Victorian Home Landscape Demanded Flowerbeds

Victorian home landscape demanded flowerbeds.

Flowers for a home landscape of any size were important in the late nineteenth century.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote that farmers, laborers as well the middle class, anyone, could plant flowers to enjoy.  Flowerbeds belonged not only to the garden of the estate owner.

He made promoting floriculture his life-long goal in his business.

In many ways Vick followed the practices of other seed merchants. His appeal to sell flowers, particularly to women, was what other companies were also doing at that same time.

Seedsman Azell Bowditch from Boston, for example,  wrote in his catalog: “We shall endeavor to keep pace with the ‘Flowery Age’ in which we live, and hope to be able, by attention and care, to supply our patrons with all the valuable varieties of seeds that can be obtained at any other seed establishment in the Union.”

In this illustration from Vick’s 1874 seed catalog you see a family outside their home, enjoying the outdoors. [below]

On the lawn near the house the owner planted flowerbeds, or, as they called then, carpet beds.

Annuals filled three lage beds to bring color to the landscape.

This image introduced Vick’s annual seeds in the catalog.

Thus he illustrated for his customers what the home landcape could look like with beds of colorful flowers.



Nineteenth Century Gardeners Needed Seed Companies

Nineteenth century gardeners needed seed companies.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries played an important role in what gardeners planted.

Many new plants were coming into Europe and America from plant collectors traveling the world in search of new garden plants. Sometimes a nursery would sponsor such a trip.

The seed companies made available the seeds from these new plants.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered dozens of flower seeds in the various Departments of his catalog. [below]

Thus he made the newest plants available to Victorian America.

1873 list of seeds for sale in Vick’s catalog

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “Plant collectors might have braved the Himalayan and Andean snows in vain, and the work of the plant breeder all ars gratis Artis had it not been for the coincident growth of the nursery trade to propagate and distribute the new garden plants.”

Thus Vick could display this illustration of a tranquil landscape filled with garden annuals from his collection of seeds in the Department he called ‘Annuals.’

In this scene from Vick’s  catalog of 1874 the parents stood on a summer deck to admire their landscape and take in the joy it brought their children, playing down below on the lawn. [below]

Vick Floral Guide 1874

The garden industry, to this very day, is instrumental in spreading the knowledge of new plants to the home gardener.

Hyams writes, “During the eighteenth century about 500 new plant species were introduced into English gardens; in the next century the newcomers were counted in the thousands.”



Gardening Follows Fashion

Gardening follows fashion.

In the 1870s English garden writer and horticulturist William Robinson founded and edited a garden magazine simply called The Garden.

In an article in the magazine dated January 27, 1872 he wrote about American seed company owner Peter Henderson who had his greenhouse and trial garden in New Jersey and his seed company store and warehouse in New York.

Robinson used the writing of Henderson to make the point that all gardening is fashion.

He wrote, “Flowers, or designs in flowers, says Mr. Peter Henderson, like numerous other articles of luxury, unmistakably have their fashions, which originate in large cities and have their run there for a year or two until the particular design or particular flower is supplanted by others.

“Ten years ago graceful hanging baskets were the fashion in New York, but after a year or two they were as common in the tenement of the mechanic as in the palaces of Fifth Avenue, the difference only being in the expense of the materials.

“Under these circumstances they could no longer be fashionable and rapidly gave way to the more expensive rustic stand or Wardian case, which, being less readily imitated by people of limited means, is likely to continue longer fashionable.”

Today gardening is still subject to fashion.

You will now see flowers planted with vegetables when only a few years ago that would have been unheard of in gardening.

It is not uncommon for plant growers to claim one of their own as the latest garden gem.

The old fashioned petunia has evolved through a variety of hybrids over decades.

This summer everyone will want to grow this petunia called ‘Bordeaux’ from Proven Winners who made the flower ‘Annual of the Year.’ [below]

Supertunia ‘Bordeaux’ from the grower Proven Winners

You can see that it is truly a beautiful colored flower of a bright pink with a dark center.

I grew it in my garden this past summer though at the time I did not know that it would become the ‘Annual of the Year.’

I guess that would make me right in line with following the latest garden fashion.


We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.


Victorian Seed Industry Launched Hybrid Search

Victorian seed Industry launched hybrid search.

At the moment I am reading about the nineteenth century history of garden annuals.

Hybridizing has become an important topic to examine during this period.

Richard Gorer writes in The Development of Garden Flowers that hybridizing was not extensively practiced until the early nineteenth century.

