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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Victorian Conservatory Became Essential

Victorian conservatory became essential

Victorian garden fashion demanded several elements.

Plants that stood out became essential for their structure and color.

The list included ricinus, canna, yucca  – all with their bold leaves.

To grow and cultivate  plants during the winter a conservatory, attached to the house, became a must for all serious Victorian gardeners.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Carter says in his book The Victorian Garden, “Eventually the conservatory became a Victorian cliché – a necessary attachment to any house of even modest pretentions, and often, no more than a place where pot plants could be brought in.”

Serious gardeners then cultivated orchids which demanded special growing conditions.

Eventually the middle class would also grow orchids in their version of that essential greenhouse or conservatory.

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When Annuals Lost Their Appeal

When annuals lost their appeal

From the mid nineteenth century England encouraged gardening with beds of annuals.

The arrival of glorious summer plants from warmer climates like Africa, Asia, and South America had encouraged that fashion.

In the 1870s however garden writer William Robinson criticized the practice. He advocated for perennials and native plants in the summer garden.

The cost of growing in the greenhouse the necessary dozens of annuals became expensive.

Another issue became  the maintenance to keep the annual beds weed-free and trimmed to the proper height and width.

Perennials would reward the gardener with bloom year after year, Robinson wrote.

Growing  native plants would also reduce the expense of the annuals since they are readily available in local fields, mountains, and woods.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden writes about the inevitability of the demise of the extensive growing and maintaining of beds of annuals.

William Robinson

Robinson himself had once been an advocate of annuals but no longer.

He wrote the book The Wild Garden in which he proposed plants other than annuals for the summer garden.

Carter says, “The movement away from the true Victorian style during the last decade of the century reflected in, and partly brought about by Robinson, … was inevitable.

 “It has been maintained that bedding, with its emphasis on annuals and a limited number of perennials, caused gardeners to disregard old-fashioned plants, bringing some of them close to extinction.”

Today we continue to preach the gospel of native plants. 

It’s not that we can’t grow annuals. It’s that we also have beautiful native plants.

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Victorian Garden Book

Victorian garden book

Last week I attended a meeting of the New England Hosta Society, a group I joined many years ago.

The meeting included a wonderful speaker who owns a local nursery.

The highlight of the meeting, however, was the item I won in the raffle.

To my surprise I won Tom Carter’s book The Victorian Garden.

I was familiar with this title when I placed my red ticket in the cup to bid on the book.

The bibliography and illustrations in the book indicate the English origin of the book. 

The book, however, was first published by Salem House, a member of the Merrimack Publishers Circle, Salem, New Hampshire in 1985.  R. J. Acford, Chichester, Sussex printed this edition.

The book details the development of the English Victorian garden in the nineteenth century.

Carter writes, “The range of plants available in nineteenth century Britain was constantly increasing as more and more specimens were sent home from abroad, and as colonial territories were opened up.”

The plants would include of course varieties from Asia and North America.

Look forward to reading this book during the cold weeks of winter still to come.

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English Garden Style May Not Work

English garden style may not work

Landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. came from a long line of horticulturists. His family owned a popular late nineteenth century nursery in New York.

According to the American Architects Biographies, Parsons was a landscape architect who died February 3, 1923 in New York City. He was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1845. A former park commissioner, he was largely responsible for the development of Central Park and Riverside Drive in New York City. He also designed a 1,400 acre park in San Diego, California.

Parsons gives some sound gardening advice in his book Landscape Gardening (1891)

He warns about simply following a certain garden style, like the English.

Parsons writes, “We are learning that because an English or Scotch gardener tells us we should have a particular tree which has grown successfully in England, we are not necessarily to assume that horticultural skill, whether Scotch, or English, or French, must be able to conpass, in some occult way, its successful employment on American lawns.”

He was a great advocate for the classic lawn, sweeping down from the house.

No surprise that the lawns in Central Park took on that green beauty that Parsons orchestrated in his job as Superintendent of Parks in New York.

Parsons offered this advice in 1891.

Still makes sense today.

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Seventeenth Century Front Garden Restored

Seventeenth century front garden restored –

The north shore Massachusetts town of Ipswich claims more First Period houses than any other community in America.

First Period refers to those houses built between 1625 and 1725.

