Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant’s Country Estate

Nineteenth century Boston merchant’s country estate

Recently I attended a short talk at the Boston Athenaeum where a staff member discussed three Athenaeum portraits.

My intention in taking the train to participate in this session was to hear about the Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854).

Thomas Handasyd Perkins

Sending his ships primarily to China, Perkins became a wealthy merchant in nineteenth century Boston.

The speaker’s remarks at the Athenaeum centered on what a philanthropist Perkins had been for the city.

He founded the Perkins School for the Blind, which today is located in Watertown.

Perkins owned a downtown home, first on Pearl Street and later on Temple Place, but also escaped the summer heat to his country home in Brookline, a few miles from Boston.

Brookline Estate

Perkins purchased the land for his Brookline estate in 1799.

The Boston Athenaeum archives include a landscape plan for the Perkins’ Brookline property.

The plan illustrates the modern form of landscape gardening, begun in England in the eighteenth century.  This style, because it was the fashion, attracted wealthy Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

The landscape in his estate reflected the English style of rolling lawns, trees, and shrubs.

The extensive lawn, dotted with several greenhouses, takes up most of the space in the plan.  The plan shows a kitchen garden and orchards as well.

According to their book Merchant Prince of Boston, Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write that the Perkins’ Brookline property, on the corner of Heath and Warren, became “one of the show places around Boston.”

There Perkins cultivated plants from around the world, including a grape-vine from England’s Sir Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton became one  of the most important gardeners in England.  He also designed the Crystal Palace for the London Exhibition of 1851.

Like other prominent men of his time who owned such country estates, Perkins chose to design in the modern English landscape style.

Seaburg and Paterson note that at the Perkins’ garden, “Encouragement was given to ornamental gardening, with an eye to the art of landscaping.”

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Crockett’s Compost Bin Works Well

Crockett’s compost bin works well –

A few days ago the Boston Globe featured an editorial called “Time to embrace composting. No, really.

The message struck me in a somewhat personal way since I just had my compost bin rebuilt.

The final words in the title made me see the importance the writer attempted to give this message.

The world is full of too much garbage. Where possible, we need to recycle it as compost.

I have had a compost bin in the backyard, behind the shed, for almost twenty years.

The old one was decaying, and the wood no longer held together.

Three compartments make up the bin. One is full of the newest material that I add right now; the second is material from last year decaying so I can use it next year; and the third is the ready compost which I can use right now for any need in the garden. Next summer I just rotate each of them.

In having it built I followed the design of the drawings and photos from the original design that appeared in Crockett’s Victory Garden published in 1977.

That is where I first saw this version of a compost bin. Some have called it “the Cadillac of compost bins.’

It is easy to use and offers plenty of space.

This photo of my old compost bin illustrates how I desperately needed a new one. This is the bin just a few days ago:

My old compost bin has certainly seen better days.

Here is a photo of the new version which I just had built this week:

My new bin ready for making that ‘black gold’ called compost.

Gardeners and Compost

Gardeners have long seen the value of compost, even for a lawn.

Rochester, NY seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) saw the value of compost in putting in a lawn.

He wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879 how a new lawn, installed in the spring, needs a bit of compost. He said: “Compost should be spread evenly over the surface and raked in.”

 

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Time to Plant Tulips

Time to plant tulips –

It is October 1 and a gardener’s thoughts turn to spring bulbs like tulips.

For generations gardeners dug up tulip bulbs only to replant them in the Fall.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) recalled that practice in his garden magazine.

A suburban gardener wrote to Vick in 1878, “I don’t know of any flowers that afford me more pleasure than my Tulips, because they are so sure and so little trouble.

“I take up the bulbs, dry them a little, and store them away until October, when they are planted again.”

Then she laid out her method of planting the tulips.

“To occupy the Tulip ground, secure a few Petunia plants, or Portulacas, and sometimes Verbena.

“In October these have done flowering, or nearly so, and the Tulip bed is made again.

“In this way I get two seasons of flowers on the same bed in one season.”

Thus in the late nineteenth century she demonstrated the common practice of planting the same bed with both spring tulips and summer annuals.

