Nineteenth Century Garden Writers Encouraged Vegetables

Nineteenth century garden writers encouraged vegetables.

Garden writers influence consumers.

Readers look to such sources to learn what to plant, what tools to buy, and what’s popular garden fashion.

The garden world enjoys it own share of garden media celebrities on whose every word eager fans depend.

So it is no surprise that in the nineteenth century historians note that at one point garden writers focused on growing vegetables rather than cultivating a flower garden.

Perhaps the emphasis on vegetable growing may have been related to the simple need to survive.  Vegetable growing and farming consumed the early decades of the country. Once we had food on the table, we could worry about a flower garden.

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter writes, “Until the middle of the century gardening writers dismissed flowers in favour of useful vegetable products.”

In the 1860s and 1870s seed company owners like Rochester, New York’s James Vick still featured growing vegetables.

Here in an illustration from Vick’s catalog. Vegetables almost surround the house. [below]

Vick wrote much about flowers and spreading the love of floriculture around the country.

One customer wrote to Vick, “No other florist has done so much to create a love of flowers.”

In 1874 he wrote in his seed catalog that gardeners could have almost as much fun in growing vegetables as in cultivating flowers.

In the catalog Vick wrote, “There is almost as much pleasure in growing a choice vegetable well, in bringing it to the highest possible state of perfection, as there is in producing a beautiful flower.”

Then Vick mentioned the lowly cauliflower, pictured in the left of the illustration. [above]

He wrote, “Indeed, some think with Dr. Johnson, that a Cauliflower is the handsomest flower that grows.”

Vick’s advice became important to his customers, so I am sure they followed his guidance even in growing vegetables.

 

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Victorian Homes Needed Lawn

Victorian homes needed lawn.

The lawn marked the landscape as contemporary in nineteenth century America.

Every Victorian house needed the lawn.

David Stuart writes in his book Garden of Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The front garden, except in the poorest examples, became the site of another piece of competitive gardening: the lawn.

“Of course the great eighteenth-century gardens had lawns, often vast, though these were either cropped by the park’s inhabitants such as fallow deer, rare breeds of sheep and cattle, or kept scythed by the garden staff.

“Soon, every Victorian house had a square of lawn, even if this was scarcely large enough to lie upon outstretched and could be cut with a few sweeps of the scythe.”

A beautiful illustration of a Victorian home with a lawn appears on the cover image from Clifford Edward Clark, Jr.’s  book The American Family Home 1800-1960. [below]

Eventually taking care of lawn became an important household task for the middle class.

As Frank Scott in 1870 argued so well in his book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, a homeowner took care of the lawn for the view, for what the neighbor would see.

Thus it was important, he wrote, to keep it cut and looking attractive.

And so Scott set the stage in the nineteenth century for all the stress homeowners feel in the need not only to cultivate a lawn, but to spend hours manicuring it so that it has that certain look.

Victorian homeowners needed a lawn, but a certain kind of lawn, with a certain look.

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Victorians Loved Flower Arranging

Victorians loved flower arranging.

Today people send flower arrangements quite easily through several online vendors.

Flower arranging as an art form took hold in the Victorian period.

After 1850 the seed and nursery catalogs moved from selling mostly vegetables to flowers.  Gardeners wanted flowers

Flowers became a Victorian passion. Flower arranging appeared everywhere.

David Stuart writes in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “Flower arranging seems to have been an innovation of the Victorian period.”

Cut flowers added beauty to home decoration.

Stuart writes, “The decoration of rooms with cut flowers became increasingly important in the nineteenth century and gave rise, by mid-century, to all sorts of appliances to hold flowers and keep them fresh.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered many flower containers in the pages of his seed catalog. He featured wooden, metal, and even ceramic vases.

Vick also included this chromolithograph of cut flowers in a vase that his customers could frame and adorn the walls of the parlor or living room.  [below]

Vick chromo of 1873

The Victorian home needed flower arrangements for many occasions. Stuart writes, “The need for ladies to be accomplished flower arrangers extended to almost all aspects of both life and death.”

