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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Victorian Flower Fashion

Victorian Flower Fashion

American gardeners  fell in love with annuals after 1850 during the Victorian period.

The use of perennials in the garden re-emerged by the end of the century. They became stylish through the encouragement of English garden authorities like William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

A T. W. Wood and Sons catalog cover [below] from the late 1880s shows a bed of annuals. The round bed sits in a well trimmed lawn.

Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1872: “The evil which accompanied [flower beds, ribbon beds, and carpet beds] was nearly banishing from cultivation the beautiful and interesting tribe known as hardy herbaceous plants. From early spring til late in the fall some of them were in bloom.”

In 1882 Warren H. Manning, New England plantsman, wrote: “The use of tender plants and annuals for bedding purposes in summer decoration has been in vogue for about a quarter of a century, and they have almost entirely superseded hardy herbaceous plants for general cultivation.”

When the English garden style  emphasized perennials rather than annuals, we discovered the English had been enjoying many of America’s native perennial plants for decades.  By the end of the century native American perennials became  a part of our home landscape as well.

As we had for the whole century, America followed the style of English garden design.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs provided the gardener with inspiration. They also pointed out the latest garden fashion.

Annuals were popular from 1850 until the late 1870s when perennials once again took center stage.

What do you think is the garden fashion today?

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Beware the Coleus and Geranium

Beware the coleus and geranium

Who doesn’t love the two popular annuals coleus and geranium?

It turns out that New York’s Superintendent of Parks Samuel Parsons (1844-1923) showed little regard for these two annuals.

He wrote the book Landscape Gardening in 1891. In it he discussed these two plants.

He said, “Farm door-yards and Newport lawns alike distort themselves in the gay but unfortunately often garish colors of the coleus and geranium. No need to advocate their use. They have achieved a foothold that is not likely to be soon shaken.”

He disliked their colors, but he was most unhappy that they were assuming an important role in flower gardens.

Parsons gave his reasons for not liking these two plants.

He wrote, “As we find them presented on many grass plots, their appearance is vulgar, inharmonious, and barbaric.”

That is pretty heavy criticism for two simple plants.

Today

Well, today the coleus and the geranium have certainly found a home in our flower gardens.

Here’s a coleus called ‘Neptune’s Net‘ that I planted in a container on my lawn. 

This coleus is called ‘Neptune’s Net.’

With its shades of lime and burgundy this coleus looks splendid in a gray cement container.  It stayed there the whole summer.

Though Mr. Parsons failed to find any value in the coleus and geranium, today they have become an integral part of many summer gardens, whether in a container or in a bed.

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Old Fashioned Flower Garden Still Rocks

Old fashioned flower garden still rocks –

Victorians loved flowers in all their color.Late nineteenth century garden writer and landscape manager for Central Park Samuel Parsons loved flowers.

 

He wrote in his book Landscape Gardening, first published in 1891, “I believe in making a distinct and comfortable abode of flowers – in a word, a flower garden, and an old-fashioned one, if you choose to call it so.”

Even though his job was to supervise the maintenance of one of America’s landscaped gems, he still loved flowers.

He said, “Flowers really satisfy us better, and do better in the garden, where we can coax and tend them a little.”

Gardeners know that flowers will only satisfy when we can take care of them.

As we enjoy spring now, perhaps you, like I am, are deciding on what flowers to plant in your garden.

Seeds just arrived in the mail for nasturtiums and cosmos, two easy flowers to grow from seed.

A few weeks ago I ordered a few dahlia tubers.

You can see that in the next few weeks I will be busy planting flowers to enjoy during the summer and fall.

There is something so special about an old-fashioned garden, filled with plants we have known for yerars.

Parsons put it in these words, “The growth of a renewed regard for the simple and often old forms of single flowering plants is a promising sign in horticulture.”

What he means I think is the joy we find in growing old familiar plants.

Nineteenth century Rochester seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) loved flowers as well. Through his work he tried to instill that love in his many customers scattered around the country.

Here is an illustration from his monthly magazine, filled with some of his favorite old fashioned flowers. [below]

James Vick chromolithograph, 1873

Mother’s Day Weekend Plant Sale

The annual Herb Plant Sale of the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America will once again be held in conjunction with Mass Hort’s Gardeners’ Fair at Elm Bank, 900 Washington Street, Route 16, in Wellesley, Mass. 

The date is Saturday, May 11, rain or shine. 

Mass Hort members can shop from 8 to  9 a.m.

The general public is welcome from 9 a.m. to  3 p.m.

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High Style Victorian Ornamental Gardening

High style Victorian ornamental gardening

In the nineteenth century plants from around the world became available for the English garden.

Such plants created a thirst for an ornamental gardening style that spread around the country.

Thomas Carter writes in his book The Victorian Garden, “Professional plant-hunters and amateur naturalists – many of them missionaries of the Church – travelled all over the world in search of unknown species to satisfy a taste for the spectacular.”

Such plants transformed the garden into formal beds, container planting,  and lines of shrubbery. [below]

Victorians treasured their ornamental gardening.

