Archives for June 2013

Visit to Connecticut Garden Designed by Beatrix Farrand

A few days I visited the  Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Connecticut.

The day was beautiful, sunny and warm, but with no humidity.

The park sits along Long Island Sound. People enjoyed picnics on the extensive lawn that sweeps down to the water.

The gardens behind the house had been my main reason for visiting so of course I had to make my way there.

The house, reflecting a classical revival-style with its 42 rooms, was built in 1906, and Edward and Mary Harkness purchased it the following year.  The 230 acre property, including a farm, became the Harkness’ summer home.   Now the State of Connecticut owns it.

The water in the distance caps this view of the West Garden at Harkness Memorial State Park

The water in the distance caps this view of the West Garden at Harkness Memorial State Park

American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) designed the East and West gardens in the back of the house.

As I walked the gravel paths of the garden areas, I could see long rows of clipped evergreens including boxwood. But the perennial beds caught my eye since many of the flowers were in bloom.

I spoke to Eric,the gardener, who knew much of the garden’s history. He told me about Farrand’s friendship with English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

Alan Emmet in his book So Fine a Prospect writes about Farrand’s 1895 visit to Miss Jekyll’s garden and her subsequent study of Jekyll’s books.

I could imagine the conversation between these two gardeners as they might have discussed the colors of the perennial beds. Since it was  early summer, whites dominated in the color scheme when I looked across the rows of flowers in bloom.

Just a wonderful trip to a magic garden designed long ago, but still there and open for a visit.


Conservatories Popular in Late Nineteenth Century America

In England during the early nineteenth century only the wealthy could afford conservatories, or glass houses, to cultivate tropical plants during the cold months of winter.

Eventually when glass became cheaper the middle class could also afford such a glass house for special plants.

The Historical Society of Talbot Country in Maryland published a book called The Art of Gardening: Maryland Landscapes and the American Garden Aesthetic 1730-1930.  In it we read: “Technical advances made during the industrial revolution provided ample supplies of glass and iron to fabricate structures in which to maintain and propagate exotic plants year around–from simple hothouses to complete ‘crystal palaces’.”

The Ferney in Philadelphia's Morris Arboretum

The Fernery in Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum

In Philadelphia I remember visiting the fernery at the Morris Arboretum.  Built in 1899, it is an example of the fascination American gardeners, like the English, had with exotic plants like ferns.


By the End of the Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sent across America in the Millions

Catalogs were the major sales tool for the seed companies and nurseries in the nineteenth century.

By the end of the century improved printing, cheap mail delivery, and the railroads made the publication and distribution of catalogs much easier for the garden industry.

In their book Victorian Gardens: A Horticultural Extravaganza authors James R. Buckler and Kathryn Meehan write: “By the turn of the century, some seedsman were distributing as many as several hundred thousand catalogs a year to customers throughout the world.”

John Lewis Childs catalog of 1890

John Lewis Childs catalog of 1890 [Courtesy of the Floral Park Historical Society]

The Childs Company from New York sent out 750 catalogs in 1875, but by 1896 the number had increased to 1,115,000.  The garden industry had truly become a modern business, just like any other, with its appeal to a mass audience, spread across the country from California to Maine.


Gardeners from Europe Started Nineteenth Century Seed and Nursery Business

The history of the garden industry in America owes much to immigrants.

America in the nineteenth century did not know what to do with professional gardeners, many of whom were trained in British botanical gardens or had worked on estate gardens.  When they came to America some became farmers while others successful businessmen.

1872 Catalog from the Robert Buist Company, Philadelphia

1872 Catalog from the Robert Buist Company, Philadelphia [Courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society]

 A few like Robert Buist [above], Peter Henderson, and Thomas Meehan began their own seed and nursery business.

In their book Victorian Gardens: A Horticultural Extravaganza authors James R. Buckler and Kathryn Meehan write: “Horticultural commerce [in the nineteenth century] grew in record numbers. In 1868 the American Horticultural Annual published a 5-page list of ‘Nurserymen, Florists, and Seedsmen,’ based on catalogs they had received. Three years later this same column filled twelve pages.”

With the growth in the seed and nursery industries came competition to win customers from every corner of the country.

The companies enlisted the latest in marketing and advertising to achieve that goal.

But it was their skill as practical horticulturists that contributed most to their success in America.

They taught America how to garden in their books, magazines, and, of course, their catalogs.


Nineteenth Century Garden Advertising Sold Novelties

Any business has to adjust to the changing social environment in which it operates.

That applied as well to businesses in the 1890s.

At that time in America advertising underwent a shift in format and purpose.

Advertising sought to promote new products, or ‘novelties’.  The garden industry had to adjust to this new kind of advertising.

In the front of the catalog appeared a section of new plants, or new seeds, referred to as ‘novelties’.  The pages were often a different color form the rest of the catalog so these items would catch the attention of the customer.

Hollyhock here described as a 'novelty' in this Harper's ad of 1888

The Hollyhock described above as a ‘novelty’ in this Harper’s ad of 1888

The catalogs were sales tools.  Burpee called the catalog the ‘Silent Salesman’.

