Archives for November 2013

Nineteenth Century Seed Company and Nursery Owners Inspired Gardeners

      At the moment I am researching nineteenth  century English middle class landscapes.
     In that process I found this quote  from English garden historian Jane Brown in her book The Pursuit of Paradise: A Social History of Gardens and Gardening:  “It is suggested that the Victorians [1840-1900] prized their lawns in imitation of the lords in their landscape parks, but the velvet green is a much older icon: what is certain is that the seedsmen and gardeners of late nineteenth-century Britain brought lawns to the peak of their perfection.”
     The same thing was happening here in the suburbs where middle class Americans could finally cultivate a lawn just like the estate owners had done for decades, thanks to the marketing of the seed companies.
     Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) inspired gardeners in his seed catalog of 1873. He wrote: “Man may be refined and happy without a garden; he may even have a home of taste, I suppose, without a tree, or shrub, or flower; yet, when the Creator wished to prepare a proper home for man, pure in all his taste and made in His own image, He planted a garden and placed this noblest specimen of creative power in it to dress and keep it.”
     Vick then presented the reader with instructions on how to  landscape a home. The vehicle for that instruction was the modern seed catalog, illustrated and printed by the hundreds, and delivered by rail and post across the country.
From Pinterest

Thanks to Pinterest I found this wonderful Henderson catalog cover of 1901.

He  announced that his readers could learn about gardening and landscape from the catalog.

In a similar theme the beautiful cover of New York seedsman Peter Henderson’s catalog of 1901 [left] illustrated the kind of landscape important for the middle class home, the Romantic English garden style with its lawn.


Smithsonian’s Haupt Garden Reflects Nineteenth Century Carpet Bedding Style

I just returned from Washington where I gave a talk on my book at the Smithsonian.

What a wonderful feeling, back in the nation’s capitol where I spent a year researching various Smithsonian archives for what would eventually become the book, America’s Romance with the English Garden.

Before my talk I had to check out the Enid A. Haupt Garden, one of my favorites, located behind the Castle on the National Mall.  It is a garden built in the Victorian style of the nineteenth century as American gardeners of that time expressed it.

The Haupt Garden at the Smithsonina last Sunday afternonoon

Carpet bedding pattern of plants I saw in the Smithsonian’s Haupt Garden  last Sunday afternoon.

There of course I found the carpet bedding pattern of flowers on the extensive lawn.  The plants were varieties that would continue to bloom in spite of the ensuing colder temperatures as winter apprroaches.

Nineteenth century New York seedsman Peter Henderson wrote in his book Gardening for Pleasure (1883) that the form of flower arranging called carpet bedding was replacing the older perennial borders. He wrote, “The mixed system [perennial borders] still has its advocates, who deprecate the modern plan of massing in color as being too formal, and too unnatural a way to dispose of flowers. But be that as it may, we will not stop to argue the matter further than to state, that in a visit to England in 1872, it was evident that the ‘Carpet Styles’ of massing plants as done at Battersea Park, London, was interesting to the people in a way that no mixed border could ever be. Anyone who has not seen the wonderful effects produced by the massing of plants in this way, has a treat before him. Nearly all the public parks in and about London are so planted.”

At the Haupt Garden there were plenty of benches for taking in the view so I had to sit down and relax for a moment.

My contemplative moment at the garden  was not long, however, because before I knew it, I had to walk over to the near-by Ripley Building for my talk at 3 p.m.

The Washington audience that afternoon could not have been more supportive.  Thank you, one and all, who attended.

And I am grateful too that the Haupt Garden offered a moment of respite.



Nineteenth Century Seed Store Featured a Horticultural Library

In 1906 the Boston seed firm W. W. Rawson moved into its new building with four floors at 5 Union Street in the downtown area.

The company had by that time enjoyed years of business in the seed industry which began for them  in 1884.

What impresed me in reading about their new home office was that the Rawson Company  included an area for reading garden books and magazines on the first floor store-front  where people walked in off the street to purchase seeds.

From The Florists' Exchange magazine, 1906

From The Florists’ Exchange magazine, 1906

Rawson wanted to keep his customers familar with what was happening in the world of gardening.

An article about the company in the trade journal called The Florists’ Exchange of 1906 said, “The new store is unique in its arrangements with a nice waiting room where customers may enjoy the privileges of an extensive horticultural library.”

Like the owners of many other nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, Rawson saw his role as an educator.

He wanted to make sure people continued to learn about gardening.

For that purpose where else would they go but to the experts, those who wrote the garden catalogs, garden books, and garden magazines?   The authors of many such publications also owned seed companies and nurseries, like Andrew Jackson Downing, James Vick, Peter Henderson, Thomas Meehan, and Robert Buist.



