Archives for January 2016

The American Garden versus the English Garden

The American Garden versus the English Garden.

Recently I came across an article by Noel Kingsbury that brought out the difference between the English garden and the American garden.

The name of the article was Why American yards will never rival British gardens.

I couldn’t believe it.

The story features Daniela Coray, an American garden designer who studied in England where she won awards for her designs. She later came to America to work as a garden designer for a Washington, DC garden center.

Coray said, “This is a key difference between American and English gardening… it’s a status symbol. We don’t have a robust gardening culture and I rarely have clients interested in planting.”

Americans, she argues, are more interested in how the garden provides a sense of social status.

I understand that motivation completely. It supports the reason that from the mid-nineteenth century many people spent fortunes on their suburban landscapes.

Last week I flew to Florida to attend the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, a trade show for the green industry. The show included over 400 growers, many from southern Florida, with about 16,000 attendees who were mainly garden center owners in search of plants.

The day before the show started several of us took a special bus tour of gardens in the Coconut Grove section of Miami.

There we visited a beatiful garden, designed in a modern style, that showed exquisite use of lawn, shrubs, grasses, as well as orchids in the landscape. Here is a photo of the garden that I took that day. [below]

Florida garden with a modern design

Florida garden with a modern design

I think it is a beatiful garden.

Since the nineteenth century the seed companies and nurseries of America have considered the English garden the preeminent garden.

I think, however, we have some outstanding gardens here in America.

What do you think?


Men and Women of the Cloth Love the Garden

History shows us that men and women of the cloth love the garden.

From the middle ages cloistered nuns and monks, behind garden walls, taught us the importance of herbs for medicine and the kitchen.

Later in England clergymen played an important role in the history of the English garden. They may have introduced new plants, grew special plant varieties, collected plants from around the world, and perhaps exhibited plants at local flower shows.

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in 1866 included a letter from a clergyman who lived in Adrian, Michigan. The letter addressed his fellow ministers.

The clergyman wrote: “First get Buist and Breck, take the Monthly, buy a select list of seeds and plants, and go to work. You have preached patience, practice it now.”
He recommended his fellow clergymen seek out both a Breck and a Buist seed catalog, order some seeds, and start gardening.
Catalog from the Joseph Breck Seed Company which began in Boston in 1818.]

Catalog from the Joseph Breck Seed Company

The Joseph Breck Seed Company opened in 1818 Boston. A few years later Robert Buist started his seed company in Philadelphia.  Both were well-established American garden businesses by 1866.

To this day we spread the word about gardening to our family and friends. The seed companies and nurseries that help us are the ones we recommend.

Thus the cycle continues. Our friends, in turn, recommend the same companies.

Mass marketed gardening emerged for the first time when nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries  introduced the mail order catalog as a means to connect with gardeners whether in the city, the suburbs, or on the farm.

Since all advertising, and the catalog was first and foremost an ad, sells cultural values, in the process the seed and plant merchants sold a certain style of gardening which was the English garden, especially the lawn.

When the Michigan preacher recommended the Breck and Buist company catalogs and Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly, he too promoted the English style of gardening.


Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Instructed

Nineteenth century garden catalogs instructed the American gardener.

The owners of the nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries considered themselves teachers.  Thus, their company catalog did not hesitate to instruct its customers.

Both in word and illustration the reader learned about gardening.

New York seedsman Peter Henderson on his 1899 catalog cover showed the vegetable crops in the field, but also provided the gardener with an image of the English style landscape around the home. [below]

Philadelphia nurseryman and writer Thomas Meehan in his garden publication Gardener’s Monthly said in 1866: “We commence our eighth annual volume with the feeling of a novice new to his work. We direct the same pen, and the same page conveys our teachings to those who read.”

Henderson catalog of 1899

Peter Henderson & Co. catalog of 1899

In 1885 the Baltimore horticulturist, who once worked for seedsman Robert Buist, William D. Brackenridge wrote in the same magazine: “The country has arrived at a high state of progress in horticulture …by the descriptive and illustrated catalogs spread broadcast over the length and breadth of the land by the almost innumerable nurserymen and florists found in every section of our diversified and fertile country.”