Boston Seed Company

Like many other late nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, the Rawson Company, with its main office in Boston’s Fanuel Hall, offered tulips to its customers.

Rawson included this black and white tulip illustration in its seed catalog of 1904. [below]

An illustration that appeared in the W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904

In the 1880s Alexander H. Ladd in Portsmouth, NH planted hundreds of  tulips each year in his downtown garden.

He too would dig them up and store them for the summer only to plant them later in October.

Unfortunately, one year his baskets were so heavy on the storage shelves he had created that the whole structure collapsed. Hundreds of bulbs fell to the floor. As you can imagine, the next spring saw a mixture of colors and sizes in Ladd’s fields of tulips.

In 1889 he wrote, “I estimate by loss of Bulbs, to have been at least 60,000 – by the rain and want of attention last summer.”

 Year of the Tulip

This is the Year of the Tulip according to the National Garden Bureau which provided this stunning show of modern tulip color. [Below]

The Parade of Pink collection. It is a mix of fragrant doubles that includes white, pink, peach and purple. [Courtesy of the National Garden Bureau]

Today it is more common to leave tulips in the ground so they can continue to grow in the same spot year after year.

Breck’s Bulbs says on its website, “Most bulbs prefer not to be disturbed and can be left in the ground for many years.”

Whether you dig them up after they bloom, or leave them in the ground, October begins the time to plant tulips for spring color.

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Vick’s Nineteenth Century Dahlia Field

Last weekend  I drove to North Kingston, Rhode Island for a dahlia show, sponsored by the Rhode Island Dahlia Society. This is an annual late summer event that I thoroughly enjoy.

Here is one of the flowers I saw that afternoon. This dahlia’s called ‘Merluza’. [below]

Dahlia ‘Merluza’ at Rhode Island Dahlia Society’s Dahlia Show, held last weekend

The beautiful show of dahlia blooms there reminded me of nineteenth century seed company owner James Vick’s love for dahlias.

In providing seeds for his customers, spread around the country, Vick cultivated acres of various flowers and vegetables, including dahlias.

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.

The Rhode Island Dahlia Society’s Show expressed that variety in what growers had on display. I was especially impressed with the prize winners.

In a room off the central area you could see dahlia flower arrangements.

This is the where you could experience the creativity demanded in flower arranging. The top winner for the category called the ‘Dining Room’  deserved the prize. [below]

Notice the brilliance of the dahlias in this table design.

First place in the category ‘Dining Room’ arrangement.

Vick grew many dahlias. As the editor stated in his letter, Vick cultivated almost every variety known at that time.

Today there are thousands of dahlia varieties available on the market. The Rhode Island Dahlia Society’s show last week offered just a few of them.  Many however were new to me.

I am sure that Mr. Vick himself would have been proud to attend the Rhode Island event.

 

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Garden Renewed: Rescue of an Old Place

Recently I finished reading a book, published in 1892, called The Rescue of an Old Place.

The book traces the journey of a late nineteenth century couple to renew a Victorian garden.

 

 

Author

The author, Mary Caroline Robbins, tells the story of discovering the home and renewing its landscape in Hingham, Massachusetts, not too far from where I live.

She and her husband purchased the property in the early 1890s.

Robbins writes, “The site of the old house, shaded by some fine Elms and White Ashes, was too near both streets to be at all desirable, though the shrubbery and the tangled remains of an old flower-garden rendered it very attractive.”

She could see the potential in the landscape, though it had long been neglected and seemed to be  crying out for attention.

Winter Street

Their house sat on four-acres along Winter Street.

On a recent visit to Hingham I drove down Winter Street. Though I could not find the house, I saw the contours of the land along each side of the street.

I also noticed that part of the street bordered on a marsh with water that came from the near-by ocean.

Hingham is a town along the coast that attracts people who covet a quaint New England seacoast town.

Garden

The book devotes a great deal of space to the poor condition of the trees and shrubs as well the garden.

As I was reading it, I could see how clearly the author wanted to make the landscape attractive.

She sought to save much of the existing plantings, identifying much that she found on the property.

She named the property ‘Overlea.’

Robbins writes, “When came to examine matters at Overlea, as we named our acquisition,  from its command of the meadow, we found that a good sweeping and dusting would do wonders for it.”

