Archives for May 2012

Italian Garden Center Sells the Same Plants as US

My recent trip to Amalfi brought several garden experiences that I will remember for a long time.

One thing that comes to mind is on the Amalfi coast I saw at a nursery the same annuals we can buy here in the States.  Three varieties for sale were the short wax begonia, yellow marigolds, and red geraniums.

It was as if I was at home.

What that means to me is that the power of marketing communication today makes a

Familiar red geraniums in pots line this walkway at Villa Rufolo in the town of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast.

plant variety easily recognizable, perhaps even around the world, and that is the plant that people want to grow.

Mass marketing of the garden only began in the later part of the nineteenth century when communication innovations like the typewriter and increased speed in printing along with increased advertising became common.

And thus is has continued to this day.

So in one sense it is no surprise to see the same annuals for sale in Italy since the companies that grow the plants are often international corporations.

Since the late nineteenth century American gardening has been intimately connected with the mass marketing of plants and garden products.


English Garden Built on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi coast, south of Naples, proved to be a remarkable vacation spot.

We just returned from a week visit there.

A surprise for me, besides the winding roads up and down the mountains, which I am grateful I never drove, had to be an English garden we found in the town of Ravello.  The site for the garden is the famous Villa Cimbrone.

This is the topmost area at the Villa Cimbrone called the Terrace of Infinity.

Though the Villa dates to the eleventh century, an Englishman Ernest William Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, purchased the property in 1904 after his grand tour, a trip through Europe that the sons of  rich Englishmen of that time took to see the world and so finish their education.

His contribution included the design of a park-like garden that covers what seemed to me acres.  You begin with a long alley of trees called the Avenue of Immensity and end at an arch enclosing the Statue of Ceres.

After walking under the arch you stand atop the mountain at a spot called the Terrace of Infinity, in amazement at the Mediterrean Sea stretching far below you.  The view goes on forever.

In the garden you also find a collection of roses, one variety named after Lord Grimthorpe’s daughter, and along the pathway statues of Mercury, David, and Bacchus,all of which just add to the richness of the garden experience.

The English component has to include the lawn, the rows of trees, and  the flowering shrubs, but also the surprise at the end of the Avenue of Immensity.  You never expect to see that view, but you do, and stand in amazement before it.

Today Villa Cimbrone serves as a hotel which I am happy to report opens the grounds to the public.

I expected to see Italy, but never knew I’d also find an English garden, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, in a setting like no other.



Perennials Took Back Seat in Nineteenth Century American Gardens

Today the question of perennials in the garden hinges on what variety of a perennial does one include.  Should it be native or exotic?

In the nineteenth century the issue of perennials in the garden played like a pingpong ball.

Lily of the Valley. Photo from Klehm's Song Sparrow Nursery.

Sometimes the practice was encouraged, and other times deemed not important.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in March of 1883:

“As to hardy herbaceous plants being recommended for general cultivation, I think that day is past. There seems to be a craving in human nature for that which we have not. Rarities, new forms and colors and exotics are more appreciated than those hardy things. But all are good in their place.”

The lily of the valley, a popular nineteenth century shade perennial, was included in the Moffatt-Ladd garden of the 1880s in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.   Alexander H. Ladd (1815-1900)  recorded so in his garden journal, discovered only a few years ago.

He thought perennials formed an essential part of the garden. The fact that plants like the lily of the valley were not native did not bother him.

Nineteenth century gardeners like American gardeners today just looked for new plants, and often chose annuals rather than the faithful perennial.



The English Garden in 1800 was American

The founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in England in the month of April in 1786.  They decided to visit English gardens because Jefferson sought inspiration for his Monticello landscape. Both were interested in English garden design.

Andrea Wulf in her latest book Founding Gardeners writes: “The English garden was in fact American.”

What Adams and Jefferson found was that the English gardens they visited were filled with native American plants like rhododendron, white pine, and arborvitae.

They visited classic English gardens like Stowe, Blenheim, the Leasowes, and Wooburn Farm, all mentioned in the important English garden book of that time by Thomas Whately called Observations on Modern Gardening.

Wulf says, “Of everything one could see in England, Jefferson believed gardens in particular were important for Americans. They might have failed to negotiate a trade treaty with Britain  and the Barbary States [which is why both were in London], but they had discovered how important America had been in the creation of the gardens of the old enemy.”

English gardeners had coveted American plants for decades.  Like any immigrant, the plants traveled the ocean to a find a new home and soon settled into their new environment.

“When Adams and Jefferson returned to the United States,” writes Wulf, “they would lay out gardens that were directly inspired by what they had seen in England.”

The founding fathers considered English garden design worth replicating in America- with native plants, of course.



Early Philadelphia Seedsman M’Mahon Wrote about English Landscape Design

In 1806 the Philadelphia seedsman and immigrant from Ireland Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816) published his book American Gardener’s Calendar.  He borrowed rather extensively from the work of English garden writers.

In an article called “The Beginnings of  the Landscape Tradition in America”, the writer David Chase discussed Bernard M’Mahon.

