Archives for August 2014

Gravel instead of Grass for a Front Lawn

We know the lawn has long been an important part of the home landscape.

Therese O’Malley says in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design: “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was an essential element of the American designed landscape.”

Homeowners  today address the issue of the lawn in different ways. In parts of the country where water is at a premium that might mean decreasing or even eliminating the lawn.

The Lou Weiss household in Pittsburgh took an unusual step by eliminating the front lawn completely and replacing it with gravel (below).

Gravel lawn in Pittsburgh

Front gravel lawn at the Weiss house in Pittsburgh

I visited their house a couple of weeks ago on my trip to Pittsburgh for the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium.

Instead of grass, Weiss has covered the area in gravel. The gravel allows rainwater to percolate through channels leading to a rock cistern. Water from the cistern and the roof is recycled for use in the home and the vegetable garden out back.

When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it.

The Weisses kindly invited us into the house. The beautiful design of the landscape complements the features of this modern white house. It is no surprise that the house and landscape have both received a lot of press over the years, often in architecture magazines.

I must say, though, that the front lawn really took me by surprise. It seems an extreme way to deal with the landscape, but there is something that I like about. Maybe it’s the white color of the house that complements the gravel so well.

Though most American gardeners probably cannot take the step that the Weiss family did, the gravel lies there in the midst of a long tradition of the lawn which is the heart of the English garden. The seed and nursery industries of the nineteenth century often encouraged the lawn in their catalogs.

Philadelphia nurseyman Thomas Meehan wrote so matter of factly in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1882: “The garden is made up in the main of trees and shrubs, lawn and flower-beds.”



Victorian Glass Houses Inspired Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh to attend the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium one of the highlights for me had to be our trip to the Phipps Conservatory, the steel and glass structure which was built in 1892.

Phipps XXX

The main entrance to the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

It was then that industrialist Henry Phipps gave the Conservatory to the city of Pittsburgh as “a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.”

The glass structure reflects the nineteenth century Victorian era with its love of greenhouses with showy plants. The English plantsman Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) built his glass structure in 1851 in London for the Great Exhibition and called it the Crystal Palace.  That began the popular movement to include a glasshouse or conservatory for the home gardener as well.

The decades following Paxton’s structure saw greenhouses appear, big and small, both in England and in America.  It was from that tradition Lord and Burnham built this grand Pittsburg structure.  On the wall of the center area of the Phipps Conservatory you can still see the original plague [below] with their names as the builders.

This plague on the wall of the conservatory

A plague on the wall of the Phipps Conservatory

The structure includes a center area with two arms that house various plant collections. Each year the Phipps offers four seasonal flower shows.


Inside the Phipps

The Palm Room inside the Phipps Conservatory

The left and right sides of the original center area have their own particular plant collection and design.

The XXX interior of the Glasshouse

The interior of the Broderie Room in the Glasshouse

On the west side the Broderie Room, modeled after the French knotted garden, is a delicate scene of carefully clipped boxwood shrubs surrounding beds of colorful flowers. On my visit the garden itself was off limits to visitors. All we could do was simply admire from the top landing the detail and, of course, the hard work of the gardeners in maintaining this beautiful setting.

Today the Broderie Room serves as a popular wedding venue where the couple  can exchange vows within the garden itself.

The visit to Phipps was the highlight of my time in Pittsburgh.  I only wish more people could see this building, a lesson in American garden history.



When Plants Just Die

As gardeners we know that sometimes plants just die on us.  Did you ever wonder why?

I remember three plants in particular where that happened to me.

A yellow shrub called Kerria japonica ‘picta’ sat in the center of my yellow garden for fifteen years. Each spring tiny yellow flowers appeared. Than one spring as other plants were starting to put on their show of color this shrub just died.

Over ten years ago I bought a small black pastic container of Zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’, from Hampton, NH’s Fuller Gardens’ plant sale. Last fall I decided to divide it because it was overtaking other plants.  I left sections of it in the same spot and just cut away some of the plant here and there to allow more space. This year not one sign of this grass appeared.  It was gone.

A short Viburnum called ‘Bailey compact’ [below] also failed in my garden after many years. One spring all the branches were simply dried up and I had to dig it up and replace the plant.

Viburnum Bailey

Viburnum ‘Bailey compact’ in my garden before I dug it up.

Why does a plant just die?

Rochester plantsman George H. Ellwanger wrote his book The Garden’s Story in 1887. In the book he said, “Apart from climatic influences the failure of certain plants is often puzzling.”

Ellwanger wondered, just like you and me, how plants sometimes just die.


No Nineteenth Century Home Landscape without a Lawn

[Read more…]


Nineteenth Century Garden Writer Commented on Garden Catalogs

Recently I came across a garden book written in 1887 by the son of  George Ellwanger who started Rochester, New York’s Mount Hope Nursery  in 1840. Mount Hope  became an important source for trees and shrubs and shipped them across the country.

The younger Ellwanger, whose name was also George,  called his book The Garden’s Story.

In the book he commented on the popular garden catalog.

Ellwanger's book

Ellwanger’s book, 1887

Ellwanger’s language stretched beyond the boundaries of clear writing. The style, reflecting the Victorian influence of that decade, reeked of a bit of exaggeration, especially in the opening pages.

He offered a critique of the current seed and nursery catalogs which he called ‘Avant couriers’.

His words speak for themselves.

Ellwanger wrote: “Avant-couriers of spring continue to blossom diurnally through the post, in the shape of flower and vegetable catalogues. These unfold  some interesting studies in form, and review new possibilities of color…to heighten the effect of the foliage and fruit of some new strain of gourd, rita-baga, or colossal onion.  The most powerful appeal of the season is a full-page plate of liver-colored tomatoes and zinnias in combination.”

