Archives for February 2015

A Primrose Steeped in Garden History

You never know what you will find at a spring Flower and Garden Show. For sure the Show  always offers a relief from winter, and that’s well worth it.

Sometimes however you find a surprise.

As I walked the aisles of the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show in Hartford last week, I came across a primrose in the designed landscape by Comets to Koi.

The variety was  Primula Elatior ‘Gold Lace’, with its popular name Victorian Lace Primrose. [below]

Connecticut Flower and Gaden Show 2015

Connecticut Flower and Garden Show 2015

This is an old variety of primrose that was popular in the English garden both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But it also became part of American gardens as well.

Rudy and Joy Putnam Favretti mention this plant in their book Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings. They list it among the annuals and perennials in the United States that appeared in gardens between 1776 to 1850.

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon also gave planting instructions for this tiny flower  in his book American Gardener, written in 1806.

According to, “In 1822, cultural details were described in great detail in the monumental work of the ‘Encyclopedia of Gardening’ for Victorian gardeners.” The English writer and gardener John Claudius Loudon had published the Encyclopedia as a resource for gardeners.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818=1882)  included the primrose in his seed catalog of 1874. [below]


Primrose from Vick 1874

Primrose from Vick’s seed catalog of 1874

This tiny hierloom plant, the primrose, on display at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, links a visitor to English garden history, American garden tradition,  as well as the seed industry in this country.



Copper Water Feature at CT Flower Show Designed Like Old-Time Garden Sprinkler

Two days ago I spoke about my book at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show at the Hartford Convention Center in the downtown area. The Show’s organizers choose the theme “The Spirit of Spring, ” a perfect phrase to offer a bit of the coming season to people on the East coast who over the last few weeks have had to cope with record snow and cold weather.

Before my talk, I explored the surplus of vendors that had set up camp along the many isles on the Convention floor. Then it was time for me to view the landscape exhibits. 

The designed landscape by Aqua Scapes of CT caught my eye.  The exhibit included a four-foot copper Japanese maple water feature. Here is my photo of the Japanese maple in metal: [below]

Copper water feature in a stone bed at last weeks Connecticut Flower and Garden Show i Hartford, Conn.

Copper water feature in a stone bed at last week’s Connecticut Flower and Garden Show in Hartford, Conn.

This morning in exploring the nineteenth century seed catalog of Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) I came across an image that reminded me of this copper feature.

In the 1880 Vick’s Floral Guide, a fancy name for his seed catalog, a water feature, quite similar in its basic design to the one in copper, appeared in an ad toward the back of the catalog. You can see here [below]

Lawn sprinker featured in James Vick's 1880 seed catalog.

Lawn sprinkler featured in James Vick’s 1880 seed catalog.

You don’t see this kind of water feature, or sprinkler in this case, too often, so I was surprised to see one and then the other in just a day or two.

Some things new are not so new.

The cost of the copper water feature, which I do not know, certainly can’t compare with Vick’s sprinkler at $1.00 for the least expensive, to $4.00 if you want the fancier model with its own attached hose.

Thanks to the organizers of the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show. The tulips and daffodils at the Show could not have arrived at a better time.


Old British Documentary Features 18th Century Landscape Gardener Capability Brown

Recently on Twitter I came across a reference to a short documentary about Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) who was Gardener to the King. Along with William Kent and Humphry Repton, he shares the honor of one of the three most important landscape gardeners of eighteenth century England.

There seems to be a lot of interest in England in Brown’s 300th anniversary next year, 2016.  Even now conferences and exhibits about his work appear around the country. You can find two Twitter sites that bear his name.

It was on one of the Twitter sites [@BrownCapability] that I found a reference to a twenty-minute film about him that had been made in 1964. Today the archives of the University of East Anglia house the film.

C Brown [courtesy of the http blog, austenonly]

Capability Brown [image courtesy of the  blog Austenonly].

Here is the link to the film simply called  Lancelot Capability Brown, which is still worth watching.