The style of the Whipple House, built in 1677, represents that period.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Whipple House was moved to its current location in Ipswich.

Though it had suffered much disrepair over the years, several historically minded citizens of the time thought it worth saving.  In its day the Whipple House was the grandest of examples of early American homes.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Reverend Thomas Franklin Waters became a leading member of the Historical Preservation group in Ipswich.

He said at the time that the Whipple House was “a link that binds us to the remote Past and to a solemn and earnest manner of living, quite in contrast with much of our modern life.”

The Whipple House still stands, thanks to the initiative of this group and its successors. [below]

Whipple House in Ipswich, Massachusetts [built in 1677]

Garden

An extensive kitchen garden at the front of the house greets a visitor to the Whipple house.

The location and design of the kitchen garden continues the English garden tradition of early Plimouth Plantation as well.

In the  early 1960s garden historian Isadore Smith (AKA Ann Leighton) and landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff designed and installed the raised beds of the kitchen garden.

Smith and Shurcliff set out to recreate what would have been a typical wife’s kitchen garden of the seventeenth century. They designed a garden with mostly herbs since the wife was responsible for both the food and the medical needs of the family.

There was not much time for a pleasure garden of decorative flowers so the plant choices of the kitchen garden were based on the cooking and health needs of the family.

The English style of an enclosed kitchen garden with raised beds lined up in a certain symmetry was also the style at the restored gardens of Colonial Williamsburg.

Mr. Shurcliff provides a link between the Whipple House and the Williamsburg garden restoration.

In the 1930s Boston landscape architect Shurcliff, who previously had worked with American landscape pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, also recreated the garden of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg.

According to landscape architect and garden writer Rudi Favretti, the Whipple garden style, centered on the practical needs for plants, continued as the predominant form of gardening well into mid-nineteenth century America.

Thus today the Whipple House illustrates the early influence of English garden design on American home landscape.

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Plimouth Plantation’s Home Landscape

Plimouth Plantation’s home landscape

It is mid November and our thoughts turn of course to the Thanksgiving holiday.

That means we remember the pilgrims who sailed from England in 1620, landing in Plymouth, south of Boston.

Today we can learn about the pilgrims from Plimouth Plantation, a site that replicates that early period of our country’s history.

The colonists represent an important example of early home landscaping in this country. They designed a landscape that fit their needs.

The English colonists knew of course of their homeland’s landscape and garden style.

Before they made the voyage, they had no idea what the land and weather would be like in their new home.

They would however build a house, resembling the style they knew in England.

Architect Gerald Foster wrote a practical guide to home architecture called American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home.

He says, “Arriving on the New England shore, the 17th-century English settlers immediately erected Native American huts and wigwams or dug into the earth for temporary shelter.

“For permanent housing, they drew on their own experience and built simple cottages based on familar English homes.”

Here is a reproduction of an early colonial house you can see at Plimouth Plantation. [below]

Replica of an early colonist’s house at Plimouth Plantation [Courtesy of Plimouth Plantation]

They would also adopt a landscape similar to what they knew from England of the seventeenth century.

Because they were concerned from the beginning with their own survival in the new land, any landscape making or gardening had to be simple and useful.

Notice in the image [above] that a bed of vegetables and herbs lies in front of the thatched roof house. That kitchen garden takes up a substantial part of the front area.

The garden shows rows of plants, mostly vegetables and herbs but with a few flowers as well.  In England a walled garden held such rows to create what the English referred to as their ‘kitchen garden.’

As with all landscape design, Plimouth Plantation reflects a form that is particular to a time and culture.

 

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Opium Enriched Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant

Opium enriched nineteenth century Boston merchant –

Nineteenth century Boston merchant Thomas H. Perkins (1764-1854) cultivated a landscape at his country estate in Brookline, Massachusetts in the English landscape style.

This portrait of Perkins by Thomas Sully today hangs in the large first floor meeting room  of the downtown Boston Athenaeum. [below]

Boston Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasayd Perkins

Perkins became one of America’s first millionaires.

To increase his sale of goods to China Perkins found himself in the opium trade.

In 1815 he opened an office in Afghanistan in order to buy opium there to sell to China.

Stephen Harris wrote a great book called Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, which covers the history of gardening.

