Carpet Bedding at Nineteenth Century White House

Carpet bedding at nineteenth century White House

Last year on a visit to Miami’s wonderful ocean front villa and garden called Viskaya I saw rows of croton, the popular tropical plant.

Croton which grows outdoors in warmer regions of the country can add color and structure to any garden or bed.

In her book All the Presidents’ Gardens Marta McDowell writes that carpet beds at the White House in 1888 included croton.

Carpet bedding was a Victorian craze that took off towards the end of the nineteenth century.

McDowell writes, “Carpet bedding is the gardening equivalent of elaborate Victorian jewelry, furniture, and fabric.”

It is an ornamental style of garden fashion in which a design of something like a circle, diamond, or triangle is planted on the lawn with colorful flowers and leaves.

It was the idea of a head gardener in mid-nineteenth century England and America adopted the style as well as England.

McDowell says, “It is as ornamental as the Tiffany stained glass screens and light fixtures that had adorned the interior of the White House since the 1880s.”

It was a fashion that the White House gardeners adopted for the end of the century,

She includes in the book a wonderful quote to support that view.

Here it is.

In 1888 the editor of the magazine American Florist wrote, “I saw some excellent examples of carpet bedding in the White House grounds, but I find in my notebook particular reference to two immense beds of crotons that in themselves amply repaid me for my visit. The beds were twenty-five feet in diameter, with about 350 plants in each, seventy-five varieties being represented together.”

Crotons

While in Florida last year, I met representatives from Costa Farms, a Florida and South Carolina grower of tropical plants.

The company sells crotons which for us in the northeast become house plants. [below]

Crotons from Costa Farms

There are dozens of cultivars today.

We can only imagine what a scene the massive carpet beds of crotons must have made in the White House garden of the late 1880s.

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English Garden Inspired White House Landscape

English garden inspired White House landscape.

The garden fashion that our early Presidents admired was that of the English.

In her book All the Presidents’ Gardens author Marta McDowell tells the story of how various Presidents left their mark on the landscape at the White House.

Thomas Jefferson preferred the English romantic garden, according to McDowell.

She writes, “While it was not the first romantic garden plan in America – William Hamilton’s Woodlands predated it, for example – it was certainly on the leading edge.”

The elements that made us this design included  the simple carriage drive, underscoring Jefferson’s republican ideals of direct and open government.

She writes, “The thirty-foot-wide roadbed allowed two way traffic; the circular turnaround had a ninety-foot diameter.”

Jefferson offered a bit of formality and neoclassical design in the White House landscape.

English politician and writer Thomas Whatley’s book Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) had influenced Jefferson’s opinion about the landscape garden. Jefferson had seen several of the great gardens of England on his grand tour of the country with John Adams, all recommended by Whatley.

Jefferson loved the English garden.

McDowell writes, “A gently curving pedestrian walk invited strollers along the north perimeter of the property. On the south side of the house, two linear flower borders outlined a rectangle that framed the facade.”

Thus the early English design choice for the garden of the White House set the stage for what would become America’s most famous landscape.

 

 

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How Much Lawn is Too Much?

How much lawn is too much?

Near us sits a house surrounded by lawn with no trees or shrubs to mar its green covering.

I remember visiting Pittsburgh where I saw a lawn made of gravel. No green grass there at all. [below]

Gravel lawn in Pittsburgh

The question then is how much lawn do we need?

There is much discussion today about decreasing the amount of lawn in the home landscape.

The reasons are many including preserving water and offering plant diversity in the landscape to encourage pollinators.

At the end of the nineteenth century it seemed there could never be too much lawn.

In 1899 the Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning  who had worked previously for

Landscape gardener Warren Manning (1860-1938)

the Olmsted firm wrote A Handbook for Planning and Planting Small Home Grounds.

In the book he said that there should be “the largest available central lawn space, in which there should be but few single specimens of shrubs and trees and no formal beds of flowers.”

Thus he encouraged as much lawn as possible.

He cautioned not to spoil the look of the expansive lawn with too many trees and shrubs, and discouraged formal beds of flowers.

The lawn therefore became the central feature in the landscape.

Today you can find an array of different opinions about the lawn.

Since at the same time Manning supported the lawn he also encouraged the wild garden and using native plants, today he might look at the lawn quite differently.

He was the son of Jacob Warren Manning who owned a nursery in North Reading, a town outside of Boston.  Warren, in fact, worked at the nursery for his father for several years.  Therefore he knew a lot about plants

As homeowners graple with what to do with the lawn, there are many options.

