Problems with the English Lawn in America

Problems with the English lawn in America.

Time to think about the lawn.

We need to figure out how to help it survive. We need to mow it. Then we need to trim the edge of it as well. They are the chores that we hope will keep the lawn looking perfect.

The lawn remains a reminder of America’s love of the English garden.

English writer and landscape gardener William Robinson, referred to as the father of the English flower garden, wrote in 1870, “The lawn is the heart of the true English Garden.”

Yet Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premiere nineteenth century landscape gardener, knew that Americans could not cultivate a lawn like the English.

In the new book Flora Illustrata landscape architect Judith Major writes, “Downing admitted in The Horticulturist that the hot, sunny American summer does not favor the type of fine lawns that thrive under British conditions, yet writers on landscape architecture continued to promote the lawn.”

During the nineteenth century garden writers, who were sometimes also seed company or nursery owners as well, sought to sell grass seed. The lawn became the essential planting in the home landscape.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August, 1878, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment.”

On that same page and above his words appeared this illustration of a house with its required well trimmed front lawn. [Below]

Lawn and House in VIL Monthly 1878, August

Lawn and House in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1878, August

Thus he encouraged the lawn both in his words and his magazine illustration.

Here is another Vick black line drawing from his seed catalog of 1880. [below] Notice again the central role the lawn plays.

Vick's Floral Guide 1880

Vick’s Floral Guide 1880

So it was no surprise that Downing had a difficult battle trying to convince Americans that a lawn like the English cultivate was not possible on American soil.

To this day, however, we have not stopped in our quest for that perfect lawn.
















Public Garden Reflects Early 20th Century Formal Design

Public garden reflects early 20th century formal design.

Sometimes a treasure close to home receives only a fraction of the attention it deserves.

That’s the case with the public garden at the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass. This garden is so close that I cannot figure out why it took me so long to pay a visit.

Its formal look dates to 1902 when Boston architect Charles Platt built both the house and the garden.

That first decade of the twentieth century was a time for renewed interest in the formal look of the garden. Garden designers were moving away from the more natural look that had dominated the garden for many decades both in England and in America.

Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Since 1991 the historic preservation group called Trustees of Reservations has owned the property, with its historic house and garden. The goal of the Trustees, founded by Boston conservationist Charles Eliot in the late nineteenth century, is to preserve the history of exceptional Massachusetts’ houses and gardens for future generations. Here TOR has done a marvelous job of preserving Platt’s formal garden.

A lawn surrounds the house, but behind the house you see the formal garden.   The garden includes four parterres, each enclosed by a highly pruned boxwood hedge two feet tall. Inside the parterres many perennials provide color throughout the summer and into the fall.

Platt promoted the Italian design for the American garden. In the Bradley garden Platt also designed a red brick lattice wall in the Italianate style. The wall, about four feet high, surrounds the entire garden with its lawn, walkways, and flowerbeds. The wall, with its open spaces, provides an effect of filtered light into the garden.

trustees of reservationsThis year happens to be the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the Trustees of Reservations. Thus during the next few months there will be special events at TOR’s 114 special historical places and tracks of land owned by TOR.

















Public Garden Reveals Formal Design’s Bare Bones

Public garden reveals formal design’s bare bones.

Recently my wife and I traveled to Spokane where I gave a talk on my book. Our hosts, the Inland Empire Gardeners, gave us a tour of the city of Spokane.

The only place I was really interested in visiting, and the only thing I knew about Spokane, was the formal Duncan Garden at Manito Park.

To my surprise the Park’s Duncan Garden was the first place we visited. You could see the bare bones of the formal garden that attracts so many visitors. [below] It seemed like the beds were just waiting for the day when their plants would arrive.

Manito Park, Spokane

Manito Park, Spokane

There is something magical about a formal garden. It certainly speaks to the artistic skill of the designer to create such forms of color and structure with plants, stone, and soil.

In August of 1881 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1881) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Although the artificial or geometric style of gardening has passed away, a trace of it is still to be seen in some of the best grounds, where a small space is devoted to flowerbeds made in exact patterns, either cut in the grass or bordered with some low edging plants, with gravel walks between.”

