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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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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Leaving My Garden after 33 Years

The last couple of weeks have provided me with all sorts of feelings.

We are selling our New England house after thirty-three years.

The land around our house, three quarers of an acre, has been my garden and has taught me so much.

I know people think the location is great. After all, we are only a block or so from the beach.

But it is the garden that I will miss.

The house, built in 1948, sits on a hill of New Hampshire ledge.

From the Beginning

Over many summers I would attack a different area, and create a special garden.

No surprise that today I have a white garden, a yellow garden, and a blue garden. Also, perennial beds and borders add wonderful color as well.

The plants I met along the way are too many to list. Some of them still enjoy a spot in the garden.

I must say that I learned gardening by doing. I saw that plants need soil, water, and sun in varying degrees to grow and prosper.

My back yard with my shed to the right.

No surprise that I lost many plants. That is how I learned.

Here is one of my favorite memories from the garden. Every summer the wrought iron table in the backyard would support a pot of ever flowering petunias. [below]

Petunias bloosom on this wrotught iron table in the backyard.

My garden was home to many treees, some decades old.

No surprise that in the fall if I would have leaves everywhere, including on the steps to the front door. [below]

Lately we have been sorting and packing.

Not easy, especially when it comes to anything related to the garden like garden tools.

My next garden adventure will be to create an outside patio of color at our shady condo. Gardening in containers will become my outside focus.

I take consolation in the thought that I have learned so much about gardening over these many years, but I have learned much about life as well.

No surprise that I met so many wonderful gardeners. I can truly see why people love gardening.

Local Newspaper Story

For a local story about this farewell to the garden, please check out the Seacoast Media story “Longtime garden writer Tom Mickey bids his garden goodbye.”

We come, we give, we live, we work, we enjoy, and we move on to the next advernture.

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Celia Thaxter’s Garden in Portsmouth

Nineteenth century poet and gardener Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) spent her summers on Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire.

There in the summer she planted a garden with heirloom Victorian flowers.

She records her garden experience in her wonderful book called An Island Garden. There are many colorful images of Celia and her garden including this one by Boston artist Childe Hassam. [Below]

For the past several years volunteers have worked on the island to create Celia’s garden.

They planted in the same spot where she gardened, following the plant list of fifty varieties from her book.

This summer was different.

The threat of the coronavirus made boat travel to the Island impossible.

So the same volunteers, with the support of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, built her garden at Prescott Park along the water in downtown Portsmouth. [Below]

Celia’s Garden at Prescott Park

You see three beds, each measuring 5′ by 15′ and planted with many of her flowers. The list includes cleomes, poppies, and zinnias.

It is a wonderful collection of annuals, biennials, and perennials. [Below]

Celia’s flowers,including a single dahlia at upper right corner

Rolling Green Nursery in nearby Greenland sells many of her flowers in a special collection under her name.

On the seacoast of New Hampshire everything related to Celia Thaxter is revered. Her garden at Prescott Park is no exception.

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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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Oehme van Sweden Landscape at Service Credit Corporate Office

Service Credit Union built its new corporate office on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth, NH in 2012.

The building received the gold LEED award as a leader in energy and environmental design for the four-story structure.

It uses ninety-eight percent less energy than the usual non-environmentally sound building of the same square footage.

The Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects from Washington, D.C. designed the landscape in their style called the “New American Garden.”

The landscape on fourteen acres is truly a beautiful, evironmentally-sound, and inviting outdoor green space.

The large yellow Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ lines the front of the sign with the corporate name. [below]

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ at the corporate sign

Oehme van Sweden’s Philosphy

The company website of Oehme van Sweden explains its forty-year old philosophy of landscape design.

“Our firm transformed the field of landscape architecture with the New American Garden style of design, distinguished by a balance of horticultural complexity and architectural craftsmanship.

“We infuse botanical expression in the form of color, texture, movement, and fragrance.

“Our designs embrace the seasonality of the American meadow and magnify ecological systems, sustainable processes, and aesthetic values.

“The New American Garden boldly reveals the ephemeral through mystery, intrigue, and discovery.”

In August of 2010 Eric Groft, vice president of Oehme van Sweden, presented the landscape design to the team at Service Credit in New Hampshire.

Groft wanted to familiarize the Service Credit staff with the work of Oehme van Sweden and the philosophy behind the New American Style.

That style includes mass plantings of native plants, ornamental grasses, and perennials with abundant pathways and water features.

In 2012 the company hired the local Portsmouth firm Piscataqua Landscaping to install the plants, lawn, pathways, and water sites.

Today the same local firm maintains the property.

In keeping with the Oehme van Sweden aesthetic there were hundreds of plants.

Plants

The number included ten thousand grasses, twenty-seven thousand perennials, and sixty-five thousand bulbs. One hundred trees and a hundred shrubs rounded out the list.