But it was the long-neglected Victorian flower garden that called out to her.

She wrote, “Next to our tree garden came the old-fashioned flower garden as an object of care and interest in the renovation of the place.”

She restored it with popular Victorian perennials and annuals.

The life of a garden

Though a garden may decline and even cease to exit because of neglect, some form of regular maintenance will preserve a gardener’s work for a long time, even generations.

Gardeners know the challenge so well.

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Annuals Make Summer’s End Special

Annuals make summer’s end special.

Annuals become an important part of the garden at the end of the summer.

When so many perennials have gone by, annuals continue to supply color and structure to the garden.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about annuals and their appeal even to the end of summer.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly of 1879 Vick wrote,  “The seeds of Annuals are sown in the spring, either in nicely prepared beds in the garden, or in boxes in the house, by those who have no better or more costly arrangements; the plants arrive at maturity in the summer, bud, blossom, ripen their seeds and die in the autumn, having performed their entire mission.”

“To the Annuals, we are indebted mainly for our brightest and best flowers in the late summer and autumn months.”

Right now you will find annuals shining in all their glory in Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. [below]

Prescott Park garden, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Perennials form part of this garden at Prescott Park, but it is the continued blooming of annuals that makes this scene at the end of the summer so special.

Vick taught his readers to love flowers, including annuals.

In a piece on annuals in his magazine Vick wrote, “While writing this article we received a communication from the wife of one of the leading editors of America, describing her success with Annuals, and their wonderful beauty during the autumn months.”

Then Vick quotes her.

She said, “I never had much success with Annuals until I became acquainted with your Guide, and learned about good seed and how to grow them, and now I never fail. My garden is beautiful all the fall with lovely brilliant flowers.”

She mentions some Victorian favorites, still popular today. Her list includes pansies, petunia, phlox, amaranth,and nasturtium.

The color in her garden at the end of summer she attributed to Vick’s guidance.

She promised Vick, “I intend to do wonders this year, and exhibit my flowers at our State Fair, and if I take a prize I will let you know.”

As in Vick’s day, annuals continue even to the end of summer to provide a joyous color just like you can see right now at Prescott Park.

 

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Victorians Reignited Tulip Interest

Victorians reignited tulip interest.

Tulips have been popular flowers for the gardens of Europe and America since the seventeenth century.

After tulip mania, when the cost of a single tulip might equal the price of a house, tulips became common and soon gardeners lost interest.

In the late Victorian period once again tulips took off as important garden plants.

Garden historian Ruthanne C. Rogers’ article “The Man who loved Tulips ” appeared in the Journal of the New England Garden History Society. She wrote, “Although interest in tulips waned in the early nineteenth century, the Victorian period brought about a revival in this country.”

The seed companies and nurseries of the late nineteenth century fed that new interest though articles and illustrations in their catalogs. Of course such garden businesses also provided the latest tulip bulbs.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in 1879, “Nothing in the floral world can equal the dazzling brilliance and gorgeousness of a bed of good Tulips.”

Vick often included illustrations in his catalog. Tulips surround the metal bird bath in this garden scene from one of his catalogs. [below]

Bulbs in the Garden, Vick’s Floral Guide,1880

 

An illustration from another Vick catalog showed a whole bed of tulips.

The Bulb Garden. Vick’s Floral Guide, 1874

 

Vick often invited visitors to see the flowers, including tulips, that he had planted at his own home in Rochester. [below]

Vick’s Rochester home on the south side of East Avenue. History of Monroe County, New York. 1877

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick included this colorful chromolithograph of several popular tulips.

 

Tulips, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1879

 

Merchant Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900), a passionate gardener in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, planted sixty thousand tulips every year.  In his garden journal he recorded both the work and the enjoyment from such a massive planting.

He certainly embodied the Victorian love of tulips.

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Remembering Years of Pleasure from Gardening

Remembering years of pleasure from gardening

Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900) lived in a colonial mansion on downtown Market Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

William Whipple, an eighteenth century relative and the original owner of the house, had signed the Declaration of Independence.

