Archives for February 2014

Twelth Century Nun Inspires Herb Garden at Spring Flower Show

Last Saturday  I spent an afternoon at the Rhode Island Spring Flower and Garden Show in Providence, RI.

The temperature for the day reached 50 which provided a sense of warmth in the air, an ideal time to drive down to visit the Show.

The theme of the Show centered on gardens with classic cars. An exhibit of  a medicinal garden called “The Healing Garden”  took second place. It was my favorite exhibit.

The exhibit featured Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) who encouraged the well-being of soul, body, and mind, with herbs from the garden providing for health needs.  She recently became beatified, the first step to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

A wagon filled with straw stood at the front of the exhibit. Nearby several herbs including valerian and rosemary grew in the small garden area.  Hildegard wrote about the two hundred herbs she used in her medicinal work.  She helped both members of the Order and people from the community as well.  She wrote several books on eating healthy and using natural healing methods. In fact, there is renewed interest in her legacy, especially in Germany.

The back wall of the exhibit showed a five by eighteen foot mural of the cloister of the Benedictine nuns of that century as they worked in the fields of herbs [below].

RI Flower Show Exhibit

Mural at the Rhode Island Flower and Garden  Show exhibit “The Healing Garden”

What impressed me the most however was that the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy sponsored the exhibit.  Senior gardener and designer J. Peter Morgan said, “The resurgence in popularity of holistic medicine prompted us to exhibit the many healing plants within the College of Pharmacy’s Youngken Garden.”

If there is any place for emphazising herbs as medicine, the Pharmacy program at the University ought to be front and center in that effort.  So it is with URI.

The College of Pharmacy chose to exhibit its healing garden with the shining example of  the Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen.


Meehania – Plant named after Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Nurseryman

North Creek Nurseries offers a plant called Meehania cordata or Meehan’s mint.

Barry Glick from Sunshine Farm and Garden first told me about this plant in an email several years ago.  He mentioned the bright colorful flowers of blue.

North Creek Nurseries

North Creek Nurseries

This low-growing plant, which reaches only a few inches high, belongs to the mint family, so we know that it has to be kept in bounds in your garden.

It loves shade, even deep shade.  Glick wrote in his email to me “Meehania cordata is one of the best plants I can think of for those dark and foreboding corners of the garden where there isn’t enough light for most other plants.”

What interests me in the plant, however, is its name.

American botanist Nathaniel Lord Britton (1859-1934) named this mint after the nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman, writer, and editor Thomas Meehan.

In 1894 Meehan notes the name in his magazine Meehan’s Monthly. He wrote: “Prof. Britton has been going over carefully the genus Cedronella and finds that C. cordata of Eastern North America cannot be considered as a Cedronella at all, but should be the representative of an entirely different genus. He compliments the senior conductor of this magazine by dedicating the new genus to him as Meehania cordata.”

Meehan is an early horticulturist who I admire because of his ability to edit a garden publication  for over thirty  years.  Not an easy task.

I have read his magazine and must say I am amazed at how he was able to assemble a number of articles, many of which he wrote while the others originated with his several correspondents around the world.

Thomas Meehan

Thomas Meehan (1826-1901)

He embodies the contribution of the nineteenth century garden industry to American gardening.

Here is a picture of Mr. Meehan [right].

In 1861 he wrote in his magazine: “No man works more in the immediate presence of his Creator than the gardener.”

Meehan, ever a friend to the gardener, pioneered the garden industry in this country. We honor him to this day with a mint that bears his name.




Writing about the Cottage Garden Appeared Only in More Recent Times

The cottage garden in England embodies the garden of the laborer or farmer.

But for centuries, apart of a few references, that garden style found little space in books about gardening, even though of course the occupants of a cottage gardened if they so chose.

Jane Taylor and Andrew Lawson wrote in their book The English Cottage Garden:”In the main, the affairs of the peasantry were of little concern to the literate class until comparatively recent times.”