Every Gardener Still Wants the Latest Plant

Another one of my favorite public gardens is Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  It is also a trial garden.

Every summer you can see the newest annuals on display.

Late August when I visited I found a new Rudbeckia and took this photo.  I thought it would be a nice adddition to my garden next summer.

Gardeners like to discover the newest plants.  That theme became, in fact, a marketing strategy for the nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries.  In their catalogs they sold us the newest plants which they called ‘novelties.’

A new rudbeckia

A new Rudbeckia called ‘Prairie Sun’  in the trial garden this summer at Prescott Park in  Portsmouth, NH.

In 1882 the Hoopes Company from West Chester, Pennsylvania boasted in its catalog that it offered the latest plant varieties: “It is with unusual pleasure that we call attention to our choice list of new and rare plants for the season of 1882, in the belief that we have never before offered to our customers so many really valuable novelties as are contained in the present edition.  Few of our patrons can form any idea of the heavy expense we annually incur in obtaining these new plants. Not only are all the choicest novelties imported direct from leading florists of England, France and Germany, but in our own country, every new plant giving promise of merit is at once procured and tested.

“We are thus enabled to offer our customers at the earliest possible date all the recent introductions that we believe will lend an additional charm to their gardens and homes; and in this we believe our efforts have been amply rewarded by the many encomiums heaped upon us by friends all over the country.”

The company sold these new plants because the customer wanted them.  Yet at the same time the seed trade told the gardener he or she needed these plants.  The customer learned from the seed company, which were the important, new plants as well as the importance of adding them to one’s plant collection.

Things haven’t changed much today. We still want the latest plant for the garden.

Prescott Park grows the newest flower varieties so gardeners can consider them for next summer’s planting.  No surprise that so many people visit the Park every summer.



The Nineteenth Century Garden Indusry Pioneered Mail Order Sales

For most of the nineteenth century the farms scattered around the country became home to most Americans.

After 1880 opportunities for employment drew many farmers to the city.

Thus for decades the garden industry had to employ mail order catalogs to attract its rural customers.

Northtrup seed catalog

Northern Grown seed catalog of 1892

Bess Gedney Chistiansen wrote in her article “A Brief History of Seed Catalogs” that the second half of the nineteenth cnetury became the golden age of mail order. “Originally concentrated in the Northeast the industry found an insatiable demand for seeds, nursery stock such as fruit trees, and agricultural and gardening advice. Just as rural families could order household items such as furniture, pens, and musical instruments from a catalog, so could a farmer send away for whatever he needed [for the garden].”

Of course, the seed and nursery catalogs grew in number and in size.

By the end of the century, the catalog was almost a book, with essays, instructions, advertising, and illustrations along with the listing of seeds and plants for sale.

For decades the mail order catalog had been the company’s primary sales tool.  W. Atlee Burpee once said, “The catalog is the silent salesman.”


Lawns Took Center Stage in Nineteenth Century Garden Advice

It is now the month of November and few people think about the lawn as we head into the clasp of the chill of winter.

Yet in the first part of every issue of his nineteenth century magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote about lawns.

Notice the height the lawn takes at Opus One Winery in California.

I could not believe the shape of this lawn I saw recently at Opus One Winery in Oakville, California.

He was, of course, highlighing how important they were for every American home landscape.

Meehan wrote in the 1861 September issue of his magazine: “The beauty of English lawns is proverbial; and the highest aim of our gardening is to have lawns like them.”

Not only did every home need a lawn. The Engish provided the model for the lawn.




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Nineteenth Century American Gardeners Planted Herbs in Kitchen Garden

In nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, seeds of vegetables, annuals, and perennials received many pages. Herbs, however, only a page or two.

The focus in the catalog was on a kitchen garden, which could include herbs and even some flowers, but not what we now call an ‘herb garden’.

The herb garden at Blithewold in Bristol, Rhode Island.

The herb garden at Blithewold, a public garden in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Though the catalogs recognized the importance of herbs for cooking and medicinal needs, vegetables seemed to be more important.

The list of vegetables might include an herb like parsley.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick wrote in his 1880 seed catalog under the section called ‘Herbs’: “A few Pot Herbs, or Sweet Herbs as they are usually called, should have a place in every vegetable garden. Every cook and every good housekeeper knows the value of the little patch of herbs upon which she makes daily drafts in the summer, and which furnishes such a nice collection of dried herbs for winter seasoning, without which the Thanksgiving turkey would be scarcely worth the having; while as domestic medicines several kinds are held in high repute.”

Vick then lists about twenty herbs from anise to wormwood.

The idea that the kitchen garden should include at least a few herbs endured til the end of the century. L. H. Bailey, Cornell horticulturist and author, wrote in 1900: “It is in the Kitchen-garden that the sweet herbs and the garnishing plants may be grown.”