Archives for June 2015

Nineteenth Century Seed Catalogs Claimed Better Seed than Local Stores

Marketing any product means you need to provide the reasons why your product is better than its competitors. Of course you do that through language. In the process of choosing words you construct an image for your product so that it will stand out in the marketplace.

That certainly works when you want to brand your product, or give it a certain recognizability.

In the nineteenth century seed companies had to impress upon their customers that their seed was of a better quality than seed sold in local stores.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Since seeds from peddlers’ carts and country stores were often scorned–‘They are not so certain to be pure and fresh’ –purchase from the new mail-order catalogs was advised.”

The mail order business provided a vehicle for the seed companies to sell their product. The government at times provided lenient post office rates for that purpose.

The Shakers sold their seeds mainly in country stores. No one doubted the quality of their seeds.

The commercial seed industry however forged its way by advertising, proclaiming in seed catalogs and ads that each sold the freshest seed.

Here is an illustration from the Everitt seed catalog of 1892. The black and white engraving depicts the fierce competition among the seed companies. [below]

Everitt seed catalog engraving, 1892

Everitt seed catalog engraving, 1892

It was the seed catalog that provided both the seeds and the motivation to cultivate a garden.

Here a customer complemented  Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1879 issue of Vick’s magazine called Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.   The customer wrote, “I see that in some of your numbers you are giving a little hint now and then as to how they encourage the love of flowers in England. I am glad of your efforts.”

People loved the catalogs for many reasons: contact with the owner, words of encouragement, learning about gardening in England, but also the product, quality seeds.

Here is the cover of the seed catalog of 1882 from the D. M. Ferry and Company in Detroit. [below]

1882 catalog cover

1882 catalog cover [courtesy of Pinterest]

Leopold concludes, “It was generally felt that seeds from catalogs were superior to those gathered at random from fields and gardens.”  So people bought seeds from the catalogs.



Greenhouse at Fuller Gardens in Hampton, NH Reflects Gardening Style in early 1900s

In 1927, car dealer Alvan T. Fuller commissioned Boston landscape architect Arthur A. Shurtleff to design a garden in the back of his summer estate known as Runnymede-by-the-Sea in North Hampton, New Hampshire. Shurtleff provided the gardens for many Colonial Revival landscapes of that time, including Colonial Williamsburg.

Now called Fuller Gardens and a two-acre public garden, today that same garden welcomes visitors to enjoy its stunning landscape.

Since such large estates required a conservatory or fernery, the Fuller Gardens include a greenhouse which is attached to the house.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Ferneries were popular during the 1880s and 1890s.” Such conservatories or greenhouses continued to be important in the early twentieth century as well.

Here is the greenhouse at Fuller Gardens. Notice that it is connected to the house. [below]

Greenhouse at Fuller Gardens

Greenhouse at Fuller Gardens

Roses fill most of the garden at Fuller. There are hundreds of rose bushes, with a few blooming on my visit there last week. Strolling through the rose garden, I came across this water fountain against a wall. [below] The fountain provides a water feature to the garden’s formal design.

Fuller Gardens fountain

Fuller Gardens’ fountain in the rose garden

A visit to Fuller Gardens today gives you a chance to enjoy both the seacoast as well as an historical New England garden, featuring its greenhouse in the rose garden.


Novelist Edith Wharton Designed Her Early 20th Century Home Landscape in the Popular Formal Style

Last week I visited The Mount, the home of novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Her house sits in the Berkshires in the western Massachusetts town of Lenox.

The drive took about three hours.

Since she loved landscape design, she had to put her mark on the landscape surrounding her estate, which reflected the grandeur of the earlier Gilded Age. She chose the formal landscape style which was popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

On one end of the garden you see the Italianate fountain in all its formal glory. (below)

The formal garden a The Mount

The formal garden at The Mount

As you descend the stairs from the large patio in the back of the house to enter the garden, you walk along a wall of tall trees and shrubs. [below] This scene also contributes to that formal, linear look.

Staircase in the formal garden at The Mount

Staircase in the formal garden at The Mount

At the other end of the garden in a more shady area you find a parterre that uses white astilbes as edging. Unfortunately, the astilbes were not quite in bloom on my visit, but I am sure it is now a stunning sight to see the straight rows of the airy astilbe flowers in bloom.

Edith Wharton left a landscape history treasure in the pages of her book about Italian garden design called Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904). It reads like a memoir and includes wonderful drawings by the popular artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966).

