Archives for December 2013

New Book Assembles Garden Writers Worth Reading

Winter offers time to sit down with a good book. Here is a new title that I just finished.

“Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation across Two Centuries” (David Godine Publisher), a collection of garden writing from the eighteenth century to today, offers an opportunity to meet garden writers who have inspired gardeners for decades. In reading the book I felt like the author Elizabeth Barlow Rogers had organized a retreat where garden writers have assembled to inspire the audience of gardeners.

Rogers has written several books on garden history.  First person to hold the title of Central Park Administrator, she became founding president of the Central Park Conservancy.


writing the garden 4The book’s garden writers share their passion for gardening, for nature, for life.  The divisions of the book highlight a category Rogers considers important for a particular garden writing genre. Thus, we read passages about the garden by nurserymen, travelers, spouses, teachers, and even humorists in the garden.

WritingtheGardenM small resWritingtheGardenM small resNursery owner Gene Bush from Depauw, Indiana writes that although he is essentially a plant collector, he tries not to let the overall design appear as a series of collections in the garden.  That seemed good advice for me, to be sure.

I loved that several of the forty-two writers she mentions fight the gardener’s war with slugs.  Rogers includes poet Celia Thaxter, artist Robert Dash, and even Michael Pollan who calls the slugs “naked bullets of flesh who hide from the light of day, emerging at sunset to cruise the garden along their own avenues of slime.” Don’t the words alone make you want to distance yourself from the little slug?

Rogers concludes her journey with insight into how she chose this group of garden writers.  She says, “The writers we have considered in this book are parties in a love affair between nature and the human imagination.”

That’s probably why reading the book seems like meeting old friends who just happen to be gardeners.




How the Poinsettia Became a Christmas Decoration

One of my favorite plant stories is how the poinsettia became a popular Christmas flower here in America.

In the nineteenth century it was common for garden magazines or journals to include articles from other garden publications.  The source of the orignal story would then appear at the end of the article.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876 from the English weekly journal called Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The article, simply entitled Poinsettia’ said, “Passing by these old friends, not without a word of hearty welcome be it well understood, we come to another plant which has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen…

The December show of Poinsettias at UNH Durham, NH

The December show of Poinsettias at the University of New Hampshire greenhouse in Durham, NH

“Its name commemorates a French traveler, M. Poinsett, by whom the plant was introduced to cultivation. He brought specimens to Charleston from Mexico in 1828, whence they were taken to Philadelphia; and specimens sent from the latter place to Edinburgh [Scotland] flowered in 1835, since which date it has become increasingly popular and plentiful in our stores.” (p. 138, GM)

In the nineteenth century British horticulturists with the help of Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist made the poinsettia, native to Mexico, available to the public.  American gardeners came to treasure the plant as an indispensable part of the Christmas holiday.


Gardeners Still Await the Annual Catalogs

My past few posts here have centered on a look at the roots of American consumer culture.

I have written mainly about how advertising at the end of the ninteenth century became the major tool which motivated people to buy the goods that were being mass produced.  The garden industry was at the forefront of that movement as we can see from the size of catalogs, filled with seeds, plants, vases, and other assorted garden products including the lawnmower.

This Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a column called “Checking out our consumer culture” in which writer Katherine Whittemore examines six books about advertising, including William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.

What I liked about her review was that she constructs a line of argument through the books she mentions which is that  advertisng and marketing somehow or other get us to buy things we may not really need.

"Brandwashed", one of the books Whittemore writes about

“Brandwashed”, one of the books Whittemore writes about

In gardening that may be a difficult concept to swallow since we all seem to want the latest plant or the newest fad in our garden.

Now that it is Chrsitmas time I am once again confronted with the question of what new material possession do I need. I again hit the wall because I really don’t need anything. I have enough things. We have enough.

Yet the ad industry continues to push forward the glitter of ever new products.

It is hard to resist advertising and marketing. Whittemore, for example, writes that Whole Foods places its flower section right by the doors, so we are unconsciously ready to associate the store with freshness.

The late nineteenth century seed and nursery companies structured their catalog in a particular way. First, an introductory essay, then columns on gardening and the landscape, followed by the list of seeds and plants for sale, and finally ads.  There was a reason for that order, and that, of course, was to motivate the gardener to make a purchase.

This year, since December 1, I have already received several  garden catalogs, some  of substantial size.

In this holiday season, as both a gardener and one interested in the study of advertising, marketing, and public relations, I must say that the consumer culture is alive and well.