In England that formal design took a back seat in the early 1700s to open the door to a new kind of garden design, called the natural or picturesque. Gardeners wanted a more natural look to the garden.

It would not be long, however, before the English would return to a more formal look in the garden. You can see it below in the Penshurst Place garden in Kent. [below]

Penshurst Place in Tonbridge

Penshurst Place in Tonbridge

The Manito Park formal garden dates to 1904, a time when there was a resurgence of interest in the formal design for the landsape both in England and in America.

Spokane today reflects that tradition in this famous park called Manito and its Duncan Garden with its carpet beds, which were empty when I took the photo above, but soon will be filled with color.  Then people will once again come to visit and enjoy this special garden.

I am grateful to the wonderful people we met in Spokane, especially the members of the Inland Empire Gardeners, who were so kind to make sure we visited Manito Park.

Thanks to Pat Schilling Photography for this photo [below] of what the Duncan Garden will look like in the summer. Amazing beautiful color in this formal design will await the visitor.

Spokane's Duncan Garden [Courtesy of Pat Schilling]

Spokane’s Duncan Garden [Courtesy of Pat Schilling]

New Video Highlights England’s Capability Brown

New video highlights England’s Capability Brown.

In eighteenth century England Capability Brown, royal gardener at Hampton Court, gardener to the King,

C Brown [courtesy of the http blog, austenonly]

Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) [courtesy of the blog,]

designed over 200 properties in the new landscape style, distinguished by its extensive lawn and natural look.

Many consider Brown among the three most important landscape gardeners in eighteenth century England. The other two are William Kent and Humphry Repton.

Brown designed Highclere Castle’s grounds that you may have seen each week on “Downton Abbey.”  The Castle became the home of Lord and Lady Grantham and their fictional family.

This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

To celebrate his birth, an organization has developed in England to make this year Capability Brown’s year.They sponsor lectures, garden tours and other events.

The group has also produced a five-minute video called Capability on Camera. [below]

This is a wonderful way to tell Capability’s story.

I hope you enjoy the video.


Brown rose from a simple gardener to a robust self-promoter who convinced many aristocrats that the modern landscape style, including vistas and a park look in the landscape, would define the new English Garden.

If you would like to learn more about the year-long Lancelot Capability Brown events, check out the group’s website at

Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower

Victorian middle class wanted the lawn mower.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the lawn has assumed an important role in the English garden.

Lancelot Capability Brown, the English gardener to the King in the mid 1700s, created many a lawn on the properties that he was contracted to design in the new modern landscape style.

Since the garden of the wealthy had a team of gardeners to cut the grass, the lawn mower did not appear until mid nineteenth century.

The lawn mower came about because the middle class homeowner couldn’t afford the staff of gardeners.  He wanted an easier way to cut the grass.

Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 writes, “Not until gardening became the leisure occupation of many new middle-class town dwellers did the mechanization of mowers begin.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

The lawn mower in England appeared in 1830, and in America a few years later, 1850. Here is an ad for the Buckeye Lawn Mower from Springfield, Massachusetts that appeared in garden catalogs in the 1890s. [above]

With a mower the middle class could enjoy a lawn just like the wealthy, upper class had been doing for decades.

A lawn thus reflected social class. With a lawn the middle class could identify with the more wealthy estate owner, because now they both had a lawn to maintain.



Downing Admired Chatsworth

During the mid nineteenth century Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premier nineteenth century landscape gardener, admired the garden at Chatsworth, the work of head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

In 1850 Downing visited England’s Chatsworth, begun in 1617. He later wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire, has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world.”

You know since you need inspiration for a garden or landscape, you sometimes borrow ideas from other gardens you have visited. In one sense it is a high form of admiration.

Downing, like any gardener, found a certain enjoyment in visiting such grand gardens as Chatsworth. They inspired his writing about the kind of home ladnscape America needed at that time, a fashion quite similar to the English garden, though adapted for the American home.