In the early twentieth century when renewed interest in the formal garden appeared both in England and America, Edith Wharton designed her garden in that style. Today the garden at The Mount has been restored and offers the visitor a chance to capture a sense of that moment in the history of American gardening. 



Cast Iron Garden Furniture Became Popular after 1860

The English landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) wrote in 1799 ,”A few garden chairs carelessly scattered to command the most interesting points, or take advantage of the most desirable circumstances of sun or shade — give the garden, which would otherwise be comparatively dull, the character of cheerfulness.”

Garden furniture, whether made of stone, wood, or metal can also add an element of art to the garden.

Metal furniture for the garden, first hand crafted and later machine-made, has long been used in the garden. Wrought iron and cast iron furniture can both look alike, but are made quite differently.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Gaining its first wave of popularity in the 1840s and ’50s, cast iron had a heavy molded appearance that was a sharp contrast to the delicately made, hand-forged wrought iron of previous decades.”

As with many forms of art work, nineteenth century mass production may have decreased the quality of items like clothing, shoes, and furniture, including tables and chairs for the garden, but also more people could afford the item.

Notice the metal table and chairs I feature in the center of my garden. [belowThough they may look old, and present even an antique charm to the garden, they are an example of available garden furniture, made in a cast iron process that makes the cost less expensive.

This cast iron table and chairs decorate my back garden.

This cast iron table and chairs decorate my back garden.

Garden furniture can still add a touch of art, whimsy, and also a sense of welcome to a garden.



Today Is a Day to Celebrate: You Are Reading Blog Post Number 500

This blog began in August of 2010. My goal was to reach out to build an audience for my book, America’s Romance with the English Garden.

The book, however, did not appear until May of 2013, almost three years later.  Many reasons account for that delay, including the search for a publisher.

Today’s post tops the total number for this blog at five hundred.

In researching how to write a blog I heard so many stories about how ninety percent of blogs never succeed because the author cannot keep up with the writing. That seemed scary to me.

At the start of this blog I made a goal to post twice a week, Monday and Thursday. So twice a week a new post has found its way here. The topic relates to whatever I am reading at the time. Since my reading interests hinge on garden and landscape history, advertising, and cultural studies, the topic of an individual blog post usually arises from one of those areas.

A year into the blog the web hosting service crashed and all the posts were lost. We had to rebuild the blog. At the same time all the names of people who had signed up for the blog in the first year were lost. That was a difficult time.  Today we have a backup system for everything that appears on the blog.

Nothing in the blog format and content has really changed since I started except that I now make the headline a sentence, rather than simply a phrase.

The illustrations have included lithographs, drawings, black and white engravings from the old seed and nursery catalogs, old advertising, book covers, and, of course, photographs of gardens that I have visited.

I want to thank you for reading the posts. You are why I continue with this blog. I appreciate your support.


Rockeries Became Popular in the 19th Century to Showcase New Plants

The rock garden has a long tradition in American gardening, dating to the nineteenth century.

The name for this type of garden might have been rock work, rockery, and, of course, rock garden, but they all meant the same thing. Allison Kyle Leopold in her book The Victorian Garden defines a rock garden in this way, “Partially surrounded by trees or shrubs, rockeries were collections of large stones of a single type, piled up in as natural a manner as possible, over which plants and vines were trained to grow.”

She claims that  the rockery was an immensely important part of the Victorian garden scene during the 19th century. It was, she says, ” The firm belief that no garden, large or small, no suburban plot, no backyard however dark or miserable looking, could not be improved by the introduction of a rockery.”

In visiting gardens over the years I must say that I have seen many examples of a rock garden.

What makes people want a rock garden, besides because it is the latest fashion?

Therese O’Malley writes in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design, “The primary stimulus for the development of rock work was the interest in and availability of specialized plants and shrubs that required special soil and climatic conditions.”  Alpine plants became popular both in England and America during the Victorian period and a rock garden provided an ideal setting for them.

Nineteenth century gardeners wanted to show off their new plants.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 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.”

Perhaps he meant the English taught us to make a rock garden. Vick included this engraving in the same issue of his magazine. [below]

Vick't Illustrated Monthly, 1879

A rockery in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

Maybe your property just has a lot of rocks in it and somehow you need to use that area for gardening. Vick in his magazine from 1881 said, in your case,  “Nature has made the rockery.”