You will find a history of hybridizing in Noel Kingsbury’s book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

Though he covers farming, especially corn, which is so dependent on hybrids to increase the yield quality and stamina, Kingsbury also addresses horticulture and gardening.

When Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1870s hybridized the petunia by crossing two varieties, he came up with his own double cultivar called ‘Vick’s double fringed.’

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick gives an account of how he crossed the petunias.

He filled a room in his greenhouse with single-flowering plants while nearby he filled another room with plants bearing double flowers. He then took a basket of double flowers to the area containing the single petunias. Next he shredded the double flowers in search of pollen and collected it with a camel’s hair brush. This pollen was transferred to the pistils of the single flowers.

This was an expensive way to generate seeds. It was however from this method that Vick added his own petunia cultivar called ‘Vick’s New Fringed.’

Vick joined a long line of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries who experimented with hybridizing.

The potential of hybridizing for even more new garden plants expanded in the early twentieth century, as Kingsbury notes, with the work of L. H. Bailey in New York and Luther Burbank in California.

Kingsbury recognizes the work of seedsmen like Vick. He writes, “Commercial seedsmen were quite important in the development of many vegetables and flower varieties.”



New England Hosts America in Bloom Conference

New England hosts America in Bloom conference.

Last month I spent an afternoon in Holliston, Massachusetts, touring the many flowers, shrubs, and grasses planted in public areas around the town of 15,000.

That day Holliston hosted the national conference of America in Bloom.  AIB encourages town and city plantings to improve community and encourage local historical preservation.

New Englanders first settled Holliston in 1659, and incorporated the town in 1724.

Almost two hundred attendees enjoyed a luncheon that sunny day in a tent in Holliston’s Goodwill Park.  The group represented thirty-nine cities and towns across the country.

The middle school band played and singers entertained while the guests enjoyed New England clam chowder and lobster rolls.

It was, however, the community’s long-standing effort to beautify the town that made the day.

Over the last five years Holliston has won three awards from AIB.

A tour of Holliston following the luncheon provided a chance to see the results of the town’s work.

In the center of Holliston this border of hydrangeas, mums, and marigolds welcomed the visitor. [below]

The center of town featured these  plantings of the volunteer group called Holliston in Bloom.

A short time after I took the photo you could see AIB conference attendees admiring the same border of plants. [below]

Conference attendees admire the work of HIB. [America in Bloom – courtesy photo]

To host this national meeting speaks to Holliston’s long-standing effort to beautify the town.

Several years ago town members formed a local group called Holliston in Bloom.  Today two hundred volunteers, including some local businesses, support the program.

Many benefits flow from improving a town’s landscape. Mark Ahronian, a selectman and co-chair of HIB, said, “By keeping your town looking good, it increases local economy.”

The Holliston volunteers planted seven hundred mums throughout the town. I saw many of these fall flowers on our bus tour that afternoon.

Last year when I first heard of this national meeting in Holliston, I knew immediately I wanted to attend to see what made Holliston so important to America in Bloom.

Any visitor could see that hosting the national conference here was an honor that Holliston rightly deserved.


To Spread the Love of Flowers 

To spread the love of flowers

Recently on a sunny Thursday morning I drove to Butternut Gardens in Southport, Connecticut.

Though it took a long time to drive there, the garden visit proved a wonderful experience.

The owner Evelyn Lee grows 700 dahlias. Of course they were in bloom and the rows of color provided a glorious sight.

Lee calls herself a flower farmer. She is also a floral designer.

She cuts the dahlias as well as other annuals and perennials she grows for arrangements for her customers.

It is, however, the love of flowers that she seeks to spread in her work.

She said, “I want a community of flower lovers.”

I thought how much her thinking reflects that of nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882).

Vick sought new ways to promote the love of the Victorian flowers to his customers.

His writing in his seed catalog and monthly magazine reflected that motive.

In 1878 he wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Earnestly have we desired to see the people of this country appreciate the beauties of nature, study nature’s laws, and, above all, love flowers and delight in their culture.”

Lee starts to cut her flowers in the garden at 7:30 in the morning.

Her collection of dahlias include several in the ‘Karma’ series. Here is her dahlia ‘Karma Sangria’, cut and awaiting its showcase in a new bouquet. [below

Dahlia ‘Karma Sangria’ in the temperature-controlled barn at Butternut Gardens

To spread the love of flowers is an awesome goal for any gardener.

There is something so awesome about gardeners like James Vick and Evelyn Lee who seek to share the beauty in flowers.

We are all the better off because of their work.


Summer Garden Included Elephant Ear

Summer garden Included elephant ear.

Colocasia, or elephant ear, is a popular plant for the summer garden in the Northeast.