He describes the landscape of Chatsworth in detail, including  the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the estate.

You can still see the Chatsworth lawn in the photo here.  [below] It is a lawn that Capability Brown installed during the eighteenth century, bestowing upon it even more historical importance.

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth

Downing, a New York nurseryman who wrote several books and edited the magazine The Horticulturist,  admired the English garden style.  He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, who had published a garden magazine and many books.  Loudon’s magazine also included articles written by Downing.  Loudon was probably the most influential English garden writer in the first half of the nineteenth century.

What style does your garden represent?  Who is your inspiration for your garden?

Downing admired Joseph Paxton’s English garden at Chatsworth.

Victorian Vase Appeared in 1888 Lawn Mower Ad

During the late nineteenth century Victorian period in America, the vase played an important role in the garden. The container had to be large and positioned on a stand so people would be able to see it.

Its plants included tropicals such as banana or canna. People also loved such plants because they were exotic.

Recently, while paging through the Parker and Wood seed catalog of 1888, I came across an advertisement for a lawn mower. Here is the illustration in the ad.  [below]

The Parker and Wood Seed Company became the New England Agents for Blair Manufacturing in Springfield, Mass. which made lawn mowers.

Parker & Wood Catalog 1881 "Seeds and Agricultural Impletments"

Parker & Wood Catalog 1888 [Courtesy of Mass Hort]

In the vase notice the large leaves on what is probably a tropical plant.

You can’t miss them.

Of course, the military figure cutting the grass also caught my attention. Why is he wearing what appears to be some sort of military uniform?

But it is the lawn mower that the ad intended to sell. The ad detailed the features of the lawn mower: “will cut narrow borders and will perfectly cut low terraces. Runs perfectly silent; easily operated.”

This was a time when suburban homes took pride in an English lawn.  A machine to keep the lawn trim certainly found an audience among the gardeners who read this catalog.

Such advertising became national since people around the country wanted a lawn mover. In 1906 Truman A. DeWeese wrote The Principles of Practical Publicity, an early volume on the success of advertising. He said, “”The manufacturer now creates a demand for the goods through advertising.”

The ad in its own quiet way also sold Victorian values, like the showy garden vase.


1890s Lawn Seed Ad Linked to Public Garden

By the 1890s modern advertising sought to motivate the buyer by an emotional appeal.

Recently I spent an afternoon examining nineteenth century seed catalogs at the library of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

A grass seed ad in a catalog from 1889 caught my attention.

The Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston used the Public Garden which borders the Boston Common as an illustration to sell its grass seed. Created in 1837, the Public Garden was the first public botanical garden in America. From the begnning decorative and flowery, it featured meandering pathways for strolling. Today its famous duck boats bring tourists to its lagoon in the summer.

Both the Public Garden and the Boston Common, begun in 1634, extend for several city blocks.  Recently I drove by at night to see their Christmas lights. Quite impressive.

an ad for grass seed in Park & Wood Catalog 1889

An ad for grass seed in this 1889 Park & Wood Catalog featured Boston’s Public Garden.

By late  nineteenth century the lawn had become an important part of the home landscape.

This advertising told the reader that if the grass seed was good enough for Boston’s Public Garden, it certainly would be fine in your home landscape as well.

An appeal in this case to sell something by associating it with something or someone that people treasure is what we still do today in marketing, advertising, and public relations.

By the late nineteenth century advertising meant not simply giving information about a product, but motivating a buyer to choose a particular product.  In this ad the Company referred to its particular variety of grass seed  called ‘Boston Lawn Seed.’  You can see the product name in the lower right corner of the ad. [above]

Connecting the grass seed with this established public green space was an example of that kind of modern advertising.

By linking the lawn seed to the Public Garden, for people across the country this nineteenth century ad also sold the importance of the lawn in the landscape.


Flowers Appeared in this Nineteenth Century Brookline Landscape Plan

English landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) re-introduced flowers into the landscape in the late eighteenth century.