Chase wrote: “The first extensive practical description of the English landscape style published in America was a chapter in the American Gardener’s Calendar.”

What’s amazing to me is that M’Mahon simply treated the topic of ‘landscape design’. He does not call it English garden design for Americans.

His assumption was that the only design for the landscape for an American gardener had to be English style.



Sometimes Gardens Are too Big

Do you sometimes feel like your garden is too big?  There just seems a lot to do.

This idea of too much hits me now in May when I am working in the garden to clean up from winter, weed, transplant, and fill pots for the summer.

I have built my garden over the past twenty-five years, a bit at a time.

Euphorbia now blooming in my garden

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) once raised the same question.

He wrote in his seed catalog of 1872: “The great difficulty with American gardens is that they are too large, and not sufficiently cared for.  If we gave the same amount of labor on a quarter of an acre that we now expend on an acre, the result would be much more satisfactory.”

Vick recognized that a gardener needs a sense of satisfaction in the work of gardening.  One way to achieve that is to have less to cultivate.

Somehow I feel Vick’s insight is just as appropriate for a gardener today as it was in the 1880s.


Shakers Produced the First Paper Seed Packet

When the Shakers arrived from England in the late 1700s and settled in Watervliet, New York, they  gardened of course , but also needed  to provide income for the community.

Selling vegetable seeds became the answer.

The Shakers found the most efficient way to provide a costumer with the seeds was with a small paper envelope.  They were the first to use seed packets as a marketing strategy.

According to the book Work and Worship among the Shakers, “from 1811 when the Watervliet Shakers raised $300 worth of seeds, to 1840, at the height of the enterprise, the seed business was their chief industry.”

The Shaker seed pedlers crossed the state of Nw York as well as bordering states to sell their seeds.

Other Shaker communities also took up the business.

Shaker historian M. Stephen Miller writes in the book Shaker Design: ” For the garden seed industry the Shakers used up-to-date printing technologies as they evolved, even though it meant having the printing done for them rather than by them…Seeds were a major source of revenue throughout the nineteenth century.”

The Shaker seed business lasted until about 1870 when it could no longer compete with the commercial seed trade.

Nineteenth century seed companies, like Burpee and Park, owe a debt of gratitude to the Shakers who paved the way for seed sales with their simple paper seed packet.


You Can Help with a Book Title

I am days away from signing a contract for my book.  It has been a long journey.

The book motivated this blog almost two years ago.  Now I enjoy writing and editing these posts.

My need for your help is the subject of this post. I need your wisdom for the title of the book.

The main idea of the book is that in the nineteenth century for the  first time a mass media driven garden became part of the culture.

With the rise of the number of newspapers, magazines, and their dependence on advertising in the second half of the nineteenth century, the American garden industry changed as well.

The new media environment put the the selling of plants and seeds into a new orbit.

Modern seed companies and nurseries, those after 1870, used the new media to sell a garden brand, which in the catalogs was their version of the English garden with its lawn and flowerbeds.

Advertising of any product like medicinal beverages, clothing, furniture, canned goods, and, of course, seeds and plants became unbridled.  People could write and illustrate whatever they wanted about a product. There was a seduction of the consumer, especially women, through the words and images connected with a product.

I want to thank historian Jackson Lears who develops the  idea of ‘seduction’ in his  book on the cultural history of advertising called Fables of Abundance.

The working title of my book is Seduction of the English Garden: The Story of American Gardening according to the Nineteenth Century Seed and Nursery Catalogs.

The 'Crimson Rambler' Rose, imported from England in 1893, began an American sensation.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose  [above] might work for the cover. Notice the landscape illustrated in this Peter Henderson catalog.

The book will come out next year.

Here is where you can help.

What do you think of the title?  Do you like it? Do you have a suggestion for another title?

I look forward to hearing from you.

If you like the title, let me know that as well.




Buist Seed Company Featured the Newest Printing Press

I recently spent an afternoon at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Library in Wellesley, Mass.

There I examined a collection of seed catalogs from the nineteenth century seedsman Robert Buist.

What I discovered was that Buist took great pride in telling his customers about how his firm used the latest communication techologies.

Gordon Press in the 1870s

In his catalog of 1872 Buist boasted about his new printing presses. He wrote: “Three of the celebrated ‘Gordon’s Printing Presses’ are kept constantly at work on seed bags, labels, and other printing matter required in our business, and the stock of type and other printing material we use is equal in extent to that required by some of our daily papers.”

Buist, like most businesses of that time, had to keep modern, and that meant using the latest form of communication.

He wrote in that same catalog: “When we established ourselves in 1828, the Seed business in this country was in its infancy, the trade was really insignificant in comparison to what it is in the present day.”

The world was indeed much different in 1870 when the new mass communication technologies enabled the company’s  catalogs to be printed for the first time in the hundreds of thousands.

It was not only a new company.  It was a new world.

Sounds a bit like today’s garden industry  meets social media, doesn’t it?