Victorian Gardener Listed Twelve Best Annuals

This is another list blog post.

I wrote recently about our fasciation with lists like the top five or the top ten.

Yesterday I came across a poem by a Victorian gardener, “L. O.” from Newburgh, New York.

The poem apeared in James Vick’s 1879 garden magazine, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

The poet gardener presented the twelve best annuals.

Here are the opening lines:

“To those who love flowers, allow me to say,

“I talk of my pet in a familiar way.

“These twelve I will name – forgetting the rest –

“Because I do think they are some of the best.”

Then the twelve annuals he/she listed appeared in this order: pansy, dianthus, stock, phlox drummondii, petunia, balsam, sweet pea, portulaca, aster, alyssum, mignonette, and verbena.

And there you have it.

These Annuals Look Familiar

The poem illustrates how one Victorian judged the value of an annual in the garden.

What is amazing to me is how many of these annuals still remain popular choices for the garden.

Here is a chromolithograph of favorite Victorian flowers that appeared in Vick’s magazine. Recognize any of them?

Vick’s chromo [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

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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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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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Newport’s Restored Blue Garden

A restored garden always brings a sense of excitement.

You are seeing a garden the way it was first installed.

Or so you think.

Last week I visited the restored private garden called Blue Garden in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island

The garden is located in an area just past the Gilded Age seaside mansions on Bellevue Avenue. You proceed on Ocean Avenue and shortly you arrive at the property located on Beacon Hill Road.

To say the garden has been restored is only the beginning of what the philanthropist and horticulturalist Dorance H. Hamilton and her team of architects, contractors, and landscape designers have created.

The restored Blue Garden is a glorious garden experience.

Environtmental Concern

What I learned was that though the garden has been restored, the new garden is in keeping with serious environmental and maintenance concerns.

For example, the many plants that have been introduced demand far less upkeep than the original varieties included on the Olmsted plant list of 1913.

I saw frequent groupings of white Scaevola aemula and blue Veronica ‘Magic Show Wizard of Ahhs.’ They complement each other quite well.

The two pools still form the backbone of the garden. They sit exactly where they were in the 1913 design of the Blue Garden by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

The garden had been left for years and became severely overgrown with invasive plants like the Norway maple.

When Mrs. Hamilton purchased the property in 2012, she wanted, above all, to restore the Garden.

She succeeded.

With over two thousand annuals, perennials, vines, and shrubs along with two hundred fifty evergreens in the three acre garden-site you experience a bit of yesterday, but designed with today’s concern in water and land preservation.

The design of the garden still reflects the formal garden style which was popular in the early 1900s, with such landscape designers as Charles Platt, Edith Wharton, and, of course, the Olmsted Brothers firm.

Everything the builders found as they dug up the original garden, where it could be, was recycled in some way.

Though the builders had the original plant list from Olmsted, they opted, where possible, for plant varieties that were easier to maintain.

Plan a Visit

Newport in the summer becomes a major attraction for the State of Rhode Island. Nonetheless, the Blue Garden ought to be on your list of places to visit.

Remember that the Blue Garden is a private garden and open only at special times. Thursdays til October you can join a guided tour of the Garden. Email the Director Sarah Vance ahead of time since the number of visitors admitted is limited.

The Blue Garden: At the top of the pergola Wisteria frutescens, ‘Amethyst Falls’ and along the cement edge blue Lobelia in containers.
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In Search of Coleus ‘Main Street’

Every summer garden needs coleus.

Whether in containers, a border, or a bed there is a coleus that will add color.

Nineteenth century Victorian gardeners used this plant for colorful carpet beds.

Many will peform well in shade, but some newer varieites do best in sun.

For the past three summers I have searched out both local nurseries and big box stores for the new coleus series called ‘Main Street’.

I would eventually find one or two varieties, mostly one.

The new one I found for this season is ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ [below]

Coleus ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ Photo courtesy of Dummen: Rush Creek Growers.

In the past I have planted coleus ‘Main Street Oxford Street’ and also ‘Main Street Granville Street.’ I liked both of them for their color and shape.

When I searched on line for a history of this series what surprised me is how many varieties of ‘Main Street’ are out there.

Quite a few.

