Archives for August 2012

Colonial Williamsburg, the Grandest of all Colonial Revival Gardens

The colonial revival movement is important here because it began about 1870 and lasted well into the twentieth century.  The movement gave America many houses and gardens from the colonial period.

The most famous example of colonial revivalism has to be Colonial Williamsburg, completed in 1938.

Charles B. Hosmer, Jr. wrote a chapter in the book The Colonial Revival in America.  He said “The landscape decisions made at Williamsburg were replayed at private and public restorations all over the United States.”

Colonial Williamsburg’s gardens. [Photo courtesy of DCTours.]

The gardens at Williamsburg however assumed a certain embellishment.

Hosmer wrote: “The ideal of historical accuracy was important when architects dealt with restoring or reconstructing Virginia buildings  But, where gardens were concerned, the revival of the past was the creation of a picture of beauty, a romantic setting that would give pleasure.”

The decisions for the gardens, especially ornamental plants, were made according to the recommendations of the landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff and the benefactor for the entire project, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Thus what we see there includes the vision of designers and architects of what they thought the colonial period embodied.

Hosmer said about Williamsburg: “When the causes of history and aesthetics [in garden restoration] collided, beauty almost always won.”

Gardens are subject to fashion and style.  When it comes to restoring a garden of an earlier period, sometimes current style and fashion can enter a decision about design and plants.


House Built in Salem Reflects Colonial Revival Period

The colonial revival movement in  America took place from 1870 well into the twentieth century.

The goal was to reconstruct, remodel, and sometimes reinvent the houses, gardens, and artifacts of the colonial period in America.  Landscape designers and architects were often involved.

On  a recent trip to Salem, Mass. to study the history of house architecture in the city, I came across an example from the city’s own colonial revival period.

The Francis Sherman House in Salem, Mass. was built in 1909. It replicates the near-by Derby House, built in 1762.

I walked along Chestnut Street, and enjoyed an array of houses from various periods of Salem’s long history as an important early American seaport.

One house impressed me particularly.

The Francis Sherman House was built in  1909, as an adaptation of the Derby House, a few blocks away, built in 1762.  It is Salem’s  example of colonial revivalism.

I walked over to see the Derby House, still standing,  and the resemblance is astounding.  They really look alike.

The Colonial revival was an effort to reconstruct a style  of earlier times.  By highlighting the fashion of an earlier time, the designer or architect sometimes made a statement about the deficiencies of the current period.

I remember the colonial revival garden at the Whipple House  in near-by Ipswich, which was built in the mid twentieth century.  The goal was to represent the kitchen garden of the seventeenth century.

The colonial revival movement is an example that gardens, like houses, are subject to fashion and style.  In American gardening the English garden often provided inspiration, especially in the nineteenth century, and sometimes even in gardens in the colonial revival era.



The English Garden Is Still Seductive

As I read about the history of the English garden, I come across an assortment of books and articles, some recent, some not.

The other day I came across an article, written a few years ago, in the Los Angeles Times, “Just Add Tea and Crumpets”  by writer and photographer Ariel Swartley. She wrote: “Few phrases are more magical than ‘English garden.’ ” She goes on to describe the lengths that some American gardeners take in order to be able to say they own a bit of the English garden on their own turf.

The palladium bridge in Stourhead, a classic English garden from the eighteenth century.

Then she asked the following questions: “What is it, I wonder, that’s so seductive about the idea of an English garden? Why does a style that took shape a continent away still have such a powerful hold on our imaginations?”

Her questions seem pertinent today as well. We still admire much about the English garden.

If you ask someone to define the English garden, you will get as many answers as people you ask.  They might include such garden styles as a cottage garden, a lawn, or a border of perennials.

Today the myth of the English garden continues in  American gardening.


Franklin Park Conservatory Showcases Exotic Plant

A few days ago I had to travel to Columbus, Ohio.  I stayed downtown which was both easy to find and  quite convenient for me.

When I travel and have time,  I sometimes seek out a local public garden to visit.  Since I discovered that Columbus had a fine park, called Franklin Park Conservatory, not far from downtown, I drove over one afternoon.