This photo appears thanks to author Beth Trissel's Blog, One Writer's Way.

This photo of a cottage garden appears thanks to author Beth Trissel’s blog, One Writer’s Way.


“Two of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century gardening writers who have most inspired the twentieth-century English garden are Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Both thought highly of the cottage gardens of their day, and often drew inspiration from them.”

William Robinson (1838-1935) once wrote, “English cottage gardens are never bare and seldom ugly…among the things made by man nothing is prettier than an English cottage garden, and they often teach lessons that the ‘great’ gardeners should learn.”

One thing we do know about cottage gardens is that they are usually restricted in the space for a garden of any kind.

In 1918 Richard Leopold Reiss wrote in his book The Home I Want: “While the plans of cottages are endless in variety, the amount of land available in any given town is often strictly limited.”

But that is what gives the cottage garden its charm: the ability to garden in limited space.  The fore-court, or the area between the house front and the street, with its flowers and shrubs tightly planted together remains an enduring image of what we have come to know as the cottage garden.


Nineteenth Century Businesses Distributed Trade Cards

In nineteenth century America the trade card served as a business card for both the company and its product.

A salesman would, for example, leave a trade card with a potential customer as a reminder of the product, illustrated on the card in the latest color art form called chromolithography.

The seed companies and nurseries did not hesitate to spread news of their garden products through such trade cards.

In her book  The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s  cultural historian Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote: “Beginning in the 1880s, trade cards dominated advertising for national distributed products, until they were largely supplanted by national magazine advertising during the 1890s.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in 1898 about the popular ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose. He said, “This wonderful climbing rose is now so well known that we feel it unnecessary to comment particularly upon it. Everyone who saw a plant of it in bloom this year will not feel satisfied until he possesses one or more plants of it.”

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared in almost every garden catalog as well as on a trade card.

This trade card appeared in 1898.

This trade card appeared in 1898.

The Charlton Nursery from Rochester [left] used a trade card in 1898 to promote this rose.

Gruber Garvey wrote: “Manufacturers had put colorful advertising trade cards into the hands of thousands but nationally circulated magazines were a more efficient tool.”

By the 1890s national magazine advertising had outpaced the effectiveness of the trade card, but at one time these small cards proved to be popular both for businesses and customers around the country.

Some people even turned to collecting them as a form of amusement.




Advertising Enabled Success of Late Nineteenth Century National Magazines

It’s hard to imagine a time when advertising did not drive media.

Advertising, for example, provides revenue for radio, television, newspapers, and magazines to this very day.

But at one time it was a novel idea.

For most of the nineteenth century  literary magazines provided reading pleasure for the  well educated, urban audience.  Then the new mass circulated magazine appeared to attract a national audience of middle class readers, whether living in the city, suburb, or farm.

In her book  The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s  cultural historian Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote: “The most crucial distinction between the new ten-cent magazine and the older elite magazines, and the distinction on which other differences rest was the reliance of the new magazines on advertising rather than sales, with advertising pegged to circulation figures.”

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper's
Peter Henderson Seed Company’s magazine ad in the late 1880s

The national magazine, like Ladies Home Journal, survived because advertising drove its publication.  No longer did articles in the magazine matter for the bottom line.  The magazine succeeded because it could attract advertisers.

Even the garden industry placed ads in such magazines.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company, for example, placed ads in Ladies Home Journal in the early 1890s.

Thus the American gardener encountered a popular seed company among those whose ads became familiar.  National media like newspapers and magazines that circulated around the country  attracted a middle class gardener audience, eager for the newest garden products.


Nineteenth Century Garden Writer Valued Advice in Seed Catalog

American gardener, writer, and poet Eben E. Rexford (1848-1916) wrote a book called Four Seasons in the Garden in 1907 [below].

This is only one of many books he wrote about gardening.  In this volume Rexford mentioned the lawn and buying lawn seed from seedsmen.