A horse chestnut that Whipple planted in 1776 when he returned from the signing in Philadelphia still stands in the front to the side of the house.

Today, however, A. H. Ladd is remembered primarily for his garden in the back of the property.

Alexander H. Ladd’s garden journal

Ladd kept a journal of his work of many years in the garden.  The journal, discovered only in 1990, became a book simply titled Alexander H. Ladd’s Garden Book 1888-1895: A 19th Century View of Portsmouth.  It recounts his love of gardening.

After many years of working in the garden Ladd reflected on how much the garden meant to him.

In a letter to his son William dated Saturday, November 16, 1895 Ladd wrote about the pleasure the garden had given him for so many years.

He said, “I think it [the garden] is as good and productive a garden as any in the state, and I have never seen a better one. I have been at work upon it for 30 years and have gotten lots of pleasure, health, and vegetables from it.”

Very simply stated, isn’t it?

He enjoyed gardening because of the pleasure it gave him.

Ladd planted thousands of tulips every Fall. He dug them up after blooming and stored them for planting later for the next spring.

His love of gardening included dark moments as well.  These are moments when you ask yourself, is it all worth it?

Ladd wrote in his journal on October 24, 1889, after planting dozens of tulips, “I can never do better, and perhaps not so well again, and have lost much interest in this Hobby.”

He gardened, inspite of dark moments, because of the pleasure it gave him.

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Just Enjoy the August Landscape

Just enjoy the August landscape

We have worked hard in the three months of April, May, and June to get the landscape in shape. We planted  trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals.

Late nineteenth century Central Park superintendent Samuel Parsons Jr. (1844-1923) founded the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899.

He wrote his book Landscape Gardening in 1891.

In it he said that the landscape needs something to sustain us during the hot and steamy months of July and August.

He wrote, “Since we are forced to dwell more or less in the open air in July and August, constrained by fashion and the heat of the weather, it is all the more reasonable to make the extension of the house attractive.”

The past few summer weeks here in the Northeast have been particularly hot and humid.

Who feels like working in the garden in heat and humidity?

Parsons continued in these words: “and to take the opportunity of making this fashion a means of gradually developing a more widespread love of nature.”

Since it is too hot to dig and plant in the garden right now, this is the time we take to enjoy the trees and shrubs and other treasures we have carefully planted either this year or in earlier springs and earlier summers.

Parsons clearly pointed out that the landscape needs a lawn, choice trees, and a few shrubs with color. 

We’ve planted them.

This is the time to enjoy the work we have done.

Parsons gave many recommendations for trees and shrubs that we could enjoy as part of the landscape.

The point he made however was we need to enjoy the landscape now. Just walk around, take it all in, and then sit down for a quiet moment or two.

We’ve worked hard. Now we enjoy.

 

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Alexander von Humboldt Influenced Early Ecologists

Alexander von Humboldt influenced early ecologists.

Nineteenth century German scientist, plant hunter, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) laid the groundwork for what we now call ecology.

He saw nature as united and interconnected. When one element changes, the entirety feels the impact.

He also influenced others, including some Americans, to think of nature in that way as well.

Andrea Wulf writes in her book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World  that German scientist Ernst Heckel (1834-1919) mentioned Humboldt’s view of ecology in his own book Generelle Morphologie.  Heckel wrote, “All the earth’s organisms belonged together like a family occupying a dwelling; and like members of a household they could conflict with, or assist, one another.”

Heckel wrote, according to Wulf, that ecology was the ‘science’ of the relationship of an organism with its environment.

Wulf credits Humboldt with influencing also the work of American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

Little did I know as I set out to read Humboldt’s biography that I would come to see his writing as the foundation for modern ecology.

My motivation in reading about him was that  I wanted to see how he played out his role as plant hunter. He traveled in Latin America for five years to study its flora and fauna.  In the midst of that process he was also expected to find and bring back plants for European gardens.  At that time plant hunters traveled the world to enrich the gardens, mostly of the wealthy, with new ornamental plants.

Alexander von Humboldt however became much more than a plant hunter. He redefined nature for us.

As Wulf argues so well in her great book, we need to credit Humboldt with initiating a way of thinking about nature that has deep implications to this very day.

 

 

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