Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America

Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America.

The design of the English garden during the 1600s followed a formal design which was a combination of French and Dutch elements of symmetry.

Then in the early 1700s the English took landscape to a new height in creating landscape as an art form, which they called the ‘natural’ or ‘picturesque’ landscape design.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D.Kornwulf defines the picturesque “as the aesthetic underlying ‘le jardin anglais’ as the natural, irregular, and deliberately asymmetrical kind of planting.”

Colonial America however in the 1700s continued the formal garden design in properties along the East coast.

Though there were a couple of isolated examples of the picturesque landscape, the formal garden design dominated in eighteenth century America.

The landscape at both Middleton Place  and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, probably dating from around 1740, represent the earliest known picturesque gardens in America, according to Kornwulf.

Richard Bushman argued in his book The Refinement of America that “In the eighteenth century informal and picturesque gardens remained subservient to the dominant influence of formal garden principles.”

The formal garden made its first monumental appearance in Colonial America at the College of William and Mary in 1694.

 

Formal garden at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg

Examples from the eighteenth century of formal garden design include the William Paca landscape in Annapolis, Maryland and the Governor’s Mansion at Williamsburg, Virginia [above].

Kornwulf says, “Without doubt, these gardens were the model for many created in eighteenth-century Virginia.”

Looking to the English for garden inspiration, eighteenth century America followed the older tradition of the more formal English garden.

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American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

One of my favorite plant stories is how the poinsettia became a popular Christmas flower here in America.

In the nineteenth century it was common for garden magazines or journals to include articles from other garden publications, mostly English.  The source of the orignal story would often appear at the end of the article.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876 which he took from the English weekly journal called Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The article, simply entitled Poinsettia’ said, “Passing by these old friends, not without a word of hearty welcome be it well understood, we come to another plant which has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

Meehan continued with these words: “Its name commemorates a French traveler, M. Poinsett, by whom the plant was introduced to cultivation.

“He brought specimens to Charleston from Mexico in 1828, whence they were taken to Philadelphia; and specimens sent from the latter place to Edinburgh [Scotland] flowered in 1835, since which date it has become increasingly popular and plentiful in our stores.”

Poinsett had sent the plant to his friend Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880). Buist in turn mailed a specimen of the plant to his horticulturst friend in Scotland.  Soon after that the poinsettia, native to Mexico, became available to the public.

Today during this season you can see how poinsettias still fill the Grand Hall at The Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Poinsettias in the Grand Hall at The Breakers in Newport, RI. [courtesy]

American gardeners, just like the English, came to treasure the plant as an indispensable part of the Christmas holiday.

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Oliver Plunkett’s Garden Features Grotto

Oliver Plunkett’s garden features grotto.

During my recent visit in Ireland when I saw the early home of St. Oliver Plunkett (1629-1681) in Loughcrew, something else in the garden there surprised me.

At the end of the border of perennials you find a grotto. You can see that the grotto was made with rocks simply cemented to other rocks to form a sort of shelter of a few feet in height. A tiny pool of water appears at the base.

Such a grotto, made of rocks, formed an important part of English garden history.

David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes about the history of this garden decoration.

He says, “Rockeries were, at first, pure theater. From the middle of the eighteenth century, artificial grottos and mock ruins became fashionable adjuncts in any garden large enough to pretend to ‘landscape’.”

The Plunkett property includes this grotto or rock garden, also referred to as a folly, in that garden tradition. [below]

Grotto at Loughcrew, home of Oliver Plunkett

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) created the Loughcrew Estate, making it one of the greatest estates in Ireland. The property, originally 180,000 acres, became a classic landscape from its beginning. Over the centuries landscape designers and architects have contributed to these beautiful grounds.

Near the old stone walls of the church a line of yew trees stand tall even today, after four hundred years.

Gardens, woods, arboreta, and pleasure walks make this remarkable landscape at Loughcrew in county Meath an Irish treasure.

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Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sold Lawn

Nineteenth century garden catalogs sold lawn.

Nineteenth century seed company and nursery products guided the kind of home landscape people cultivated.

Landscape designer and garden historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote her Cornell master’s thesis called Ornamental Garden Design. 

She discussed mostly nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882), but also covered much garden history from that period, including discussion of the importance of the lawn for the middle class homeowner.

 

henderson-front-yard

 

Hanna writes,  “Nursery owners [in nineteenth century America], the horticultural journal editors, did not accept the wilderness aesthetic completely for it was not good for business.

“Instead they merged this romantic wilderness appreciation with the aesthetic picturesque and developed a form of English landscape garden design that was reliant upon the communal landscape.

“In other words, the new transportation systems of the roads and rail lines and land division of the suburban tracts set up shared views.”

In the cover image [above] from New York seedsman Peter Henderson’s 1899 catalog notice how in the back one property adjoins another with a lawn as their common bond.

No fence separates the properties because the continuity of the lawn was an important landscape principle called ‘shared view.’