Rexford recommended following the advice of the seedsman in the amount of seed necessary to install a lawn.

He wrote: “It will be seen, in reading the catalogues of the seedsmen, that a thick sowing is advised. Some persons have told me that they believed this to be advice given with a view to selling a larger quantity of seed and they have accordingly ignored it and bought a smaller quantity than advised.”

That seems like a sound argument to buy less seed.  After all, seed catalogs exist to sell seeds.

But then Rexford made a point that the reader could learn something from the gardening advice given in the catalogs.

Rexford, Eben EHe wrote: “The result is invariably unsatisfactory. You will be obliged to wait one or two years for a good sward if you sow your lawn thinly, but thick sowing will give you a very satisfactory sward for the first year, and a thick deep one the second season.”

It paid to heed the garden advice in the catalog.

Rexford recognized the value of the experience of the seedsman and encouraged the reader to heed advice that came from that experience.

He joined thousands of gardeners across the country who sought out the garden catalog for much more than simply products that the company sold.


Nineteenth Century Garden Advertising Appealed to America’s Middle Class

Advertising viewed as a modern science blossomed from the 1890s into the twentieth century.

Every business to succeed needed advertising that appealed especially to the middle class.  The garden industry was no exception.

In 1901 economist Emily Fogg-Meade wrote an article called “The Place of Advertising in Modern Business” which appeared in the Journal of Political Economy.  She said: “Society is usually divided into three classes of consumers–the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class. The ordinary basis for such a distinction is that of income, the ability to command a certain amount of goods.”

And then as if to lay the groundwork for advertising, she said, “We are not concerned, however, with the ability to pay but the ability to want and choose.”

This Schegel catalog cover of 1895

This Schegel seed catalog cover of 1895 illustrated images of social  class.

Thus the seed company and nursery, as a business that had to use modern advertising, made an appeal to their customers, based on class.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan, for example, in 1891 sought potential advertisers  for  his new garden magazine Meehans’ Monthly.  Within its back pages he wrote: “As an Advertising Medium, it [this magazine] will be unexcelled by any similar publication for advertising goods at retail. Its subscribers are nearly all people having large gardens, and who are the class of people who buy.”

He recognized that his garden magazine depended on advertising. He wrote, “Though the magazine has been but recently started we have already secured some of the largest advertisers, most of them taking space by the year.”

Thus it was no surprise that garden advertising, like all advertising of the period,  pitched its products with middle class images and settings, like the 1895 Schlegel seed catalog cover [left].

Though the garden magazine reader might not have the money to buy a product, he/she could still want it and perhaps some time in the future buy it.


Two Styles of Garden Design, Natural and Formal, Continue

A few weeks ago I visited the Nichols House Museum, the 1804 townhouse on Beacon Hill in Boston that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist.

That day I was fortunate enough to examine her extensive library filled with history and landscape books.

Nichols book GodineNichols’ book English Pleasure Gardens, written in 1901, fascinated me and so I wanted to visit her home. I had read the book in the new edition published by David Godine.

Toward the end of the book she wrote: “All sorts of gardens exist in England today. To classify them is almost impossible, but broadly they may still be separated into two divisions–the naturalistic and the formal.”

That division emerged in the early 1700s in England when a rejection of the formal garden took center stage with certain members of the English aristocracy.

Garden writers like Horace Walpole (1717-1797) prefered the new more natural approach and landscape gardening in that form captured the  imagination of English gardeners.  Walpole wrote the first and most influential history of garden design, The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening  a defense of the new taste for the picturesque or natural style of gardening.

That is the tradition that Nichols discussed in her book.  In introducing William Robinson’s book The Wild Garden  (first published in 1870) she wrote: “The main object of W. Robinson’s wild garden is to make the plantation look natural.”

One might argue that the division  continues to this very day.  We see gardens here in America more natural, and also gardens still designed in a formal style.