Archives for April 2020

New Book Traces History of American Garden

We can learn a great deal about gardening by looking at garden history.

A new book Iowa Gardens of the Past by Beth Cody takes the reader on a journey of gardening in Iowa since 1850.

In the process of looking at gardens over a century and a half the reader also learns about the changing American garden asesthetic. You see how the garden continues to be a work of art.

What was happening in Iowa was also happening around the country. The book describes the evolution of the American garden.

Landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, (1815-1852) proposed a lawn with few trees as the basis of the landscape. A flower garden could be included behind the house as well.

His designed look you might call the Romantic English park aesthetic.

Cody writes, “Only the wealthy could afford a house and landscape in the style Downing proposed.”

During the high Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s the market for annuals, perennials,and bulbs grew with the demand of home gardeners. New bright and showy species of new plants came from Asia, Africa, and South America.

Then home owners had more leisure time to plan, grow, and maintain gardens in an ornamental style. They did so with flowers like roses and dahlias.

The images in the book are not only of mansions or large houses, but often, especially in postcards, you will see an ordinary house and garden.

The World Expositions held in 1876 in Philadelphia and 1893 in Chicago introduced American gardeners to Japanese gardens.

Americans fell in love with the Japanese style, so after 1900 even in Iowa you could find a Japanese-inspired landscape.

In the early twentieth century the next important aesthetic was the movement to include naturalistic plants in the garden.

Even during the Depression of the 1930s people gardened. Cody writes, “Despite the economic challenges of the decade, more Iowans than ever gardened enthusiastically.”

In 1930 Theodore E. Sexier, from Ames, Iowa, planted the rose called ‘New Dawn,” the first plant ever patented.

Today I grow ‘New Dawn’ in my garden and it is truly a beautiful flower.

In the 1940s during war time seventy percent of Iowa households grew Victory Gardens.

Cody writes, “During the 1950s, there was a noticeable trend of men becoming more interested in oramental gardening, not just growing vegebtables.”

Photos and Illustrations

Cody includes in the book wonderful illustrations and photos of gardens big and small. She has assembled a truly amazing collection of two hundred and fifty photos and illustrations, each filled with a bit of garden history. [belowthe back of the book]

The Back Cover of the book

After the 1950s the garden became an outside room where the family could gather to entertain.

The formal garden had disappeared and more informal flower beds and containers of plants for the deck or patio became popular.

As it evolved, the American garden aesthetic became sometimes formal and sometimes natural with on occasion a combination of the two styles.

And Beth Cody found it all in Iowa gardens.

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Women Gardeners in Late 19th Century

You might easily associate the flower garden with the work of women.

After all, isn’t that how people thought about flowers in the garden?

Is it still true that men take care of the lawn and the vegetable patch and leave the flowers to women?

That’s an example of how gender has been linked to certain forms of gardening for centuries.

I found a pattern of the portrayal of women in garden advertising when I looked at dozens of seed catalogs from the late nineteenth century.

Women were alwayts dressed neatly, representing the upper middle class, the audience for the catalog.

In this catalog cover froim Peter Henderson in 1892 notice how prim and proper the woman presents herself. [below] She is cutting daffodils for tea or lunch, but certainly not working in the garden.

Henderson 1892 Catalog Cover

In fact, I did not see any women in the catalog illustrations actually working in the garden though I often saw them in the garden.

They may have been interested but did not, or perhaps could not, work in the garden.

Caroline Ikin wrote the book The Victorian Garden.

She writes, “The role of women in the garden was changing during the late Victorian era.”

We know that working class women gardened in the mid to late nineteenth century. They formed the major customer base for seed company owners like James Vick (1818-1882)

Vick wrote in 1878, “It is but a few years since woman was permitted to grace the festive board of agricultural and horticultural exhibitions. Now no occasion of this kind is deemed complete without her presence.”

Garden Club Movement

It was in the early 1900s that the Garden Club movement began in the United States. It was a formal way of recognizing woman’s role in the garden as designer and, if needed, both as planter and as weeder.

Then several books for women gardeners appeared on the market.

Women could not only enjoy looking at the garden, but could now more freely work in the garden, learn about botany, and even try landscape design.

Ikin writes, “With more middle-class women turning to gardening as a pastime and a means of self-improvement, a market was created for gardening books aimed specifically at women, as well as for tools and gadgets designed for female use.”

By the early 1900s the Garden Club movement here in the United States became the source of empowering women to garden, encourage native plants, and advocate for landscape design.

The late Victorian culture recognized women as gardeners.

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Darwin and Vick, Famed 19th Century Horticulturists

Who knew that one day history would link Charles Darwin and James Vick in the same memorial?

In England Charles Darwin conducted his research on plants and called it the struggle for life.

In his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory the author James T. Costa writes about Darwin’s many experiments with plants.

Costa says, “When we observe nature we often miss the struggle, seeing only peace and harmony, and mistake this for the natural condition of the living world.”

The garden is a place where plants struggle to survive. Some make it while others do not.

Darwin studied that struggle through his research of many years on plants. [below]

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – National Portrait Gallery

In America James Vick owned an important seed business in the second half of the nineteenth century.

At one point he received three thousand letters a day from his customers, seeking seeds of course, but also his advice. To them Vick was a trusted source on all things horticultural.

Here is the photo Vick included in his seed catalog after many of his customers requested a photo. [below]

James Vick (1818-1882)

Both Darwin and Vick died in 1882.

Memorial

Last week I came across a link between the two.

In 1883 at the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society its President mentioned both Darwin and Vick in a speech.

He said, “I have to record the names of two men, whose labors have been largely for the benefit of farmers and horticulturists, Charles Darwin and James Vick.

“Charles Darwin, who died at the ripe age of seventy-four, was considered the greatest horticulturist of the age. He was the author of many valuable works…

“James Vick, who died at Rochester, N.Y. May 16, was aged about 64 years. At the time of his death he was at the head of one of the largest seed establishments in America, and his Floral Guide [Catalog] had a circulation of over 200,000. His success has been marvelous. His labors are finished, but the good he has done will endure forever.”

Darwin and Vick, famed 19th century horticulturists

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Garden as Tapestry

Are you a plant collector? Or is your garden based on a strict landscape design that you cannot disturb by adding plants, willy, nilly?

However you garden, you need to select the plants.

The plants can come from anywhere.

When you assemble them, you are making your garden a tapestry.

Stephen Harris wrote in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, “Any garden is a tapestry of botanical histories. Some plants are native, some have been introduced, and others evolved in the garden.”

When I think of a tapestry, I think of a mix of things, not just one item.

This garden [below] in a photo I took on the Almalfi coast is an example of nineteenth century carpet bedding with designs in colorful flowers and leaves. It aslo reminds me of a tapestry, or mixture of various plants.

Flowerbeds on the Amalfi coast

In 1973 noted horticulturist Donald Wyman from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum wrote a wonderful article in Arnoldia called “The History of Ornamental Horticulture in America.”

He said, “It is of interest to note that in gardens and landscape plantings of a general nature in the northern United States, half of the plants used are of oriental origin, a quarter are native to Europe and only a quarter are native to America.”

He was also making the point that our gardens are a collection of plants both exotic and native.

You might call it a tapestry.

What kind of tapestry is your garden?

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