Victorian Seed Company Believed in Advertising

Victorian seed company believed in advertising

Recently from the New York Botanical Garden’s Mertz Digital Nursery and Seed Catalog site I learned a bit about the relationship between seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) and J. Walter Thompson, the great American advertiser at the turn of the twentieth century.

Here is what the article said about Vick and Thompson,

 “James Vick of Rochester, NY spent about $100,000 a year, an enormous sum of money in those times, in advertising, all with the J. Walter Thompson agency.  When Vick died (1882) the management of the business was taken over by his son James Vick, Jr. 

” Vick promptly told Thompson that he had all the business he could expect to get and decided to quit advertising and add $100,000 a year to his profit.  Thompson cautioned Vick by saying ‘Vick you are crazy; it will only be a question of time until you are bankrupt.’

  “Soon thereafter the Vick family’s diminished finances forced Vick’s daughter to become a governess for one of his Pittsburgh clients.”

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J. Walter Thompson, important advertising executive in late ninetheenth century America. [Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

I thought what a sad story this is turning out to be.

Here is an early Vick catalog from the same site [below]:

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Vick seed catalog from 1876.[Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

The Mertz commentary concludes with these words, “Thompson’s story may have been more a case of resentment about losing the Vick account than an unbiased evaluation of the Vick’s business prospects. The James Vick and Sons nursery business continued operations until the 1930’s when it was sold to Burpee. “

That Vick spent a great deal of money on advertising probably contributed to his popularity in the late ninteenth century. His reputation as an honest peddler of seeds spread across the country.

It was, I believe, his sincere interest in his customer that sealed the deal and made the company a success.

He wrote “I have labored to teach the people to love and cultivate flowers, for it is one of the few pleasures thst improves alike the mind and the heart, and makes every true lover of these beautiful creations of Infinite Love wiser and purer and nobler.”

There is no dubt that advertising for the James Vick Company could have first introduced a potential customer to Vick and his seeds.

It was, however, his warm relationship with his customers, mainly in his writing, that kept them coming back for more seeds.

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Commercial Grower Prefers Cuttings for New Plants

Commercial grower prefers cuttings for new plants

Recently I visited Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire, a major grower for the plant brand known as Proven Winners.

What amazed me is each year from December to March the amount of small plants, called liners, that Pleasant View grows from vegetative cuttings.

The liners or small plants are then shipped out to garden centers that repot them and grow them til the spring for sale at the nursery.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) advised the use of cuttings for new plants in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick proposed the use of a bell glass for small pots, each holding a number of cuttings. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

The glass jar of course controlled light, moisture and temperature for the young plants as they grew.

Pleasant View devotes 700,000 square feet to the many trays of plants in special greenhouses which afford ample control of heat, light, and moisure.

In this way Pleasant View grows millions of young plants to ship out in the spring to garden centers and nurseries, mostly on the east coast.

Here is a photo I took of trays of cells, each of which contains a small plant. Notice how many plants there are in just this small space in one greenhouse. [below]

Small plants in cells, inside a tray, await shipment to a garden center near you.

Vick understood the science of this process of growing plants through vegetative cuttings.

In 1879 he wrote, “The florist and the nurseryman construct propagating houses, with beds heated by pipes with hot water flowing through them, to keep up a steady heat to encourage the production of roots in advance of the growth of the stem.”

Vick knew the importance of vegetative cuttings to reproduce certain plants like many annuals.

Today, Pleasant View does ninety percent of its propagation for Proven Winners with vegetative cuttings which, in this case, are flown in from Central America.

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Darwin Wrote about Plant Struggle for Survival

Darwin wrote about plant struggle for survival

This past June here in the NE provided a great deal of rain. It kept pouring down for what seemed days and days. Little sun appeared.

What grew in the garden, without bounds it seems, were weeds.

I have never seen such a vast number of weeds which took over so much of my garden. I spent what seemed several weeks just weeding.

Dealing with weeds is an important way to understand not only gardening but ecology as well.

In the 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.

Weeds like all plants are trying to survive. We humans call these plants ‘weeds’ which legitimizes and encourages treating them like an enemy that must be crushed.

