Archives for September 2014

Restoring an Old Garden First Calls for Research

Recently I visited the Abbot-Spalding House in Nashua, New Hampshire. The house dates from the early nineteenth century. The Nashua Historical Society, housed in a museum next door which is a more modern building, takes care of the Abbot-Spalding House and its landscape.

The Historical Society now wants to improve the Abbot-Spalding House landscape in order to eliminate the weeds that fill the areas along the outside of the building which are now planted mostly in shrubs.

I travelled there in hopes that I might help them.

After my tour of the property by the administrator and a museum staff member, I thought it was necessary to research the old landscape.  I did not want to make any landscape recommendations until I had a sense of how the landscape had evolved to its present form.

Michael Weishan and Christina Roig in their book From a Victorian Garden: Creating the Romance of a Bygone Age Right in Your Own Backyard offer advice on restoring a Victorian landscape.  They said, “Perhaps the most important reason why garden research lags behind that of interiors is that curators and administrators do not always recognize the vital role the landscape can play in illuminating the life and times of the people who created them.”

Abbott House, Nashua, NH

Abbot-Spalding House, Nashua, NH

I walked the property and found many spots where we might plant something, especially in certain areas bordering the walls of the house. Several barren spots that I saw seemed to call out to me, as it were, to recommend a plant where something did grow at one time.  But I held back and did not make any plant recommendations in that initial visit.

I thought I better do some research on how the landscape first looked to get a sense of how to proceed.

That meant that I needed to look at photographs and other materials about the Abbot-Spalding House landscape.

So this past Thursday I drove to Nashua for that purpose.  There I found several early photographs and even a history of the house.

Since I like to explore the history of the  American garden, I must say I welcome this first stage of research about the Abbot-Spalding House. As much as possible, I want to arrive at a sense of how the garden began, what changes happened over time, and how did the landscape evolve to its current form.


Carpet Bedding Became the Rage in the Victorian Garden

Much to the delight of gardeners In nineteenth century England as well as America new plants arrived from Africa and South America.  They were not hardy plants for the freeze of winter, but provided ample color and texture as annuals for the summer garden.

In an attempt to display these new plants, and thus show a sense of prestige in owning the latest plant variety, gardeners both in England and America encouraged the fashion of carpet bedding.

Victorian Garden Book 2 lineIn her new book The Victorian Garden Caroline Ikin writes, “Created from the close planting of low-lying plants such as sedum and sempervivum which presented a smooth surface patterned like a carpet, this new style was variously known as jewel bedding, embossed bedding, tapestry bedding, artistic bedding or mosaic bedding.”

The patterns became more complex as the fashion became more popular.  The Crystal Palace Park in London in 1875 featured a series of butterflies arranged over six beds.

American gardeners would, of course, not be out done.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company included carpet bedding on its catalog cover of 1886 [below].

Henderson Lawn

Notice the intricate detail of the carpet bedding flower patterns on the lawn.

Such gardening demanded maintenance throughout the summer to keep the height and color in this design.  Pruning and dead heading occupied the gardener for many hours every week.

Henderson carpet bedding


Nineteenth Century Advice on Garden Containers Still Holds Up

No garden would be complete without an outdoor container or vase filled with color to add to the enjoyment of summer plants.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) gave instructions on how to plant such a container.  He included in his catalog this illustration of a well-kept vase [below].

He wrote, “Of all the adornments of the lawn, nothing is more effective than a well filled and well kept vase.…All the ornamental-leaved plants are appropriate for the top or center of the vase, while a few drooping plants should be placed near the edges and allowed to hang or droop at least half way to the ground. For this purpose the Verbena or the Petunia will answer.”

Vick's Floral Guide, 18979

A well-kept vase from Vick’s Floral Guide, 1879

Then he makes sure we know that we ought to keep to a certain number of planters in the landscape. He wrote, “The most popular ornament of the lawn is the vase; and when judiciously planted and well cared for, nothing can be more desirable. We often see several small vases scattered over the lawn, but the effect is bad. It is best to have one or two that command attention by their size and beauty.”

This summer I took this photo of a planter at the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel in New Castle, New Hampshire [below].  Notice the size and color of the plants in the container: the tall purple grass, the mid-sized Rudbeckia, and the lime Coleus for that trailing effect. It is as if the gardener followed the precise directions of Mr. Vick.

His instructions fit today’s gardener as much as they did the American gardener in the nineteenth century.


