Victorian England Treasured US Rhododendron

Victorian England treasured US rhododendron.

Right now you see rhododendrons in bloom everywhere.

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I always look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

Here’s a view of my garden right now. [below]

A scene in my garden with two rhododendrons that are blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.  At that time they were more popular in England than here in America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870 lamented the fact that Americans did not appreciate the rhododendron.

He wrote, “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

Today we acknowledge the battle between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  The issue is certainly not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to appear in the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron.

Eventually, it assumed an important role in American gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted used the rhododendron extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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England’s Landscape Garden Beginnings

England’s landscape garden beginnings

We owe the origin of the landscape garden in England at the start of the eighteenth century not to just one person.

It changed gardening forever because it gave a new form to landscape. But what inspired the idea in the first place?

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden has thought about the beginnings of this English garden tradition.

He writes, “The landscape garden did not arise out of stately profession of Taste, as the Whigs would have us believe, but of an explosion of creativity.”

Thus it was no accident that poets, artists, and writers would be at the forefront of this landscape movement.  Poet Alexander Pope rose to become one of the pioneers of the landscape garden.

As Richardson points out, The Spectator essay [by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712] is generally held to be the jumping off point for the English landscape garden.

The people who were stirring the ship that would bring this new vision of landscape to England wanted, as Richardson writes, “to carve a new face for Britain out of the soil itself.”

And so they did.

The garden, at least for England and America, has never been the same since.

The chief quality of the modern landscape garden design was its variety, the total of several features that would make up the landscape garden

We often simply refer to the difference in garden design before and after the early eighteenth century as the formal garden versus the natural look to the landscape.

Richardson writes, “Even more than concepts such as ‘naturalism’, ‘informality’ or ‘wilderness,’ or even the symbolic content of the design, it was variety which emerged as the most important structural element of the eighteenth-century landscape garden.”

It was a variety in the design which included soil, plants, stone, water, woodland areas, forests, and even farming that marked this new moment in gardening history.

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Nineteenth Century Victorian Garden Reconstructed

Nineteenth century Victorian garden reconstructed.

Today I volunteer in the nineteenth century Victorian garden of Sarah Parker Rose Goodwin, wife of New Hampshire’s Civil War governor Ichabod Goodwin.

Several years ago the Goodwin house was moved a few blocks, from Islington Street to the historic water district. Its new home is the living museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called Strawbery Banke.

Located near the downtown area, Stawbery Banke’s cultural landscape traces three centuries of gardening in Portsmouth.

Sarah’s garden notes and diary inspired the reconstruction of her garden.

The garden illustrates the use of flowerbeds, called carpet bedding, that was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Sarah Goodwin loved her garden as author Margaret Whyte Kelly describes in her biography Sarah- Her Story.

Sarah Goodwin’s garden today in Portsmouth, NH includes the popular nineteenth century English garden fashion called carpet bedding.

In her journal Sarah wrote: “I like all the varieties of landscape gardening–I like bedding out.”

Bedding out followed the design of planting  featured in carpet bedding, where the same plant, usually a variety of an annual, was cultivated and kept closely trimmed throughout the summer.

Thus, Sarah’s gardening reflected what English gardeners of that period also enjoyed in the garden: bedding out, carpet bedding, and ribbon beds.

Today visitors to Strawbery Banke have the opportunity to walk the gravel pathways of a nineteenth century Victorian garden.

If you happen to visit the Goodwin House, look around and you might see me in the garden weeding or watering.

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Dahlia Mania Struck Early Nineteenth Century

Dahlia mania struck early nineteenth century.

This week I will plant dahlia tubers in my garden.

First I will have to unpack and inspect each of the tubers still stored in my basement.

The dahlia happens to be my favorite flower because it provides such wonderful autumn color in the garden. 

At one point gardeners loved this plant so much that there was a frenzy created for the latest hybrid. The craziness over this plant was called ‘dahlia mania’ and it took place in the 1830s both in England and America.

Communication scholar Hugh Dalziel Duncan writes in his book Communication and Social Order, “A style of dress or a taste in furnishings, so affect people that we use the word ‘rage’, in the sense of mania, to define their sudden and overwhelming power.”

Duncan implies that a material object like clothing or furniture could create a ‘rage’ in a particular time and place.

Well, that happened with the dahlia that first arrived in Spain from Mexico in the 1600s. It was not until the late 1700s that the plant appeared in English gardens.

