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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Women Gardeners in Late 19th Century

You might easily associate the flower garden with the work of women.

After all, isn’t that how people thought about flowers in the garden?

Is it still true that men take care of the lawn and the vegetable patch and leave the flowers to women?

That’s an example of how gender has been linked to certain forms of gardening for centuries.

I found a pattern of the portrayal of women in garden advertising when I looked at dozens of seed catalogs from the late nineteenth century.

Women were alwayts dressed neatly, representing the upper middle class, the audience for the catalog.

In this catalog cover froim Peter Henderson in 1892 notice how prim and proper the woman presents herself. [below] She is cutting daffodils for tea or lunch, but certainly not working in the garden.

Henderson 1892 Catalog Cover

In fact, I did not see any women in the catalog illustrations actually working in the garden though I often saw them in the garden.

They may have been interested but did not, or perhaps could not, work in the garden.

Caroline Ikin wrote the book The Victorian Garden.

She writes, “The role of women in the garden was changing during the late Victorian era.”

We know that working class women gardened in the mid to late nineteenth century. They formed the major customer base for seed company owners like James Vick (1818-1882)

Vick wrote in 1878, “It is but a few years since woman was permitted to grace the festive board of agricultural and horticultural exhibitions. Now no occasion of this kind is deemed complete without her presence.”

Garden Club Movement

It was in the early 1900s that the Garden Club movement began in the United States. It was a formal way of recognizing woman’s role in the garden as designer and, if needed, both as planter and as weeder.

Then several books for women gardeners appeared on the market.

Women could not only enjoy looking at the garden, but could now more freely work in the garden, learn about botany, and even try landscape design.

Ikin writes, “With more middle-class women turning to gardening as a pastime and a means of self-improvement, a market was created for gardening books aimed specifically at women, as well as for tools and gadgets designed for female use.”

By the early 1900s the Garden Club movement here in the United States became the source of empowering women to garden, encourage native plants, and advocate for landscape design.

The late Victorian culture recognized women as gardeners.

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More Nurseries Accompanied 19th Century Suburban Expanse

It is no surprise that seed companies and nurseries grew after 1870 when suburbs spread around the perimeters of large cities.

Patrice M. Tice in her book Gardening in America 1830-1910 wrote that the number of men employed as seedsmen, nurserymen, and gardeners increased 275% between 1870 and 1930.

The seed companies and nurseries provided the homeowner with every garden and landscape need in the new suburb.  The companies  presented some products unfamiliar to the homeowner but, in the ads from the companies, essential.

In 1894 the C. P. Lines and E. F. Coe Seed Company from  New Haven, Conn. wrote in its catalog called Attractive Home Grounds: “From the most restricted city lot to the more liberal setting of the suburban home and country estate, the possibilities of completing the effect by the judicious manipulation of nature’s furnishings—her grass, shrubs, trees, with their varying tints and shades of every imaginable color and form—give possibilities that should not be neglected by any one.”

This 1887 Lovett’s catalog had everything the suburban gardener would need.

Lovett’s from New Jersey said that its  catalogue was “indispensable to all owners of country and suburban homes, whether it be a mere village lot, or the extensive grounds of the rich man’s country seat.”

The green industry grows with a strong housing market.

As suburbs spread around the country, seed companies and nurseries emerged to provide the homeowner with seeds and plants, but also instruction on how to design the home property.

The English garden, with its signature lawn, often provided the model for that instruction.

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Nineteenth Century Introduced Flower Gardens

Nineteenth century introduced flower gardens

In the eighteenth century the classic English garden took the form of an extensive lawn, a lake, a deer park, and trees to line the property. There was little room for a flower garden.

The famous royal gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1715-1783) designed his many contracted landscapes around the country in that style.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor tells the story of how the flower garden assumed its important role.

He writes that the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) became a lone voice, encouraging the planting of flowers in the landscape.

Taylor says, “Humphry Repton’s evident, though subordinate, interest in flowers and flower gardens marks the beginning of a change in taste.”

Flowers began to take on a small, but significant role, in the landscape.

Taylor says, “The eighteenth century was flower-conscious in its gardening, but very far from exclusively so. The flower garden, generally speaking, took up only a very small proportion of the total garden area, and was secluded from the house.”