It is a tropical plant that now appears in many beds and borders.

L. H. Bailey wrote in 1900 in his The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture: “Summer bedding for subtropical effects employs cannas, musas, castor-oil plants, crotons, palms, ferns of coarse habit, screw pines, dracaenas, araucanas, [and] elephant-ear caladiums.”

He refers to the elephant ear plant as a caladium.  This plant, like the caladium, is also a genus in the Arum family.

This summer I planted my first elephant ear.

It all began at a local box store in the second half of June.

While checking out the bulbs and tubers in the store, I came across one elephant ear tuber in its original package marked down to half price. The tuber measured five inches high and about four inches wide.

I had never planted an elephant ear before so I thought I would try it.

I planted it in a container at the end of the driveway, a shady area.

Soon the large leaves started appearing. That elephant ear grew just fine. [below]

Elephant ear growing in a container  in my garden

In 1875 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included this tropical plant in his book The Flower and Vegetable Garden under the section ‘Bulbs & Plants.’

He wrote about both planting and storing the bulb. He said, “Roots obtained in the spring will make a good growth in the summer, and in the fall should be taken up and stored in the cellar, like Dahlias”.

During the summer I visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

There, near the Visitor Center, I saw a border of elephant ears, both purple and green in color. [below]

Berkshire Botanical garden included elephant ears along with a purple castor oil plant

Then while touring the gardens of Buffalo, New York during the Garden Writers Association annual meeting, we visited a garden that had several elephant ear plants in containers.

The owner brings in the containers after the first frost.  She stores them in the garage for the winter which she spends in Florida.

For me I guess this was the summer of the colocasia or elephant ear.



Bradley Estate Features New Display Garden

Bradley Estate features new display garden

Recently  I visited the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Massachusetts, a property owned by the Trustees of Reservations.  This is one of the Trustees’ eleven public garden properties.

It was a beautiful spring day, sun shining and temperatures warm, but not hot.

I had heard about the new display garden, and that’s what I wanted to see.

The house which is the Bradley Estate’s main structure dates to 1904. Mrs. Bradley established a formal garden, a large kitchen garden, a rhododendron path, and extensive lawns on this property of 90 acres.

The formal garden takes up the area behind the house. It is composed of a large lawn and several parterres.

The parterres with their new shrubs, perennials, and annuals, just planted, make up the new display garden.

Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate new display garden

What struck me first was that each parterre had the same plants, all in colors of chartreuse and purple.  I found out later that they are the official colors of the Trustees of Reservation as well.

A wonderful brick wall, installed 150 years ago, surrounds this garden. Since the wall dates to the early history of the house, it adds a lot of character to the setting.

As I walked the pathway in this garden, several of the plants that are in the parterre seemed familiar to me. I realized that I grow many of them in my own garden.

Then I found out that the grower Proven Winners offered these shrubs, perennials, and annuals to the Bradley Estate in hopes that the Estate would become in the future a Proven Winners Signature Garden.

A couple of  lectures are planned with Proven Winners this summer in June and July.

This is the first year the Bradley Estate, under the guidance of its horticulturist Jeff Thompson, is working with Proven Winners.

I hope visitors take advantage of this property and enjoy this new display garden in a landscape designed in America’s early 1900s formal period by Boston landscape architect Charles Platt.



Garden Advertising Creates Sameness Everywhere

Garden advertising creates sameness everywhere.

In search of annuals for my garden I recently visited a couple of box stores in the area.

Of course there were many plants to choose from, but they were the same plants in both places. It is as if to have a garden means we all need to include the same plants.

Fashion and style have always influenced the way we garden.

Certain plants seem to be more acceptable than others.

We know what they are by the advertising about plants for the summer landscape that is going on right now in print, social media, and the many advertising channels.

Communication scholar Hugh Dalziel Duncan said, “In America, cars, clothes, and houses are high communicable symbols of power because they are designed, advertised, and distributed as mass symbols.”

Richard L. Bushman wrote about the link between gardens and social status in his book The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities.  

He said “Colors of the exterior included yellows, browns, and greens to show off the house. Gone were the Colonial days of the bare essentials in house design. Now the shift appeared in what could display the wealth of the homeowner. Colorful houses and gardens contributed to that sense of social status. Nature had been smoothed and decorated as assiduously as walls and paneling inside the house.”

When you see advertising about plants, you tend to see the same plants and garden design from the media.

It should be no surprise that the same garden appears from coast to coast.

The media dictate garden fashion and style, and thus link the garden to social status.

Why is it so difficult to choose different plants?

A big reason may be that most people do not know any plants other than the ones heavily advertised.