We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.


Victorian Seed Industry Launched Hybrid Search

Victorian seed Industry launched hybrid search.

At the moment I am reading about the nineteenth century history of garden annuals.

Hybridizing has become an important topic to examine during this period.

Richard Gorer writes in The Development of Garden Flowers that hybridizing was not extensively practiced until the early nineteenth century.

You will find a history of hybridizing in Noel Kingsbury’s book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

Though he covers farming, especially corn, which is so dependent on hybrids to increase the yield quality and stamina, Kingsbury also addresses horticulture and gardening.

When Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1870s hybridized the petunia by crossing two varieties, he came up with his own double cultivar called ‘Vick’s double fringed.’

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick gives an account of how he crossed the petunias.

He filled a room in his greenhouse with single-flowering plants while nearby he filled another room with plants bearing double flowers. He then took a basket of double flowers to the area containing the single petunias. Next he shredded the double flowers in search of pollen and collected it with a camel’s hair brush. This pollen was transferred to the pistils of the single flowers.

This was an expensive way to generate seeds. It was however from this method that Vick added his own petunia cultivar called ‘Vick’s New Fringed.’

Vick joined a long line of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries who experimented with hybridizing.

The potential of hybridizing for even more new garden plants expanded in the early twentieth century, as Kingsbury notes, with the work of L. H. Bailey in New York and Luther Burbank in California.

Kingsbury recognizes the work of seedsmen like Vick. He writes, “Commercial seedsmen were quite important in the development of many vegetables and flower varieties.”



Crane Estate Restores Italian Garden

Crane Estate restores Italian garden

Since for several months I had heard about the beautiful restored Italian garden at the Crane Estate, I had to visit.

The non-profit Trustees of Reservations owns the property called Castle Hill and its Crane Estate, right along the ocean on Boston’s north shore in the town of Ipswich.

Today Castle Hill remains a 165-acre National Historic Landmark.

When Chicago industrialist Richard Crane bought the property as a summer home for his family in 1910, he built an Italian villa.

In 1928 he replaced it with a 59-room English-style mansion. [below]  A gravel drive welcomes a visitor to  the house.

The Crane Estate mansion on Castle Hill in Ipswich, built in 1928

The house, high on a hill, is situated quite close to the waters of the Atlantic.

That day I saw this beautiful view of the ocean from the terrace outside the house. [below]

View of the water from the mansion at the Crane Estate

The Italian garden was the first and most elaborate of the gardens created by the Cranes.

They chose the Olmsted firm in Brookline to design the garden. The garden, to which you descend as you walk from the house, includes remarkable stonework in archways, terraces, and statues.  Its fountain stands at the center, along the front wall. 

In this picture of the garden you get a sense of how low it is. The house is in the background to the left. [below]

The restored Italian garden of the Crane Estate

Many of the perennials that make up the garden beds would be familiar to any gardener.

They include sedum, phlox, echinacea, and monarda.

In the early 1900s perennial beds were the fashion. So was the Italian garden.

After all, that was the time that popular garden books included Charles Platt’s Italian Gardens (1894) and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens.

The four-mile, white-sand Crane Beach, which I have visited many times over the years, is located just beyond the entrance to the road that takes you to the house.  The beach has become a wonderful summer attraction for many on the north shore.

This garden at the Crane Estate, restored in the last year or so, certainly reflects the period of the house along with its owners’ love of the Italian garden.



NY Sonnenberg Mansion’s Special Garden

NY Sonnenberg Mansion’s special garden

The Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion in Canandaigua, New York offer much to see for any gardener.

A number of different gardens are spread throughout the fifty-acre property with its Gilded Age mansion. 

On a recent visit I found the blue and white garden, near the house. It must have made such a pleasant retreat. [below]

Blue and white garden at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion

The walk-way of pavers connect the garden to the house. It is as if the garden were an outside room.

Making a garden seem like an an outside room became a popular style of garden design in the early 1900s when this garden was installed at Sonnenberg.


The garden grows familiar plants, each chosen for its color and final size for this special setting.

Today the blue flowers include gentian salvia, lobelia, larkspur, and delphinium.

