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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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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Garden Flowers Familiar to Generations

Garden flowers familiar to generations

We all love garden annuals like lobelia and asters in the summer garden.

Such annuals, and many like them, have been part of our flower gardens for centuries.

Why is it that every garden center in the spring sells the same flowers like carnations, impatiens, and petunias? Because they are familiar.

We garden with plants that have been part of the garden world for decades and even centuries. The varieties may change because we have so many hybrids, but the plants are familiar.

Garden historian Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book The Victorian Flower Garden, “It is The Gardener’s Dictionary and its author [Philip Miller] that must occupy the most honorably prominent place in any account of the background to the Victorian garden.”

Catalog cover of familiar flowers in 1882
[D. M. Ferry & Co.]

He argues that the Victorian garden has roots, literally, in the gardens of earlier decades, especially the 1700s when plants were arriving in England from around the world. It was then that botanist Miller (1691-1771) supervised the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote about the garden.

Some of the flowers Miller mentions include the crocus, the snowdrop,hyacinth, and narcissus for spring.

The list also includes anemone, stock, the rose, tulip,carnation, phlox, and coreopsis, mostly for summer.

So our flower choices are familiar because we have been growing them for decades and even centuries.

Perhaps that is why it is difficult for gardeners to try new plants when spring appears.

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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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When People Hated Dahlias

When people hated dahlias

There was a time when gardeners found little pleasure in growing dahlias.

In 1866 American botanist Edward Sprague Rand, Jr. wrote in his book Garden Flowers: How to Cultivate Them , “In this country, the plant [dahlia] is falling out of favor, and is by no means as extensively grown as formerly.”

Then he wrote that gardeners are now paying more attention to the Hollyhock and Gladiolus.

Dahlias fell out of fashion. Simple as that.

He presented his reasons why that happened.

First and foremost, dahlias, he claimed, gave off an odor in the garden.

Who would ever think this beautiful dahlia called ‘Blue Bell’ would repulse gardeners because of its smell?

Dahlia ‘Blue bell’ in my garden this summer

He called the dahlia “a rank smelling thing.”

Rand wrote, “The florists’ varieties have been obtained by years of crossing and seed saving, from D. variabilis.”

Cobsequently, there are many varieties that look alike.

“In a small garden” he wrote ” a hundred flowers can be found any one of which will well fill it’s place.”

Eventually dahlias came back into fashion. Today there seems to be plenty of interest once again in dahlias.

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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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