The coleus, a colorful summer treasure, has a long history in the garden.

History of the Coleus

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

For more ideas about coleus varieties for this summer, check out suggestions from the National Garden Bureau on Pinterest .

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New Book Traces History of American Garden

We can learn a great deal about gardening by looking at garden history.

A new book Iowa Gardens of the Past by Beth Cody takes the reader on a journey of gardening in Iowa since 1850.

In the process of looking at gardens over a century and a half the reader also learns about the changing American garden asesthetic. You see how the garden continues to be a work of art.

What was happening in Iowa was also happening around the country. The book describes the evolution of the American garden.

Landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, (1815-1852) proposed a lawn with few trees as the basis of the landscape. A flower garden could be included behind the house as well.

His designed look you might call the Romantic English park aesthetic.

Cody writes, “Only the wealthy could afford a house and landscape in the style Downing proposed.”

During the high Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s the market for annuals, perennials,and bulbs grew with the demand of home gardeners. New bright and showy species of new plants came from Asia, Africa, and South America.

Then home owners had more leisure time to plan, grow, and maintain gardens in an ornamental style. They did so with flowers like roses and dahlias.

The images in the book are not only of mansions or large houses, but often, especially in postcards, you will see an ordinary house and garden.

The World Expositions held in 1876 in Philadelphia and 1893 in Chicago introduced American gardeners to Japanese gardens.

Americans fell in love with the Japanese style, so after 1900 even in Iowa you could find a Japanese-inspired landscape.

In the early twentieth century the next important aesthetic was the movement to include naturalistic plants in the garden.

Even during the Depression of the 1930s people gardened. Cody writes, “Despite the economic challenges of the decade, more Iowans than ever gardened enthusiastically.”

In 1930 Theodore E. Sexier, from Ames, Iowa, planted the rose called ‘New Dawn,” the first plant ever patented.

Today I grow ‘New Dawn’ in my garden and it is truly a beautiful flower.

In the 1940s during war time seventy percent of Iowa households grew Victory Gardens.

Cody writes, “During the 1950s, there was a noticeable trend of men becoming more interested in oramental gardening, not just growing vegebtables.”

Photos and Illustrations

Cody includes in the book wonderful illustrations and photos of gardens big and small. She has assembled a truly amazing collection of two hundred and fifty photos and illustrations, each filled with a bit of garden history. [belowthe back of the book]

The Back Cover of the book

After the 1950s the garden became an outside room where the family could gather to entertain.

The formal garden had disappeared and more informal flower beds and containers of plants for the deck or patio became popular.

As it evolved, the American garden aesthetic became sometimes formal and sometimes natural with on occasion a combination of the two styles.

And Beth Cody found it all in Iowa gardens.

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Boston Flower Show Abruptly Ends

Saturday’s Boston Globe had a story about the annual Boston Flower and Garden Show, set for five days this past week.

The headline of the story read, “Spring flower show closing two days early following state ban on gatherings.”

The threat of coronavirus caused Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to ban any gatherings of 250 or more people.

That, of course, meant the Flower Show might have to close.

Luckily I was able to get there Friday morning. I had volunteered to help out at the New England Hosta Society exhibit for a couple of hours.

There were very few people which meant the exhibits would not have crowds gathering around them.

I arrived about 10 a.m., the opening time, and entered with just a few other people. I walked around to take a look at the splendid displays of flowers everywhere.

This exhibit by Proven Winners highlighted PW’s new plants for the spring. [below]

Boston Flower Show 2020

Included in the arrangement were the new Caladiums that PW now offers. The colors, in a series called ‘Heart to Heart,’ were combinations of bright red, pink, green and white. One seemed more beautiful than the next.

Though the Show closed early, I was glad I got to see at least a bit of the Boston Flower and Garden Show, and one of my favorites, Caladium.

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Archives Open A Window on American Gardening

I just finished reading a wonderful new book on the history of the American garden.

The book, Everything for the Garden, is not thick but is filled with many engrossing photos and illustrations.

The book is based on the collection of garden books, catalogues, and related ephemera in Historic New England’s Library and Archives.  The time frame is the nineteenth into the early twentieth century.

Five excellent essays by prominent garden historians, writers, archivists, and designers make up the volume.

