English Garden Style Inspired Nineteenth Century America

The English landscape garden with its lawn, pathways, trees lining the property, and boxwood shrubs surrounding the flower beds dominated America in the nineteenth century.

It was as if we had little imagination.

Perhaps America was too busy settling in, too busy just surviving, to concern itself with the landscape.

Even America’s own Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted showed a predilection for the English landscape, especially the lawn.

Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto edited the book Foreign Trends in American Gardens: A History of Exchange, Adaptation, and Reception.

She writes, “American garden design in the nineteenth century was dominated by the influence of the English landscape garden, as reinterpreted for a democratic society in both American public parks and private gardens by such notable practitioners as Frederick Law Olmsted.”

America Responds

By the end of the century landscape garden designers like Charles Platt had had enough of this dependence on England.

He called that artistic leaning a type of ‘Anglomania.’

The Japanese garden through an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 made America consider seriously other views of the landscape like the Asian.

At the same time in the Berkshires of Massachusetts novelist and gardener Edith Wharton promoted Italian garden design .

America’s own midwest landscape architects proposed a prairie design for the landscape with a focus on native grasses.

Slowly there was movement away from simply the English view of landscape as the only choice for Americans.

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How many hybrids of one plant do we need?

I love the weigela shrub.

At the edge of our front lawn the old-fashioned weigela florida has bloomed each spring for many years.

Did you know, according to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, there are 170 varieties of this shrub available on the market?

Most of them come from Holland and Canada.

My question is: who needs so many varieties of one plant?

In my Garden

I am happy our weigela florida shrub continues to provide color outside the front door. [below]

This Weigela grows right outside my front door. [photo by Ralph Morang]

History of the Weigela

Robert Fortune (1812–1880), the Scottish plant collector, introduced it in 1845 from China to England, where it first grew at the gardens of the Horticultural Society.

This shrub, with its reddish-pink bell-shaped flowers, was named after the German botanist Christian von Weigel.

Soon American nursery catalogs listed it as the newest exotic plant from England.

In 1848, the English garden periodical Curtis’s Botanical Magazine wrote that it grew in the Royal Gardens of Kew and other botanical gardens in Great Britain.

Weigela florida grows four to five feet high and just as wide, and is valued as a specimen or border plant.

The leaves are two to five inches long, and usually have one end narrower than the other, a pointed tip, and a notched edge. The flowers measure an inch and a half in length. The inner envelopes of the flowers are usually a white, pink, or red color.

This shrub does well in most fertile soils, but prefers a moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade.

It blossoms in springtime, mostly during May, April, and June.

What I like about it also is that this shrub is easy to grow and maintain.

A question

I need to ask you a question nonetheless.

How many hybrids of one plant do we need?

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Top Ten Plants for a Cottage Garden

What is it about top ten lists? We go crazy for the list.

It is as if we will feel we have conquered the world if we but knew the names on that list.

Not all top ten lists of cottage garden plants are equal.

Here is one from 1981 and another from 2020.

What are the differences?

Cottage Garden, the Book

Anne Scott-James in her wonderful book The Cottage Garden, written in 1981, presents her choice of the top ten.

She is quite affirmative about this choice.

She says, “From the hundreds of flowers which qualify [as cottage plants] I have chosen ten as the embodiment of cottage gardening.”

Then she lists them.

Here they are: Lilium candidum, Gilliflowers, Honeysuckle, Mignonette, Primroses, Lavender, Roses, Hollyhock, Hawthorn, and Amaranthus.

Today’s List of Top Ten

Now move the calendar to the year 2020.

Just a few days ago blogger David Domoney wrote a blogpost with the title “My Top 10 Plants for the Modern Cottage Garden Style” .

He of course then proceeds to give his list, with some from the group presented by Scott-James forty years ago.

Here are the names on his list: Rose, Cornflowers, Helenium, Miscanthus, Hollyhock, Penstemon, Foxglove, Poppy, Sweet pea, and Red hot pokers.

Hollyhock [Courtesy of The English Garden]

Domoney says,  “The plants found in a cottage garden will be an invasion on the senses. Strongly fragrant and vibrantly coloured blooms will tangle together amongst lush green foliage, whilst bees can be regularly found bumbling busily amongst the vast array of nectar-rich plants.”

Both lists have similar qualities in the choice of plants.

The flowers are bold, colorful, form clumps, and make a statement in any garden of somewhat limited space.

Whether you chose the list of 1981 or 2020, similarities are there.

Today there is renewed interest in cottage gardens.

What are your favorite cottage garden plants?

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Nasturtium – Popular Flower for Centuries

Every year I grow nasturtiums.

They are an easy flower to grow from seed. Just press the seed into the soil.

I had no idea that it had been a popular garden flower for hundreds of years. Over that time we have records of its presence in gardens.

In his book A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800 Mark Laird mentions the nasturtium.

He says in a particular flower garden “There were six pots of nasturtium [Tropaeolum] in 1691 on display as a florist’s flower.” A florist was someone who cultivated flowers to sell them later in the market.

These nasturtiums were in the ‘West Walk’, near the kitchen garden.

Dutch and Flemish Gardens

The Dutch and Flemish had introduced plants to England during this period.

Edward Hyams in his book English Cottage Gardens writes, “Dutch and Flemish horticulture was strongly felt [in the Middle Ages]; between 1550 and 1650 it added new vegetables to the English garden flora, as well as new flowers.”

Among the flowers was the nasturtium, which had come to Europe from Peru.