The nursery owners encouraged the lawn because it was part of the English landscape garden design aesthetic, but also because it was good for business. That landscape style sold lawn seed and lawn mowers.

And so it was no surprise, according to Hanna, that the English garden with its lawn became the model for the suburban, middle class American home landscape of the nineteenth century.

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Ireland’s Powerscourt Features Perennial Borders

Ireland’s Powerscourt features perennial borders.

My recent trip to Ireland included a visit to Powerscourt, the estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, whose long history dates back to the twelve century.

The extensive garden at Powerscourt contains many wonders, including two long perennial borders, that have made it one of Ireland’s treasures.

During the nineteenth century the walled garden’s perennial borders were installed.  They reflect the gardening world’s interest at that time in perennials rather than annuals.

Powerscourt border [courtesy photo]

Perennial borders at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

In the nineteenth century Viscount Powerscourt said,”The planting of the choice plants and shrubs, and seeing them increase year by year in size and beauty has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

When garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) and later garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both encouraged gardening with perennials, borders of perennials became popular in the English garden.

Powerscourt includes other areas of nineteenth century garden style like an Italian garden in the terraces that link the house to the lake below. The terraces were constructed between 1843 and 1867.

The design of the garden reflects the desire to create a garden that is part of the wider landscape.  You can view the garden from the upper terrace where you can enjoy the harmony among garden slops, terraces, flower beds, trees, and the lake.

What caught my attention was the extraordinary collection of plants in the walled garden of perennials.

The fact that they are of mature size, well maintained, and number in the hundreds certainly contributes to the spender of the present-day Powerscourt garden.

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Flower Beds Revolutionized English Garden

Flower beds revolutionized English garden.

We take flower beds for granted, but at one time they became revolutionary, making a statement against the current garden fashion.

The story began in early nineteenth century England when gardeners needed room for the unusual plants coming into the country from Asia, Africa, and America.

Plant collectors risked dangers and even death to provide the unusual and unknown flora from around the world.  English gardeners could not get enough of such plants.

The question became ‘Where do I plant them?’ for many gardeners.  After decades of stately lawns in front of and behind the house, there seemed little space to showcase these latest garden novelties.

stuart-plants-and-gardens-2David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes, “When Lady Grenville, in exasperation [about where she would plant the new flowers coming into England from around the world], cut some large circles of the lawn in front of her drawing-room windows, and filled them with scarlet bergamots, blue salvias or yellow cosmos, she broke a century’s taboo, and started a colossal new movement.”

That was 1825. The garden has not been its old eighteenth century version since.

Here a simple act by Lady Grenville, or rather by her gardener, changed gardening.

Late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humpry Repton (1752-1818) had encouraged flowers in the landscape, even suggesting a rosarium for a rose collection. Flowers were not new. What was new was where they were planted in the landscape.

Flower beds on the lawn then became common practice both in England and America.

By 1880 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  took flower beds for granted. The beds on the lawn, he advised, needed to include annuals that bloom for the entire season. 

He wrote, “A few flower beds may be made, and usually near the borders, or opposite windows, and they should be of simple, graceful forms, and look well the whole summer, and every day and all day.”

Lady Grenville’s example illustrates how sometimes what we take for granted in gardening has a history.

Why we garden in a particular way and with certain plants expresses the culture of a particular time and place.

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Atlanta Garden Includes English Greenhouse

Atlanta garden includes English greenhouse.

I attended the Association for Garden Communicators annual meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago.

We visited several gardens as part of the busy schedule we kept.

One garden featured a greenhouse, designed and installed by the English firm Hartley Botanic, purveyor of greenhouses, and approved by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. [below]

Greenhouse, Atlanta garden tour

English greenhouse in an Atlanta garden

What struck me immediately was how association with the word ‘English’ in this case makes this greenhouse somehow special.

The choice of an English greenhouse certainly highlights the English workmanship of a greenhouse, but also the history of gardening in England which included a greenhouse tradition.

Wealthy English plant collectors in the eighteenth century built conservatories or what we call greenhouses to protect their tropical plants.

By mid nineteenth century when glass became cheaper, greenhouses also appealed to the English middle class gardener.

Ninteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs listed plants that could overwinter in such a greenhouse.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in July 1879, “With the increase of wealth comes a demand for glass structures of some kind, in which the operations of gardening, in its lighter and ornamental branches, can be pursued at all seasons of the year – regardless of winter’s blasts and storms and summer’s fiercer rays and droughts.”

This Atlanta garden represents the English garden style still relevant, important, and in some sense, the model for American greenhouse gardening.

We continue to look to the English to teach us about gardening.

In 1884 Buffalo, New York landscape designer Elias Long wrote in his book Ornamental Gardening for Americans, “The English possess a much greater love for, and knowledge of, everything pertaining to gardening than do Americans.”

