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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Garden as Tapestry

Are you a plant collector? Or is your garden based on a strict landscape design that you cannot disturb by adding plants, willy, nilly?

However you garden, you need to select the plants.

The plants can come from anywhere.

When you assemble them, you are making your garden a tapestry.

Stephen Harris wrote in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, “Any garden is a tapestry of botanical histories. Some plants are native, some have been introduced, and others evolved in the garden.”

When I think of a tapestry, I think of a mix of things, not just one item.

This garden [below] in a photo I took on the Almalfi coast is an example of nineteenth century carpet bedding with designs in colorful flowers and leaves. It aslo reminds me of a tapestry, or mixture of various plants.

Flowerbeds on the Amalfi coast

In 1973 noted horticulturist Donald Wyman from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum wrote a wonderful article in Arnoldia called “The History of Ornamental Horticulture in America.”

He said, “It is of interest to note that in gardens and landscape plantings of a general nature in the northern United States, half of the plants used are of oriental origin, a quarter are native to Europe and only a quarter are native to America.”

He was also making the point that our gardens are a collection of plants both exotic and native.

You might call it a tapestry.

What kind of tapestry is your garden?

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No Garden without Nasturtiums

I recently ordered five packets of nasturtium seeds.

The varieties are both the climbing or spreading variety and the clumping kind of flowers.

Every garden needs to have nasturtiurms.

The main reason is they are so easy to grow. No potting inside weeks before the ground warms up. This seed you can plant right in the ground or in an outdoor container.

The Garden Museum in London sent me this beautiful illustration of ‘Empress of India’ nasturtiums by British artist Hannah McVicar.

‘Express of India’ Nasturtium by artist Hannah McVicar

Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening says this about the humble Nasturtium: “The common garden nasturtium comprises the genus Tropaeolum, the only one of the family Tropaeolaceae…They are native of the cooler parts of South America.”

James Vick, the nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner, included Nasturtiums in his catalog, magazine, and his book as well.

He wrote, “Flowers of all the different shades of yellow, orange, and red….They are very desirable.”

In his seed catalog of 1873 Vick said, “This flower has of late been much improved, the blossoms being larger and more showy.”

How can we loose? Nasturtiums show superb qualities for the gardener: easy to grow, with splendid flower color, and ever so dependable.

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Archives Open A Window on American Gardening

I just finished reading a wonderful new book on the history of the American garden.

The book, Everything for the Garden, is not thick but is filled with many engrossing photos and illustrations.

The book is based on the collection of garden books, catalogues, and related ephemera in Historic New England’s Library and Archives.  The time frame is the nineteenth into the early twentieth century.

Five excellent essays by prominent garden historians, writers, archivists, and designers make up the volume.

Garden historian Judith Tankard writes about our long dependence on the written word, especially garden books.

She says, “Even though today’s information is readily available on the Internet, the old-fashioned pleasures of thumbing through catalogues and how-to-publications still exist.” There is something that still attracts us to the printed word in the form of a garden book or garden magazine. We want to hold it in our hands.

Late nineteenth century catalogues from seed companies included vegetables depicted as humans in an effort to sell their seeds.  That whimsical artwork is still fun to see.

Garden Statues

Any history of the garden must of course include statuary.  Here archivist Richard Nylander reminds the reader how different the gardener’s choice of such statuary can be, depending on the decade. He highlights three such garden ornaments.

The first garden accessory he mentions is the sculpture Bird Girl (1936) which also appeared on the cover of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 I found his second statue, that of St. Francis, one that I had never thought of but certainly one that I have seen in many gardens. Francis, after all, is now the patron saint of ecology with his love of animals and nature.

 Finally, he reminds the reader of the ever-popular, ever-repulsive, Pink Flamingo craze from the 1950s. What fun.

Garden Fashion

 The idea that the garden is subject to fashion and style appears over and over in the book as the writers discuss the time and place of a particular form of the American garden. For example, the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century stimulated interest in old-fashioned flowers and gardens. It was an interpretation of what people thought the Colonial garden might have looked like.

Alan Emmet includes many images of period gardens like Hunnewell’s in Wellesley, Mass. and Celia Thaxter’s off the coast of New Hampshire.  He admits the difficulty in preserving a garden. Emmet writes, “A garden is probably the most fragile, the most perishable form of art.”

The final essay by Virginia Lopez Begg presents an overview of the Garden Club movement in America.  She spells out the importance of the movement for women. The movement also changed our views of horticulture and landscape design.

The book ends with a listing on the inside of the back cover of some of the many properties, with their fabulous gardens, that Historic New England manages.  Now, as spring approaches, we need to visit these gardens and enjoy them once again in person.

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Formal vs Natural Garden Design

Formal vs natural garden design

There has long been a battle with various levels of passion between those who love formal garden design and those who don’t.

Some prefer the ‘natural’ design as the English proposed it in the early eighteenth century. It became the style of garden for decades and still persists.

Landscape designer and nurseryman from Pennsylvania and later California J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) ranted about the absurdity of the formal garden in his book Adventures of a Horticulturist (1935).

J. Wilkinson Elliott

Elliott said, “I do not like formal gardens. I consider them an abomination and a thorn in the flesh.”

