Poetry Inspired Nineteenth Century Gardens

What inspires a gardener can take many forms.

Often we depend on garden writers to tell us how the garden needs to look.

Nineteenth century poetry inspired two of the most famous English garden writers of that period, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson.

Both of them despised the bedding system of plants which was popular at that time.

The garden fashion style called carpet bedding, which filled a design with colorful plants on the lawn, spread among gardeners everywhere.

Both Hibberd and Robinson found solice in the writings of Tennyson.

Michael Waters writes in his book The Garden in Victorian Literature that poetry and fiction provided gardeners with ideas on how the garden should look.

Waters says, “Two of the most prestigious and prolific garden writers, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson, found in Tennyson’s poetry what they were looking for, and, more importantly perhaps, an absence of what they were not looking for.

“What they were not looking for was the poetic celebation of the bedding system.”

Robinson's book celebrates the value of perennials in the garden.

Robinson in his book The English Flower Garden recommends perennials over annuals in the garden.

He saw carpet beds as a waste of both money and labor.

By the end of the century there was a resurgence of interest in perennial beds and borders.

Robinson thus saw his work valued and inspiring to many gardeners, I am sure. They would take his advice about perennials.

Share

Petunias Slowly Gained Garden Prominence

 I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly from 1868.

It took decades for the petunia to attain the status of a coveted flower in the garden.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeared in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit said, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  

By 1868 flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 catalog of seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, NY listed eight varieties of petunias.

Vick wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

Even today.

A petunia variety from Proven Winners that I love is Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’

One summer I grew it in a container in my backyard on top of this wrought iron table [below]. 

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with many flowers in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is one of the top ten most popular summer annuals, according to the National Garden Bureau.

Share

Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

Share

Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

Share

Japanese Knotweed Jumped the Wall

Did you know that Japanese knotweed jumped the wall?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries English gardeners hosted exotics.

They took great satisfaction in growing plants that flooded the country from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Plant hunters then searched the globe for worthwhile garden plants.

There were various kinds of plants, including vines. One such entry was Japanese knotweed.

Unfortunately, Japanese knotweed became an unwanted invasive species.

Garden historian Stephen Harris writes about this vine in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Once an exotic plant has ‘jumped the wall’ it can have profound effects and often very difficult to control.”

The example he cites is Japanese knotweed. [below]

[Thanks to: WASHINGTON STATE
Noxious Weed Control Board
]
Polygonum Cuspidata, Japanese Knotweed

Harris says, “Japanese knotweed [is] a species which has now spread over much of the UK following the flurry of interest it aroused in the mid-nineteenth century.”

It is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s worst invasive species.

Botanical gardens, like Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, still search the world, especially China, for plants that will grow in US gardens.

Today we know a lot more about invasive plants than we did when Japanese knotweed first arrived in England in 1850.

Share

Two Typical Victorian Flowers

Everyone can easily list two important Victorian flowers.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor hesitates not one moment and presents his two typical Victorian flowers.

He writes, “The hollyhock and the scarlet geranium are what one thinks of as typical Victorian flowers.”

Taylor then explains why he includes the hollyhock. He says, “The hollyhock almost qualifies as a true florists’ flower.”

He gives the history of the hollyhock which I did not know. It seems that a shoemaker from Saffron Walden named Charles Baron introduced it to England from the Grand Orient in the sixteenth century.

Another choice

I guess we are all entitled to an opinion here.

My first choice for the most important Victorian flower would have to be the dahlia. The dahlia is both big and showy. Those are qualities one thinks of when you think of the Victorian era, especilly the 1890s.

This 1888 catalog cover from the John Lewis Childs Seed Company in New York says it all. [below]

Childs catalog cover of 1888 bursts in dahlias.

I could live with the geranium as the other top choice for that period of the nineteenth century. Everyone grew geraniums.

What are your top two Victorian flowers?

Share

Garden Flowers Familiar to Generations

Garden flowers familiar to generations

We all love garden annuals like lobelia and asters in the summer garden.

Such annuals, and many like them, have been part of our flower gardens for centuries.

