Archives for July 2013

Suburban Gardening Launched in the 1870s

In the nineteenth century American homeowners took to gardening with the rise of the suburbs.

Before that, most people lived on farms and were concerned mainly with growing food for the table.

With industrialization after 1870 American gardening also took on current fads and fashion in gardening.

Summer House in Vick's

Summerhouse in the 1880 catalog Vick’s Floral Guide

The book The Art of Gardening: Maryland Landscapes and the American Garden Aesthetic 1730-1930 said: “”After the 1870s, suburban gardening was the trend of the day. Affluence and leisure time now allowed more homeowners a chance to travel and bring home ideas from England, France, and Italy…There were still drying yards, orchards, vegetable and herb gardens, but they were hidden to the rear of the site. Up front for public view were the fashionable bedding designs, garden furnishings, arbors, and summerhouses for leisure outdoor pleasures, both active and passive.”

Around that time Rochester seedsman James Vick included in his seed catalog an illustration of a summerhouse. [above]

The Art of Gardening said, “Homeowners copied the designs and styles of gardening presented by the tastemakers in the new suburban landscape [who included] James Vick from Rochester.”

Ever the keen businessman, Vick wanted to let his readers know the latest in American gardening trends.


Capability Brown Made the Lawn Essential in the English Garden

Though the lawn had played a role in the English garden for decades, an eighteenth century landscape gardener  launched its role in the modern English garden forever.

His name was Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

American writer Rose Standish Nichols in her book English Pleasure Gardens (1902) said, ” ‘Capability’ Brown, so nicknamed because he invariably discovered that every piece of ground had capabilities of being improved by his methods. He is said to have had supreme control over the art of modern gardening for nearly half a century. He and his admirers increased the dimensions of the naked lawn, multiplied the number of belts of trees and shrubbery, but, unfortunately destroyed many of the beautiful old gardens to make way for their improvements.”

Highclere Castle, the site of the TV drama "Downton Abbey'

England’s Highclere Castle, the site of the TV drama ‘Downton Abbey’


Highclere Castle, the site of TV’s famous ‘Downton Abbey’, remains an example of Brown’s handiwork. The lawn goes up to the walls of the Castle.  When the show opens, all you see is the lawn.

Nichols says a bit later in her book, “The French were quick to adopt the English garden style.  It was heralded by philosophers like Rousseau.”

So after the formal garden style of Versailles took the world by storm, it was the natural, or modern, style of the English garden in the eighteenth century that rose to become the popular style in England and elsewhere, including America.

Capability Brown’s lawn remained as the essential element in the garden.



The Grandeur of Versailles Took My Breath Away

A few weeks ago when I walked from the train station in Versailles to the palace, I had no idea what I was about to see.

The palace remains a national treasure for the French, illustrating the power of the French monarchy in the 17th century.

But it was the garden, laid out from 1661 by the King’s Gardener Andre Le Notre, that I was there to see.

The vastness of the garden  was what impressed me first. I could not possibly walk the many acres of the gardens with their parterres,

Paths of gravel in the garden at Versailles lead a visitor down to the Grand Canal.

Paths of gravel in the formal garden at Versailles lead a visitor down to the Grand Canal.

groves, statues, fountains and pools.

That one person could envision a garden of this size, which took decades to finish, amazed me.

Though it was a formal design, with symmetry and straight lines everywhere, it still is a beautiful expression of garden as art.

Just as a painter can paint with oils on canvas, a landscape gardener like Le Notre designed outdoor space with the elements of plants, water, and stone.

I am glad I took the train from Paris to see this grandest of gardens.


Flowers Planted in a Straight Row in Paris’ Luxembourg Park

Many memories have remained with me from my recent trip to Paris.

One is that I remember the rows of flowers at Luxembourg Park.

The colors stood out and brought a warmth to an otherwise stately, formal setting.

Paris' Luxembourgh Parks's formal flwoer beds

Paris’ Luxembourgh Park’s formal flower beds

Rose Standish Nichols wrote in her English Pleasure Gardens, published in 1902: “A love of flowers is the natural foundation on which to build all gardens, whether formal or informal.”

Certainly the flowers of Luxembourg created a display of that love of flowers.

Though formal, and so different form the natural style of the English garden from the early 1700s, this garden caught a certain magic in its mass planting of these flowers of reds and purples.



Emily Dickinson Bought Seeds from B. K. Bliss

In the summer I read magazines that I have collected during the year but had no time to read.

Horticulture magazine belongs to that list.

This week I read an article by Neil Soderstrom in the May/June 2013 issue of Horticulture called “Of Violets and Verse” about the Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and her passion for gardening.

In the article I learned that seedsman Benjamin K. Bliss  supplied Emily with her garden seeds.

The B. K. Bliss catalog of XXX.

The B. K. Bliss catalog of 1879.

Bliss ran his seed business, begun in the 1850s,  out of Springfield, Massachusetts until about 1870 when he moved the business to New York.

In the Appletons’ journal: a magazine of general literature of April 8, 1871 we read this account of Bliss’ business:”The seedsmen’s catalogues, in fact, are now an important element in our civilization. And how attractively some of them are gotten up! Here before us is the issue of B. K. Bliss & Co., of New York. Of the bewildering lists of seeds it announces, no mortal could keep a record. Of course, it exhausts the needs of every gardener, whether his field be the practical or the ornamental; and then it is illustrated with such superb-looking tomatoes, done in color; such luscious beets, such charming pansies in fact, it is a pretty book to look at, and in April a very useful one to consult.”