 

 

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Ireland Trip Illustrates Similar Plant Palette

Ireland trip illustrates similar plant palette.

My recent trip to Ireland taught me a lesson about marketing the garden.

While near Dublin, I visited the classic Victorian garden and estate called Powerscourt in the town of Enniskerry, County Wicklow.

There at the gift shop and greenhouse, near the visitor’s parking lot, I saw trays of pansies for sale. [below]

pansies-at-powerscourt

Pansies for sale outside the greenhouse at Powerscourt

The pansy has long been a gardener’s favorite. Since the nineteenth century pansies have played a central role in providing color for garden beds here in America.

When I saw the Powerscourt pansies, it was as if I was at home. We sell the same pansies here in the States.

What that means to me is that the power of marketing communication today makes a plant variety easily recognizable, perhaps even around the world, and that becomes the plant that people want to grow.

Mass marketing of the garden only began in the later part of the nineteenth century when communication innovations like the typewriter and increased speed in printing along with increased advertising became common.

A customer from Iowa wrote a letter to Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) about pansies.  Vick included these words from the letter in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1878, “We never had such flowers before; you ought to have seen our Pansies. We have every color you can think of, and lots of them that you cannot think of. We have one or two roots of them that have not had anything but double Pansies, and they were very beautiful.”

Vick, of course, encouraged the growing of pansies.  That advice has continued to this day.

So in one sense it is no surprise to see the same annuals for sale in Ireland even though the growers may be local.

Since the late nineteenth century American gardening has been intimately connected with the mass marketing of plants and garden products.

The effect is that our palette of plants has become quite similar from region to region around the country, and even from country to country.

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Capability Brown Designed Chatsworth’s Landscape

Capability Brown designed Chatsworth’s landscape in the eighteenth century.

This is the 300th jubilee year of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) .

He was the most famous landscape gardener in England from 1750-1780. Some have called him “England’s greatest gardener.”

Among the gardens he designed was Chatsworth, Thomas Jefferson’s favorite English garden.

England formed an organization to provide programs and events during this year to understand and appreciate Brown’s role in the history of the English garden.

On the group’s website a representative of Chatsworth provided an article about Brown’s work there.  You can check it out at this link: Chatsworth.

The 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764) brought Brown to Chatsworth to redesign the landscape in what was then called the ‘modern’ style.

Brown’s associate or foreman, Michael Millican, oversaw an extensive program of earth moving, drainage, levelling and tree planting from the late 1750’s until 1765.

Millican was the ‘man on the ground’ supervising the land forming, drainage and turfing while Brown made visits to inspect and advise.

Chatsworth [courtesy of XXX]

Chatsworth, designed by Lancelot Capability Brown   [courtesy image]

How I remember my visit to Chatsworth on a June summer day.  It seemed more a park than a garden, but then that was an idea included in these extensive gardens. They were often called ‘park.’

Arabella Lennox-Boyd and Clay Perry wrote a wonderful book on English garden history called Traditional English Gardens.

They write, “The eighteenth century landscapes were great works of art, their creators achieving with water, trees, earth and masonry what artists were representing with oil paint.”

English gardens like Chatsworth were considered works of art.

This year 2016 is the time to remember Lancelot Brown, the mid-eighteenth century landscape gardener who inspired that ideal landscape in over 250 sites, including Chatsworth.

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English Garden Design Discouraged Mixed Beds

The English garden design discouraged mixed beds at one time.

Today we often talk about the impact of mass planting which is using many plants of one variety.

The annual conference for the Association for Garden Communicators happened to be in Atlanta this year.

Part of the meeting included visiting local gardens.

In a garden tour there I saw the use of a single variety of plant to create a carpet bed look around a fountain. [below] The clusters of color made of one plant provided a pleasing sight.

Carpet bedding in Atlanta

Carpet bedding in an Atlanta garden

For decades English gardeners looked down on planting more than a single plant of one variety for a bed or border. A mixed variety was then the style.

David Stuart says in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The old method of planting garden flowers was in a mixture, and flowers had been planted that way certainly since the seventeenth century. It was once believed that to have two flowers of the same sort next to one another was a grave error of taste, and it seems likely that such planting ideas had an even more ancient past.”

To include more than one plant of the same variety was not in style.

Stuart continues, “The idea of grouping flowers, so that only one sort was to be seen in each bed, was as much a major departure from the conventions of history as was the passion for informal landscape gardens of the previous century [the eighteenth].”

The head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton, Stuart writes, in 1838  recommended no mixed beds with perennials but rather carpet bedding with annuals which became the major garden fashion in the Victorian period.

The mixed bed however did survive.  Stuart says, “The mixed mode of bedding survived in rather specialized areas of gardening until the end of the nineteenth century.”

Carpet bedding became the popular style during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Thus, fashion in gardening is most important to heed.

The poor lonely plant doesn’t know the difference, but we do.

Today we plant in a mass or we plant in a mixed border. Both styles have their appeal.

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