In the Yale Review  of 1899 in an article entitled “The Philosophy of Modern Advertising” we read: “The most expensive forms of modern advertising, and hence presumably the most profitable, aim to win the reader to buying some new book, some new medicine, or some new mechanical device. Advertising in magazines is, from its nature, almost exclusively concerned with ‘novelties’, in the broadest sense of the word, articles that twenty years ago were not heard of, and which are aiming to win the attention and favor of the public.”

And so the seed and nursery catalogs told its customers they needed a novelty plant.  Next year the plant might be eliminated from the list, but this year it was new, a novelty, and thus one any gardener needed.

Is it any surprise that ever since gardeners have been on the hunt for that novelty plant?


A Gardener Eliminates the Lawn

This past weekend I attended the annual garden tour in Newburyport, Ma.

I saw a garden that had no grass.

How well I remember the words of the nineteenth century seed companies like James Vick in Rochester who wrote in his 1873 catalog: “No arrangement of beds, or borders of box, or anything else, will look so neat and tasteful as a well kept piece of grass.”

The seed and nursery catalogs considered the lawn an essential part of the home landscape.

A pea-stone back yard I saw on a garden tour this weekend.

A pea-stone back yard I saw on a garden tour this weekend.

This home I saw in Newburyport had both a pea-stone driveway and back yard.  There was no grass  anywhere.

I was amazed when I saw this garden.

Here a homeowner chose a way to eliminate  the lawn which has been so much a part of our gardening for decades.

It certainly made me take notice.


Congratulations to the winner of the Book Giveaway for my new book America’s Romance withe English Garden. The winner, randomly chosen, was Nancy Krause, who made comment #5 to the post.  Thanks to all of you who participated with your comment.


Book Giveaway: Win a Free Copy of My New Book

Book Giveaway Rules: To be eligible to participate in this Book Giveaway for a copy of my new book America’s Romance with the English Garden, you simply write a comment on the blog post below between 8:00 a.m. (EST) Monday, June 3, and 5:00 p.m. (EST) Friday, June 7.  The name of the winner will be drawn from a list of those who comment. You may comment as often as you want but  your name is entered into the drawing only once. The winner will be contacted for a shipping address on Monday, June 10 and will receive a free, signed copy of the book.  Open to US residents only.

The following excerpt and illustration are taken from my book America’s Romance with the English Garden (Ohio University Press, April, 2013).

Rewards of Gardening

In the copy for an 1892 trade card, the C.A. Johnson Company, of Oklahoma, boasted about its contribution to developing a sense of “high culture.” The company wrote, “The possession and cultivation of flowering and ornamental plants is not only an evidence of high culture, but is a source of much pleasure and satisfaction to the possessor.”

Among its various attributes, gardening could even keep the homeowner out of trouble with the law. D.M. Ferry wrote in its catalog of 1875: “A garden is not by any means a bad savings bank. Out-door work, so engaging and so remunerative, must likewise induce cheerfulness of disposition, and health of body, and must tend to develop that attachment of the citizen to his home, which is one of the strongest safeguards of society against lawlessness and immorality.”

Peter Henderson illustrated here in his 1896 catalog how the 'Crimson Rambler' rose would easily fit in a suburban American home landscape. In this image he encouraged the lawn with its flowerbed. Courtesy of the Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Peter Henderson illustrated here in his 1896 catalog how the ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose would easily fit in a suburban American home landscape. In this image he also encouraged the lawn with its flowerbed. The catalogs referred to the ‘Crimson Rambler’ as the must-have rose for every gardener. Courtesy of the Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

In his 1875 catalog, Joseph T. Phillips, from Pennsylvania, attributed a good home to all who have a garden. He wrote, “The cultivation of the garden, the ornamental planting of our grounds, and the general use of flowers, afford striking proof of the high state of civilization which marks the progress of the present age.”

In its catalog of 1891, the California firm Timothy Hopkins Company developed a philosophy of gardening for the middle class. The garden could be understood both as art and as a symbol of social status. The company wrote in its catalog, “The garden is a rare gift to man, a compensation for the troubles and despondencies of life, a place of culture for those higher senses which there alone can find the keenest pleasures. Here there is opened up a world of appreciation and artistic possibilities, which furnishes the mind with most exalted admiration. Withal, the garden brings to man a restfulness of spirit, a satisfaction in living, a broad and charitable view of life, all of which help to make him a more perfect and useful creature.”

Gardeners developed a bond with other gardeners, especially when they shared the same neighborhood, as in a suburb. The Childs Company wrote in its 1892 catalog, “Between people who love and cultivate flowers and gardens there is a bond of friendship and sympathy. They are never strangers; they are ever ready to assist each other; they rejoice in the success of each other and deplore each other’s failures.” The company discussed the bond that exists between gardeners as motivation for gardening. The gardener, the catalog argued, is part of a larger community. The seed company, in this case Childs, also wanted to be part of that group of gardeners.