For white blossoms a visitor will see sweet alyssum, campanula, phlox, hyacinth, and agapanthus.

The flowers are combined with ferns and palms from the greenhouses.

The over-all aesthetic for this blue and white garden relies heavily on the Victorian period when colorful flowers, as well as ferns and palms, took center stage both inside and outside the house.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in 1878, “Earnestly have we desired to see the people of this country appreciate the beauties of nature, study nature’s laws, and, above all, love flowers and delight in their culture.”

Art in the Garden

The garden also features an oval pool as well as a marble summerhouse with a statue of a female figure in its center.

Along the edge of the pool you will see a white marble statue of a boy riding a dolphin. Supposedly this sculpture dates back three hundred years. [below]

Summerhouse and statues in blue and white garden

The blue and white garden lines the wall behind the house which must have made it easy for anyone wandering out from the door of the house to enjoy the garden.

Today any visitor to Sonnenberg, now a state historic park, can also enjoy this special garden.


NY Italian Garden Reflects Victorian Period

NY Italian garden reflects Victorian period.

A recent visit to the Sonnenberg House and Gardens in Canandaigua, New York revealed a bit of American garden history.

The drive on the New York thruway back to Boston from the Association for Garden Communicators annual conference in Buffalo meant passing the Sonnenberg estate which is not far from Rochester.

There I saw the nine gardens that dot the estate landscape including the Italian garden.

Located in the area directly behind the house the Italian garden is filled with plants, many potted for the summer season. [below]

The Sonnenberg landscape includes this Italian garden behind the house.

In 1900 the owner Mary Clark Thompson, whose father was once the New York governor, hired Boston landscape architect Ernest Bowditch. A couple of years later he designed this Italian garden for Mrs. Thompson.

The center of the Italian garden includes a Fleur-de-lis pattern of flower beds.  The popular ‘carpet bedding’ pattern appears on the lawn.

This garden design reflects the Victorian interest in Italian gardens at that time. In 1904 novelist and garden design enthusiast Edith Wharton, following her trip to Italy, published her book  Italian Villas and their Gardens.

You could define the ‘Italian’ garden as a reflection of the Renaissance garden that later also influenced the landscape of Versailles.

The Sonnenberg garden displayed that grand formal style of design with water features along with straight lines of clipped shrubs and several planters filled with tall, showy tropical plants.

The coleus for the carpet beds in the Italian garden were grown in Sonnenberg’s own Lord and Burnhan greenhouse.

Visiting this grand estate and garden is like a trip into the late Victorian period. 

Sonnenberg House and Gardens, restored and now well maintained, is one of America’s most preserved country estates from that time.



Victorian Conservatories Reflected Class Status

Victorian conservatories reflected class status.

A couple of years ago I visited Pittsburgh during the annual meeting of GWA, the Association for Garden Communicators.

There I saw the Phipps Conservatory, designed by Lord and Burnham of New York City, at the Pittsburgh Botanical Garden.

This summer in Buffalo, during another GWA annual meeting, I had the opportunity to see the Lord and Burnham Company’s South Park Conservatory at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. The designers modeled it after the Crystal Palace in England.

When it opened in 1900, it was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and was ranked the ninth largest in the world. [below]

Such conservatories also reveal a bit of garden social status for that time.

Wealthy homeowners included a greenhouse or conservatory as part of the requirements of a modern house.

The Conservatory at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens

On the drive back home from Buffalo I stopped at the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion in Canandaigua, New York, right off the New York thruway.

In 1903 the Lord and Burnham firm also designed the Sonnenberg conservatory and greenhouse complex. [below]


Sonnenberg’s Conservatory and Greenhouse Complex

There is a similarity among all three glass structures more than the same designer.

They remind me of the importance that conservatories had on gardening during the Victorian period of the late nineteenth century.

To have a greenhouse or conservatory spoke to the homeowner’s wealth and knowledge about plants.

The conservatory became a status symbol as well.

No surprise that these Victorian gardens, two public, and the other private, included such a structure.