As I approached the enormous glass conservatory, built in the last century, my memory turned to the Palm House, a glass conservatory in London’s Kew Garden.  The size and the spread of the wings of the Franklin Park structure amazed me just as the Palm House did the first time I saw it.

Cotoneaster along the front granite wall on my property in New England.

There are several areas to explore in the Conservatory.  Right now the Blooms and Butterflies exhibit attracts many visitors.  You can have a butterfly land right on your shoulder in this contained area which includes many plants.

What surprised me as I entered a section called the North Conservatory was that I found an old familiar garden plant, the shrub Cotoneaster microphylla.

As I read the description of the plant, I discovered that it was originally from the Himalayan Mountains of China, Tibet, and Burma.

The cotoneaster, a mainstay in our gardens today, is an exotic plant.

According to Donald Wyman’s Shrubs and Vines for American Gardens, it was introduced in 1824, probably first to England.

I have several cotoneaster shrubs in my own garden.  They do well. They don’t demand a lot of maintenance, and they look good where they are planted.

This is another example of how certain exotic plants  continue to appear in our gardens simply because they have become so much a part of American gardening.  The cotoneaster shrub is such a plant.  It has adapted well and we like it.


Stockbridge Garden Reflects Colonial Revivalism

The area called the Berkshires in the western part of Massachusetts is home to Stockbridge, one of my favorite New England towns.

Stockbridge offers a good example of the colonial revivalism movement in this country which took place from about 1870 til well into the twentieth century.  The goal for a restored garden in this movement, which included preservationists, landscape designers, and architects, was to create a garden or landscape in a style reminiscent of the Colonial period.

William Butler in The Colonial Revival in America  wrote:”Certain New England villages figured more prominently than others as archetypes during the colonial revival.  Writers continually praised Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for having the first Village Improvement Society of America.”

Mission House on Main Street, Stockbridge, Mass.

On a recent visit to Stockbridge I walked the garden at the Mission House on Main Street.  The landscape is an example of the colonial revival.

The landscape architect Fletcher Steele worked with Mabel Choate in Stockbridge at her home called Naumkeag, from 1926 to 1956.  There he designed a landscape that still stands, also a favorite and a must see when visiting the area.  Mabel was involved in the local garden club, and was also inspired by the colonial revival movement.

She moved an eighteenth century  building called Mission House into the center of Stockbridge and commissioned Steele to design a colonial revival garden for it.  He worked on the garden from 1928 to 1933.  In the process he visited Colonial Williamsburg to see what the gardens looked like there.

Today when you see the Mission House, you get a sense of how people like to preserve landscapes, and sometimes create landscape that they think represent a time period.  That is really all we can do in our attempt to preserve a garden, which seems so ephemeral. The colonial revivalists built an historic landscape in the image of what they thought it should have looked like. That’s what happened at the Mission House.

American gardening reflects the fashion and the period in which people garden.  Today because we garden with the information and resources available to us, we affirm the values and fashion of our own time.


Mass Media Inspired Nineteenth Century American Garden

Henderson’s  illustrated tulips, but also the lawn in this catalog cover of 1892.

Did you ever wonder where inspiration comes for your garden?

How is it that you decide on certain plants or a certain design in your landscape?

Denise Otis in her book Grounds for Pleasure writes that in the nineteenth century: “Making a garden that everyone recognized as a garden was a way to create community, to be accepted by your neighbors.  And moreover to ensure that you would be identified as American whether you had just immigrated from Europe, or from another part of this country.  But how could you tell what your new neighbors would recognize as a garden? You looked to newspapers, magazines, and books for guidance [as well as garden catalogs].”

At the end of the century American gardening took on the form of gardening proposed in the mass media, for the first time. Before that period there was no such thing as a medium of mass communication to reach millions across the country with the same message.

In the seed catalog of 1892 the Peter Henderson Company [above] illustrated a cold frame, a lawn, and flowerbed.

Mass produced books, newspapers, and catalogs along with seductive advertising became the inspiration for the American gardener.



