. At great expense a rockery was hauled by ox teams to the grounds..An artificial stream plays over the rocks and a pond for gold fish of some extent, receives the water….There were glades and clumps of wide shrubbery, rural walks and rustic bridges and seats and arbors…flower-beds in mathematical shapes, and roses by the thousands. Box trees, hollies, cork trees, and an infinite variety of familiar and unfamiliar plants that would fill a gardener’s catalogue to enumerate.”

The Californai nurseries had done their job well, supplying the  plants popular on the East coast to this California gardener.

In one sense it is no surprise to see a garden in California just like one on the East coast.  That’s what happens when advertising and marketing create a uniform message, in this case, how a garden should look.

Like the before and after image above, the landscape looked the same from coast to coast.  This is an illustration in a plant peddler’s book.  The English gardenesque style is clear.

The nineteenth century nursery catalogs around the country promoted such a garden and sold the plants to fill it.

Meehan’s California garden serves as an example of America’s love for garden fashion, sold in advertising, garden magazines,  garden books, and, of course, the catalog.




American Landscape Designer Charles Eliot Discouraged English Garden Design

Landscape designer Charles Eliot (1859-1897)  advocated for the natural beauty in America.  He did not encourage simply duplicating a European style landscape when we had so much to offer in our own land, rivers, trees, and mountains.

Charles Eliot, American landscape designer

In an article called “Anglomania in Park Making”  he wrote: “Within the area of the United States we have many types of scenery and many climates, but in designing the surrounding of dwellings, in working upon the landscape, we too often take no account of these facts. On the rocky coast of Maine each summer sees money worse than wasted in endeavoring to make Newport lawns on ground which naturally bears countless lichen-covered rocks, dwarf Pines and Spruces, and thickets of Sweet Fern, Bayberry, and wild Rose.  The owners of this particular type of country spend thousands in destroying its natural beauty, with the intention of attaining to a foreign beauty.”

His words struck me when I first read them in Denise Otis’ Grounds for Pleasure.  This week I also read some of Eliot’s biography, written by his father and Harvard president Charles W. Eliot.

I thought to myself, what have we done in forcing our land to imitate a landscape of another country?

Charles Eliot wrote: “If the lawn were perfect and ‘truly English,’ would it harmonize with the Pitch Pines and scrub Birches and dwarf Junipers which clothe the lands around? No.”

His words make me think that we need to look at the garden and landscape in its own evniroment as the first step in landscape design.  Sounds much like English poet Alexander Pope’s famous quote from the Romans that we need to know  ‘the genius of the place’ before we decide on landscape style.