Summer Garden Included Elephant Ear

Summer garden Included elephant ear.

Colocasia, or elephant ear, is a popular plant for the summer garden in the Northeast.

It is a tropical plant that now appears in many beds and borders.

L. H. Bailey wrote in 1900 in his The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture: “Summer bedding for subtropical effects employs cannas, musas, castor-oil plants, crotons, palms, ferns of coarse habit, screw pines, dracaenas, araucanas, [and] elephant-ear caladiums.”

He refers to the elephant ear plant as a caladium.  This plant, like the caladium, is also a genus in the Arum family.

This summer I planted my first elephant ear.

It all began at a local box store in the second half of June.

While checking out the bulbs and tubers in the store, I came across one elephant ear tuber in its original package marked down to half price. The tuber measured five inches high and about four inches wide.

I had never planted an elephant ear before so I thought I would try it.

I planted it in a container at the end of the driveway, a shady area.

Soon the large leaves started appearing. That elephant ear grew just fine. [below]

Elephant ear growing in a container  in my garden

In 1875 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included this tropical plant in his book The Flower and Vegetable Garden under the section ‘Bulbs & Plants.’

He wrote about both planting and storing the bulb. He said, “Roots obtained in the spring will make a good growth in the summer, and in the fall should be taken up and stored in the cellar, like Dahlias”.

During the summer I visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

There, near the Visitor Center, I saw a border of elephant ears, both purple and green in color. [below]

Berkshire Botanical garden included elephant ears along with a purple castor oil plant

Then while touring the gardens of Buffalo, New York during the Garden Writers Association annual meeting, we visited a garden that had several elephant ear plants in containers.

The owner brings in the containers after the first frost.  She stores them in the garage for the winter which she spends in Florida.

For me I guess this was the summer of the colocasia or elephant ear.



Buffalo Garden Tour Included Colorful Front Walks

Buffalo garden tour included colorful front walks.

Recently I had the pleasure of touring some of the gardens in Buffalo on what has become over the last twenty years the phenomenon known as Gardens Buffalo Niagara.

The two-day tour, held annually at the end of July called Garden Walk Buffalo, this year offered four hundred gardens to visitors.

Though I did not see all four hundred on my Garden Writers Association group tour I saw several.

After walking the streets of Buffalo in search of the gardens, I came across several houses with an outstanding front entrance where plants provided so much color and structure.

It seemed to me there were as many different designs of entry ways to the house, as there were houses.

This shady entrance provided a wonderful setting for a collection of various sizes and colors of hosta. [below]

#1 This house used many hostas as a welcome to a guest at the front steps.

This home [below] offered an array of perennials and shrubs to greet the visitor.

#2 Perennials and shrubs line this front walkway.

To me the most outstanding entrance way had to be this house [below] with mostly shrubs and trees. Though the plantings were young, they were at the height that made a wonderful warm welcome.

#3 More mature trees and shrubs fill this front yard.

Another house offered hydrangeas, coleus, and clematis as the signature plants at the porch [below].

#4 Hydrangeas welcomed us here.

This year’s annual Buffalo garden tour hosted 60,000 visitors. They travel not only from the Buffalo Niagara region but from throughout New York state, around the U. S., Canada, and beyond.

Luckily the rain held off for us as we toured the gardens.

Long will I remember this array of gardens, including many with an outstanding entrance way.



Victorian Container Gardening

Victorian Container Gardening

Gardener Lucy M. Clark writes the following guest post on how the Victorian influence in gardening still lives on. 


Victorian estates paid a lot of importance to landscaping and container planting.

The Victorian Period was a time of vanity, culture, and high regard to social class. Back then it mattered that you were rich and had an estate with beautiful landscaping. Gardening was among the most well-loved leisure activities, including container planting.

If you want to venture into Victorian container planting, here are some tips.

Parlor plants were common decorative materials in the Victorian era.

A Brief History

For this topic, it’s important to note that plant life had become so much more diverse in that era. People would plant these delicate florals and rare species of plants in beautiful vases, jars, and pots. This type of gardening is known today as Victorian container planting. This practice turned gardening into an art form. They were using expensive brass jars, cement pots, and other unique containers for both indoor and outdoor plants.