Then he wrote about the Moonflower: “In another distinctly aesthetic overture, a plant of the Ipomaea tribe, sent out under the name of Moon-flower, has embowered an entire cottage; while the moon itself, represented as rising in the horizon, shines only with a borrowed splendor in the presence of this high-class luminary.”

Moonflower [Courtesy of Renee's Garden]

Moonflower [Courtesy of Renee’s Garden]

Finally, Ellwanger connected this flower with what he calls the ‘flower millenium’.  He wrote, “When the catalogue informs one, in addition, that ‘the flowers [of the Moon-flower], when unfolding, expand so rapidly as to be plainly seen, affording amusement and instruction, and that, being a free bloomer, the effect on a moonlight night is charming,’ the reader need no longer doubt the advent of the floral millennium.”

The end of the nineteenth century he considered the ‘floral millennium’, a time when a passion for flowers captured the imagination of the American gardener.



Musings about Gardening or What is Gardening after all?

We gardeners follow a long line of gardeners who have come before us.

I find a certain comfort in the thought that gardening is a link to a community of gardeners, both past and present.


A photo simply called ‘Garden of Eden’ [Courtesy of Tiffani Boinkski]

Many writers have pointed out that Adam and Eve were the first to garden. Eden was the first garden.

Here are three quotes about the garden that inspire me.

Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening,written in 1913, said: “Garden making is a primitive art; nothing indeed antedates it as an occupation, whatever one’s favorite authority may be. So we may confidently say that it was in making gardens that man first gave expression to himself.”

Randall Schultz’s recent online garden newsletter Home, Garden and Homestead News includes a quote that I like. Eric Lautzenheiser, former director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, said, “People are afraid they will make mistakes. Who’s to say what’s good taste and bad taste? We’re overly concerned with what’s proper in plant selection—gardening is supposed to be recreation.”

Candace Wheeler in her 1901 book Content in a Garden wrote: “We are comparatively unlearned in the comfort and content of the garden if we suppose that it begins and ends with the delight of the eye. It is true that that is the thing which first attracts us, the thing we are first aware of, but when we live in the garden we find ourselves constantly growing into a most subtle knowledge of the different ways of beauty.”

Two old quotes and one new one tell us that gardening is self-expression, gardening is process, and gardening is art.  Sounds to me that gardening is a lot like life itself.



In Late Eighteenth Century Philadelphia, Woodlands Was Designed in English Garden Style

Recently I came across a wonderful article by Beth Kephart in the Philadelphia Enquirer called “Finding Refuge, Seeking Perspective.”  She tells the story of how she found solace and an inner comfort just in walking the grounds of William Hamilton’s home in Philadelphia called Woodlands.

At the end of the eighteenth century William Hamilton (1745-1813) designed the landscape for his home Woodlands in the modern English garden style. He loved botany and gave America the ginkgo, the Lombardy poplar, and the Norway maple.

Thomas Jefferson too admired Woodlands.

Woodlands’ landscape served as an important early example of the English garden in its natural or picturesque style on American soil.

Even Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening, written in 1913, said: “The fame of Woodlands spread so that all visitors of cultivation and taste who came to Philadelphia had heard of it, and made a point of seeing it.”

William Birch, "The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton." tinted litho from Country Seats, 1809.  Print & Picture (Castner) Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

William Birch, “The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton.” tinted litho from Country Seats, 1809.
Print & Picture (Castner) Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Then she mentioned famous visitors to the garden, “John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall were both friends of William Hamilton and much of his success may have been inspired by the counsel and advice of these two botanicals.  The natural style, which by this time was quite the rage, driving everything else before it, found an advocate in him, and ‘Woodlands’ was probably the best example of it that the country possessed at the close of the eighteenth century.”

You can still visit Woodlands today. The property is now designated a National Historic Landmark District in recognition of its unique history and rich resources.

What I like in Tabor’s book is that she made such a point about Woodlands’ importance in American garden history. She even referred to the garden style, the natural, as the rage at that time.

Thus William Hamilton’s property emerged as an example of modern landscape gardening where people could see for themselves the current form of the English garden.


Factories Appeared Regularly in 19th Century Advertising

The nineteenth century industrial revolution introduced large factories for every business that often meant many buildings which needed dozens of workers.

A sleek looking factory meant that a company was modern. Here is an advertising image from the Pabst Brewery from the 1890s [below].  Notice the tall smoke stacks that generated a grey smoke that covered the near-by city streets of Milwaukee.

Pabst Brwery in Miwluee

The Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Seed companies and nurseries also included their own factories in advertising.  Such buildings might have produced packages and boxes for seeds and plants or included print shops for the business.

Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes: “Factories appeared in a wide range of formats directed to women and children.”

Seed and nursery catalogs were written for women since women made most of the purchases for the home.

Salzer factoryThe John Salzer Co. seed catalog cover [above] included at the top an illustration of the company headquartes that looked like a factory with these words: “John A. Salzer, Co. Establishment, La Crosse, Wisc.”

Notice that the company headquarters was referred to as ‘Establishment’.

It was an opportunity for the company to boast about its current size and at the same time show the world how progressive it was.

Thus the advertising from the seed companies and nurseries joined ranks with other companies of that time, a period when national advertising demanded this self-aggrandizement on the part of the business.

Wisconsin company owners Captain Fred Pabst in Milwaukee and John Salzer in La Crosse both appeared to be progressive in their respective businesses, one to sell beer and the other seeds.