Gardeners depended on the seed and nursery trade, not only for garden products like seeds and plants, but also for instructions on how to plant and care for trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, and, of course, the lawn.

For much of the nineteenth century the seed and nursery industries depended in turn on England’s search for new plants for the garden, innovations like the Wardian case and the glass house, along with the many garden books and magazines by English writers.

American seedsmen and nurserymen must have taught us well since to this day we still love the English garden.


America Admired English Gardener Joseph Paxton

America admired English gardener Joseph Paxton.

Nineteenth century America knew the reputation of Paxton, the head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate Chatsworth in northern England.

Paxton became England’s most famous horticulturist in the mid-nineteenth century. His garden publication Magazine of Botany would see many years of circulation. Middle class gardeners became eager subscribers.

The history of English landscape design owes much to Joseph Paxton who designed Birkenhead Park, an early example of how a city could create public green space. The Park inspired Frederick Law Olmsted who wrote about his visit to Birkenhead.

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) head gardener at Chatsworth, writer, and garden designer.

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) head gardener at Chatsworth, writer, and garden designer.

American garden writers of the nineteenth century recognized Paxton’s role in the development of the garden, even though there is no record that he ever came to America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly wrote about Paxton’s death in 1865.  Meehan said: “Paxton, by his example and success, has been one of the best friends the working gardener ever had, elevating him and his profession to a point never before attained, and is entitled to the honor of a Saint in the Horticultural Calendar, and to be held in ‘everlasting remembrance’ .”

The fact that Meehan mentioned Paxton in his magazine illustrates how important English gardening was to America. Meehan proposed that Paxton be canonized as in the tradition of the Catholic Church which seeks to give its members an individual who can serve as an inspiration.

Paxton, as an English gardener, could well serve the role of one who could teach America how to garden.

In a sense he was, since often American nurserymen and seedsmen considered the English garden style superior to that of America.


Downing Admired Chatsworth

During the mid nineteenth century Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premier nineteenth century landscape gardener, admired the garden at Chatsworth, the work of head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

In 1850 Downing visited England’s Chatsworth, begun in 1617. He later wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire, has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world.”

You know since you need inspiration for a garden or landscape, you sometimes borrow ideas from other gardens you have visited. In one sense it is a high form of admiration.

Downing, like any gardener, found a certain enjoyment in visiting such grand gardens as Chatsworth. They inspired his writing about the kind of home ladnscape America needed at that time, a fashion quite similar to the English garden, though adapted for the American home.

He describes the landscape of Chatsworth in detail, including  the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the estate.

You can still see the Chatsworth lawn in the photo here.  [below] It is a lawn that Capability Brown installed during the eighteenth century, bestowing upon it even more historical importance.

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth

Downing, a New York nurseryman who wrote several books and edited the magazine The Horticulturist,  admired the English garden style.  He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, who had published a garden magazine and many books.  Loudon’s magazine also included articles written by Downing.  Loudon was probably the most influential English garden writer in the first half of the nineteenth century.

What style does your garden represent?  Who is your inspiration for your garden?

Downing admired Joseph Paxton’s English garden at Chatsworth.


Paxton Garden Reflected Victorian Garden Fashion

Head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) sought to provide his employer the Duke of Devonshire with the latest plants.

The Duke enjoyed such botanical treasures, sometimes including Paxton in his own travels to seek out new plants.

The plant everyone wanted and everyone coveted was the large water lily named Victoria amazonica or Victoria Regia. Paxton succeeded in bringing it into flower at Chatsworth where in 1849 in order to prove the strength of the leaves of the plant, Paxton’s daughter Annie stood on one of the leaves of the plant. [below]

At Chatsworth Paxton built a special lily house for the plant.