Repton however encouaged flowers in the landscape. Early in the nineteenth century he painted a scene of a garden of roses that he simply called ‘The Rosarium.’

His painting represents an entire garden area dedicated to the beautiful and now essential rose.

This is his painting:

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

Today we take flower gardens for granted. We assume they have been around forever.

As Taylor points out, there was a gradual development of interest in flower gardens. Eventually, especially by the late Victorian period, such gardens would become essential.

It was the nineteenth century however that introduced flower gardens.

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Formal vs Natural Garden Design

Formal vs natural garden design

There has long been a battle with various levels of passion between those who love formal garden design and those who don’t.

Some prefer the ‘natural’ design as the English proposed it in the early eighteenth century. It became the style of garden for decades and still persists.

Landscape designer and nurseryman from Pennsylvania and later California J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) ranted about the absurdity of the formal garden in his book Adventures of a Horticulturist (1935).

J. Wilkinson Elliott

Elliott said, “I do not like formal gardens. I consider them an abomination and a thorn in the flesh.”

He was pretty clear where he stood on the issue.

Then he gave his reasons.

He wrote, “The first rule to be observed in making a good garden is to make it as natural as possible, and that does not mean that design is not necessary.”

Even though the garden looks more natural, it still takes the art of design to realize it.

Eliott concluded, “The best-designed garden is one that looks as though it had not been designed.”

He wrote that in 1935.

Today we still make a distinction between natural and formal. Some gardens showcase a bit of each type of design.

Wonder what Elliott would think of that?

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Flower Gardening Began Mid Nineteenth Century

Flower gardening began mid nineteenth century

Just finished reading the book Handy Book of the Flower-Garden by English horticulturist David Thomson, editor of The Gardener journal.

Thomson wrote the book in 1876.

He makes the argument that flower gardening as we know it did not become popular until after 1850.

Thomson says, ” [In the early 1800s] flower gardens had then seldom a separate locality devoted to them and then they had that advantage, they were generally of unshapely figures cut out in turf, and arranged, as the designers fondly but erroneously imagined, after the principle of English gardening as inculcated by Wheatley and Uvedale Price.

“These figures were mostly filled with a miscellaneous assortment of shrubs and herbaceous plants, many of which possessed only botanical interest. The California annuals were then undiscovered in the Far West, and all the fine recent introductions were unknown and unthought of.”

He argued that new plants were just coming into the country in the first half of the nineteenth century. That was the grand time of the plant hunter who traveled the world in search of plant varieties suitable for a flower garden.

That was also the case in America.

It was only by mid-century that people had the leisure time to cultivate a flower garden.

Plants that arrived in England from Asia, Africa, and South America eventually came to America.

It was then too that the seed merchants began to send out catalogs to lure the homeowner into cultivating a flower garden.

By the end of the nineteenth century seed companies like W. W. Rawson in Boston were sending out yearly catalogs with stunning illustrations of their latest flower for the garden. [below]

W. W. Rawson’s catalog of 1897 with carpet bed on the lawn

By then flower gardening, whether in carpet beds or borders, had all sorts of requirements to be called a flower garden. Flower gardens had arrived.

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Jane Loudon Encouraged Women Gardeners

Jane Loudon encouraged women gardeners

In the first part of the nineteenth century John Claudius Loudon became the voice for the gardener. He wrote several books, edited a magazine Gardener’s Monthly, painted, and also designed landscapes.

John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843)

When he wrote something about gardening, everyone took it seriously.

He married author Jane Weber, age 23, when he was 47.

Jane, a writer herself, helped him with his garden writing, but first she had to learn about gardening. She was a novice in gardening.

Her husband became the teacher, though not always with the greatest of patience, as Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book Some Ninteeth Century Gardeners.

Jane Loudon (1807-1853)

After he died, Jane continued her own garden writing career, publishing several books.

Above all, she supported women working in the garden.

In her book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden she encouraged women to garden.

She wrote, “I should recommend all persons fond of gardening, and especially ladies, who have sufficient leisure, to manage their gardens themselves, with the assistance of a man to perform the more laborious operations.”

Men could help where needed. She said, “It sometimes happens that a man-servant in the family, who is not overburdened with indoor duties, will answer the purpose; but it is generally preferred to employ a man who has been brought up as a gardener.”

