High Style Victorian Ornamental Gardening

High style Victorian ornamental gardening

In the nineteenth century plants from around the world became available for the English garden.

Such plants created a thirst for an ornamental gardening style that spread around the country.

Thomas Carter writes in his book The Victorian Garden, “Professional plant-hunters and amateur naturalists – many of them missionaries of the Church – travelled all over the world in search of unknown species to satisfy a taste for the spectacular.”

Such plants transformed the garden into formal beds, container planting,  and lines of shrubbery. [below]

Victorians treasured their ornamental gardening.

Carter writes, “The high style of Victorian ornamental gardening reached its peak in the 1850s and 1860s in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham and of the private estates like Trenthem and Shrublands.”

Eventually America took up ornamental gardening as well.

Nineteenth century New Jersey seed company owner Peter Henderson included formal ornamental design in his book Gardening for Pleasure. [below]

Notice the formal beds near the front door to the house.

Today we continue the search for plants to contribute to the ornamental gardening style that we love.

Plant hunters still travel the world in search of that new plant.

No surprise that our gardens are filled with both native and exotic plants.

 

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Victorians Loved Foliage Plants

Victorians loved foliage plants. –

One summer I planted a banana (Musa ensete) in the center of a bed along the driveway.

The plant looked majestic among the low growing perennials and annuals that surrounded it. [below]

Banana plant in island bed in my garden

Then I remembered that the Victorian gardener in the second half of the nineteenth century also loved tall, showy, foliage plants.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden wrote, “Since the early 1860s, gardeners had used many of the foliage plants which had previously been treated as stove or greenhouse subjects to add a contrasting element to floral bedding during a summer.”

Foliage plants could include canna, colocasia, and yucca as well.

Here is a photo of a banana at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show. It is in a pot but still shows off its bold foliage for the passer-by.

A banana in an exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

This summer I plan to make sure my blue container on the lawn has a large red cordyline, another of my favorites.

In that way I will be keeping up the tradition of the Victorian gardener who treasured plants with bold leaves.

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Victorian Conservatory Became Essential

Victorian conservatory became essential

Victorian garden fashion demanded several elements.

Plants that stood out became essential for their structure and color.

The list included ricinus, canna, yucca  – all with their bold leaves.

To grow and cultivate  plants during the winter a conservatory, attached to the house, became a must for all serious Victorian gardeners.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Carter says in his book The Victorian Garden, “Eventually the conservatory became a Victorian cliché – a necessary attachment to any house of even modest pretentions, and often, no more than a place where pot plants could be brought in.”

Serious gardeners then cultivated orchids which demanded special growing conditions.

Eventually the middle class would also grow orchids in their version of that essential greenhouse or conservatory.

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Victorian Garden Book

Victorian garden book

Last week I attended a meeting of the New England Hosta Society, a group I joined many years ago.

The meeting included a wonderful speaker who owns a local nursery.

The highlight of the meeting, however, was the item I won in the raffle.

To my surprise I won Tom Carter’s book The Victorian Garden.

I was familiar with this title when I placed my red ticket in the cup to bid on the book.

The bibliography and illustrations in the book indicate the English origin of the book. 

The book, however, was first published by Salem House, a member of the Merrimack Publishers Circle, Salem, New Hampshire in 1985.  R. J. Acford, Chichester, Sussex printed this edition.

The book details the development of the English Victorian garden in the nineteenth century.

Carter writes, “The range of plants available in nineteenth century Britain was constantly increasing as more and more specimens were sent home from abroad, and as colonial territories were opened up.”

The plants would include of course varieties from Asia and North America.

Look forward to reading this book during the cold weeks of winter still to come.

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English Garden Style May Not Work

English garden style may not work

Landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. came from a long line of horticulturists. His family owned a popular late nineteenth century nursery in New York.

According to the American Architects Biographies, Parsons was a landscape architect who died February 3, 1923 in New York City. He was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1845. A former park commissioner, he was largely responsible for the development of Central Park and Riverside Drive in New York City. He also designed a 1,400 acre park in San Diego, California.

Parsons gives some sound gardening advice in his book Landscape Gardening (1891)

He warns about simply following a certain garden style, like the English.

Parsons writes, “We are learning that because an English or Scotch gardener tells us we should have a particular tree which has grown successfully in England, we are not necessarily to assume that horticultural skill, whether Scotch, or English, or French, must be able to conpass, in some occult way, its successful employment on American lawns.”

