Archives for April 2016

New Video Highlights England’s Capability Brown

New video highlights England’s Capability Brown.

In eighteenth century England Capability Brown, royal gardener at Hampton Court, gardener to the King,

C Brown [courtesy of the http blog, austenonly]

Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) [courtesy of the blog,]

designed over 200 properties in the new landscape style, distinguished by its extensive lawn and natural look.

Many consider Brown among the three most important landscape gardeners in eighteenth century England. The other two are William Kent and Humphry Repton.

Brown designed Highclere Castle’s grounds that you may have seen each week on “Downton Abbey.”  The Castle became the home of Lord and Lady Grantham and their fictional family.

This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

To celebrate his birth, an organization has developed in England to make this year Capability Brown’s year.They sponsor lectures, garden tours and other events.

The group has also produced a five-minute video called Capability on Camera. [below]

This is a wonderful way to tell Capability’s story.

I hope you enjoy the video.


Brown rose from a simple gardener to a robust self-promoter who convinced many aristocrats that the modern landscape style, including vistas and a park look in the landscape, would define the new English Garden.

If you would like to learn more about the year-long Lancelot Capability Brown events, check out the group’s website at


Victorian England Loved US Native Plants

Victorian England loved US native plants.

During the nineteenth century, the English sometimes included a garden called the ‘American Garden’, an area in the landscape filled with American native shrubs and perennials.

The English loved American native plants, like Rudbeckia or Black-eyed Susan, Baptisia australis or False blue indigo, and Phlox.

Here is a Baptisia australis growing in my garden. [below] The plant is a beautiful addition to the garden, and almost care-free.

Baptista Australis, garden of Thomas Mickey, Rye, NH. Photograph by Ralph Morang

Baptisia australis, in my garden [Photograph by Ralph Morang]

New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly  in November 1880, “Our readers would be surprised if they could know how great a variety of hardy plants from all parts of the world are brought under cultivation for ornament in Great Britain and Europe. Some of the plants of our fields and prairies that we should consider least likely to be so employed find favor in the yards of our trans-atlantic cousins.”

The rhododendron from America enjoyed the reputation of an exceptional plant for the Victorian English garden while at the time America knew little about the plant.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly wrote in 1870, “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

The Harlan P. Kelsey Company, a nursery in Boston, said in its company catalog of 1892, “While the whole earth outside the United States has been searched and explored to obtain the choicest trees and plants for beautifying our American parks, lawns, cemeteries, and gardens, yet the more beautiful American plants are rarely seen in cultivation, and, as a rule, are unknown to Americans.”

Today things have changed. Across the country gardeners everywhere cultivate native plants.

It seems like it took us a long time to accept the fact that native plants can contribute a great deal to the garden.




Victorian Gardeners Loved Lily Auratum

Victorian gardeners loved lily auratum.

Recently I have been reading about lilies and the frenzy they created in the late nineteenth century, both in England and in America.  Everyone wanted lilies.

Among the popular lilies appeared the plant called lily auratum.

The nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick praised this lily in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.  In 1880 he wrote, “All of our readers have heard about the celebrated Auratum Lily, and it has no doubt been seen by nearly all.”

Then he spoke of its origin.

He wrote, “The lily is a native of Japan and abounds in the mountains, where the bulbs are gathered and shipped to this country in large quantities.”

Nicolette Scourse says in her book The Victorians and their Flowers that the English plant hunter Robert Fortune brought this lily from Japan in 1860 or 1861.

In Restoring American Gardens Denise Wiles Adams claims that the Parsons plant catalog from New York first listed it in 1861.

I went in search to see where this lily might be available today.

I found it in the catalog from White Flower Farm. [below]

The plant’s dotted white flower with yellow lines is as beautiful as Vick wrote about it in the nineteenth century.

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Vick loved the flowers on this plant. He said, “We have received many reports from our readers of plants that have given from ten to thirty blossoms each year for several years.”

Today nurseries still sell this plant, originating in the nineteenth century, thanks to an English plant collector who traveled to Japan to find plants for the English garden.

The Elliott Seed Company catalog of 1891 included this illustration of a child standing next to a lily. [below] Though perhaps not the auratum, the image reveals the importance of the lily to gardeners.

The six-foot lily auratum gave off a strong vanilla fragrance. One of Vick’s customers wrote him and said, “It filled the air with its sweetness.”

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Based on the frequent mention that Vick gave this lily in his magazine, it remained popular for Victorian gardens for decades.

A reader once wrote Vick, “I hope your customers will try an Auratum.”



Perennials Changed Victorian Gardening

Perennials changed Victorian gardening.

Perennials play an important role in our gardens today. It’s as if we could not garden without them

In the history of the American garden that was not always the case.

As in Victorian England, in the mid nineteenth century annuals became the important plant, especially the bright and colorful varieties imported into the country from Asia, Africa, and South America. Such plants added constant color to the summer garden.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) advocated for the use of perennials in the garden.  He wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1880, “The wealth of beauty presented by the hardy perennials is inexhaustible, and we can only pity those who are content to confine their attention to a few beds of tender plants, however bright and gay they may be while in their best conditions.”

Look at this glorious garden in the landscape of an eighteenth century mansion in Scotland called Carolside. [below] Perennials abound in this garden.


Carolside Garden

The Carolside garden in Scotland

Perennials and annuals can be used together, especially because the flowers of most perennials usually last for only a short length of time.  Annuals, on the other hand, give us their best the whole growing season.

The English recognized a change in gardening that included perennials. In the July 1880 issue of his magazine Vick quoted the English publication called The Gardener, “The flower garden of the present time seems to be undergoing a slow transition. There is a blending of tender with hardy plants which is most desirable; tender and hardy plants appear only to have rival claims until they are placed side by side, when it is found that the attractions of either are about evenly balanced.”