Paths and walkways wind throughout the property. [below]

Mass planting of ornamental grasses and perennials makes a bold statement.

Today employees have areas in the landscape for an outdoor lunch break. Neighbors can freely walk the property as well.

A visitor notices immediately the large swaths of ornamental grasses that make up so much of the design.

Three wells on the property supply the water for the plants.

Rain gardens, with two feet of water in spring, help with collecting rain water as well.

Scott Arsenault, Director of Grounds at Piscataqua Landscaping, says it takes his team eleven to twelve hours to cut the grass.

Black-top walkways wind through the property.

The landscape seems much bigger when you are inside and start to walk the grounds.

Mulch helps to keep down the weeding. [below]

Ornamental grasses along with large areas of lawn fill the landscape.

Over the years many books have been written about the Oheme van Sweden approach to landscape. The titles include Gardening with Nature and the newest The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design.

Service Credit Union’s Corporate Office gives employees as well the city of Portsmouth a chance to see the Oheme van Sweden landscape style called the New American Garden.

That style has developed into an important chapter in landscape design history.

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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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Repton Brought Back Flower Gardens

We know in the modern English landscape garden dating from the early eighteenth century the extensive lawn took center stage.

Flower gardens were there, but not emphasized until serious plant collecting from around the world emerged, as well as the support of landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818).

Garden historians attribute renewed interest in flower gardens to Repton.

Andre Rogger in Landscapes of Taste: The Art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books mentions a significant threesome in Walpole’s book The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780).

Rogger argues that Walpole linked the three most important landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century.

Rogger writes, “The tripartite sequence [in Horace Walpole’s book] William Kent followed by Lancelot Brown followed by Humphry Repton established the canon for the history of English landscape gardening.”

The Victorian Garden

It was Repton’s focus on flowers that makes him so significant as gardening with flowers emerged in the nineteenth century.

In The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters, though not a historian as such, looked at the image of ‘garden’ in Victorian fiction and poetry.

Repton appears important to such artists because he brought back the flower garden to its important position near the house.

Waters writes , “Repton believed this would restore not only the art of gardening but also the social functions of the garden.

“That this was Repton’s major contribution to the history of garden design is occasionally acknowledged in Victorian fiction.”

For Repton flowers ought to be viewed both by the garden’s owner and the visitor.

Mick Thompson, writing in the journal Garden History, says, “During the second half of his career as a landscape gardener. Repton led the way in returning flower gardens, both formal and informal, close to the house where they could be seen and enjoyed.”

Repton includes flowers in this illustration from his Red Book for Ashridge of 1813. [below]. Flowers dot the lawn in both beds and borders.

The Countess of Bridgewater’s Flower Garden; detail from Repton’s Red Book for Ashridge (1813).
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Resist Colonial Attitude toward Plants

Last week I came across an amazing new article entitled “It’s time to decolonise botanical collections.”

The author Alexandre Antonelli is the Director of Science at Kew, England’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

The main idea of the article is that plants were not ‘discovered’ like a treasure in the sea. They might well predate by many years the first time their species was recorded.

Antonelli writes, “For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south.

“Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants.”

Exotic plants are still taken from other countries and brought to the homeland of the plant hunter.

Kew became the major destination for plants from other countries, for the purpose of improving the gardens of England.

Antonelli recognizes the subtle racism in that attitide that has endured for centuries.

Kew will tackle structual racism in plant and fungal science. He says, “We will strive to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.”

Also, he says “Our current work on a new science strategy is an opportuntity to ensure our research is framed in the context of equality, diversity, and inclusion.”

Herbarium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Book Currently Reading

What’s really more than a coincidence is the book I am currently reading.

The title is A Natural History of the English Garden by Mark Laird.

Laird traces England’s involvement with plant collecting from 1650 to 1800, one hundred fifty years.

He writes about the important English botanists and horticulturalists from that period including John Evelyn, Peter Collinson, Philip Miller, Mary Delany, and William Curtis.

Each of them loved plants, especially the newer varieties arriving in England.

They all cultivated gardens and often wrote about their collections, or like Mary Delany created works of art that illustrated plants.

The goal of plant hunting around the globe was to build up the plant collection at Kew.

Laird writes, “Plant collecting had obvious relevance for apothecaries and doctors.”

By 1778 in Kew “plants from across the seven seas were being added to the original compendium of the four continents.”

It was common for English aristocrats to foster plant collections in their own gardens as well.

No individual’s plant collection however rivaled that of Kew.

Kew housed all the finest in exotics available to England.

Thus, because Kew represents such a vast and important history of plant collecting, Antonelli’s remarks are all the more relevant.

They force us to rethink at this time the collecting of plants, including for institutions like botanical gardens.

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