He was pretty clear where he stood on the issue.

Then he gave his reasons.

He wrote, “The first rule to be observed in making a good garden is to make it as natural as possible, and that does not mean that design is not necessary.”

Even though the garden looks more natural, it still takes the art of design to realize it.

Eliott concluded, “The best-designed garden is one that looks as though it had not been designed.”

He wrote that in 1935.

Today we still make a distinction between natural and formal. Some gardens showcase a bit of each type of design.

Wonder what Elliott would think of that?

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In Search of a Blue Dahlia

In search of a blue dahlia –

I have often heard that there is no blue dahlia.

Last year I planted a blue dahlia I bought at the market Stop and Shop. The bright photo on the front of the box depicted a very blue colored dahlia. The name of the variety was ‘Blue Bell.’ I had to buy it.

On the website Gardenia.net I read a bit about this dahlia.

The site said, “Produces truly beautiful purple-blue flowers adorned with broad petals that fade to lavender-blue.

“The fully double flowers, up to 4-6 inches…are normally large and the plants easily top 40 inches tall, although there are even taller varieties.”

I thought what a find this was to come across a blue dahlia in a local supermarket.

It did not bloom last year, but I still packed it up to store for the winter.

It bloomed this year. As you can see, it is not really a pure blue look.

It looks more like a purple. [below]

Dahlia ‘Blue Bell’

Dahlia expert and writer Bill McClaren wrote the book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

He says, “If a bloom in the red class has the least hint of blue in it, it is classified as purple.”

Other dahlias in my garden

I planted several dahlias this summer.

When I was walking around the garden last week, I realized that the front door was framed with dahlias.

There I saw on the right the tall red ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and on the left in the back the yellow ‘Sunburst Nelson.’

This photo of the front steps highlights the colors of both yellow and red in these two dahlias. [below].

Dahlias frame this view on my front steps.

It was fun to experiment with a blue dahlia, but these two faithful varieties work just fine for me.

James Vick (1818-1882), seed company owner from Rochester, New York, loved dahlias. No surprise that he wrote in 1878, “The dahlia is ouir best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”

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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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Victorian NY Landscaper Advocated for Parks

Victorian NY landscaper advocated for parks –

To Frederick Law Olmsted we all owe a great deal of debt because he advocated for public green spaces.

The restrictions of city life call for the opportunity for a citizen to walk among trees and observe nature in plants, insects, and animals in a public space like a park.

Landscape architect Samuel Parsons (1844-1923) served as Superintendent of New York parks at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

In his book Landscape Gardening (1891) Parsons outlined the importance of parks, much in the spirit of Olmsted.

He wrote, “The chief and most important office of Central Park is not to furnish agreeable driving territory for the ‘beau monde’, the millionaires, and the lovers of horseflesh.

“It is not a scheme to please and attract the fashionable, but it is playground for the young people, a pleasant open-air breathing space for the mothers and fathers who desire to go into the country and cannot get there.”

Central Park in New York



Thus Parsons follows in the tradition of America’s early environmentalist Olmsted.

Parsons clearly spells out in his writing that his work as director of parks in New York included overseeing the grand design of Olmsted, Central Park.

Central Park came to be for city residents who had little or no recourse to escaping the city for the country.

Children and Nature

Today there is much discussion with signs of activity as well on the topic of children and gardening.

Kids have little experience with nature, for many reasons.

So when children maintain a garden at school, at home, or a plot in a community garden, they can see nature at work.

An organization called Kids Gardening encourages children to garden and offers many suggestions.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in the late nineteenth century that children who garden learn to appreciate nature.

Parsons contributed to that same tradition in his insistence that kids from the city have an opportunity to experience nature in city parks.

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CT Flower Show Features Stairway to Heaven

CT Flower Show features stairway to heaven

A few days ago I drove to Hartford, Connecticut for the 38th Annual Connecticut Flower and Garden Show.

It was the best in years.

Outstanding exhibits made the trip worth while.

Aqua Scapes included a nine-foot stairway waterfall that seemed to drift from the clouds. The title of the exhibit “Stairway to Heaven” said it all.

It was truly a heavenly site with its many spring trees, shrubs, bulbs, and perennials.

Large stones filled much of the space. 

In the distance you could see a madonna statue, centered under a Japanese maple and surrounded by a bed of tulips.

A large cage next to the water fall housed a white dove.

All heavenly.

It was no surprise that this exhibit by Aqua Scapes won the Best of Show Award.

Exhibit by Aqua Scapes

 

Cafe des Fleur

Another fine exhibit also deserves mention. The Naugatuck Valley Community College presented a landscape design that transported you to downtown Paris in the spring.

A coffee shop called Cafe des Fleur stood to one side.

The exhibit included many spring flowers like hyacinths, crocus, tulips, and daffodils. Some were in containers while others appeared in beds that bordered the sidewalk. [below]

Cafe des Fleur

Ten Horticulture students designed this  exhibit. They grew the plants in the College’s greenhouse.

An apartment building stood next door to the coffee shop. The building’s entrance included several plants as well.

This beautiful exhibit was a simple statement of how flowers can enliven a sidewalk scene.

My drive was well worth the time it took to reach Hartford.

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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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