English botanical artist Margaret Meen painted this bouquet of dahlias in 1789. [below]

Margaret Meen “Dahlias (Asteraceae)” (circa 1790) [Courtesy of the Royal Bontanic Gardens, Kew]

The garden interest in the plant however did not take off for a couple of decades.

It was not until after 1804 when Lady Holland re-introduced the dahlia in her garden at Holland House in Kensington, near London, that dahlias became the rage.

A dahlia flower produced many seeds, from which new hydrids could develope.

That is what the dahlia is famous for to this very day: producing many hybrids. 

In 1834 English garden writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon, called the ‘Father of the English Garden,’ wrote about the many dahlia varieties already on the market.

He said  “At almost every nursery several hundred sorts [of dahlias] 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.” 

Just a few years later Loudon also wrote about dahlia mania in The Gardener’s Magazine.

He said, “The culture of the dahlia, though it has not attained so extravagant a pitch in England as that to which the tulip is said to have arrived in Holland, is yet now engaged in, in Britain, by a much greater number of persons than ever were possessed by the tulip mania.”

Loudon thus recognized a mania for the newest dahlia even greater than the past rage for tulips.

 

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Victorian Garden Catalogs Sold Ideal Landscape

Victorian garden catalogs sold ideal landscape.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery industries advertised their seeds and plants to an emerging group of middle class homeowners through catalog essays and images of an ideal garden and landscape.

The publications sold the dream of a home landscape that included a lawn, trees, and shrubs.  They promised a setting the homeowner would enjoy by simply purchasing the necessary seeds and plants.

The link between the family and the role of the home landscape also emerged as a popular theme in books for home plans as well as contemporary literature like The Mother’s Magazine and Family Circle.

The Mother’s Magazine included a short story called “Strangers and Pilgrims” in its issue of January 1875. The author Mrs. J. E. McConaughy wrote, “Many a bright evening did the family spend over the plan of the new house, perfecting all its details. When it was finished, and the last bright carpet laid, the furniture all in its place, and the beautiful lawn in perfect order, the family moved into it.  At last they were home.”

In his 1878 garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick  (1818-1882) included an image of  the ideal home with a before [above]  and after [below] look in what he called “Thistles and Roses.” The landscape transformed after purchasing seeds and plants shown brightly in its manicured lawn and those necessary plantings around the home.

Notice in the second image [below] a woman stood on the front lawn. The home was her domain where  her good taste in the landscape provided the proper setting to raise a family.

The seed and nursery industry catalogs used  themes like home and family to promote a Victorian landscape with a  lawn, trees, shrubs, vines, and flower beds of annuals, reflecting what was in style with English garden design at that time.

Vick’s two illustrations tell the story.

One can only imagine the Victorian homeowner thinking words like “I too could have this beautiful landscape.”

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Nineteenth Century Wisconsin Hort Society Encouraged English Garden

Nineteenth century Wisconsin Hort Society encouraged English garden design.

The English garden with its lawn, curved path, trees to line the property and kitchen garden out back had become the fashion on the American east coast throughout the nineteenth century.

In her book Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Garden Making landscape architect and historian Lee Somerville describes how in the nineteenth century the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society encouraged that same English style for the home landscape.

Somerville writes, “In 1869, as the WSHS was reorganized after the Civil War, President Joseph Hobbins forcefully outlined the prevailing ideals for the vernacular garden in his opening address to the membership.”

In his remarks Hobbins described the look of the modern home landscape.

Somerville writes, “The picture Hobbins painted can be clearly traced to the principles espoused by Andrew Jackson Downing, Jacob Weidenmann, Frank J. Scott, and others.”  

This group of famous nineteenth century landscape gardeners fostered the look of the English garden, with its lawn and trees to line the property.

The homeowner was to plant trees, shrubs, and flower beds to create an ornamental front yard that would enhance “the view from the street and provide a picture for those inside the house.”

Hobbins was familiar with the landscape theory of Downing who wrote of ‘rural art’ that ought to  guide the homeowner, beginning with a lawn.

That design was of course the English garden with its principle feature, the lawn, inherited from the early eighteenth century when the natural or modern English garden first emerged.

Most Wisconsin gardeners would wind up with vernacular gardens that were a blend of the English view along with the emerging mid-west emphasis on native plants in what they called the new prairie landscape design.

Just as had happened on the east coast through the encouragement of seed companies, nurseries, and landscape designers, the nineteenth century recommendation for Wisconsin homeowners also centered on the English garden style.

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Verbena Essential Victorian Flower

Verbena essential Victorian flower.