Costa writes, “What seems an exuberance of vegetation with its flitting and creepy-crawly denizens, unruly enough to strike terror into the heart of gardeners whose taste favor the manicured has in fact a certain order or underlying structure in Darwin’s eyes.”

This ‘struggle for existence’ that Darwin explored in his work could well be the story of the weed.

Costa writes, “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.”

Perhaps that is a lesson that gardeners learn only too quickly. The peace and harmony we search for in the garden is really a state we impose on the garden.

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

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We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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Hardy Plants vs Annuals

Hardy Plants vs Annuals

There has long been a battle between gardeners who prefer hardy plants or perennials and those who would rather plant annuals for the summer garden.

In the nineteenth century the battle soared to its peak.

In his book A Plea for Hardy Plants (1902) the landscape architect from Pittsburg James Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) argued that hardy plants were rare in the garden.

Elliott’s book A Plea for Hardy Plants [Courtesy of Biblio.com]

Elliott wrote, “Nine-tenths of the ornamental gardening in America is still done with a few commonplace and uninteresting bedding plants.”

He saw such gardening with annuals as a waste of time and money.

Elliott felt sorry for gardeners who avoided hardy plants.

He wrote “Think of the pity of it, that all this enormous annual expenditure should be wasted – an expenditure that leaves our gardens in the fall exactly as it found them in the spring – bare earth, and nothing in it.”

The beautiful perennial borders of Powerscourt in Ireland illustrate what hardy plants can do for the summer garden. [Below]

Powerscourt’s garden took shape in the early twentieth century when the debate on the use of hardy plants was at its peak both in America and Europe.

Perennial border at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

To us it may seem like there is no issue here at all. Today most gardeners use a combination of perennials and annuals.

For decades, however, especially during the late Victorian period both in England and America, hardy plants took a back seat to showy annuals.

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Victorian Garden Advice Works

Victorian garden advice works

Garden writers of the Victorian period can offer advice useful for today’s garden as well.

American gardener, writer, and poet Eben E. Rexford (1848-1916) wrote several books about gardening.

In 1890 Rexford first published his book Four Seasons in the Garden.

Several editions followed later in the early 1900s.

Rexford included a chapter called “The Garden in Summer.” In it he addressed several topics familiar to any gardener.

His list of annuals, for example, seems like the summer plants you’d still find at any nursery or big box store. They included Dahlia, Gladiolus, Sweet Pea, Pansies, Asters, and Petunias.

He advised the gardener to make sure to keep up with watering as needed.

Then he wrote about the importance of weeding. He said, “While most of the work of pulling weeks ends with June, it will be necessary to continue the warfare against them, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the season.”

How well we gardeners know that.

Then I was surprised to read his list of summer plants with showy leaves, a must for any garden.

Rexford said, “Beds of ornamental foliage, like the Coleus, Alternanthera, Achyranthes, Pyrethrum, and Centaurea, will require constant and careful attention if you would have them afford entire satisfaction.”

He endosed the mass planting of such ornamental foliage.

He wrote, “If planted in rows or patterns, they must be clipped two or three times a week to prevent the several colors used from reaching out beyond the limits assigned them and blending with other colors, thus destroying that distinctness of outline upon which much of the beauty of a bed of foliage plants depends.”

Boston Athenaeum

Recently I found Rexford’s book at the downtown Boston Athenaeum.

Still in the pocket of the book was a return slip with the date of July 11, 1907 stamped on the slim but well-used card.

Over a hundred years ago someone checked out this book at about this time in the summer, perhaps for some ideas on the summer garden.

Rexford speaks to today’s gardener as much as he did to the Victorian gardener of his day.

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Any Old-Fashioned Dahlias?

Any old-fashioned dahlias?

The problem with the expression ‘old-fashioned’ is that it lacks a specific time.

The reader can simply fill in a time frame.

When it comes to old-fashioned dahlias, it might be appropriate to say the nineteenth century. It was at that time that they began to appear in American gardens.

By the end of the nineteenth century dahlias had become a garden favorite.

Here is the cover of the 1888 seed catalog from the Childs Company in Long Island, New York. [below] In the image colorful dahlias fill the blue and gold vase.

[Thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.]