Summer Container at the Wentworth in NH

Summer container on the dock at the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel in New Castle, NH


The Victorian Garden Appeared both in England and America

English garden historian Brent Elliott refers to gardening in nineteenth-century England simply as Victorian.

In his book Victorian Gardens he lists the major trends in the English garden during that period, many of which were often mentioned in nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs as well.


Elliott Victorian Gardens coverElliott’s book traces the following Victorian garden trends that appeared in England during the nineteenth century:

  • Natural landscape design
  • Lawn
  • Rock garden
  • Gravel parterres
  • Spring bedding
  • Dwarfed trees as bedding plants
  • Dutch topiary
  • Mixed border
  • Carpet bedding
  • Wild garden
  • Continual transplanting for constant color in the garden
  • Color in drifts
  • Sweet peas as the dominant vertical flower
  • Arts and crafts style, including rustic bridges, arbors, and pergolas

In 1860 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “To those anxious to know the rapid progress horticulture is making on the American continent, the catalogues of the nurserymen are very instructive.”

Thus in their catalogs the owners of the seed companies and nurseries instructed the American gardener in the garden trends mentioned by Elliott from natural landscape design to the need for arbors and pergolas.  America embraced the Victorian garden in all its style and fashion.




Paxton Built a Rock Garden at Chatsworth in 1842 – the Latest Victorian Fashion

During the early Victorian period in England rock gardens became popular. A rock garden included plants suitable for that low water environment, often alpine plants.  It also became an opportunity to showcase plants collected from abroad.

Caroline Ikin in her new book The Victorian Garden writes, “The new alpine plants being stocked by nurseries inspired enthusiasts to create their own rock gardens, some imitating mountain scenery and incorporating scaled-down versions of the Alps or the Khyber Pass.”

chatsworth rockery 1842

The Chatsworth rockery today

Rock gardens sometimes  of a substantial size  appeared in the garden.  At Chatsworth in 1842 the Head Gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) laid out a rock garden with huge boulders. The Chatsworth rock garden became a statement also about its owners.

When I visited Chatsworth and took this picture [above], what struck was the scale of the rock garden. The stones rising up the hill seemed enormous in size. I wondered what marvels of  men and machinery made it possible to install this kind of garden in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the same time here among American gardeners an interest in rock  gardens also flourished. Rochester, New York  seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included an illustration of the popular rock garden in his garden magazine of 1879. [below].

Vick't Illustrated Monthly, 1879

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879


As the century came to an end more realistic rock gardens of a smaller scale became common.  Ikin writes, “Rock gardens became flatter and replicated more closely the native moraine habitat from which alpine plants were collected.”

The rock garden at Chatsworth illustrates how garden fashion influenced the nineteenth century English garden.

Vick recognized that and wrote in his Illustrated Monthly of February 1879, “The English people, I noticed, have a great predilection for rockeries and garden houses, and considerable taste and ingenuity is sometimes displayed in their adornment.”


How to Plant Trees for a Natural Landscape

English landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) designed landscapes around the turn of the eighteenth century. Since he was considered one who followed the landscape gardening style of Lancelot Capability Brown, he was familiar with and promoted the natural landscape.

He found that the use of trees if planted correctly could result in a more natural landscape .

In his book The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803)  he wrote: “No groups [of trees] will appear natural unless two or more trees are planted very near each other, whilst the perfection of a group consists in the combination of trees of different age, size, and character.”

Trees in an artificial scene

A. Trees in an artificial scenery

He then gave an example in a drawing of  what he called the ‘artificial scenery’ [above].

Then he presented a second drawing in which the trees are different sizes and shapes.  He calls that drawing ‘natural scenery’ [below].

He wrote “In the same drawing I have supposed the same trees grown to  a considerable size, but from their equi-distance the stems are all parallel to each other, not like the group [in the other illustration] where being planted much nearer, the trees naturally recede from each other.’

Thus he proposed the value of the natural look in the landscape, simply by the way the landscape gardener planted the trees.

He concluded with this remark: “It may be observed that the single tree, and every part of the first sketch, is evidently artificial, and that the second one is natural, and like the groups in a  forest.”

His remarks indicate that the natural landscape, or picturesque, demands planning and execution much like the intricate geometric style of garden design only for a quite different result.  The goal in the natural landscape is to replicate the look of a forest or woods in the landscape.

Trees in a natural setting

B. Trees in a natural setting




Did You Know the Seed Packet Originated with the Shakers?

When you buy seeds in that familiar packet, that paper envelope might just seem an ordinary part of any gardener’s life.