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Jane Loudon Lists Familiar Flowers

Jane Loudon lists familiar flowers

Recently I came across a nineteenth century book on gardening by writer and gardener Jane Loudon (1807-1858).

Loudon (or ‘Mrs. Loudon’ as the book’s title page lists her) wrote the book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden to show that women could venture into the world of gardening with many benefits. They would profit from physical exercise and at the same time learn about the world of plants.

This is the title page of the book. [below]

Courtesy of State Library of South Australia – Library number: 635.9 L886.7

The book, edited like a dictionary or encyclopedia, lists various plants and garden topics.

What I found most fascinating is that this book from 1846 lists annuals for the garden that we still grow today.  

The same plants appeared in the seed catalogs of Rochester, New York’s James Vick (1812-1882) from the 1860s.

Vick did not search out new plants, but accepted the traditional varieties that people were already growing.

One example is the petunia, brought to England from Brazil in 1832.

Loudon writes, “Perhaps no plants have made a greater revolution in floriculture than the Petunias. Only a few years ago they were comparatively unknown, and now there is not a garden, or even a window, that can boast of flowers at all, without one.”

The petunia took a slot in the top five of Vick’s favorite annuals.

To this day the petunia assumes a central spot in the garden.

Proven Winners recently listed their most popular annuals for 2019.  The petunia, in the form of their current hybrid called ‘supertunia,’ became the grower’s best seller.

Loudon also writes about other familar annuals. The morning glory, the nasturtium, sweet pea, and geranium all appear in her book.

It seems that the nursery business keeps offering the same plants that have been part of the garden for decades. The only difference, of course, is the constant search they undertake to find the latest hybrid.

Jane Loudon did more than simply alert the gardener to what plants are important. She was creating the gardener’s palette.

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Victorians Suffered Orchid Mania

Victorians suffered orchid mania

You have heard about tulip mania in the seventeenth century and perhaps even dahlia mania in the early nineteenth century.

In 1894 the London magazine Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art published an article entitled “The Romance of Orchid Collecting” about the sickness called orchid mania in late Victorian England.

Collectors were going crazy over the newest and latest orchids, in spite of the many dangers involved in hunting for orchids.

Earlier in the century Charles Darwin had done research on orchids. Historian James T. Costa mentions the mania in his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. He writes, “Victorian orchid collectors suffered this form of madness.”

The Chambers’s article discussed the trials, tribulations, murder and mayhem that resulted from the hunt for orchids.

“A plant no bigger than a tulip bulb has been sold for many times its weight in gold.”

That someone could become so obsessed with a particular plant is probably not surprising if you consider plant collecting as both a hobby and current fashion.

Darwin, however, was interested in orchids because they cross pollinated.

His interest was scientific.

In the course of Darwin’s investigation into flower structure and pollination, he started a line of orchid research in the 1840s.

Costa does not, however, make any mention of Darwin suffering from orchid mania, probably because that ‘illness’ came later in the century.

Darwin, too, was more interested in plant experiments than plant collecting.

And so, you might say, the orchid mania bug never bit him.

Photo from my Florida trip. You can see orchids on this tree in the front yard. [Thanks to FNGLA garden tour.]
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Filoli Hosts Art Exhibit

Filoli hosts art exhibit

A few days ago I visited the wonderful historic garden Filoli, near San Francisco. The garden, surrounding a red brick mansion, dates to the turn of the twentieth century.

Right now artist and landscape designer W. Gary Smith has created an environmental art exhibit called “Nests: Patterns from Nature.”

The exhibit continues through November 10.

Smith has designed and built around the garden a series of nests with materials gathered from the Filoli Estate including its trees, shrubs, and grasses.

Nests appear in various forms and are made of different materials.

When you visit, you will see twelve expressions of ‘nest’ scattered around the property.

Here is one of the designs, a series of brown nests hanging from trees. [below]

A nest exhibit now on display at Filoli.

Filoli’s garden spans sixteen acres and was installed between 1917 and 1929.

The magnificent formal garden and grounds reflect the seventeenth and eighteenth century English garden with its sweeping lawn and many views to enchant any visitor.

Filoli represents a long history of landscape, gardening, and art.  That’s why it is one of my favorite gardens to visit.

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