Paxton's daugher on the water lily

‘Annie on Lily Leaf’ Illustrated London News (November 17, 1849)

Years later at his own home outside of London called Rockhills, Paxton showed that he still pursued the latest garden fashion. There he lived in an elegant Victorian house on the corner of the Crystal Palace park. 

The landscape reflected the garden style of Victorian England of that period.

On the porch climbers like wisteria, passion flowers, and jasmine ran up the trellises. A gravel walk led a visitor to the house door.  On the lawn circular beds with flowering shrubs brought color while smaller beds were filled with the newest geraniums. Carpet beds and ribbon beds, the fashion of the day, also made up the garden.

His garden illustrated the latest Victorian fashion, all of it labour intensive.

In her extraordinary biography of Paxton, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, Kate Colquhoun writes,”In this garden, as he had at Chatsworth, Paxton proved himself the greatest garden authority of his time.”

Thus, Paxton did not just garden, but gardened, as we all do, in the latest fashion and style for that time and place. In his case that happened to be Victorian England.


Paxton Sold ‘Hothouses for the Millions’

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) was not only a gardener, but also an architect, famous for his glass structures.

He designed and built glass houses for his employer the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, including one for the Duke’s orchid collection.

Eventually Paxton proposed a plan for the largest greenhouse England had ever seen, the Crystal Palace. This cast-iron and plate-glass structure was built to house London’s Great Exhibition from spring to fall in 1851 in Hyde Park.

From the start the goal for Paxton was to make the Chrystal Palace a permanent structure.

After the Exhibition it was rebuilt in an affluent south London suburb where it stood until fire destroyed it in 1936.

Paxton sought to help the middle class gardener, first through his garden magazine. Later he would make and sell his own inexpensive greenhouse called ‘Hothouses for the Millions.”  Paxton’s name appeared in an 1860 ad for his company’s hothouses. [below]

ad in 1860 issue of Gardeners' Chronicle

Ad in the 1860 issue of Gardeners’ Chronicle

Paxton had the same portable greenhouses at his own home near London which the Duke built for him.

Kate Colquhoun in her book about Paxton, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton writes that each greenhouse was “crowded with plants that had wintered in pots ready for ‘bedding out.’ There were tens of varieties of fruit and vegetables, including forced strawberries, early potatoes, kidney beans and melon.”

Thus he showed in his own gardening the usefulness of his “Hothouses for the Millions.”

Colquhoun says, “In this garden, as he had at Chatsworth, Paxton proved himself the greatest garden authority of his time.”

Paxton not only built, advertised, and sold his own greenhouses, but demonstrated by his own gardening in them how helpful they were to the ordinary middle class gardener.




Biography Depicts Humanity of Joseph Paxton

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) assumes an important role in the history of the English garden.

He not only created new features for the Duke of Devonshire’s garden, making it one of the most famous gardens in England, but helped gardeners everywhere with his innovations in gardening under glass and his search for new plants for the garden.

Recently I finished the extraordinary biography of Paxton by Kate Colquhoun, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton.


Colquhoun won numerous awards for the book, her first. Her style of writing makes reading about Paxton in these pages most enjoyable. You feel like you are reading a novel.

Not to worry, however, because at the end of the book she gives detailed notes on her source material.

She refers to Paxton as “the greatest gardener of his time.” From his accomplishments she lists in chapter after chapter, the reader goes away in amazement that one man could do so much.

For me the central theme of the book centers on the idea that success comes, not from deeds performed however well and however many, but from a devotion and closeness to family and friends. Paxton exhibited that feature to the end of his life.  Colquhoun almost makes that kind of humanity the theme throughout the book.

One example is Paxton’s devotion to his employer the Duke for decades. Paxton had many other job opportunities as his work became more known in England. He turned them down to continue as the head gardener, and eventually, the one in charge of the estate at Chatsworth. He mourned the death of the Duke to such an extent that it made you feel that he was more than an employer.

Even while he built the Chrystal Palace and afterwards was elected to Parliament, Paxton sought to maintain a link to his own wife and children as well as his relationship with the Duke and his family.

Joseph Paxton’s greatness lies in his humanity.