The seed packet however has a history.

At one time Shaker communities needed to sell seeds to survive. That became their first business that continued for a good part of the nineteenth century.  They invented the packet as a way to market their garden seeds.

By 1790 the Shakers who lived in New Lebanon, New York started a seed business, selling in bulk to local farmers.

The inspiration for packaging the seeds would forever be attributed to this New York community of Shakers.

Shaker book coverM. Stephen Miller writes in his new book From Shaker Lands, and Shaker Hands, “Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the New Lebanon Shakers did something that forever changed the way seeds were sold. Although the details are again rather sketchy, it is certain that the community began to package seeds in, initially, small paper envelopes for retail sale.”

The Shakers there conducted a business of selling seeds for nearly a century.

In the nineteenth century as commercial seed companies developed, first on the East coast, each of them used the same packet idea as the marketing tool for their seeds.

The Shakers also published a catalog or broadsheet that listed the seeds for sale.

Miller writes: “The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the phenomenal and interrelated growth of the advertising and printing industries, and the Shakers were very much a part of this.”

The Shakers also constructed special boxes to display the seeds in general stores.  They used advertising including chromolithographs in striking colors to sell their seeds.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, due to many reasons including a decline in Shaker membership and the growth of the commercial seed business, the Shaker seed business lost some of its steam.

Selling seeds was among the first of the businesses in which Shakers invested time and energy.  To them we owe the invention of the seed packet, now so familiar to American gardeners everywhere.



Late Nineteenth Century American Garden Writer Treasured the English Garden Tradition

Rochester, New York nurseryman George Ellwanger (1848-1906) wrote a book in 1887 called The Garden’s Story.

In the book he  recognized that he was a gardener in a long line of gardeners, including the English gardeners who first encouraged the natural landscape design style early in the eighteenth century.

He credited three gardeners, two English and the other American, long gone but an important influence on his own gardening. He mentioned the English poet and gardener Alexander Pope, English gardener and historian Horace Walpole, and America’s landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) English art historian, writer, and gardenist

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, Ragley Hall, 1756

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was an English art historian, writer, but also a gardener.

Ellwanger wrote: “Pope was a gardener, of course. That he was passionately fond of gardening can not be doubted in view of his statement, as given by Walpole, that of all his works he was most proud of his garden. He was a landscape-gardener rather than a floriculturist, however, painting with trees instead of flowers; and when we look over the great field of those artists whose canvas was Nature herself, where shall we find one who possessed the flowing, natural touch of Downing?”

Ellwanger recognized the importance of these two early English garden writers, who later inspired the American nurseryman and landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Isabel Wakelin Urban Chase in her book Horace Walpole: The Gardenist credits Walpole with defining the new taste in gardening based on the principles of “picturesque beauty’. She writes: “Walpole has been regarded as the best contemporary historian of the changes in gardening which took place in the mid-eighteenth century.”

By the end of the nineteenth century Ellwanger recognized the contribution that Walpole had made to gardening by then expressed in landscape gardening in America. That design relied on the romantic English garden style, so loved by Downing.



Victorian Garden Style Still Popular Today

When I visited Pittsburgh  for the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium a couple of weeks ago, I saw several gardens.

The garden at the Newington Estate, one of the oldest homes in a town twelve miles west of Pittsburgh called Sewickley, was one of my favorites.

This garden dates back to the nineteenth century when the Victorian garden was in style here in America. The garden got me thinking about what after all makes a garden ‘Victorian.’

The book by Katherine Knight Rusk Renovating the Victorian House helped a bit. She includes a section on installing a Victorian garden.

For the landscape design she recommends that you consult Andrew Jackson Downing’s book Cottage Residences (1842) where you will find several black and white drawings of detailed plans for a garden.

Newington Garden in Pittsburgh

Newington Garden in Pittsburgh, including fuchsia in containers

You can easily find old varieties of plants for such a Victorian landscape at many nurseries today.

It is amazing that gardens today often include several of the plants she recommends.

For flowers she favors Canterbury bells, dahlia, fuchsia [see them above in containers] geranium, lily of the valley, marigold, nasturtium, rose, salvia, and tulip, to name just a few.

The trees she lists include dogwood, magnolia, and weeping willow.

Some shrubs in the plant list are boxwood, holly, lilac, and rose of sharon.

The vines she recommends include clematis, English ivy, and wisteria.

I am sure you grow may of these plants already in your garden. I know that I do.

The Victorian garden style is still popular today, at least by choice of plants American gardeners use.