He was a great advocate for the classic lawn, sweeping down from the house.

No surprise that the lawns in Central Park took on that green beauty that Parsons orchestrated in his job as Superintendent of Parks in New York.

Parsons offered this advice in 1891.

Still makes sense today.

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Nineteenth Century Style of Planting Shrubs

Nineteenth century style of planting shrubs

Soon the Weigela rosea [below] will burst with spring color in my New England garden.

This shrub came to America in 1848 from England. Three years earlier British plant hunter Robert Fortune had found it in China. He introduced it to the English garden.

This Weigela grows right outside my front door. [photo by Ralph Morang]

Walter Elder, a nineteenth century Philadelphia horticulturalist, wrote many articles for nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s popular magazine Gardener’s Monthly, published in the same city.

In the 1865 issue of GM, Elder wrote about shrubs in the landscape.

He said ”The modern is the most  admirable and ennobling mode of embellishing large grounds with flowering shrubbery, namely massing them in groups of various dimensions and forms. All sharp points are avoided. Even at the junction of two roads or paths, sharp, projecting points are rounded and made blunt, if a group of shrubbery is to be planted there.”

He continues, “Where there is a fine view in the distance to be seen from the mansion, it would not do to plant trees to hide it, but the lawn can be ornamented with groups of shrubs.”

Seed company and nursery owners in their catalogs, books, and magazines taught America landscape principles.

In this case they instructed home gardeners on how to plant shrubs in the English picturesque or gardenesque, or as they called it, the ‘modern’ style.

 

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America’s Enduring Home Landscape Style

America’s enduring home landscape style

Several years ago I owned a house which included two side-by-side rental units.

I thought it would be a a good idea to include plants along the front porch. I planted the old-fashioned spirea prunifolia called ‘BridalWreath.’

Of course at the time I had no idea it could grow to nine feet.

I also planted a young arbor vitae.

Little did I know that I was following the American tradition of foundation planting, or planting along the walls of the front of the house.

In his book From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds landscape arhictect Christopher Grampp  writes about the origin of foundation planting, an American invention for the home landscape.

He says, “By the 1930s, lawns and foundation planting had so firmly established themselves in American front yards that it was rare to see other styles.”

Since then the front home landscape has included the lawn and foundation plantings.

In 1901 the Rawson Seed Company from Boston advertised its grass seed with this image from Quincy, Massachusetts. [below] Notice the front lawn and plantings near the house.

The lawn photo in the 1901 Rawson catalog

The garden industry continued for decades to promote this kind of front yard with its lawn and foundation planting.

Grampp writes, “Nearly all garden design advice in books, newspapers, and magazines were now recommending shrubs against the facade of the house and lawns running to the street.”

No surprise that American homes shared this sameness in landscape from California to Maine – even to this very day.

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Media Drives Garden Industry

Media drives garden industry

We gardeners like to think we are original in planning and installing a garden space.

In an environment of newspapers, magazines, books, and, of course, social media that is not possible because we are surrounded by media messages in both advertising and editorial content.

Since the 1890s the media have become the major influence on our ideas about gardening.

Quaker OatsAt the end of the nineteenth century people wanted standardized products that came from the nation’s factories, whether clothing, shoes, or food.  Even seed company and nursery owners illustrated their large operations in a chromolithograph included in the pages of the catalog.  A customer could then see the trial fields, the building which made boxes for the company’s many orders, and, of course, the multi-storied factory that served as the seed company or nursery headquarters.

People didn’t want just any oat meal.  They wanted Quaker Oats.

And they got that, and lots of other standardized products.

People also wanted a garden like the one illustrated in the garden catalog, which spread across the country in the millions from the many seed companies and nurseries, operating as the modern business they had become.

The Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist might have felt the power of the media on his business when he wrote in 1857: “Nurserymen have to cater for the wants of their customers, and they wish everything that receives a newspaper puff, however indifferent in quality–so that we go on increasing in all sorts of varieties.”

Garden Catalogs

No surprise then that the yearly catalog from the seed company or nursery helped people to choose seeds and bulbs for the flower garden.

This Smith catalog from Worcester, Massachusetts in 1898 provides an example from that period of the vibrant Victorian garden.

Because everyone was ordering the same seeds and bulbs there was a certain sameness in plant choice and garden design.