Brass jars and carved vases were commonly used as planters.

Some of the more lavish Victorian homes would have greenhouses and solariums where their plants could thrive. However, since Victorians loved to decorate with rich, dark colors, and heavy embellishments, the indoor plants had to be tough to be able to survive the harsh conditions of a typical Victorian home. These included heliotropes, palms, jasmine, and ferns among many others. Victorian indoor plants were considered not just decorative materials but also a mark of one’s social class.

Parlor Plants

Parlor plants have a way of brightening up the room and making it feel more luxurious. As in Victorian homes, parlor plants go well with heavy home embellishments. You can choose from a wide array of parlor plants if you wish to incorporate one into your own home. Thankfully, we now have modern solutions to improving plant growing conditions indoors. Here are some parlor plants that were common in the Victorian era. Maybe you want to consider getting these too!

Sword Fern

Back in those times, ferns were used as decorative material in various containers. These included metal, wood, pottery, paper, and even gravestones. Because of pteridomania, the craze among gardeners for ferns, people had their own parlor plant ferns in lavish vases and pots.

Sword ferns can grow 3-4 foot fronds, which were truly a sight to see in that era. The now popular Boston fern was later discovered in 1984 by a Massachusetts florist.

 Sword ferns are a common parlor plant in the Victorian era.


Hailed as a “cast iron” plant, the Aspidistra was favored by many Victorians because it didn’t require much maintenance. In fact, this plant can survive low light and neglect. Just give it some good soil to thrive. Occasionally the Aspidistra produces brown and purple flowers near its base and grows with large, glossy leaves with clumpy and corn-like features.


Another Victorian favorite was the Kentia parlor palm, which was pretty much a constant in Victorian photographs. The Kentia palm can grow up to 5-12 feet indoors and has lush, arching leaves. This structure makes it quite the visual in Victorian homes. The less light this type of palm receives, the more foliage it produces.

 The Kentia palm is a favorite parlor plant among Victorians.

Jerusalem Cherry

The Jerusalem Cherry parlor plant was given its name because of its popularity around Victorian holidays. It is a native to Peru and grows as a shrubby and bushy houseplant with white flowers that turn to red-orange berries. Unlike the three other parlor plants, the Jerusalem Cherry is much more high-maintenance. The plant requires high indoor humidity, as well as bright lights to support both structure and flowering. While its berries add a lot of color to a Victorian room, these are somewhat poisonous. Today’s florists and garden centers would replace these parlor plants with ornamental pepper.

Choosing Containers

Because it wouldn’t be Victorian container planting without beautiful containers, you may want to choose vintage ones that blend perfectly with luxurious, dark-colored Victorian rooms. Considering that you want these parlor plants to mimic the classic Victorian style, you can’t say no to vintage articles of furniture and decorative materials.

This specialty shop offers antique vase and brass jar copies that can be used for Victorian container planting.

Luckily for the classics-at-heart, you can get copies of Victorian vases and planters in specialty shops and garden stores. You can choose from a variety of classic designs and materials for the perfect containers that will match your room. You can also make good use of wooden planks or pallets to make your own vintage jardinieres. These are great for both indoor parlor plants and outdoor florals and shrubs.

Of course, nothing can match the charm and history of authentic Victorian plant containers. For the Victorian era lovers, you may want to check out your local antique store for some of these pieces.


It’s a comfort to know that a lot of people are still committed to preserving the Victorian culture, whether it be in fashion design, arts, or, in this case, gardening. With its expansive influence on modern society, the nineteenth century is truly a gift.


Hi there! I’m Lucy – founder of GardenAmbition.com and I’m a self-confessed garden fanatic. Gardening has always been a passion of mine and will always be my favorite pastime. Now that I am married and have one adorable son, I have the time to write and share my personal experiences with other garden enthusiasts.


America’s Most Beautiful Lawns 

America’s most beautiful lawns

[I often write about the lawn. I am grateful to Australian lawn care professional Mark Richmond who contributed the following post about some beautiful lawns here in the US. Most of them are open to the public.]