My property includes a great deal of ledge, so I have a rock garden whether I want one or not. You might say that nature made it for me. Here is the ledge on the side of my driveway with plantings that I have installed over the years including hostas, a Japanese maple, a trailing sedum, and daylilies. [below]

Ledge in my garden has provided a setting for a rock garden, which here includes hostas and a Japanese maple.

Ledge in my garden has provided a setting for a rock garden, which here includes hostas and a Japanese maple.

The rock garden became popular in Victorian England and played an important role in American gardens as well.


The Coleus Arrived in America during the mid Nineteenth Century

One of my favorite plants has to be the coleus. I cannot think of my garden without it.

The coleus has been part of the American garden since the Victorian period.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century.”

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

The W. Atlee Burpee catalog of 1893 included this unforgettable chromolithograph based on several coleus plants. Notice the brilliant colors in the catalog’s illustration.  [Below]

Burpee catalog of 1893

The Philadelphia seed company W. Atlee Burpee featured the coleus here in its catalog of 1893.

According to the online coleus nursery Rosy Dawn Gardens,  “Coleus found their way into Europe and later, America, by way of traders and botanists…Plant aficionados seized upon Coleus as the new ‘it’ plant, and a sort of Coleus Fever swept through Victorian gardens, reminiscent of the Tulip Fever of the Netherlands in the 17th century.”

It was probably because the plant was so important to Victorian gardens that the coleus made its way to America from England in the late 1800s.

Today there are dozens of coleus on the market which help maintain its status as an essential ornamental plant for the American summer garden.



In mid-Nineteenth Century Mass Planting Became Fashionable

Mixed borders, or what we call perennial borders, endured a rocky history in the nineteenth century. In the early part of the century they were popular in gardens everywhere both in England and America.

By mid-century however mass plantings in ribbon beds and carpet beds replaced the mixed borders.

By the end of the century mixed borders reappeared as evidence again that fashion in garden comes and goes. But mass planting endured for several decades.

In her book The Victorian Garden Allison Kyle Leopold wrote, “Although the switch to perennial borders took place in England as early as the 1870s, the style did not overtake American gardens until the turn of the century.”

What had become popular were mass plantings of one type of plant, like lobelia, alternanthera, and coleus, because of the color of the flower or the leaf.

In its 1888 March issue the newspaper American Agriculturist summed up the situation in this way: “Until about fifty years ago, this, the ‘mixed border’, was the general style in which gardens were laid out and planted. About that time the bedding system was introduced. This was called ‘massing’, ribbon planting, etc. In this, plants of low stature are planted close together, so that their flowers produce masses of contrasting or harmonizing colors.”

A recent photo below from Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut illustrates the bedding system. The plants, red and white and blue, form an American flag. [Below]

Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Conn.

Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Conn.

It is no surprise that today you still see such examples of mass planting, a garden fashion that is still with us.




Fashion Dictates Plant Choices for the Garden

Gardening provides a view of a particular time and place.  Just take a look at plants that once were popular and now are considered not worth it, like Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound,’ which I planted a couple of times with no success. At one time this was the plant everyone had to have. Today I would never consider it for the garden.

Like clothes and food, gardening provides a view of a particular culture’s values.

Gardening is all about fashion. It tells us what is in, and what is out.

An article in the newspaper American Agriculturist of March 1888 said, “Probably not many are willing to admit that they can look back upon the fashions in gardening of fifty years ago, for there are fashions in gardening as well as in dress. The oldest of us, as we look back upon the gardens of our grandmothers, recall many things that we may look for in vain in the gardens of the present day.”

If I look at my garden journal of thirty years ago, I see an abundance of perennials I wanted including Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), which we now consider an invasive plant that ought to have no spot in any garden. At one time gardeners coveted it. How well I remember the three-hour drive to a well-known nursery here in New England,where I bought several pots of loosestrife.

The early 1900s cover illustration [below] from the Rice Seed Company shows a middle class woman, digging in her garden. It is a bit of fashion both in the clothes the woman wears and in the garden with its lawn, picket fence and fruit tree in the background.

Rice Seed Company - catalog cover from XXX [Courtesy of Pinterest]

Jerome B. Rice Seed Company catalog cover from the early 1900s [Courtesy of Pinterest]

The American Agriculturist article concluded “Not only the names, but in many cases the plants themselves, have gone out of fashion.”

What plants do you think have gone out of fashion?