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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When Fuchsia and Verbena Were the Rage

Plant collectors brought wonderful new garden plants to England in the nineteenth century.

Soon the plants decorated American gardens as well.

The verbena and the fuchsia were in that group

In Business History Review Cheryl Lyon-Jenness wrote an article entitled “The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America.”

She said, “Colorful, long-blooming bedding plants like fuchsias and verbenas were all the rage.”

Fuchsia

The fuchsia, native to South America, came into English and American gardens about the same time in the first half of the nineteeth century.

Soon after there were many varieties of fuchsia.

Noel Kingsbury in his book Garden Flora said “A French book in 1848 listed 520 varieties [of fuchsia]. Forty years later aroud 1,500 were listed.”

Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) loved the fuchsia.

He wrote in his catalog of 1880: “The Fuchsias, as all know, are elegant flowers, delicate in coloring and exquisitely graceful in form.”

However he saw more value in them than simply house plants.

He said, “The usual plan is to obtain plants, flower them in the house a little while, and then consider them useless. This is all wrong.

“No flower will make a more beautiful bed or screen near the house or on the borders of the lawn, than the Fuchsia, if partially shaded; and it will even bear almost entire shade.”

Then Vick offered pots of thirty-six different varieties of fuchsia.

The price was 25 cents a pot, or $2.25 for a dozen.

Verbena

Verbena in the garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly (1880)

The annual verbena, or Verbena x hybrida, has a long history in this country. The plant is originally from South America but made it’s way to England in the early nineteenth century.

David Stuart wrote in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The Verbena had been in England since 1826.”

 Denise Wiles Adams in her book Restoring American Gardens says, “Verbena x hybrida was the result of extensive hybridization beginning ca.1840 between four species of Verbena.”

According to the December issue of the Southern Cultivator in 1855, Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880) introduced the verbena to the United States.  The date seems to be around 1839.

It has been a favorite ever since.

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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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The Dahlia – in and out of Fashion

You might think that a flower as beautiful as the dahlia has been a garden treasure since explorers first brought it from its home in Mexico to Europe and later to the U.S.

Not true.

The dahlia has had a long history of being in and out of fashion.

When first introduced into England in the early nineteenth century, there was an uproar over this plant.

John Claudius Loudon, Editor of The Gardener’s Magazine, recognized it as a current fashion in the garden.

He wrote, “At almost every nursery several hundred sorts may be procured; but as new sorts are continually coming into fashion, and the old sorts becoming neglected, it would be of little use presenting a list of varieties.”  

Loudon was amazed at the variety in the dahlia’s form and color.

There was even a period of dahlia mania before 1850 both in England and in America.

Then dahlias receeded in popularity.

The dahlia almost became the new hollyhock: perhaps pretty but not in my garden.

Recent Article on the Dahlia

Last week Alan Titchmarsh wrote an online article in Country Life about the dahlia.

The title of the article says it all: “How the dahlia shrugged off its ‘too common to plant’ tag – and thank goodness it did.”

He says, ” It was Country Life’s regular contributor Christopher Lloyd who was instrumental in restoring their respectability, although he would have scoffed at the use of such a word, as snobbery was as alien to Christo as silence and circumspection are to the current President of the US.”

In his own gardening and subsequent writing Lloyd put the dahlia back in the garden.

He particularly liked the wonderful dahlia called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ which just happens to be my favorite.

Here it is in all its glory:

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ [Courtesy of White Flower Farm]

Who would have thought that the beautiful dahlia would have had such a rocky road in garden fashion?

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Poetry Inspired Nineteenth Century Gardens

What inspires a gardener can take many forms.

Often we depend on garden writers to tell us how the garden needs to look.

Nineteenth century poetry inspired two of the most famous English garden writers of that period, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson.

Both of them despised the bedding system of plants which was popular at that time.

The garden fashion style called carpet bedding, which filled a design with colorful plants on the lawn, spread among gardeners everywhere.

Both Hibberd and Robinson found solice in the writings of Tennyson.

Michael Waters writes in his book The Garden in Victorian Literature that poetry and fiction provided gardeners with ideas on how the garden should look.