No question the lawn still plays an important role in the home landscape.

The issue revolves around the questions of  how much of a lawn do we want and for what reasons.

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Defining the English Garden

Defining the English garden

The sweeping lawn of the English landscape garden developed in the 

Lancelot Capability Brown 

eighteenth century under the inspiration of gardener to the King Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

Tim Richardson writes in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England, and even across much of Europe and parts of America; it was primarily Brown’s example which inspired the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘English garden’.”

So we have Brown to thank for the lawn which has long defined the English garden both in Europe and in America.

Today the term ‘English garden’ is full of so many meanings.

When we use words that have multiple meanings, we tend to be on a higher level of the ladder of abstraction because we are not clear.

Academic and Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction, a concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolve from concrete to abstract.

Thus, for example, the more you want to confuse your audience, the more likely you are to use words that do not have a clear meaning.

You could say that such is the case with the expression ‘English garden’.  Because of its history it has so many meanings.

Which English garden do you mean?  From what period?

One thing we do know however is that the lawn has been an integral part of the English garden since the eighteenth century.

Here is Chatsworth, north of London, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Derbyshire. [below]

England’s Chatsworth 

Over the centuries several landscape gardeners provided its design, but it was Brown that installed the extensive lawn in the eighteenth century.

Today Chatsworth stands as one of his most famous English gardens, marked by his signature lawn.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian Carpet Beds

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian carpet beds

A week ago I visited the nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe house and garden in Hartford, Connecticut.  At the same time that Stowe lived there Hartford attracted other artists and writers.

Stowe remains best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Some argue that the book galvanized the issue of abolition and even contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War here in the US.

Her house stands as it did in the nineteenth century.

A Victorian garden still surrounds the house.

Luckily the staff at the Stowe Center provided a guide to her garden. The property is small but includes much of what was important to middle-class gardeners at that tine.

A herb garden, a blue garden, and even a wildflower garden are just some of the expressions of Stowe’s love of gardening.

As I rounded the corner at the front of the house I noticed a large circle of flowers in the lawn.

It was a carpet bed, popular in the Victorian garden of the nineteenth century.

Since this was only mid June, the flowers in the bed were quite small.  The variety of  flowers however caught my attention.

In the center of the bed you could see both a castor oil plant and elephant ears. By summer’s end both of these will be tall plants that will give a sense of height and structure to this round garden.[below]

Carpet bed on the lawn at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Conn.

In 1869 Stowe co-wrote the book The American Woman’s Home: Principles of Domestic Science with her sister Catherine Esther Beecher.

The book includes several chapters on the woman’s role in making an ‘economical, healthful, beautiful, and Christian home.’

There is a section in the book about gardening. They write, “In yards which are covered with turf, beds can be cut out of it, and raised for flowers. A trench should be made around, to prevent the grass from running on them.’

A row of red bricks now circles the colorful flowers that I saw. 

They write, “These beds can be made in the shape of crescents, ovals, and other fanciful forms.”

That became, of course, the Victorian obsession with carpet bedding and ribbon bedding.

The staff at the Stowe Center told me that Harriet Beecher Stowe favored flower beds over kitchen gardens.

That was evident as I walked around the house.

 The restored landscape reflects the Victorian style of gardening popular at that time.

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Victorian England Treasured US Rhododendron

Victorian England treasured US rhododendron.

Right now you see rhododendrons in bloom everywhere.

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I always look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

Here’s a view of my garden right now. [below]

A scene in my garden with two rhododendrons that are blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.  At that time they were more popular in England than here in America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870 lamented the fact that Americans did not appreciate the rhododendron.

He wrote, “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.”

Today we acknowledge the battle between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  The issue is certainly not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to appear in the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron.

Eventually, it assumed an important role in American gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted used the rhododendron extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

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Public Relations Campaign Attacks Clover

Public relations campaign attacks clover.

The lawn has been a part of the home landscape since the eighteenth century.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both treasured the English lawn, the inspiration for all lawns American.

Clover in the lawn. [Courtesy of Today’s Homeowner]

Clover, the tiny four leafed plant we all love, has been a part of the lawn for decades as much as bluegrass.

Then in the 1950s a chemical company, to advance a weed killer, used a public relations campaign to declare white clover a weed.