What I liked about the film is that it takes the viewer on a tour of some of the properties that Brown redesigned in his pastoral emphasis, especially Stowe and Blenheim.

Brown would remove any formal flower beds and install a lawn.  His design style was the antithesis of French landscape architect Andre Le Notre’s formal and symmetric approach.

At the classic garden Chatsworth, in the north of England, Brown left untouched the Cascade, voted England’s best water feature, but installed a sizable lawn that you can still see today.

Check out the film for a glimpse into the life and career of one of England’s landscape giants.


Flowers Formed the Essence of the Victorian Garden

As I continue to explore what made the Victorian garden so special, a new book came to my attention.

Michael Weisham and Cristina Roig wrote the book called From a Victorian Garden: Creating the Romance of a Bygone Age Right in Your Own Backyard.  They write about the garden at British Columbia’s Point Ellice House, a Victorian house built in 1861, owned by the O’Reilly family for nearly a century.  You can still visit the house and garden today.

A central idea in the book is that flowers became an essential element in the Victorian garden, but not just any old flowers.

From a Victorian GardenWeisham and Roig said, “In the nineteenth century, garden styles, as with many other aspects of popular culture, followed distinct trends. This was especially true for flowers, probably the most hallowed element of the Victorian garden, which became the subject of one of the most radical swings in garden fashion ever witnessed.”

The names of some of the flowers you will recognize immediately. You probably grow them in your own garden.

The flowers that Weisham and Roig wrote about as esential were petunias, zinnias, and impatiens.  There are others, but don’t these sound familiar?

They wrote, “Seed catalogs [like that of the James Vick Company in Rochester,NY] and nurseries began actively promoting the use of bright annuals.”

The bright annuals, whether in borders, beds, or in containers, reflected the bold colors that Victorian gardeners loved.

We owe much to the impact of the Victorian garden because it still impacts the way we garden today.


Meehan’s Magazine of 1859 Encouraged the Gardenesque Landscape

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) published his magazine The Gardener’s Monthly for over thirty years.

He filled the publication with stories about people and plants, but also included landscape ideas.

Meehan voiced his preference for a certain kind of landscape. In the page [below] from his magazine of 1859 he calls the article on the right “Design for a Small Garden.”

The black and white drawing showed the  house and the land around it, owned by Mr. A. C. Pracht, and located in Baltimore.

This plan included the lawn, flowerbeds, the kitchen garden, fruit trees, grape vines, but also a large collection of trees and shrubs, carefully placed within the front area of the property.

The owner who cultivated many varieties of plants, and wanting to show them off,  designed this kind of landscape, referred to as the gardenesque style, a word first used by English garden designer and writer John Claudius Loudon.

GM Vol 1, #7, July 1859

The Gardener’s Monthly, Volume 1, No. 7, July, 1859. [Courtesy of the book From Seed to Flower]

Readers of this magazine learned about gardening along with its newest styles and fashion.  In fact, you could trace the history of American horticulture by a careful review of this magazine over its decades of publication.

Meehan was also keen to let people know what was the best kind of landscape design.  In his view it was the English style, or at that time, the gardenesque which was a more natural design with a focus on showcasing certain plants in the landscape. He does that in this Pracht design for his collection of trees and shrubs.



Head Gardener John Fleming Started the Victorian Carpet Bedding Craze

While searching for material on the Victorian garden, I came across a blog published by Indiana Public Radio called Focus on Flowers.

There I read an article entitled “Head Gardeners of Victorian Era England” written by Moya Andrews.

The blog included this  photo [below] which caught my eye at once. I just had to feature it here on the AG blog.

The article points out that in 1853 English Head Gardener John Fleming invented the gardening practice of “carpet bedding” that is still used today in many gardens throughout the world.

Photo: denvilles duo

Carpet bedding still appears in gardens everywhere. [Photo: denvilles duo]

Head gardeners wrote for the popular magazine called Gardener’s Chronicle and often started trends.