People wanted to conform to the norms of the culture.

Thus standardized gardens appeared everywhere.

It reminds me of the ‘ready garden’ you can buy today. All the seeds are embedded in a cloth that you simply lay on the prepared soil and water.

Not only has the garden vendor given you a garden. That person has also provided the design and the seeds.

All you need to do is water and watch it grow.

 

 

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Newport Mansions Feature Christmas Poinsettias

Newport mansions feature Christmas poinsettias.

Everyone knows that Newport, Rhode Island is home to the east coast grand mansions of America’s Gilded Age.

Right now four of the mansions have taken on a festive holiday look.

Four Mansions

Until January 1 you can visit these four Newport mansions, The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff, and Marble House, decked out in lights and the holiday colors of red, green, and gold. The Preservation Society of Newport County, the group that oversees eleven historical properties in Newport, has made this holiday display at the mansions available to visitors for more than twenty-five years.

Decorated Christmas trees dot the rooms of the mansions. The trees sometimes surprise you when you turn a corner and see a tall evergreen decked in gold and red as in the Gothic Room of Marble House.

The dining room tables are set with period silver and china, and individual white candles illuminate the windows. Christmas wreaths and evergreens decorate walls.

Poinsettias

Three thousand poinsettias add color to the rooms of the four houses. The plants, grown in the Preservation Society’s own greenhouse,

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

Poinsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

are removed and replaced several times during the holiday season to ensure the displays remain fresh.

The poinsettias at The Breakers  provide a stunning show of the season’s colors.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built in 1895, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad.

Its interior includes rich marble, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, and open-air terraces with magnificent ocean views.

The Breakers

Right now in the Grand Hall of The Breakers stands a 15-foot tree made of red poinsettias. The room with its walls of yellow stone and a 50-foot high ceiling that seems to go up forever shines with the red color of the poinsettia.

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas Tree to the left

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas tree, made of poinsettias, to the left

When The Breakers was built, the poinsettia, originally from Mexico, was beginning its journey as the holidays’ most popular decorative plant.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced the poinsettia to the garden industry, once said that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876.

Meehan said that this plant “has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

And that is truly what you find at The Breakers. The blossoms of the poinsettias brighten up this mansion and three others in a holiday spirit.

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Seventeenth Century Front Garden Restored

Seventeenth century front garden restored –

The north shore Massachusetts town of Ipswich claims more First Period houses than any other community in America.

First Period refers to those houses built between 1625 and 1725.

The style of the Whipple House, built in 1677, represents that period.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Whipple House was moved to its current location in Ipswich.

Though it had suffered much disrepair over the years, several historically minded citizens of the time thought it worth saving.  In its day the Whipple House was the grandest of examples of early American homes.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Reverend Thomas Franklin Waters became a leading member of the Historical Preservation group in Ipswich.

He said at the time that the Whipple House was “a link that binds us to the remote Past and to a solemn and earnest manner of living, quite in contrast with much of our modern life.”

The Whipple House still stands, thanks to the initiative of this group and its successors. [below]

Whipple House in Ipswich, Massachusetts [built in 1677]

Garden

An extensive kitchen garden at the front of the house greets a visitor to the Whipple house.

The location and design of the kitchen garden continues the English garden tradition of early Plimouth Plantation as well.

In the  early 1960s garden historian Isadore Smith (AKA Ann Leighton) and landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff designed and installed the raised beds of the kitchen garden.

Smith and Shurcliff set out to recreate what would have been a typical wife’s kitchen garden of the seventeenth century. They designed a garden with mostly herbs since the wife was responsible for both the food and the medical needs of the family.

There was not much time for a pleasure garden of decorative flowers so the plant choices of the kitchen garden were based on the cooking and health needs of the family.

The English style of an enclosed kitchen garden with raised beds lined up in a certain symmetry was also the style at the restored gardens of Colonial Williamsburg.

Mr. Shurcliff provides a link between the Whipple House and the Williamsburg garden restoration.

In the 1930s Boston landscape architect Shurcliff, who previously had worked with American landscape pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, also recreated the garden of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg.

According to landscape architect and garden writer Rudi Favretti, the Whipple garden style, centered on the practical needs for plants, continued as the predominant form of gardening well into mid-nineteenth century America.

Thus today the Whipple House illustrates the early influence of English garden design on American home landscape.

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