Warren Schultz tells the story in his book The Chemical-Free Lawn. He writes that in the 1950s “a major producer of grass seed and chemicals launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover. Clover is a weed, the company declared. It doesn’t belong in the modern lawn.”

The goal of the campaign was to sell a chemical to kill lawn weeds, including clover.

Schultz says, “Its point of view carried the day, and now homeowners spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of this once-popular plant, blind to its fine qualities.”

Clover has long been a part of lawn seed mixes. 

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about the value of clover in 1878 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick said, “Kentucky Blue Grass, with a little White Clover, about a pound to the acre, and a few ounces of Sweet Vernal Grass, will make a good lawn.”

In 1936 Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening also noted the value of clover.

Under the name, white clover, or Trifolium repens, Taylor’s says, “It is the chief clover in grass mixtures and makes a valuable constituent of lawns.”

In the past garden books and magazines often said that clover was valuable for the lawn.

More recently in Pennsylvania the Lehigh Valley Master Gardeners wrote in their blog, “Clover is a legume, like soybeans, and it has the ability to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a form readily available to plants, including the grass it shares soil with.  People liked clover for this reason and it lessened the need for fertilizing the lawn.”

The public relations campaign in the 1950s was succesful. Today it is common for companies selling herbicides to consider white clover a weed.

In this time of frequent draught and renewed interest in native plants, why not reconsider the case of the clover, and even, as many people are doing, welcome it as an integral component of the lawn?

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Reno’s Roses Rock

Reno’s roses rock.

Last week I visited family in Reno, Nevada which goes by the name “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

What amazed me was the number of roses I saw in bloom, many at private homes as I drove around the city.

It seemed wherever I went, I saw red, orange, yellow, pink, and white roses.

The premier rose garden in Reno has to be Idlewild Park’s one acre Rose Garden.

Here is the sign that welcomes you to the garden. [below]

 

Reno’s Rose Garden entrance sign

Volunteers have managed the garden for years. There are many award-winning roses on display. Many of them are clearly marked, which gardeners appreciate.

There is a pavilion at one end of the garden that gives a sense of home to the garden. You use this structure as a landmark to find the rose that you like.

You can see the blue roof of the pavilion from anywhere in the garden. [below]

Reno’s Rose Garden pavilion

Though I have visited the garden many times, I never noticed the mosaic at the steps of the entrance. It is a stunning scene of roses in bloom, with a blue background, possibly to reflect the top of the pavilion. [below]

The Rose Garden mosaic at entrance

On another day I visited the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which is a gallery of many gardens, including the labyrinth garden, near the parking lot.

In that garden I saw this bright orange rose bush in full bloom. It was a bright sunny morning, the sun caught the color on the blooms. [below]

Roses in the Labyrinth Garden in Reno’s May Botanical Garden

The National Garden Bureau has named 2017 the “Year of the Rose” in honor of this flower’s unique place in gardens throughout the United States and the world.

I have a few rose bushes in my garden, which, here in the northeast, are not in bloom yet.

From my short preview in Reno, I look forward to their bloom in glorious color within a short time.

 

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Victorian Home Landscape Required Lawn

Victorian home landscape required lawn.

The lawn became an important part of the American home landscape in the nineteenth century.

The seed and nursery catalogs often featured a lawn in illustrations and offered the best method of laying out and cultivating a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  was no different. He often wrote about the lawn.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1878 he referred to the lawn as a jewel, an emerald.

He said, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment. A few beds of foliage plants or flowers, or vases, are like diamonds set in emerald, and the latter, especially, impact a graceful elegance which nothing else can give. They are infinitely superior to the most costly statuary, which is better suited to the hall than the garden, and quite out of place in such simple, unpretentious places as are most of the private gardens of this country.”

This illustration of ‘Home Grounds’ appeared in his magazine in 1880. [below] Notice the lines of the flowing lawn.

Home Grounds. Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1880 [Courtesy of the Five Colleges Depository at the University of Massachusetts]

It was the homeower’s duty to provide the lawn because it alone was the important setting for the home.

In February of 1879 Vick wrote, “Those who do not make home beautiful and happy are morally or intellectually inferior, generally both, but not always.”

It was as if there were a moral imperative to cultivate a lawn to demonstrate a homeowner had taste.

A  customer from Nebraska wrote Mr. Vick in 1880 and asked, “What is the best Grass for lawns, and also the best ornamental and shade trees for lawns? If convenient, will you give the plan of a lawn?”

 Every Victorian home needed a lawn.

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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