Harris writes, “Ultimately, tea transformed English society, was a driver of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, maintained the opium trade with China and became a new crop for colonial India.”

He draws a link between the sale of tea and the sale of opium in the nineteenth century. Both made certain people quite wealthy.

Perkins’ Fortune

Perkins built his fortune by selling opium more than any other product.

At the same time he offered substantial financial assistance to local institutions like the Boston Athenaeum and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Today these institutions as well as Perkins School for the Blind, another of his charities,  have had to respond to this part of their history. People inquire how they could have accepted money made from selling opium.

In their book Merchant Prince of Boston: Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854 Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write, “They cheerfully rationalized that the opium habit was not nearly so debilitating as the habit of drink.”

I don’t know what the word ‘cheerfully’ means here. I would say they saw opium as a business. It was, after all, legal in America at that time.

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Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant’s Country Estate

Nineteenth century Boston merchant’s country estate

Recently I attended a short talk at the Boston Athenaeum where a staff member discussed three Athenaeum portraits.

My intention in taking the train to participate in this session was to hear about the Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854).

Thomas Handasyd Perkins

Sending his ships primarily to China, Perkins became a wealthy merchant in nineteenth century Boston.

The speaker’s remarks at the Athenaeum centered on what a philanthropist Perkins had been for the city.

He founded the Perkins School for the Blind, which today is located in Watertown.

Perkins owned a downtown home, first on Pearl Street and later on Temple Place, but also escaped the summer heat to his country home in Brookline, a few miles from Boston.

Brookline Estate

Perkins purchased the land for his Brookline estate in 1799.

The Boston Athenaeum archives include a landscape plan for the Perkins’ Brookline property.

The plan illustrates the modern form of landscape gardening, begun in England in the eighteenth century.  This style, because it was the fashion, attracted wealthy Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

The landscape in his estate reflected the English style of rolling lawns, trees, and shrubs.

The extensive lawn, dotted with several greenhouses, takes up most of the space in the plan.  The plan shows a kitchen garden and orchards as well.

According to their book Merchant Prince of Boston, Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write that the Perkins’ Brookline property, on the corner of Heath and Warren, became “one of the show places around Boston.”

There Perkins cultivated plants from around the world, including a grape-vine from England’s Sir Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton became one  of the most important gardeners in England.  He also designed the Crystal Palace for the London Exhibition of 1851.

Like other prominent men of his time who owned such country estates, Perkins chose to design in the modern English landscape style.

Seaburg and Paterson note that at the Perkins’ garden, “Encouragement was given to ornamental gardening, with an eye to the art of landscaping.”

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Empress Josephine’s Dahlia Gift

Empress Josephine’s dahlia gift

I first came across the name Aime Bonpland, the nineteenth century French botanist, while I was researching the history of growing and selling dahlias.

Aime Bonpland (1773-1858) [Courtesy of Biografias y Vidas]

Bonpland (1773-1858) became the head gardener for Empress Josephine for ten years at her summer residence outside of Paris called Chateau Malmaison.

It is there Josephine insisted on the landscape style of the English garden of the eighteenth century. And so it was designed in that fashion [below]

View of the park at Malmaison [Gaverney]

Bonpland had been the travel companion in Latin America to Alexander Von Humboldt in their famous trip from 1799 to 1804. [below]

Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest (1850)

It is said that in the early 1800s Bonpland brought back from his trip dahlia seeds to present to Empress Josephine for her wonderful collection of plants.

Martin Kral writes in his well-researched paper “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History” that Bonpland and Humboldt saw dahlias growing all around them as they traveled in Latin America.

When he returned to Europe, Humboldt focused on writing his treatise on nature called Cosmos.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World writes, “Humboldt’s botanical publications in Paris were delayed because Bonpland was now the head gardener to Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, at Malmaison, her country estate just outside Paris.”

Bonpland was a botanist, interested in plants, and slow to respond to Humboldt’s request he help with writing about what they had experienced on their trip.

It was Humboldt who would record their five years in Latin America, leaving a lasting legacy in his writing. He saw in the trip a new way to look at nature, a forerunner to what we now call ‘ecology’.

Humboldt and Bonpland were, however, a good pair for traveling together since they complemented one another with their individual skills.

Bonpland returned to Latin America after Josephine’s death in 1814.

 

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