By the end of the nineteenth century when English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll laid out a garden, she insisted on an array of perennials to give color and structure to the garden.

To this day perennials provide much of the beauty in the garden.




Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower

Victorian middle class wanted the lawn mower.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the lawn has assumed an important role in the English garden.

Lancelot Capability Brown, the English gardener to the King in the mid 1700s, created many a lawn on the properties that he was contracted to design in the new modern landscape style.

Since the garden of the wealthy had a team of gardeners to cut the grass, the lawn mower did not appear until mid nineteenth century.

The lawn mower came about because the middle class homeowner couldn’t afford the staff of gardeners.  He wanted an easier way to cut the grass.

Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 writes, “Not until gardening became the leisure occupation of many new middle-class town dwellers did the mechanization of mowers begin.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

The lawn mower in England appeared in 1830, and in America a few years later, 1850. Here is an ad for the Buckeye Lawn Mower from Springfield, Massachusetts that appeared in garden catalogs in the 1890s. [above]

With a mower the middle class could enjoy a lawn just like the wealthy, upper class had been doing for decades.

A lawn thus reflected social class. With a lawn the middle class could identify with the more wealthy estate owner, because now they both had a lawn to maintain.




New Video Pits French against English Garden

New video pits French against English garden.

The English garden took a dramatic new direction in the early 1700s. It was then that certain horticulturists, writers, poets, clergymen, and aristocrats decided that the garden ought to look more natural, and not so ruled by symmetry.

A new short video produced by the History of Ideas presents the differences between the formal French garden and the more natural English garden.  It provides a bit of history and garden design theory. At the same time it is fun to watch.

Here is a link on YouTube to the video called History: French & English Gardens. [below]

The eighteenth century English garden style called ‘modern’ emerged and endured well into the nineteenth century when it was mixed with more formal elements in the design of the landscape.

That modern design was recognized in America as well, both in the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century.

James Vick wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in January, 1881, “What is called the modern or natural style of landscape gardening had its origin in England at the commencement of the eighteenth century. Previously to this time the style of ornamental gardening in Great Britain was similar to that of the nations of Europe, which, in contradistinction to the natural, is termed the artificial [or geometrical] style.”

By early 1900 there was a return to the formal garden both in England and in America at that same time that the profession of the ‘landscape architect’ was born. That professional recognition distinguised the architect from the mere ‘plantsman’ who for decades had advised on landscape gardening.

The early eighteenth century was a time when the English proposed a kind of garden, unlike the more popular formal design of the French, and called it ‘natural’.

It changed landscape design forever.


Catalogs Kept 19th Century Gardener Informed

Catalogs kept 19th century gardener informed.

Rosedown in southern Louisiana is now a public garden, open for all to see the work of nineteenth century gardener Martha Turnbull.

There Martha kept a dairy of her work in her garden, spanning the years 1836 through 1894, which is the subject of the book The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull Mistress of Rosedown Plantation edited and annotated by Suzanne Turner.

Turnbull book cover LSUpressNineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs helped Martha keep informed about the newest and latest in gardening.

Turner writes,  “Despite the relative isolation of Martha’s gardening pursuits at Rosedown, through journals and nursery catalogs she was able to stay in touch with the mainstream of American horticulture and floriculture.”

That was the goal of the owners of the seed and nursery companies: to keep their customers up to date with the newest flower and vegetable on the market.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick wrote in December, 1878, “Knowing the desire of our readers to learn something about everything that is new and good, even though they may not be able to possess all, we now give descriptions of a few very interesting and valuable plants.”

Here is Vick’s catalog from 1872. [below] He published several catalogs every year.

11. 1872 coverVick saw the goal of his catalog to teach his customers.

In 1880 one of his customers wrote these words to Vick, “From you I have acquired and put in practice much valuable information concerning the cultivation of flowers.”

In that same spirit Martha Turnbull also learned much from garden catalogs.


Victorian Flower Beds Bloom in St. Louis

Victorian flower beds bloom in St. Louis.

A British immigrant, Henry Shaw (1800-1889) built his St. Louis, Missouri landscape in the gardenesque style.  In 1832 the English writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon first proposed the gardenesque style as a blend of the picturesque with room in the garden to show off one’s plant collection.

Shaw bequeathed his property to the city fathers who named it the Missouri Botanical Garden.

In this photo [below]  you can still see Shaw’s house but today also intricate beds of flowering plants that now decorate the area. This landscape presents a high Victorian style.

Hnery Sahw's house with Victirain flower beds on the lawn

Shaw’s house with Victorian style carpet beds [courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden]

Philadelphia nurseryman and editor of Gardener’s Monthly Thomas Meehan wrote in 1868: “Mr. Henry Shaw is one of those liberal public spirited men who do so much honor to the United States. Some take pride in endowing and establishing one kind of institution, some others. Mr. Shaw’s taste leads him to botany, arboriculture, and gardening. His Botanic Garden and residence at Tower Hill is unequalled to anything of the kind in the United States, and indeed by few others in the world.”

Meehan noted in that same article that Shaw was building the Linnean House  where he would one day showcase  his camellias. “The hot-house department is quite extensive, and the various collections are gradually being filled up. A new palm or tropical house on a magnificent scale was being constructed.”

When I visited the Missouri Botanical Garden, I saw the  Linnean House, highlighted by dozens of tulips beside it on that Spring day. [below]

Shaw's Linnean House at the Mousouri Botanical Garden

Springtime at Shaw’s Linnean House at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Shaw, like other 19th century American gardeners, preferred the English landscape style called gardenesque.

By mid-nineteenth century landscape design in both England and America included intricate flowerbeds called carpet beds as you can see today at the Missouri Botanical Garden.