In his book Success with Small Plants, minister and author Edward P. Roe (1838-1888) wrote that Bliss was “the well-known seedsman from New York City.”

Bliss’ business was quite substantial, and dealt with customers across the country, including the famous poet, Emily Dickinson, who probably received his famous catalog.


The Lawn Embodied the New Landscape Garden in Eighteenth Century England

Recently I was amazed at how the lawn still continues to be important to English gardeners.

On my visit a couple of weeks ago to England, one Englishman  said to me: “I am obsessed with the lawn.”  He took pride in the kind of lawn he has outside his house.  Though, of course, this is only one person. What amazed me was how emotional he was about the look of the lawn.

The lawn in England has a long history, but became essential in the garden of  the ‘natural’  look, introduced in the early 1700s.

English artist William Kent (1685-1748) designed Rousham, a garden I once visited. The lawn stands out as an important element in that landscape. It’s green surface sweeps right up the walls of the house.

Nichols book GodineRose Standish Nichols in her book English Pleasure Gardens wrote: “[With Kent] nothing remained of the old style in the new gardens. These latter consisted of smooth lawns of grass, diversified by clumps of trees, and intersected by curved paths or irregular pieces of water.  Nature was said to abhor a straight  line; hence walks and brooks were always laid out in ‘serpentine meanders.'”

To this day the lawn continues its grip on the English gardener.


The Grotto Essential to Paris’ Luxembourg Garden

When I was in Paris a few days ago and since I was not far away, I walked to the Luxembourg Garden, the second largest park in Paris.

Marie de Medicis, who bought the property in 1611,  had a grotto built as part of the garden.  She wanted to reproduce a bit of the garden of Boboli that she knew in her native Florence. The grotto represented a feature of the formal Italian garden design of that time.

A Grotto in Luxembourg Park in Paris.

The grotto in Luxembourg Park in Paris.

In 1853 Charles McIntosh, landscape gardener to a number of European royalty in the nineteenth century, wrote about the Medicis in his volume The Book of the Garden.  He said, “The family of the Medici revived and patronized the art of gardening in Italy, and their gardens, which were of the geometric and architectural style, long served as models for most of Europe, and continued to be imitated in France, Germany, and Britain, until the introduction of the English, or, as it has been called, the natural style.”

So that Sunday as I strolled the grounds of Luxembourg I happened upon this famous grotto, a feature of formal Italian garden design.

The classical forms in statuary at the end of the pond appeared somewhat menacing because of their size, but at the same time also made me think about the role a grotto played in earlier garden design.

Thus a bit of Italian formal garden design entered France in the seventeenth century when France was establishing its own brand of formal garden design at Versailles.



Just Returned from Versailles

Two days ago I returned from a visit to the gardens of Versailles, outside of Paris.

For a long time I had wanted to visit this garden, the masterpiece of Andre Le Notre (1613-1700), seventeenth century landscape architect of Louis XIV.

The residence or château  takes your breath away because of its size. It seems to go on forever because at one time it housed hundreds of guests.

I was shocked to see the size of the line of visitors waiting to enter the house, to walk the hallways, and to see the rooms with their treasures of the French monarchy.

To the right of the house the line to the gardens was quite short. I bought a ticket and in seconds I was in the garden.

And what a garden it is.

From the back of the house  the grading of the garden stands out with its levels both high from where the house is, to low where you can see the water fountains and the canal, far below.

The statue of Louis XIV greets the visitor as you enter the property of the Palace of Versailles,

The statue of Louis XIV greets the visitor at the entrance of the Palace of Versailles.

It was no surprise to me that I could not explore every foot of this property.  I must say I expected a lot of formal gardens, but what I did not expect was the bosquet or wooded area that I often encountered as I walked around.

At times as I wandered the pathways through wooded areas I felt like I was the only person visiting. There was no sign of another person anywhere, only trees and shrubs. I loved it.

The treasure of Versailles lies in its ability to survive hundreds of years. It is the inspiration of Andre Le Notre, who formed this formal model of the French garden from 1661.

Versailles is worth a visit to experience the formal garden that once captured the imagination of the world.



Nineteenth Century New York Seedsman Henderson Promoted Garden Conformity

One of my favorite characters from the nineteenth century seed and nursery industries is New York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890).

In his garden magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included many articles by Henderson, and often mentioned Henderson when he wrote about gardening.

In the nineteenth century garden conformity was deemed essential. If your neighbors had a trim lawn and well-pruned shrubs, you had to have the same.

In his book Gardening for Pleasure, published in 1875, Peter Henderson showed his distaste for garden nonconformists.  He wrote: “It is gratifying to know that such neighbors are not numerous, for the example of the majority will soon shame them into decency.”

Below is a drawing of a home landscape from Henderson’s book.  Notice the amount of space devoted to the lawn.

A landcape plan that appeared in Henderson's Garening for Plesure. Notice the amount of space given to the lawn..Of course the look of the lawn became the barometer of the home landscape.  Frank Scott, who wrote The Art of Beautifying Home Grounds in 1870, said “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home.”

Thus It ought be no surpise that today people have a hard time when a neighbor refuses to cut the grass, or at least keep it neat.

Seedsmen and nuserymen of the ninteenth cnetury, like Henderson, taught us well: you need a well-kept lawn.