The magazine The English Garden recently posted an article called “Arranging cut flowers – secrets of a top London florist” about the English florist Vic Brotherson who recently designed the flower arrangements for Kate Moss’ wedding in London.

The flowers listed in the article included Victorian favorites like foxglove, allium, cosmos, roses, and dahlias.

The Victorians not only loved flower arranging. They taught it so well that today we still use the same Victorian flowers for such arrangements.

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Landscape Garden Lost Appeal

Landscape garden lost appeal.

The English landscape garden, recognized by its informal, natural look of winding pathways and extensive areas of lawn, reached its peak in the mid-eighteenth century.

Shortly after that the style experienced a bit of decline.

The exotic plants arriving from the Americas and Asia caused a loss of interest.  Gardeners needed room to include these coveted plants, and so the extensive lawn areas became spotted with plants from outside the country.

David Stuart writes in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “Those who owned them [the newly imported exotic plants], perhaps growing the rarest that could be found, felt that they were as status-full as having a summer-house shaped like the Colosseum, and hankered after a mode of gardening that would allow them to show their wonderful plants to the world.”

Just to grow the new plants was in itself a status symbol.

The cherished landscape garden that marked England’s greatest contribution to garden art was receding into the background to make room for new annuals and shrubs. American rhododendrons and Chinese camellias attracted more attention than the sweeping lawns of Capability Brown.

Stuart says, “Consequently, by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape garden was clearly doomed.”

Roses too, illustrated here by landscape gardener Humphry Repton, appeared in their own garden called a rosary by 1800. [below]

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

And so, as happens in all garden fashion and style, what was once in became no longer desirable.

The classic English natural style would always be important, even into the nineteenth century, but not with the vigor of the early and mid 1700s.

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Gardeners Can’t Control Nature

Gardeners Can’t Control Nature.

Plants not only provide food.  They can also become a source of pleasure when used in the landscape.

We even refer to landscape as an art form in which plants provide an important element of the design.

Gardeners however cannot control plants in the landscape.  Nature has its own ways.

Recently Sheera Stern, who gardens in Metuchen, New Jersey, wrote a guest post called “On the Industrialization of Gardening” on the blog called Garden Rant, one of my favorite blog sites.

She writes, “As fall segues into winter, we are all relieved that the whine of the gas-powered leaf-blower has finally ceased.”  Stern cannot understand the attempt of the homeowner to remove every single leave that obstructs the clean surface of the lawn.

She makes the case that trying to remove them with the newest machinery, or manicuring every shrub to perfection, seems beyond the demands of enjoying a landscape.

It seems like our attempt to control nature.

That is nothing new.

We have been involved in trying to control nature since the first garden. We use nature for our own purposes.

Richard Bushman in his book The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities writes, “Nature had been smoothed and decorated as assiduously as walls and paneling inside the house.”

Then he says, “Besides refining the environment for polite company, the plantings functioned just as pictures, ceramics, or books did – that is, as subjects of conversation”

So we use nature – in the form of plants in the landscape – for a mixture of purposes that reflect social needs and social status.

One of the strongest examples of attempting to control nature has to be the use of plants in a design in topiary like the one here. [below]

Topiary image

The image clearly illustrates the careful choice and maintenance of plants to create this bridge effect over water.  It clearly shows how we can, in certain circumstances, use plants, as a form of nature, for the sake of creating a beautiful scene.

The  nineteenth century garden industry knew that to sell seeds and plants a seed company or nursery had to promise some benefit to gardening.

In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”

That view of nature continues.

We use landscape for all kinds of reasons, including for personal and social needs, just like anything else in our daily lives.

Stern concludes her post with these words, “As we move ever farther away from our agrarian roots, not only do we know less as a culture about how the natural world works, but we also have less curiosity.”

 

 

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Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular

Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular.

Plants enter our gardens usually through the portal of the green industry like seed companies, nurseries, and growers.

That was the case with the dahlia.

Originally from Mexico, the dahlias appeared in Spain in the eighteenth century.

The dahlia reached England in 1803, and America a few years later.

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) became an early advocate for the dahlia. In his publication Magazine of Horticulture in 1835 he called the dahlia the “King of Flowers.”

