Archives for July 2019

We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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Hardy Plants vs Annuals

Hardy Plants vs Annuals

There has long been a battle between gardeners who prefer hardy plants or perennials and those who would rather plant annuals for the summer garden.

In the nineteenth century the battle soared to its peak.

In his book A Plea for Hardy Plants (1902) the landscape architect from Pittsburg James Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) argued that hardy plants were rare in the garden.

Elliott’s book A Plea for Hardy Plants [Courtesy of Biblio.com]

Elliott wrote, “Nine-tenths of the ornamental gardening in America is still done with a few commonplace and uninteresting bedding plants.”

He saw such gardening with annuals as a waste of time and money.

Elliott felt sorry for gardeners who avoided hardy plants.

He wrote “Think of the pity of it, that all this enormous annual expenditure should be wasted – an expenditure that leaves our gardens in the fall exactly as it found them in the spring – bare earth, and nothing in it.”

The beautiful perennial borders of Powerscourt in Ireland illustrate what hardy plants can do for the summer garden. [Below]

Powerscourt’s garden took shape in the early twentieth century when the debate on the use of hardy plants was at its peak both in America and Europe.

Perennial border at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

To us it may seem like there is no issue here at all. Today most gardeners use a combination of perennials and annuals.

For decades, however, especially during the late Victorian period both in England and America, hardy plants took a back seat to showy annuals.

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Gamble House’s Pollinator Garden

Gamble House’s pollinator garden

Today there is much interest in including a pollinator garden in every landscape.

Scientists tell us there is a shortage of bees and other insects to pollinate. Much of our food crop depends on such pollinators.

The USDA Forest Service encourages gardeners everywhere to include a pollinator garden.

A national program emerged recently called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Its lofty goal is to spread pollinator gardens across the country.

Gamble Garden

A wonderful California garden I recently visited now includes a pollinator garden.

In Palo Alto, California the grand Elizabeth F. Gamble Historic Home built in 1902 still stands. The house and garden are now open to the public.

The Edwardian revival Gamble House was built by Edwin Gamble, son of Proctor & Gamble founder James Gamble.

A sign that welcomes you to the property in a residential neighborhood.

I walked around quite a bit and found many beautiful, smaller garden areas, including this walkway edged in the short boxwood shrubs. [below]

Walkway at the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden

The Palo Alto Garden Club offered a grant to install a new pollinator garden at the Gamble garden.

Here is the sign that greets the visitor to the new pollinator garden.

New Pollinator Garden at the Gamble House

The Elizabeth F. Gamble garden now serves as an example of the importance of encouraging pollinator gardens everywhere.

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Victorian Garden Advice Works

Victorian garden advice works

Garden writers of the Victorian period can offer advice useful for today’s garden as well.

American gardener, writer, and poet Eben E. Rexford (1848-1916) wrote several books about gardening.

In 1890 Rexford first published his book Four Seasons in the Garden.

Several editions followed later in the early 1900s.

Rexford included a chapter called “The Garden in Summer.” In it he addressed several topics familiar to any gardener.

His list of annuals, for example, seems like the summer plants you’d still find at any nursery or big box store. They included Dahlia, Gladiolus, Sweet Pea, Pansies, Asters, and Petunias.

He advised the gardener to make sure to keep up with watering as needed.

Then he wrote about the importance of weeding. He said, “While most of the work of pulling weeks ends with June, it will be necessary to continue the warfare against them, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the season.”

How well we gardeners know that.

Then I was surprised to read his list of summer plants with showy leaves, a must for any garden.

Rexford said, “Beds of ornamental foliage, like the Coleus, Alternanthera, Achyranthes, Pyrethrum, and Centaurea, will require constant and careful attention if you would have them afford entire satisfaction.”

He endosed the mass planting of such ornamental foliage.

He wrote, “If planted in rows or patterns, they must be clipped two or three times a week to prevent the several colors used from reaching out beyond the limits assigned them and blending with other colors, thus destroying that distinctness of outline upon which much of the beauty of a bed of foliage plants depends.”

Boston Athenaeum

Recently I found Rexford’s book at the downtown Boston Athenaeum.

Still in the pocket of the book was a return slip with the date of July 11, 1907 stamped on the slim but well-used card.

Over a hundred years ago someone checked out this book at about this time in the summer, perhaps for some ideas on the summer garden.

Rexford speaks to today’s gardener as much as he did to the Victorian gardener of his day.

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Any Old-Fashioned Dahlias?

Any old-fashioned dahlias?

The problem with the expression ‘old-fashioned’ is that it lacks a specific time.

The reader can simply fill in a time frame.

When it comes to old-fashioned dahlias, it might be appropriate to say the nineteenth century. It was at that time that they began to appear in American gardens.

By the end of the nineteenth century dahlias had become a garden favorite.

Here is the cover of the 1888 seed catalog from the Childs Company in Long Island, New York. [below] In the image colorful dahlias fill the blue and gold vase.

[Thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.]

A blog called Gardenista from Meadowburn Farm in New Jersey included an article about old dahlias. The title of the article says it all: “Dahlia Detectives: 7 Mysterious Heirlooms from an Earlier Century”

The article takes the definition of ‘old-fashioned’ to mean the early 1900s when the book by Helena Rutherford Ely appeared, A Woman’s Hardy Garden.

Today Meadowburn Farm, just ninety miles from New York, continues the tradition of Ely as an historic garden and working farm. Lots of dahlias appear in the garden each summer.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Bill McClaren wrote about the dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (1927) in his great book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

McClaren said that the ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia was “one of the oldest dahlias still being grown and shown and often the jewel of the garden.” This dahlia seems to have it all: old-fashioned and still popular today.

A problem with dahlias is that hundreds of varieties have appeared since the mid nineteenth century. Most of them are long gone, replaced by ever newer varieties.

Maybe one of the reasons we love dahlias is because there are so many newer varieties always available on the market.

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