Garden historian Judith Tankard writes about our long dependence on the written word, especially garden books.

She says, “Even though today’s information is readily available on the Internet, the old-fashioned pleasures of thumbing through catalogues and how-to-publications still exist.” There is something that still attracts us to the printed word in the form of a garden book or garden magazine. We want to hold it in our hands.

Late nineteenth century catalogues from seed companies included vegetables depicted as humans in an effort to sell their seeds.  That whimsical artwork is still fun to see.

Garden Statues

Any history of the garden must of course include statuary.  Here archivist Richard Nylander reminds the reader how different the gardener’s choice of such statuary can be, depending on the decade. He highlights three such garden ornaments.

The first garden accessory he mentions is the sculpture Bird Girl (1936) which also appeared on the cover of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 I found his second statue, that of St. Francis, one that I had never thought of but certainly one that I have seen in many gardens. Francis, after all, is now the patron saint of ecology with his love of animals and nature.

 Finally, he reminds the reader of the ever-popular, ever-repulsive, Pink Flamingo craze from the 1950s. What fun.

Garden Fashion

 The idea that the garden is subject to fashion and style appears over and over in the book as the writers discuss the time and place of a particular form of the American garden. For example, the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century stimulated interest in old-fashioned flowers and gardens. It was an interpretation of what people thought the Colonial garden might have looked like.

Alan Emmet includes many images of period gardens like Hunnewell’s in Wellesley, Mass. and Celia Thaxter’s off the coast of New Hampshire.  He admits the difficulty in preserving a garden. Emmet writes, “A garden is probably the most fragile, the most perishable form of art.”

The final essay by Virginia Lopez Begg presents an overview of the Garden Club movement in America.  She spells out the importance of the movement for women. The movement also changed our views of horticulture and landscape design.

The book ends with a listing on the inside of the back cover of some of the many properties, with their fabulous gardens, that Historic New England manages.  Now, as spring approaches, we need to visit these gardens and enjoy them once again in person.

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New Book Traces Garden Club History

I just finished a wonderful book about American gardening, Everything for the Garden.

Historic New England published it. The organization, whose name before was the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, maintains dozens of historic properties in New England.

The book inlcudes a chapter by landscape historian Virginia Lopez Begg called “An Unexpected Story: Social Revolution and the Garden Club.”

In that chapter Begg details the importance of the garden club movement in America.

She writes, “The garden club movement helped to transform the landscape of America and the women of America.”

In the early twentieth century the garden club gave women a voice in gardening by encouraging women’s civic involvement through gardening.

At a time when women were struggling for their own right to vote, the garden club movement gave women a unified voice in the areas of botany and horticulture.

That voice eventually involved important national issues like highway beautification and the use of native plants.

In 1904 the national movement started with the founding of the Garden Club of Philadelphia.

The Garden Club of America, now the parent organization, published the two-volume book Gardens of Colony and State in the 1930s.

The volume lists in both word and illustration many historic gardens throughout the country, several in New England.

At the turn of the century when women were bonding in various kinds of organizations to claim a voice, it was no surprise that gardening with its emphasis on horticulture and landscape design also became the focus of one such group.

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Hunnewell Pinetum: Garden as Collection

Plant collecting is nothing new.

The nineteenth century revealed an interest in both collecting and showing off plants. In the early part of the century such a hobby became the pastime of the wealthy.

By the end of the century the middle class had joined the ranks.

One method was to plant a collection of conifers.

Stephen Harris mentions that hobby in his book, Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Gardeners, especially the wealthy with land and gardens to fill, were attracted by the landscape possibilities of conifers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.”

The Boston area included an important example of collecting conifers.

Not far from Boston, in the town of Wellesley, in 1867 Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810 – 1902) planted a fourteen acre pinetum, or garden of pines.

Thus he was able to display his collection of evergreens.

Hunnewell’s goal in creating this special garden appeared in his 1906 biography called Life, letters, and diary of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell.

He said  “In it will be my aim to plant every conifer, native and foreign, that will be found sufficiently hardy to thrive in our cold New England climate.” 

The Hunnewell Pinetum (1906) is located near Boston in the town of Wellesley.

 Today three hundred sixty towering conifers still grow in his pinetum, now open to the public.

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