In 1838 he wrote, “They [dahlias] have become one of the greatest and most valuable ornaments of the garden.”

Then he also said, “We believe the time is at hand when our own gardens will produce dahlias equalling the English.”

Hovey won Best in Class I for his twenty-five dissimilar dahlia blooms at the Flower Show sponsored by  the Massachusetts Horticultural Society on Saturday, October 1, 1842.

Thus his writing about the plant and also growing it, and, of course, selling it contributed to gardeners planting it in the garden.

Hovey was only one of the early nurserymen to encourage the dahlia.

Today we have a company like American Meadows which still encourages gardeners to grow dahlias.

This image [below] is from the AM company website.

American Meadows dahlia image

Dahlias  [courtesy of American Meadows]

Hovey wrote in 1840, “Some seedling dahlias have been raised, which equal the best productions of the English garden.”

American dahlia growers can stand up to the best.

Today there are 57,000 varieties of the dahlia. This flower has come a long way, with no small thanks to the American nursery business.

 

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Oliver Plunkett’s Garden Features Grotto

Oliver Plunkett’s garden features grotto.

During my recent visit in Ireland when I saw the early home of St. Oliver Plunkett (1629-1681) in Loughcrew, something else in the garden there surprised me.

At the end of the border of perennials you find a grotto. You can see that the grotto was made with rocks simply cemented to other rocks to form a sort of shelter of a few feet in height. A tiny pool of water appears at the base.

Such a grotto, made of rocks, formed an important part of English garden history.

David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes about the history of this garden decoration.

He says, “Rockeries were, at first, pure theater. From the middle of the eighteenth century, artificial grottos and mock ruins became fashionable adjuncts in any garden large enough to pretend to ‘landscape’.”

The Plunkett property includes this grotto or rock garden, also referred to as a folly, in that garden tradition. [below]

Grotto at Loughcrew, home of Oliver Plunkett

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) created the Loughcrew Estate, making it one of the greatest estates in Ireland. The property, originally 180,000 acres, became a classic landscape from its beginning. Over the centuries landscape designers and architects have contributed to these beautiful grounds.

Near the old stone walls of the church a line of yew trees stand tall even today, after four hundred years.

Gardens, woods, arboreta, and pleasure walks make this remarkable landscape at Loughcrew in county Meath an Irish treasure.

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Victorian Garden Fashion Reappears

Victorian garden fashion reappears.

Gardening has always been a mix of fashion and style.

A recent article in The English Garden called “Gardening features: the bedding display”  demonstrates renewed interest in the bedding out fashion, popular in the nineteenth century.

The magazine traces the history of this Victorian garden practice.

The article says, “Seed merchants sold special bedding plant seeds, which could be sent direct to gardeners using the newly available postal and railway network. By the 1880s, this ‘bedding boom’ had reached even the small suburban garden, with loud displays in island beds proudly placed right in the middle of lawns. These beds came in a variety of forms, all of which – bar the circle – were equally ridiculous. Who in their right mind would choose a star, crescent, heart, butterfly or ‘tadpole’ as a shape for a bed?”

The answer for that period was that many gardeners did, because it was the garden fashion of the day.

The article includes this fabulous photo as well. [below]  The scene looks like something out of the nineteenth century garden catalogs.

Some gardens, such as Lyme Park in Cheshire, are reintroducing or reinterpreting old bedding schemes. Credit: NPTL/Stephen Robson

Some gardens, such as Lyme Park in Cheshire, are reintroducing or reinterpreting old bedding schemes. Credit: NPTL/Stephen Robson. [Courtesy of The English Garden magazine]

When the author raises the question about who would do it, all I could think of is how often this idea appeared in the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs.

Peter Henderson, for example, the seed merchant from New York not only encouraged this practice but included an illustration of it on his catalog cover several times.

What is garden fashion at one time may seem strange at a later date.

That is what is happening here.

The idea of bedding out demands not only a lot of plants, but also a great amount of time in maintaining such a bed on the lawn.

I can see why people do not want to garden this way today.

When you see it, however, the first emotion is how beautiful it is, but then you think of the many hours it took to create this colorful design on the lawn.