Nicolette Scourse wrote in her book The Victorians and their Flowers, “Flowers had re-entered the grand garden towards the end of the eighteenth century. Humphry Repton, Capability Brown’s successor, had introduced terraces of flowers around the mansion to bridge the gap between building and landscape.”

Thus it was no surprise that at the Boston Athenaeum I saw flowers in the Thomas Handasyd Perkins landscape plan of 1849 for his extensive Brookline property, outside of Boston.  The colored plan on the desk in front of me measured 20 inches in height and 64 inches in width. Col. Perkins grandson, the painter and architect Edward Clarke Cabot (1818-1901), drew the plan.

Cabot’s most famous architectural design was the Boston Athenaeum at 10 1/2 Beacon Street, near the State House.

In 1851 Cabot painted this watercolor called the Algerine Corner, Milton. [below]

Cabot painting [Athenaeum]

Edward Clarke Cabot’s watercolor Algerine Corner, Milton 1851  [Boston Athenaeum]

In the Perkins plan there were rows and rows of colorful tiny dots, indicating the beds and borders of flowers that he cultivated.  That garden choice coincided with the latest fashion in modern landscape gardening.

Thomas G. Carey, who wrote Memoir of Thomas Handasyd Perkins in 1856, referred to the flowers that Perkins cultivated. He said “After his retirement from commerce, Col. Perkins found sufficient occupation in the management of his property; in various matters of public nature which interested him; and in the cultivation of trees, and particularly of fruits and flowers, on his estate at Brookline.”

Gardens of Colony and State wrote in 1931 about the Perkins estate in these words, “His place was considered more advanced in horticultural sciences than any other in New England.” And also, “Visitors noted in September 1835  the annual and other flowers blooming profusely.”

Flowers appeared in this nineteenth century Brookline landscape plan.

Early Nineteenth Century Massachusetts Landscape Illustrated Modern English Garden Design

Recently I spent an afternoon at the Boston Athenaeum in the center of the city. This grand old library, founded in 1807, has long provided Bostonians a wonderful spot for reading and research. I am happy to be a member.

Boston Athenaeum ,10 1/2 Beacon Street, in 1855

Boston Athenaeum ,10 1/2 Beacon Street, in 1855

What I came across was the plan for the early nineteenth century property of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) who lived in Brookline, a town just outside of Boston. Perkins had provided funds to build the Boston Athenaeum.

Brookline has its own identity as a town, dating to 1705, with its own local government even though it is just a short drive to downtown Boston when traffic is low.

The plan illustrates the modern form of landscape gardening, begun in England in the eighteenth century. The extensive lawn, and the many greenhouses, are what I remember most in the plan.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (XX-XX) [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) 

Boston horticulturist Marshall Wilder writes in his book of 1881 called The Horticulture of Boston, “For fifty years Col. Perkins’ estate was kept in the best manner by experienced foreign gardeners, and at an expense of more than ten thousand dollars annually. He frequently received trees and plants from Europe, the products of which were prominent at the exhibitions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.”

England’s Sir Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth, gave Perkins a grape that Perkins grew in his orchard in Brookline.

Like other prominent men who owned large estates, Perkins illustrates how wealthy landowners chose to garden both for growing fruits and also for illustrating the modern landscape style, popular in England.

Historians Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson  write in their biography of Perkins called Merchant Prince of Boston that at the Perkins’ garden “Encouragement was given to ornamental gardening, with an eye to the art of landscaping.”

The property, with its white house, was located at the corner of Warren and Heath Streets in Brookline.   Today Tom Brady lives not too far away. That area in Brookline has long been known as home to the wealthy and powerful of Boston.

Eventually, the Perkins’ daughter Eliza married Samuel Cabot, whose son Lewis built another mansion in 1895 on the same property. It became known as the Cabot estate.

In the early 1970s I lived in the Cabot estate after it had first passed into the hands of the Henry Lapham family in the early twentieth century, and then later in 1942 purchased by the Discalced Carmelites, a Catholic religious order, which I joined.

Perkins’ nineteenth century landscape in Brookline iIllustrated the modern English garden design in America.