The United States is the land of the free and the home of the… beautiful lawn? Across the country, there are endless swaths of lush and healthy lawns. The pristine green landscapes are the proud features of many college universities, residential homes, and historical buildings. While there are certainly some stunning landscapes to be celebrated in each of the fifty states, here are a few of the most beautiful lawns that the United States has to offer.

Bloedel Reserve

Bloedel lawn, Washington State

 This Washington-state public garden is a breathtaking example of horticultural excellence. The flowing lawns have been maintained without herbicides and are bordered by the commanding presence of tall pines. One popular area of the reserve features a Checkerboard lawn — concrete squares placed intricately amongst the healthy grass.

The South Lawn at the White House

 The striking contrast between the white of the presidential home along with the rich green color of the healthy lawn has made for a beautiful backdrop for millions of annual photos. The lawn has held many famous historical events, and currently provides an area for many political and social functions. With its design dating back several decades, the beautiful lawn has, and most likely will continue to be, one of the most well-known horticultural masterpieces.

Central Park Sheep Meadow and Great Lawn

 Central Park — the colloquial American lawn and one of the most famous green spaces in the entire world. The great lawn covers 55 acres and is comprised of a healthy mix of high-quality fescue and bluegrass. The smaller 15 acre Sheep Meadow preserve is a popular area for picnickers, sunbathers, kite flyers, and anyone else who wants to revel in the sights of the fine green grass surrounded by the New York City skyline.

Manchester Farm

 The rolling green landscape of this Kentucky farm could be considered the epitome of beautiful American lawns. The rich and healthy Kentucky bluegrass covers over 120 acres of the farm’s property and could easily be incorporated into a picture-perfect postcard.

The Lawn at the University of Virginia

This famous green space was designed by the founder of the University Thomas Jefferson and reflects his interest in Neoclassical and Palladian architecture. The well looked after grassy expanse is considered to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark District and the symbolic center of the University.

Biltmore Estate

 The perfect lush lawn is typically where the eye falls upon when viewing the Biltmore House. This North Carolina estate features a front lawn with what could easily be considered the greenest grass in the country — a mix of tall fescue and bluegrass. The perfectly symmetrical stripes of the lawn makes for a luxurious focal point in a view of the grand mansion itself.

Chanticleer Garden

 Located just outside of Philadelphia in the town of Wayne, this 48 acre botanical garden is a picturesque place for walking and picnics. Not only are there many gardens to explore, but there are also several formal areas of lush lawn. The sleek appearance of the bluegrass and fescue mix is due in part to the always changing mowing patterns that keep the soil healthy and loose. The famous Serpentine area of the pleasure garden features a variety of aesthetically-pleasing crops — as well as comfy chairs to take in the breathtaking sights.

Longwood Gardens Cow Lot

 As the name suggests, the former pasture land is a breathtaking aspect of this Pennsylvanian public garden. The sprawling grassy area is peaceful and serene — a perfect place for a walk or just to gaze at the lush vegetation.

Filoli Lawn

 Just south of San Francisco, this Californian country house boasts over 16 acres of gorgeously stunning gardens and lawns. Considered a historical landmark, the well-maintained lawns accompany reflecting pools and rose gardens and perfectly exemplify the blending of the Anglo-American gardening style.

Middleton Place

 An aerial view of this South Carolina plantation is the best way to see its magnificent lawn. As one of America’s oldest and most famous landscapes, it still boasts the turf terraces that were initially carved in 1741. The rich mixture of Charleston and centipede grass makes for beautiful shades of green that aren’t found elsewhere.


Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller built this spectacular Hudson River Valley, New York property in the early 1900’s. It has retained its splendor ever since. The gardens and lawns are considered to be some of the best in the world, bringing great fame to their designer. The front lawn is manicured to perfection and is one of the many highlights of the National Trust estate.

When one thinks of traditional American landscapes, a lush and well maintained lawn is usually part of the scene. As you can see, there are many such examples across the country that show what the lawn can do for the landscape.

For more articles about the lawn and garden from Mark, check out the Company’s blog.