At the high point of this garden fashion in the nineteenth century American landscape designer Frank J. Scott wrote his famous landscape handbook Suburban Home Grounds (1870).

He said, “To keep a great number of small beds filled through the summer with low blooming flowers and their edges well cut is expensive.

“If they are also planned so that the grass strips  between them must be cut with a sickle, few gentlemen of  moderate means will long have the patience to keep them with the nice care essential to their good effect.”

The cost of the plants and also the labor made him wonder if the practice was worth it.

Today the issues for bedding out still remain, thus making a gardener hesitate to cultivate such a bedding out scheme of planting.

That does not however stop gardeners from continuing this Victorian fashion.

The article from TEG magazine ends with these words, “It seems many private gardeners still believe in bedding, with bedding plants currently representing a third of UK consumers’ spending on garden plants.”

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Flower Beds Revolutionized English Garden

Flower beds revolutionized English garden.

We take flower beds for granted, but at one time they became revolutionary, making a statement against the current garden fashion.

The story began in early nineteenth century England when gardeners needed room for the unusual plants coming into the country from Asia, Africa, and America.

Plant collectors risked dangers and even death to provide the unusual and unknown flora from around the world.  English gardeners could not get enough of such plants.

The question became ‘Where do I plant them?’ for many gardeners.  After decades of stately lawns in front of and behind the house, there seemed little space to showcase these latest garden novelties.

stuart-plants-and-gardens-2David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes, “When Lady Grenville, in exasperation [about where she would plant the new flowers coming into England from around the world], cut some large circles of the lawn in front of her drawing-room windows, and filled them with scarlet bergamots, blue salvias or yellow cosmos, she broke a century’s taboo, and started a colossal new movement.”

That was 1825. The garden has not been its old eighteenth century version since.

Here a simple act by Lady Grenville, or rather by her gardener, changed gardening.

Late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humpry Repton (1752-1818) had encouraged flowers in the landscape, even suggesting a rosarium for a rose collection. Flowers were not new. What was new was where they were planted in the landscape.

Flower beds on the lawn then became common practice both in England and America.

By 1880 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  took flower beds for granted. The beds on the lawn, he advised, needed to include annuals that bloom for the entire season. 

He wrote, “A few flower beds may be made, and usually near the borders, or opposite windows, and they should be of simple, graceful forms, and look well the whole summer, and every day and all day.”

Lady Grenville’s example illustrates how sometimes what we take for granted in gardening has a history.

Why we garden in a particular way and with certain plants expresses the culture of a particular time and place.

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Ireland Trip Illustrates Similar Plant Palette

Ireland trip illustrates similar plant palette.

My recent trip to Ireland taught me a lesson about marketing the garden.

While near Dublin, I visited the classic Victorian garden and estate called Powerscourt in the town of Enniskerry, County Wicklow.

There at the gift shop and greenhouse, near the visitor’s parking lot, I saw trays of pansies for sale. [below]

pansies-at-powerscourt

Pansies for sale outside the greenhouse at Powerscourt

The pansy has long been a gardener’s favorite. Since the nineteenth century pansies have played a central role in providing color for garden beds here in America.

When I saw the Powerscourt pansies, it was as if I was at home. We sell the same pansies here in the States.

What that means to me is that the power of marketing communication today makes a plant variety easily recognizable, perhaps even around the world, and that becomes the plant that people want to grow.

Mass marketing of the garden only began in the later part of the nineteenth century when communication innovations like the typewriter and increased speed in printing along with increased advertising became common.

A customer from Iowa wrote a letter to Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) about pansies.  Vick included these words from the letter in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1878, “We never had such flowers before; you ought to have seen our Pansies. We have every color you can think of, and lots of them that you cannot think of. We have one or two roots of them that have not had anything but double Pansies, and they were very beautiful.”

Vick, of course, encouraged the growing of pansies.  That advice has continued to this day.

So in one sense it is no surprise to see the same annuals for sale in Ireland even though the growers may be local.

Since the late nineteenth century American gardening has been intimately connected with the mass marketing of plants and garden products.

The effect is that our palette of plants has become quite similar from region to region around the country, and even from country to country.

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