Waters says, “Two of the most prestigious and prolific garden writers, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson, found in Tennyson’s poetry what they were looking for, and, more importantly perhaps, an absence of what they were not looking for.

“What they were not looking for was the poetic celebation of the bedding system.”

Robinson's book celebrates the value of perennials in the garden.

Robinson in his book The English Flower Garden recommends perennials over annuals in the garden.

He saw carpet beds as a waste of both money and labor.

By the end of the century there was a resurgence of interest in perennial beds and borders.

Robinson thus saw his work valued and inspiring to many gardeners, I am sure. They would take his advice about perennials.

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Dahlias and Me

We all love some flowers in the garden more than others.

That is the case with dahlias and me.

I love dahlias.

Here is ‘Creme de Casis’ which I grew this summer in a container along the driveway. [below]

Dahlia ‘Crème de Cassis’

It was the first time I planted this variety.

History of Dahlias

The dahlia first came from Mexico to Spain in the sixteenth century.

The Spanish priest, artist, and scientist Antonio Jose Cavanilles (1745-1808)  served on the staff of the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.

He drew illustrations of the dahlia in the late 1700s.

At about the same time the dahlia began to appear in England, France, Italy, and Germany.

From the early 1800s the dahlia had become a garden staple.

American gardeners enjoyed their first dahlias by the 1830s.

Even though it went through both periods of intense desire for the latest variety as well as disgust in just hearing its name, the dahlia is still around today.

Perfect Late Summer Flower

What I like most about this flower, besides its shape and endless variety of colors, is that it blooms in late summer until almost Thanksgiving here in the Northeast.

They begin in early August and continue til November.

James Vick on Dahlias

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1814-1882) grew hundreds of dahlias in his display gardens.

You would have found his field of dahlias about five miles north of the Rochester city limits.  [below]

Vick’s Seed House and Mill at his trial farm, located north of Rochester, New York. History of Monroe County, New York, 1877

Once the editor of the Illustrated Christian Weekly visited Vick’s dahlia field and wrote an article about his visit.

The editor’s article appeared in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly  of September 1879.

He wrote, “Mr. James Vick, of Rochester, N. Y., was the pioneer in the systematic growing of flower seeds, and without doubt the most extensive grower in America.”

That was quite the praise for Mr. Vick at a time when the seed and nursery business was growing around the country.

Then the editor raved about the blooms of the many dahlias he saw in the rows devoted to this flower at Vick’s seed farm.

He said, “Perhaps the largest field devoted entirely to one kind of flowers, at the time of our visit, was one filled with Dahlias, and containing six or more acres. It was supposed to include every variety known of real merit, and the display was gorgeous.”

What a sight that must have been – to see six acres of nothing but dahlias.

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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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Victorians Teasured Colorful Flowers

Victorians believed that colorful flowers needed to fill the garden all summer.

In his book The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters writes, “The massing of plants in showy color schemes grew rapidly in popularity.”

Waters provides three reasons for those colorful Victorian gardens.

First, the influx of foreign plant materials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Second, the hybridization of already available species, including dwarf varieties of older plants.

Third, the introduction of greenhouses, in which huge numbers of tender annuals could be raised for wholesale use.

Thus, Waters says, “Brillance of color became the top prerequisite of the mid-Victorian garden.”

Verbena

The list of plants every garden had to have included the verbena.

The verbena, a Victorian favorite, continues among the best sellers for the garden industry.

Today the plant grower Proven Winners constantly searches for ever newer varieties of plants.

PW has introduced a beautiful, new verbena called ‘Dark Blue’.

James Vick

The Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) mentioned the popular verbena in his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1881.

He wrote, “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

The Vick Company of course offered verbenas in its seed catalog. [below]

Vick won awards for his verbenas at State Fairs around the country including Michigan.

He wrote in 1880 in his garden magazine: “Among our garden flowers none is more valuable and more prized than the Verbena.”

The verbena was, however, only one of many annuals that offered colorful bloom in the Victorian flower garden whether for beds, borders, or containers.

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