Andrews writes, “For example, Donald Beaton used masses of red geraniums and created ‘ribbon bedding’ to edge stone stairs and paths. John Fleming created the Duchess of Sutherland’s monogram by clipping plants to resemble a Turkish carpet and the term ‘carpet bedding‘ was coined.”

Of course, here in America, seed and nursery catalogs regularly wrote about the importance of carpet bedding.

In 1883 New York seedsman Peter Henderson wrote, “The carpet style, so called, consists of using plants that can be kept down to a few inches above the lawn…This style of bedding requires an immense number of plants. One bed in the carpet style at Battersea Park, containing less than 1,000 square feet, required 4,000 plants to produce the desired effect in the design, and not a leaf of these was more  than six inches above the lawn.”

No surprise that American gardeners around the country included carpet bedding, the latest garden fashion, imported from England.





Victorian Flower Beds of a Single Plant Defied Tradition

Today we assume that flowerbeds can take an array of both annuals and perennials and even shrubs.

Borders of flowers often provide summer color, texture, and with the plant’s particular size also that needed filling of a certain space whether vertical or horizontal.

Sometimes we even plant an extensive area of one flower or colorful leafed plant.  What you may not know is that such mass planting represents a form of garden rebellion.

The Victorian garden of the nineteenth century introduced the mass planting of one variety to flower beds, but only as a shift in the earlier tradition of planting several varieties of flowers in a bed or border.

In his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy artist and garden writer David Stuart provides some background in understanding that break in garden tradition.

He writes, “The old method of planting garden flowers was in a mixture, and flowers had been planted that way since the seventeenth century. It was once believed that to have two flowers of the same sort next to one another was a grave error of taste, and it seems likely that such planting ideas had an even more ancient past.”

Yet we know that Victorian gardens enjoyed circles, rows, ribbons, and all sorts of other designs, of a single plant variety, like the coleus or the lobelia, in the fashion of the day called carpet bedding and ribbon bedding.

Stuart says, “The idea of grouping flowers, so that only one sort was to be seen in each bed, was as much a major departure from the conventions of history as was the passion for informal landscape gardens of the previous century.”

Since we know that gardening is all about fashion and style, the English Victorian garden made a shift in the nineteenth century to mass planting of one variety, usually of an annual.

America soon followed the same style of planting flower beds.

Today it is quite common to find beds of one plant variety as in the garden at the grand Victorian Missouri Botanical Garden [below] even though that style of gardening was at one time an innovation and a break from garden tradition.

Missouri Botaniacal garden

Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis


English Garden Writers Inspired Andrew Jackson Downing in his Naturalistic Landscape Design

In 1976 the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society published a book called From Seed to Flower Philadelphia 1681-1876: A Horticultural Point of View. The book accompanied an exhibit of a collection of the Society’s garden books that highlight the role of Philadelphia during that formative period of the American garden.

From Seed to FlowerWhile discussing the state of America’s landscape design of that time, the book presents the contribution of New York fruit grower turned landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852).

The book references his admiration and dependence on the English garden tradition for his own work: “Downing’s earliest work, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, published in 1841, owes much to the writings of John Claudius Loudon, a pioneer in the modern philosophy of parks as ‘lungs for the city.’ A chain of influence linked Loudon, Downing, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the eminent American landscape architect and park designer, in the naturalistic tradition of landscape design. Fairmont Park in Philadelphia owned a debt to Downing, for its creation was in part due to enthusiasm aroused by him.”

Downing’s landscape at his own home in New York [below] demonstrated his preference for the English romantic, naturalistic design.

The home of Andrew Jackson Downing in New York, circa 1850.

The home of Andrew Jackson Downing in New York, circa 1850.

The book From Seed to Flower serves as a real tribute to the early writing of nurserymen about the state of the American garden.

This compact volume provides a great resource on the history of the American garden and positions Philadelphia at the center of much of what was going in the country during that period of time.