Post Office Became More Commercial by the end of the Nineteenth Century

Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

America was built on the principle of free expression of ideas.

From the beginning of the country newspapers operated with the assurance of a free press.

As a result of the Post Office Act of 1792, a new form of the post office became a vital communication link for the nation, carrying not just private correspondence, but also newspapers, which were allowed in the mails at a low rate to promote the spread of information across the states.

The post office service then made accessible newspapers and magazines that expressed political ideas that might indeed diverge from one another.

By 1900 everything changed and the post office became the major vehicle to sell products.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “In the nineteenth century, the goal of the U. S. Postal Service was to make ‘knowledge and truth’ available to more and more people. By the end of the World War I, this goal had been altered; the greatest use of the mails was now American business.”

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries used the post office service to send their garden catalogs to their customers who were scattered around the country.

As the country moved to a more of a consumer culture by the end of century, the post office too took on the role of a provider of information of new products and services.Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York mailed several catalogs yearly in hopes of  seed orders. Like all companies at that time, the post office was an important tool for their business.

Rural Free  Delivery became available in 1896 which  meant that every home in America could receive mail.

That year was a boom for any company that used a catalog to sell its products.

Vaughn Seed 1891

Vaughn Seed Catalog 1891

The Vaughan Seed Company from Chicago began its catalog seed sales after winning awards for its flower displays at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893 and the passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act.

Mail delivery proved a valuable asset to their business.

The mail order business also provided the inspiration for a new warehouse for Maule’s Seeds, located in Philadelphia. In his 1889 catalog  Maule wrote, “Three years ago I had especially built for me the finest warehouse in America for conducting the mail-order business. I have devoted my entire attention to furnishing the gardens of America with my seeds direct, with the aim of doing the largest mail-order business on the continent.”

In 1898 the Childs Seed Company catalog said it was not uncommon during the busy months of the business “for Mr. Childs to receive as high as eight to ten thousand letters in a single day, including hundreds of Registered letters and thousands containing Money Orders.”

The mail delivery of seeds was so successful for the seed trade because the seed companies had learned that the seed packet, originally developed as a marketing strategy, made it easy to ship seeds around the country.

The garden business was truly a modern, efficient enterprise, thanks to the post office.



US Became the First Country to Launch Mass Production of Goods in late 1800s

The seed and nursery catalog by the end of the nineteenth century had become a small book, not only because of the number of color illustrations that appeared within its pages, but also because the garden catalog had so many products to sell.

The seed and nursery industries were caught up in the mass production process that was sweeping the country at that time.

The American gardener by 1900 became part of the country’s new economy devoted to mass production.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “The United States was the first country in the world to have an economy devoted to mass production, and it was the first to create the mass consumer institutions and the mass consumer enticements that rose up in tandem to market and sell the mass-produced goods.”

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

So it was no surprise that the Philadelphia seedsman W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) believed in the value of advertising for every modern business, including his own.

In the Saturday Evening Post magazine of February 4, 1905, an ad from the Burpee Seed Company said, “If you garden, you want the best and we shall be pleased to send you Burpee’s Farm Annual for 1905, an elegant book of 178 pages which tells the plain truth, with hundreds of illustrations, beautful colored plates, and describes Superb Novelties of unusal merit.”

Burpee, like other garden catalogs, used the modern form of commercial enticements to move and sell his goods.



Nineteenth Century Estates along the East Coast Included an Extensive Landscape

From the early 1800s as wealthy Americans built their homes on the East coast, it was important to design the landscape as well in a particular style.

Landscape gardening, or landscape design as we now call it, followed the principles of the picturesque from the England of the eighteenth century, but added ornamental gardening as well to form a new type of garden design called the Gardenesque.

So of course there were lawns but also collections of plants, like evergreens at the Hunnewell estate in Newton, Mass. (below)

Hunnewell pinetum in Wellesley, Mass. built in XXXX

Hunnewell pinetum in Wellesley, Mass. begun in 1843

Julie Higginbotham wrote in the journal American Nuseryman, “By 1800, the East was dotted with landscaped estates, including properties on the Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, the shores of Connecticut, and the environs of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.”

Alice Morse Earle wrote in her book Old Time Gardens  in 1901, “Palatial homes [were] surrounded by all the wealth and beauty that the landscape gardener of those days well knew how to create…The art of making beautiful homes in America…was [already] in full flower.”

It would not be long before middle class homeowners in the suburbs also wanted the same kind of landscape as these estates, though on a smaller scale.