A blog called Gardenista from Meadowburn Farm in New Jersey included an article about old dahlias. The title of the article says it all: “Dahlia Detectives: 7 Mysterious Heirlooms from an Earlier Century”

The article takes the definition of ‘old-fashioned’ to mean the early 1900s when the book by Helena Rutherford Ely appeared, A Woman’s Hardy Garden.

Today Meadowburn Farm, just ninety miles from New York, continues the tradition of Ely as an historic garden and working farm. Lots of dahlias appear in the garden each summer.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Bill McClaren wrote about the dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (1927) in his great book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

McClaren said that the ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia was “one of the oldest dahlias still being grown and shown and often the jewel of the garden.” This dahlia seems to have it all: old-fashioned and still popular today.

A problem with dahlias is that hundreds of varieties have appeared since the mid nineteenth century. Most of them are long gone, replaced by ever newer varieties.

Maybe one of the reasons we love dahlias is because there are so many newer varieties always available on the market.

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Filoli Hosts Art Exhibit

Filoli hosts art exhibit

A few days ago I visited the wonderful historic garden Filoli, near San Francisco. The garden, surrounding a red brick mansion, dates to the turn of the twentieth century.

Right now artist and landscape designer W. Gary Smith has created an environmental art exhibit called “Nests: Patterns from Nature.”

The exhibit continues through November 10.

Smith has designed and built around the garden a series of nests with materials gathered from the Filoli Estate including its trees, shrubs, and grasses.

Nests appear in various forms and are made of different materials.

When you visit, you will see twelve expressions of ‘nest’ scattered around the property.

Here is one of the designs, a series of brown nests hanging from trees. [below]

A nest exhibit now on display at Filoli.

Filoli’s garden spans sixteen acres and was installed between 1917 and 1929.

The magnificent formal garden and grounds reflect the seventeenth and eighteenth century English garden with its sweeping lawn and many views to enchant any visitor.

Filoli represents a long history of landscape, gardening, and art.  That’s why it is one of my favorite gardens to visit.

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Victorian Flower Fashion

Victorian Flower Fashion

American gardeners  fell in love with annuals after 1850 during the Victorian period.

The use of perennials in the garden re-emerged by the end of the century. They became stylish through the encouragement of English garden authorities like William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

A T. W. Wood and Sons catalog cover [below] from the late 1880s shows a bed of annuals. The round bed sits in a well trimmed lawn.

Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1872: “The evil which accompanied [flower beds, ribbon beds, and carpet beds] was nearly banishing from cultivation the beautiful and interesting tribe known as hardy herbaceous plants. From early spring til late in the fall some of them were in bloom.”

In 1882 Warren H. Manning, New England plantsman, wrote: “The use of tender plants and annuals for bedding purposes in summer decoration has been in vogue for about a quarter of a century, and they have almost entirely superseded hardy herbaceous plants for general cultivation.”

When the English garden style  emphasized perennials rather than annuals, we discovered the English had been enjoying many of America’s native perennial plants for decades.  By the end of the century native American perennials became  a part of our home landscape as well.

As we had for the whole century, America followed the style of English garden design.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs provided the gardener with inspiration. They also pointed out the latest garden fashion.

Annuals were popular from 1850 until the late 1870s when perennials once again took center stage.

What do you think is the garden fashion today?

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Too Many Trees Spoil the View

Too many trees spoil the view in a landscape

When planning a home landscape, it is a good idea to choose the number of trees you plant carefully. You want not too many, and not too few.

Though he was discussing trees in a park, Samuel Parsons in his book Landscape Gardening (1891) offered advice usefull also to the home owner.

He wrote, “We must be careful always to keep open considerable stretches of turf, endeavoring rather to flank than to cross with plants the direct line of vision through to the background.”

He wanted an unobstructed view of lawn.

In 1978 landscape historian from Dumbarton Oaks David Schuyler wrote the book called Victorian Landscape Gardening .

The book was actually a facsimile of landscape architect Jacob Weidenmanns’ book Beautifying Country Homes written in 1871. This image appeared in the book. [below]

A drawing from Victorian Landscape Gardening

Notice that the drawing illustrated in the long dotted line the unobstructed view between the two properties.

The advice seems to make sense.

Whether you have one acre or a hundred acres, create the opportunity for a visitor to see the lawn in a long view because too many trees spoil the view.

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