Carter writes, “The high style of Victorian ornamental gardening reached its peak in the 1850s and 1860s in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham and of the private estates like Trenthem and Shrublands.”

Eventually America took up ornamental gardening as well.

Nineteenth century New Jersey seed company owner Peter Henderson included formal ornamental design in his book Gardening for Pleasure. [below]

Notice the formal beds near the front door to the house.

Today we continue the search for plants to contribute to the ornamental gardening style that we love.

Plant hunters still travel the world in search of that new plant.

No surprise that our gardens are filled with both native and exotic plants.

 

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Victorians Loved Foliage Plants

Victorians loved foliage plants. –

One summer I planted a banana (Musa ensete) in the center of a bed along the driveway.

The plant looked majestic among the low growing perennials and annuals that surrounded it. [below]

Banana plant in island bed in my garden

Then I remembered that the Victorian gardener in the second half of the nineteenth century also loved tall, showy, foliage plants.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden wrote, “Since the early 1860s, gardeners had used many of the foliage plants which had previously been treated as stove or greenhouse subjects to add a contrasting element to floral bedding during a summer.”

Foliage plants could include canna, colocasia, and yucca as well.

Here is a photo of a banana at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show. It is in a pot but still shows off its bold foliage for the passer-by.

A banana in an exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

This summer I plan to make sure my blue container on the lawn has a large red cordyline, another of my favorites.

In that way I will be keeping up the tradition of the Victorian gardener who treasured plants with bold leaves.

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Containers Dominated Boston Flower Show

Containers dominated Boston Flower Show

Last week I took the Silver line train into the Seaport section of Boston for the annual Boston Flower and Garden Show.

The weekday that I attended a moderate amount of visitors filled the Seaport Center. It was easy to navigate the floor.

What took me by surprise was the emphasis on container gardening.

It was captured in the exhibit by Miscovsky Landscaping called “Potlandia.” [below]

Giant terra-cota pots stood out in this exhibit by Miskovsky Landscaping from Falmouth.

The exhibit included three giant planters, each probably ten feet tall.

These pots made of terra-coat were painted in bring, attractive colors.

The plantings in each of them were pretty much the same. The center of the pot included a Japanese maple along with shrubs and perennials. Remember these containers were quite large.

The exhibit won a prize of $2000 for its outstanding forced plant material, including fruit trees.

You could see many bulbs throughout the design.

I took this photo to provide a perspective on the size of the containers. [below]

The exhibit called ‘Potlandia.’

There is no question that the size of the containers made a bold statement about the importance of the container in the landscape.

I got that.

So as I walked around the Show every container after that seemed to be important.

The exhibit by Terrascape Design had wrought iron planters with wonderful brightly colored plants.

A series of window boxes even caught my eye. Many great plants filled each of them.

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Victorians Loved Cut Flowers

Victorians loved cut flowers

The Victorian period in the nineteenth century ushered in a love for cut flowers from the garden.

Here is a beautiful chromolithograph from William Rawson’s seed catalog of 1888 called ‘Gems from the Wild Garden.’ The image visualizes what a glorious choice of flowers for tea and lunch were available to the Victorians. [below]

Rawson Seed Company, Boston

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter calls this love of cut flowers from that period ‘floristry.’

He writes, “Competition was the essence of floristry, and the spring and summer months were filled with shows held all over the country.”

The flower shows proved an outlet to show off flowers like roses and dahlias.

I remember on ‘Downton Abbey’ when Maggie Smith’s character said,
“My yellow rose won top prize at the county fair.”

Even in the cities Victorian gardeners took pride in floristry.

Carter writes, “Workers in the industrial towns took to floristry as about the only form of gardening open to them in the restricted spaces of urban living.”

Whether in country or city, Victorians encouraged floristry and so they enjoyed their cut flowers.

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Ordering Dalia Tubers

Ordering dahlia tubers –

Right now I am receiving garden catalogs, many with dahlias to sell.

In the past I have searched both on-line sources and catalogs to find a particular dahlia tuber that I wanted to plant.

Often no luck.

It seems to me it is better to choose from the selection offered than spend time looking for a particular variety. There are, after all, over 10,000 registered dahlias.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ [Courtesy of White Flower Farm]

Dahlia History

American gardeners have been ordering dahlias since the early 1800s.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) had over 500 dahlia varieties in his trial fields.

He sold named varieties and his own hybrids for that time.

The flower has had its ups and downs since the beginning.

Now you might say there is a Renaissance of interest in growing dahlias. We like everything about this flower. 

If the popular dahlia shows in September are any indicator, there are a lot of people today who love dahlias.

Price

The price of a dahlia tuber can vary quite a bit.

Take ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ as an example. With its dark leaves and bright red flowers, it is one of my favorite dahlias.

The least expensive online price for one tuber is $3.25, and the most expensive $11.95.

Quite a difference.

Vick offered ‘White Aster’  in his catalog of 1880 for 25 cents.

You can still buy ‘White Aster’ today, but, of course, at the current rate.

I can see why Vick wrote in his seed catalog: “The Dahlia is the grandest Autumn Flower we have.”

 

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