Garden Urn at Portland’s Victoria Mansion

Garden urn at Portland’s Victoria Mansion

The Victorians loved to set an urn with plants on the front lawn.

Therese O’Malley writes in Keywords in American Landscape Design “In the context of the designed landscape, treatise writers often strongly recommended that the vase be placed on top of a pedestal or plinth so that it would be easily visible.”

Right now you can see this urn on the front lawn outside of the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. [below]

Though it has no pedestal, it still represents Victorian garden design.

Victoria Mansion, Portland, Maine

Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s mid nineteenth century’s most important landscape designer, recommended that a single urn be placed on the lawn.

A bit later Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) proposed in his garden magazine that the urn include three kinds of plants.

You needed a tall center plant like a canna or a yucca.

Then you included a plant that filled the middle section like a geranium.

Finally you introduced a plant trailing down, but not touching the ground.

Vick included this image in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly. [below]

Notice the choice in each plant to give that special look that a garden urn on the lawn needed.

In his business Vick promoted flowers for the garden, and the urn was one of the places to introduce such flowers.

Collector Barbara Israel wrote the book about landscape ornaments called Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste.”

She says.”In the minds of even the most fervent proponent of naturalistic design (in which the [garden] ornament was severely limited), the urn was admired as an object of taste and refinement.”

However, O’Malley, reflecting Downing’s writing in 1849, cautioned that “ornamental vases were often regarded as works of art…and should not be reduced to the level of ‘a mere garden flower-pot.’ “

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Coleus Varieties Still Abound

The battle between perennial advocates and those who loved to plant annuals stretched into the twentieth century both in England and America.

In 1905 Helena Rutherford Ely wrote in her book Another Hardy Garden Book, “Would that the Coleus might vanish from the land.”

Annuals, like the coleus, had been a major part of the garden since the 1850s.

So annuals were not going to go away without a fight. Even today that is the case. There are more beautiful coleus on the market than ever.

In its catalog of 1895 the seed company W. R. Shelmire from Avondale, Chester Co., Pa. boasted that the company offered seventy-five or more varieties of coleus.

In a speech to an international horticultural group In 1892 in Ontario the Cornell botanist and writer L. H. Bailey cautioned about the drive to increase newer varieties of plants. He questioned their relevance.

Bailey said, “There are more varieties of all plants in cultivation now than at any previous time.”

Then he said, “The question which you all desire to ask me is whether all this increase represents progress. Many poor varieties have been introduced.”

In other words, how many coleus do we need?

Rosy Dawn Gardens, a coleus growing specialist, says today there are hundreds of varieties of coleus, many of them on the market.

I personally like the coleus and always include it in my garden.

Here is a container of coleus on my deck this summer. [below] Loved the lime, yellow, and green combination from the first moment I saw this plant at a local Home Depot. It’s name is ‘Main Street River Walk’.

Coleus ‘Main Street River Walk’ on my deck right now.

So what can we make of the situation?

Proven Winners, a major grower of annuals, shrubs and perennials, offers twenty-eight varieties of coleus on its website.

Breeders continue to offer newer varieties and we choose the ones that work for us.

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Commercial Grower Prefers Cuttings for New Plants

Commercial grower prefers cuttings for new plants

Recently I visited Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire, a major grower for the plant brand known as Proven Winners.

What amazed me is each year from December to March the amount of small plants, called liners, that Pleasant View grows from vegetative cuttings.

The liners or small plants are then shipped out to garden centers that repot them and grow them til the spring for sale at the nursery.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) advised the use of cuttings for new plants in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick proposed the use of a bell glass for small pots, each holding a number of cuttings. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

The glass jar of course controlled light, moisture and temperature for the young plants as they grew.

Pleasant View devotes 700,000 square feet to the many trays of plants in special greenhouses which afford ample control of heat, light, and moisure.

In this way Pleasant View grows millions of young plants to ship out in the spring to garden centers and nurseries, mostly on the east coast.

Here is a photo I took of trays of cells, each of which contains a small plant. Notice how many plants there are in just this small space in one greenhouse. [below]

Small plants in cells, inside a tray, await shipment to a garden center near you.

Vick understood the science of this process of growing plants through vegetative cuttings.

In 1879 he wrote, “The florist and the nurseryman construct propagating houses, with beds heated by pipes with hot water flowing through them, to keep up a steady heat to encourage the production of roots in advance of the growth of the stem.”

Vick knew the importance of vegetative cuttings to reproduce certain plants like many annuals.

Today, Pleasant View does ninety percent of its propagation for Proven Winners with vegetative cuttings which, in this case, are flown in from Central America.

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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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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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