The Old Fashioned ‘Excelsa’ Rose Grows in My Garden

When we moved into our house twenty-five years ago, I remember a low-flowering red rose with several high canes growing along the driveway. I just left it there. The rose turned out to be the climbing rose ‘Excelsa,’ which had a link to the ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose, introduced from England into the American garden in 1893.

In the early twentieth century, summer residences dotted Woods Hole, a seaside town on Cape Cod. City dwellers with money built

Rosa ‘Excelsa’ along my driveway

sprawling estates on the water that often included a staff for the house and the garden. James Story Fay (1812-1897), a former cotton broker and businessman, hired Michael Walsh, an Irish gardener who had arrived in America in 1868.

While working on the Fay estate, Walsh introduced over fifty roses. He specialized in climbers, including the rose ‘Excelsa’ in 1908. ‘Excelsa’ won the 1914 Gertrude M. Hubbard Gold Medal for the best American rose introduced in the previous five years.

After Fay’s death in 1897, Fay’s daughter Sarah (1855-1938) encouraged Walsh to continue to cultivate his roses. Cape Cod historian Susan Fletcher Witzell wrote in her article Gardeners and Caretakers of Woods Hole that by the early twentieth century, the fame of the Fay rose garden attracted visitors from around the country to see the roses at the estate.

Walsh was able to make a business of his climbing roses for himself and for Miss Fay. During the years from 1907 to 1917, Walsh published yearly catalogs of his roses, hydrangeas, and hollyhocks. The roses, especially ramblers, were shipped all over the United Sates and became popular also in England.

Rosa ‘Excelsa’ is a combination of Rosa wichuriana and ‘Crimson Rambler.’ The wichuriana came from Asia and Japan to Europe in the 1890s, and to America in the early 1900s. Stephen Scanniello and Tania Bayard in their book Climbing Roses write that the wichuriana characteristics predominate in the ‘Excelsa.’

The ‘Excelsa’ shines with scarlet-crimson cupped flowers on small, glossy green leaves that remind me of a holly. The flowers turn more pink as the color fades after blooming in late June.

Pruning this rose is not easy because the thorns or prickles are sharp. I try to wear gloves when I prune it. Mine is a low shrub, though the canes can reach several feet high. I grow it in partial shade.

When I first saw this rose on my property I had no idea that it was Walsh’s most famous rose introduction, and, according to garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson who wrote in his Climbing Roses of the World  it was an improved version of the old ‘Crimson Rambler.’



A House with an English Garden Listed For Sale

Recently as I was driving through a little New Hampshire town, I came across a house for sale.

It was no ordinary house. On top of the real estate sign appeared the words “English Garden.” [photo below]

What struck me, of course, was the fact that the owner had devoted time and resources to create an English garden and now the garden had become an attractive feature for a potential buyer.

As American gardeners, we still admire the English garden.

A real estate sign outside a house in New Hampshire.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs, among several influences, did a great job of selling us the English garden.

I drove by the house a couple of days ago and noticed that the real estate sign was gone.  Perhaps the house now belongs to a new owner who also treasures the English garden.


The Lawn Still Reigns Supreme

In my neighborhood I notice that people are still as particular as ever about the lawn.

They insist that the lawn be cut a certain way, and have a certain look about ut.

Denis Otis in her book Grounds for Pleasure writes, “More recently the lawn has come under attack in books and magazines for its water-guzzling and its dependence on toxic chemicals and polluting fertilizers.  Yet it shows no sign whatsoever of disappearing.”

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs did their job well. They sold us the lawn in the essays and countless illustrations in their catalogs dealing with that famous English lawn.  We bought it.

Today the lawn is deep in the American psyche.

One of my favorite English gardens is Chatsworth, well north of London.  There the lawn seems to go on forever.

England’s Chatsworth lawn which dates back to the seventeenth century.

Dating back to the seventeenth century, it is now one of the most famous gardens in England. What impressed me most on my visit to Chatsworth was the amount of lawn on the property. It is an important part of the landscape.

The English loved the lawn, and now so do we.