Laird says, “Double nasturtiums [Tropaeolum majus] came to England from Netherlands post 1686 from Peru.”

So indeed the nasturtium has flourished in our gardens for a long time.

Today we still grow them.

Renee’s Seeds in California offers sixteen varieties.

One of them ‘Buttercream’ is a favorite.

Here it is growing in a container outside my front door.

Nasturtium ‘Buttercream’

You can easily grow nasturiums in pots, borders, and under shrubs.

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English Garden Continues Its Influence

We know we have come a long way as gardeners here in the US.

We do not have the kind of dependence on the English garden that we once had. In 1906 Wilhelm Miller, an American landscape designer from Chicago, wrote the book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening.

A recent online article by Nancy A. Rubling seems to readdress that dependence and indeed recognizes that it is still happening.

The article “The English Garden Endures” makes the point that the English garden contiues to influence garden fashion.

Old-fashioned blossoms in one of the gardens at Helmington Hall [Harpur Garden Images]

Rubling writes, “With their classic hedges and bounteous blooms, traditional English-style gardens remain a popular perennial in the formal landscapes of stately estates around the world.”

Kathryn Bradley-Hole, garden editor of Country Life magazine, says “Many designers are making beautiful English gardens with a modern twist.”

Some of the elements of that modern look include ornamental grasses and easy-care perennials.

Whether rows of perennials, shrubs in a line, or a grand lawn, it is so easy to see how the English garden asetheic continues its grip on the American gardener’s imagination.

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Petunias Slowly Gained Garden Prominence

 I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly from 1868.

It took decades for the petunia to attain the status of a coveted flower in the garden.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeared in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit said, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  

By 1868 flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 catalog of seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, NY listed eight varieties of petunias.

Vick wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

Even today.

A petunia variety from Proven Winners that I love is Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’

One summer I grew it in a container in my backyard on top of this wrought iron table [below]. 

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with many flowers in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is one of the top ten most popular summer annuals, according to the National Garden Bureau.

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Repton Brought Back Flower Gardens

We know in the modern English landscape garden dating from the early eighteenth century the extensive lawn took center stage.

Flower gardens were there, but not emphasized until serious plant collecting from around the world emerged, as well as the support of landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818).

Garden historians attribute renewed interest in flower gardens to Repton.

Andre Rogger in Landscapes of Taste: The Art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books mentions a significant threesome in Walpole’s book The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780).

Rogger argues that Walpole linked the three most important landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century.

Rogger writes, “The tripartite sequence [in Horace Walpole’s book] William Kent followed by Lancelot Brown followed by Humphry Repton established the canon for the history of English landscape gardening.”

The Victorian Garden

It was Repton’s focus on flowers that makes him so significant as gardening with flowers emerged in the nineteenth century.

In The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters, though not a historian as such, looked at the image of ‘garden’ in Victorian fiction and poetry.

Repton appears important to such artists because he brought back the flower garden to its important position near the house.

Waters writes , “Repton believed this would restore not only the art of gardening but also the social functions of the garden.

“That this was Repton’s major contribution to the history of garden design is occasionally acknowledged in Victorian fiction.”

For Repton flowers ought to be viewed both by the garden’s owner and the visitor.

Mick Thompson, writing in the journal Garden History, says, “During the second half of his career as a landscape gardener. Repton led the way in returning flower gardens, both formal and informal, close to the house where they could be seen and enjoyed.”

Repton includes flowers in this illustration from his Red Book for Ashridge of 1813. [below]. Flowers dot the lawn in both beds and borders.

The Countess of Bridgewater’s Flower Garden; detail from Repton’s Red Book for Ashridge (1813).
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Women in Horticulture: Yesterday and Today

I am currently reading Michael Waters’ book The Garden in Victorian Literature.

This title fits into my general area of interest, the history of the garden.

 In this case I am looking at how novelists and poets wrote about the garden in the Victorian period.

Such literature tells us a great deal about the garden, but also about the role of women in horticulture.

Women in Horticulture Week

Earlier this week I discovered that June 1-5 is Women in Horticulture Week.

I can see a thread between the two sources of our understanding the garden as a cultural phenomenon: Victorian fiction where the garden takes center stage and the evolving role of women in the garden.

Katie Dubow, president, Garden Media Group, the primary sponsor of this special week, says,  “Women play a crucial role in the horticulture industry—not only as entrepreneurs, growers, researchers, marketers and employees at all levels, but also as the largest consumers of home and garden products.”

Victorian Literature, Women, and the Garden

Victorian literature paints its own image of women and the garden.

We know that the nineteenth century was a time in which the influence of women was relegated to taking care of the family, and in terms of the garden, mostly tending to flowers.

Waters writes, “An assumption almost universal in Victorian literature: women, not men, have a natural and privileged affinity with flowers.”

Women were then even compared to flowers: beautiful and sensual, and there to bring a sense of feeling and emotion to taking care of the household.

Though women had a lot to do with running the household, they were not encouraged to seek any fulfillment outside the home.

By the end of the nineteenth century women were voicing their own frustration with that role.

Women wanted to be more self-determining.

Slowly that role of women emerged to provide women leadership roles in the field of horticulture.


It is a good idea  to support, honor, and promote women professionals and their achievements during Women in Horticulture Week.

Today’s woman in the garden is quite different from her Victorian ancestor.

Here is Monet’s beautiful Victorian painting, “Woman in the Garden.”

Claude Monet Woman in the Garden 1866
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Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

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Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

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