Why is it that every garden center in the spring sells the same flowers like carnations, impatiens, and petunias? Because they are familiar.

We garden with plants that have been part of the garden world for decades and even centuries. The varieties may change because we have so many hybrids, but the plants are familiar.

Garden historian Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book The Victorian Flower Garden, “It is The Gardener’s Dictionary and its author [Philip Miller] that must occupy the most honorably prominent place in any account of the background to the Victorian garden.”

Catalog cover of familiar flowers in 1882
[D. M. Ferry & Co.]

He argues that the Victorian garden has roots, literally, in the gardens of earlier decades, especially the 1700s when plants were arriving in England from around the world. It was then that botanist Miller (1691-1771) supervised the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote about the garden.

Some of the flowers Miller mentions include the crocus, the snowdrop,hyacinth, and narcissus for spring.

The list also includes anemone, stock, the rose, tulip,carnation, phlox, and coreopsis, mostly for summer.

So our flower choices are familiar because we have been growing them for decades and even centuries.

Perhaps that is why it is difficult for gardeners to try new plants when spring appears.

Share

American Gardening Has Long Imitated English Style

American gardening has long imitated the English style

At breakfast this morning I glanced at the label on the marmalade jar.

I read the words ‘An English Classic.’ Who knew my marmalade belonged to a long line of English jams and jellies?

Here I have often written about America’s dependence on English gardening fashion.

Recently I came across a reference to that relationship.

Historian Robert H. Wiebe wrote the book The Search for Order 1877-1920.

Wiebe says, “For more than a century… Americans’ freedom and their democracy, their heritage and their culture, all acquired meaning through a comparison, explicit or implicit, with the British model.”

In the early 1900s Chicago horticulturist and landscape designer Wilhelm Miller spelled out that relationship as it concerned gardening in his book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening. (below)

Miller made the point that since the English have been gardening for so long, we needed to look to them as a guide for what we ought to do here in America.

To a certain extent his argument was true.

How often did garden writers in the nineteenth century compare an emerging American style of gardening to that of the traditional English garden?

Dahlias

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey wrote in his Magazine of Horticulture in 1838 about the English love for dahlias.

He said,“The dahlia has done more, in England, than all other plants together, toward the dissemination of a taste for gardening.”

Then he wrote how our dahlia gardens here in America might soon resemble the quality of the English.

Hovey said “I believe the time is at hand when our gardens will produce dahlias equaling the English.”

Today we Americans subscribe to the magazine The English Garden. Each spring Americans flock to visit the Chelsea Flower Show. English garden tours remain popular in this country.

American gardening, like so much here, has long imitated the English.

Share

When Annuals Lost Their Appeal

When annuals lost their appeal

From the mid nineteenth century England encouraged gardening with beds of annuals.

The arrival of glorious summer plants from warmer climates like Africa, Asia, and South America had encouraged that fashion.

In the 1870s however garden writer William Robinson criticized the practice. He advocated for perennials and native plants in the summer garden.

The cost of growing in the greenhouse the necessary dozens of annuals became expensive.

Another issue became  the maintenance to keep the annual beds weed-free and trimmed to the proper height and width.

Perennials would reward the gardener with bloom year after year, Robinson wrote.

Growing  native plants would also reduce the expense of the annuals since they are readily available in local fields, mountains, and woods.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden writes about the inevitability of the demise of the extensive growing and maintaining of beds of annuals.

William Robinson

Robinson himself had once been an advocate of annuals but no longer.

He wrote the book The Wild Garden in which he proposed plants other than annuals for the summer garden.

Carter says, “The movement away from the true Victorian style during the last decade of the century reflected in, and partly brought about by Robinson, … was inevitable.

 “It has been maintained that bedding, with its emphasis on annuals and a limited number of perennials, caused gardeners to disregard old-fashioned plants, bringing some of them close to extinction.”

Today we continue to preach the gospel of native plants. 

It’s not that we can’t grow annuals. It’s that we also have beautiful native plants.

Share

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.

 

Share