The seed companies and nurseries were, of course, there to help.  All that was needed was that the homeowner have an eye for art and design in the landscape.

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magaze Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1881: “The residents of villages, or the suburbs of them, are most favorably situated to indulge their taste in beautifying places of moderate extent. No great wealth is necessary for this purpose, but a genuine love for art and nature.”

It all began earlier here in America with the kind of landscape that surrounded the estate.




Plant the Kitchen Garden out of Sight

The classic English garden on the estates of the eighteenth century clearly defined the location of the kitchen garden.

Where the estate owner sited the kitchen garden would have implications for both the owner, the cook, and a visitor to the estate.

The  location of the kitchen garden demanded that it be out of sight and hidden, often surrounded by high walls for protection against winds and rodents.

Landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) advised in 1795 that “the true situation for a kitchen garden should be near the stables for the sake of the manure, and as near the house as possible without being seen from it.”

He gave clear instructions that the kitchen garden be hidden from the view of the visitor.

Thus we have inherited the practice of placing the kitchen garden behind the house and out of sight.

Yale University Press published  Repton scholar Stephen Daniels’ book Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England. I love the cover and include it here [below] with its illustration of an English country house.

Yale University

Yale University Press

The English garden model thus placed the kitchen garden out of sight.

It ought not be a surprise today that feathers get ruffled at the thought of planting tomatoes in the front lawn.

Where do you plant your tomatoes?


In the Nineteenth Century the James Vick Company Advertised its Seed House

This past summer Emily Morry wrote an article in Rochester ‘s Democrat and Chronicle called “From flour to flowers” which details the up-state New York city’s transformation in the nineteenth century into a seed company and nursery powerhouse with customers across the nation.

The story focuses also on what the East Avenue location in Rochester looks like today where the four-story seed house for the James Vick Seed Company once stood.

An illustration of the company seed house became an important marketing tool for nineteenth century seed companies. It portrayed the company as a substantial operation with more than adequate resources to provide the best seeds.

Many catalogs like Vick’s provided space for such an illustration within its pages.

Morry includes a photo  of Vick’s seed house, built in 1880 [below].

Vick Seed House (1880) Collection of the Rochester Library, Local History Division

Vick Seed House (1880) Collection of the Rochester Library, Local History Division

On a visit to Rochester I once stood at that corner spot on East Avenue where Vick built this seed house.

Vick spent the money for the seed house because of his successful business of over twenty years.

The  image of the building  in the catalog became an ad for Vick’s business.  The bigger the business, the more important it was to let your customer know that.  That decision reflected the new forms of mass production, marketing, and advertising of products and services that  the 1890s ushered in, a prelude to what America was becoming: a consumer culture.


Now is the Time to Store Dahlia Tubers

My favorite flower is the dahlia.  I enjoy them in my garden from mid July until the first frost.

Over the years I have grown dozens of dahlias.  I have preserved a collection of the tubers  for spring planting by storing them before the onset of winter.

If it’s Thanksgiving week, it’s time for me to wrap up the tubers.  I use newspapers and store the individual bundles  in plastic containers that measure one and half feet wide by about two and half feet long.  A corner in the basement then houses the containers.

Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a rainy day here in New England, I spent packing up dahlias.  They had already dried for a few days on newspapers spread on the basement floor.  I wrap them by clumps of tubers, sometimes seven or eight in each clump, but also individual tubers, depending how they come out of the ground. I do not separate them til the spring, if at all.  I like to see large displays of dahlias so I am reluctant to separate them.

Dahlias have long been an important flower for the American garden.

Special Collections, Oregon State Univeristy

Special Collections, Oregon State University

The Boston seedsman Joseph Breck wrote in his catalog [left] of 1849: “We offer for sale the finest collections of Dahlias in the country, having received more than a hundred new varieties the present season.”

His selection of the number of dahlias was astounding for that time.

Today the list of dahlias reaches into the hundreds.

Breck used his seed catalog as a vehicle to teach his customers about gardening.

Christopher Thomas in his article “Heirloom Seed Catalogs” which appeared in the journal Horticulture wrote: “Typical of all of Breck’s writing was an attempt to use horticulture as an unlifting, educational tool….He repeadedly praised horticulture’s salutary qualities, and he offered a long list of standard works on horticulture, a novel idea at the time. And through his pioneering use of illustrations, Breck sought to mold and improve his readers’ taste.”

Breck assured his customers that his choice of dahlias was like no other firm’s.

But then, just as today, the American gardener in a cold climate like ours had to store them to secure next summer’s bloom.