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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Women in Horticulture: Yesterday and Today

I am currently reading Michael Waters’ book The Garden in Victorian Literature.

This title fits into my general area of interest, the history of the garden.

 In this case I am looking at how novelists and poets wrote about the garden in the Victorian period.

Such literature tells us a great deal about the garden, but also about the role of women in horticulture.

Women in Horticulture Week

Earlier this week I discovered that June 1-5 is Women in Horticulture Week.

I can see a thread between the two sources of our understanding the garden as a cultural phenomenon: Victorian fiction where the garden takes center stage and the evolving role of women in the garden.

Katie Dubow, president, Garden Media Group, the primary sponsor of this special week, says,  “Women play a crucial role in the horticulture industry—not only as entrepreneurs, growers, researchers, marketers and employees at all levels, but also as the largest consumers of home and garden products.”

Victorian Literature, Women, and the Garden

Victorian literature paints its own image of women and the garden.

We know that the nineteenth century was a time in which the influence of women was relegated to taking care of the family, and in terms of the garden, mostly tending to flowers.

Waters writes, “An assumption almost universal in Victorian literature: women, not men, have a natural and privileged affinity with flowers.”

Women were then even compared to flowers: beautiful and sensual, and there to bring a sense of feeling and emotion to taking care of the household.

Though women had a lot to do with running the household, they were not encouraged to seek any fulfillment outside the home.

By the end of the nineteenth century women were voicing their own frustration with that role.

Women wanted to be more self-determining.

Slowly that role of women emerged to provide women leadership roles in the field of horticulture.


It is a good idea  to support, honor, and promote women professionals and their achievements during Women in Horticulture Week.

Today’s woman in the garden is quite different from her Victorian ancestor.

Here is Monet’s beautiful Victorian painting, “Woman in the Garden.”

Claude Monet Woman in the Garden 1866
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Wave Petunia Celebrates 25 Years

The petunia, first brought from Argentina to England in 1831, provides a powerful example of the importance of hybridizing in the garden industry.

We continue to grow petunias, and, in fact, they are among the top sellers each spring.

It is the same petunia from the nineteenth century, but hybridizers have had a field day with this flower.

In 1894 Boston seed company owner W. W. Rawson wrote about the petunia in his catalog. 

Rawson wrote, “The brilliancy and variety of their colors, combined with the duration of their blooming period, render them invaluable.” 

Today the petunia comes in many colors, and the flowers are either single and funnel shaped, ruffled, or doubled.

Wave Petunia

The Ball Horticultural Company brought the Wave petunia (Petunia x hybrida) to America in 1995. 

Since the Wave petunia first appeared, the petunia world has not been the same.

This year is Wave petunia’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Wave Petunia

According to Wave’s blog, a Japanese brewery bred the first Wave petunia.

“Beer and wine companies often employ horticulturists who grow plants for the many flavors and components that go into making their products. Back in the 1990s, this particular company was exploring opportunities for wine-grape breeding when it uncovered a vigorous spreading petunia growing wild just like a weed. “

And so the Wave petunia was born.

The little white flower from South America took the English garden world of the nineteenth century by storm

It continues to do so to this day.

Rawson once said, “It was only a few years ago that they were comparatively unknown, and now no garden is considered complete without them.”

The latest All-American Selections winner is Wave ‘Carmine Velour.’ [below]. The shape of the flower and its color say it all.

Wave ‘Carmine Velour’

The Wave petunia continues to be a stunning flower for both a container and a garden bed.

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Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

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Wisteria at the Home of John Adams

This is the time of the year the purple flowers of the wisteria vine put on their show.

America’s most famous wisteria has to be the one that climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams’ house, part of the Adams National Historic Site, in Quincy, Mass. At this time while in bloom it usually attracts  both history lovers and gardeners.

A wisteria vine, Wisteria sinensis, climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams home in Quincy, Mass.

The vine  came to England from China in 1816.

As the story goes, according to a book by Wilhelmina Harris, long-time superintendent of the Site, First Lady Abigail Adams planted the vine.  Abigail died in 1818, and Donald Wyman, noted horticulturalist from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, wrote that the vine, which originates in China, was introduced into America in 1816.  So it is quite possible Abigail planted it.

The wisteria vine grows slowly but once it is rooted pushes aggressively along any surface it can climb.  You need a trellis or arbor to support it.    Bob MacKenzie, the head gardener at the Adams house, said,  “We have to keep trimming it so that it does not take over the house.”

Plant Explorers

When England sent plant explorers around the world, beginning in the eighteenth century, trees and shrubs as well as this wisteria were part of the find.  English gardeners treasured exotic plants like this wisteria called Wisteria sinensis.  In the nineteenth century it was common for Americans to import English exotic plants.

According to Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden by Ippolitio Pizzetti and Henry Cocker, two East India  Company captains transported the first plants of Wisteria sinensis from China in May of 1816.

Shortly after that the Wisteria sinensis must have made its way from England to Quincy and  the Adams home.

In the nineteenth century the English gave America exotic plants as well as a garden style.  As in the case of the wisteria, the plants eventually became part of our landscape pallette.

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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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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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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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Darwin and Vick, Famed 19th Century Horticulturists

Who knew that one day history would link Charles Darwin and James Vick in the same memorial?

In England Charles Darwin conducted his research on plants and called it the struggle for life.

In his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory the author James T. Costa writes about Darwin’s many experiments with plants.

Costa says, “When we observe nature we often miss the struggle, seeing only peace and harmony, and mistake this for the natural condition of the living world.”

The garden is a place where plants struggle to survive. Some make it while others do not.

Darwin studied that struggle through his research of many years on plants. [below]

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – National Portrait Gallery

In America James Vick owned an important seed business in the second half of the nineteenth century.

At one point he received three thousand letters a day from his customers, seeking seeds of course, but also his advice. To them Vick was a trusted source on all things horticultural.

Here is the photo Vick included in his seed catalog after many of his customers requested a photo. [below]

James Vick (1818-1882)

Both Darwin and Vick died in 1882.

Memorial

Last week I came across a link between the two.

In 1883 at the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society its President mentioned both Darwin and Vick in a speech.

He said, “I have to record the names of two men, whose labors have been largely for the benefit of farmers and horticulturists, Charles Darwin and James Vick.

“Charles Darwin, who died at the ripe age of seventy-four, was considered the greatest horticulturist of the age. He was the author of many valuable works…

“James Vick, who died at Rochester, N.Y. May 16, was aged about 64 years. At the time of his death he was at the head of one of the largest seed establishments in America, and his Floral Guide [Catalog] had a circulation of over 200,000. His success has been marvelous. His labors are finished, but the good he has done will endure forever.”

Darwin and Vick, famed 19th century horticulturists

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