What is good about annuals is that they continue to bloom until the Fall, or even til the first frost.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) defined them as “those plants that live but one season.”

In the nineteenth century when colorful flowers became an essential in every garden, the verbena rose to become an important addition to the garden. Vick called it “one of the most showy and valuable plants of the garden.”

English horticulturist David Stuart wrote in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens, “The verbena was acknowledged, even by contemporaries, as central to the whole bedding movement.”

Bedding meant a design on the lawn, often a diamond, a circle, or a half-moon. Flowers and plants with colorful leaves made up the design. Weekly trimming and weeding followed for the season.

Vick, in an article called “Bedding Plants” wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November, 1881: “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.”

Today verbenas continue to be an important summer flower for the garden.

The plant grower Proven Winners offers a hybrid variety of verbena called dark blue superbena. [below]

Proven Winners dark blue superbena variety of verbena.

Though today we may not include carpet bedding in the landscape because of its high maintenance, in Victorian times bedding always depended on a well-trimmed lawn.

Vick offered a bit of caution to his readers about the lawn. He wrote,”This style of gardening [bedding] is admissible only with grounds kept in elegant condition; otherwise it would be like jewels in a swine’s snout.”

Even though we do not cultivate carpet bedding, we can still enjoy the Victorian summer flower called the verbena.

 

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Empress Josephine Introduced Dahlias

Empress Josephine introduced dahlias.

It is spring and time to think about planting dahlia tubers.

Down in my basement I have containers of dahlias that I stored there right after last Thanksgiving. They now sit, wrapped in newspapers, in large plastic containers

Within the next few weeks I will take them outdoors, inspect each, and plant them for that unbeatable fall color that dahlias provide in the garden.

From its home in Mexico the dahlia has been on a long journey to become a gardener’s favorite.

In the early 1800s Empress Josephine introduced the French to dahlias.

English garden writer Penelope Hobhouse says in her book Plants in Garden History, “Josephine was one of the earliest to develop dahlias (already by 1789 cultivated as varieties in the botanic garden in Madrid), obtaining new seeds of species through the botanical explorers Aim Bonpland and Friedrich Humbolt direct from Mexico.”

Josephine cultivated her dahlias in the gardens at Malmaison, her summer palace.

Napoleon liked the formal garden style that one could enjoy at the grand garden of Versailles.  Malmaison, however, took on the design that Josephine preferred, the more natural look of the English garden, with its lawns and scattered trees. [below

View of the Park at Malmaison [Artist, Auguste Simon Garneray]

Josephine loved gardening, and developed her garden as plant collections, including roses, begonias, cape heaths, and dahlias, according to English garden writer David Stuart’s book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens.

Dahlia historian Martin Krahl agrees.

He writes in his fascinating study called Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History  “The Empress was single-handedly responsible for introducing many exotic plants to Europe.”

After Josephine received some of the earliest dahlia seeds in France, her love of dahlias would spread.

Around the same time that she was growing dahlias in her garden, England and other European countries, then America, also adopted the dahlia.

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Two Irish Gardens Inspire Herbaceous Borders

Two Irish gardens inspire herbaceous borders.

Since the late nineteenth century when English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) encouraged the herbaceous  border rather than beds of annuals, the border has been an important part of garden design.

Once garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1935) arrived on the English garden scene and befriended Robinson, she also became an advocate of the herbaceous border.

David Stuart writes in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens “The great Edwardian herbaceous border has a fascinating past, and has been resilient enough to evolve into new forms relevant to contemporary gardens.”

Thus, he implies that we still include the herbaceous [American gardeners say ‘perennial’] border in the garden.

Two Irish gardens might provide some inspiration.

Late last fall I saw two herbaceous borders in Ireland, one at Powerscourt Castle and the other at the

Powerscourt herbaceous border [courtesy photo]

birthplace of St. Oliver Plunkett called Loughcrew.

Loughcrew’s border was installed in the nineteenth century. The original Powerscourt herbaceous border predates that period but the current border was installed with new plants in 2014.

Both included dozens of perennials as well as a few annuals like dahlias, which were blooming at that time.

In 1883 William Robinson wrote in his book The English Flower Garden, “In planting, plant in groups, and not in the old dotting way. Never repeat the same plant along the border at intervals, as is so often done with favorites.”

You need to fill the whole border with plants. Robinson wrote, “Have no patience with bare ground”

Now that we are approaching summer, perhaps a herbaceous border might be in the works for your garden.

These two Irish gardens certainly stand as a testament to how beautiful such a border can be.

 

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