Victorian Home Landscape Required Lawn

Victorian home landscape required lawn.

The lawn became an important part of the American home landscape in the nineteenth century.

The seed and nursery catalogs often featured a lawn in illustrations and offered the best method of laying out and cultivating a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  was no different. He often wrote about the lawn.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1878 he referred to the lawn as a jewel, an emerald.

He said, “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. A few beds of foliage plants or flowers, or vases, are like diamonds set in emerald, and the latter, especially, impact a graceful elegance which nothing else can give. They are infinitely superior to the most costly statuary, which is better suited to the hall than the garden, and quite out of place in such simple, unpretentious places as are most of the private gardens of this country.”

This illustration of ‘Home Grounds’ appeared in his magazine in 1880. [below] Notice the lines of the flowing lawn.

Home Grounds. Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1880 [Courtesy of the Five Colleges Depository at the University of Massachusetts]

It was the homeower’s duty to provide the lawn because it alone was the important setting for the home.

In February of 1879 Vick wrote, “Those who do not make home beautiful and happy are morally or intellectually inferior, generally both, but not always.”

It was as if there were a moral imperative to cultivate a lawn to demonstrate a homeowner had taste.

A  customer from Nebraska wrote Mr. Vick in 1880 and asked, “What is the best Grass for lawns, and also the best ornamental and shade trees for lawns? If convenient, will you give the plan of a lawn?”

 Every Victorian home needed a lawn.


Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.


Verbena Essential Victorian Flower

Verbena essential Victorian flower.

What is good about annuals is that they continue to bloom until the Fall, or even til the first frost.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) defined them as “those plants that live but one season.”

In the nineteenth century when colorful flowers became an essential in every garden, the verbena rose to become an important addition to the garden. Vick called it “one of the most showy and valuable plants of the garden.”

English horticulturist David Stuart wrote in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens, “The verbena was acknowledged, even by contemporaries, as central to the whole bedding movement.”

Bedding meant a design on the lawn, often a diamond, a circle, or a half-moon. Flowers and plants with colorful leaves made up the design. Weekly trimming and weeding followed for the season.

Vick, in an article called “Bedding Plants” wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November, 1881: “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

Today verbenas continue to be an important summer flower for the garden.

The plant grower Proven Winners offers a hybrid variety of verbena called dark blue superbena. [below]

Proven Winners dark blue superbena variety of verbena.

Though today we may not include carpet bedding in the landscape because of its high maintenance, in Victorian times bedding always depended on a well-trimmed lawn.

Vick offered a bit of caution to his readers about the lawn. He wrote,”This style of gardening [bedding] is admissible only with grounds kept in elegant condition; otherwise it would be like jewels in a swine’s snout.”

Even though we do not cultivate carpet bedding, we can still enjoy the Victorian summer flower called the verbena.



Lawn Mower Became Essential Nineteenth Century Garden Tool

Lawn mower became essential nineteenth century garden tool.

The lawn continues to be important to many homeowners.

The ‘modern’ design of the English garden, as it was called in the early eighteenth century, included a lawn.

The house was to appear as if  “in a sea of green.”

The gardeners during this period used a scythe to cut the grass.  Eventually the lawn mower appeared on the market, first in England, then by 1850 in America.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) sold lawn mowers in his seed catalog.

Vick wrote in his company catalog of 1875, “Lawn mowers are now a necessity. As a general rule, we may say there can be no good lawn without this useful machine. Not one in ten thousand can use a scythe with sufficient skill to secure a good lawn.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad 

Vick recommended a lawn mower called the “Charter Oak”. He said, “Its workmanship, and the principles upon which it is constructed, we are disposed to think it is one of the best, if not the best Lawn Mower ever introduced.”

In an ad the manufacturer wrote these words about the ‘Charter Oak’ mower, “The machine is light and easily operated, beautifully and mechanically made and finished, leaving no essential point overlooked; has a three blade solid revolving cutter, preventing any appearance of ribbing on the finest English grass lawn.”

By the end of the nineteenth century the Buckeye lawn mower appeared on the market. [left]

The illustration seems to say “It is so easy to use, even a child could mow the lawn.”

Whatever a homeowner used was not as important as the goal of keeping the lawn in the home landscape trimmed.

Thus the American home owner could boast of a lawn in the long tradition of the English garden.


Conflicting Eighteenth Century Lawn Advice

Conflicting eighteenth century lawn advice.

It is spring and that mean’s it’s time to look at your grass and figure out what level of maintenance it needs after the winter.

The lawn played an essential role in the landscape design of mid eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

By the end of the century another landscape gardener, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), looked at the lawn a bit differently.

The eighteenth century witnessed conflicting advice on the spot where the lawn begins in the landscape.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams, writes, “It was Brown’s rules to bring the lawns or at all events grass which might be rather meadow than lawn, right up to the house itself so that the house stood in a sea of grass and the first incidents in the landscape were at some distance.”

Then he writes about Repton’s idea of the lawn. Hyams says, “Instead of bringing the grass up to the house, Repton designed terraces, often with balustrades of stone piers or with urns carrying flowers, to link the house to the garden or park.”

Though both encouraged the lawn, it seemed more an issue of how close the lawn came to the house.

As happens in style and fashion, the Repton view continued into the nineteenth century and terraces became an integral part of the house architecture.

The lawn would come right up to the balustrades.

By the end of the nineteenth century seed company owners usually encouraged lawns. It was not a question of how close to the house, just as long as there was a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his seed catalog of 1872, “The space in front of the house, and generally the sides exposed to view from the street, should be in grass. No arrangement of beds, or borders of box, or anything else, will look so neat and tasteful as a well kept piece of grass.”

The lawn by then had become an integral part of residential landscape design, which across America followed the English garden tradition.

In his 1873 company catalog Vick wrote, “A place can never look well unless the lawn and walks are in perfect order.”

By that time the differing views of the lawn from the eighteenth century were long forgotten.


Capability Brown’s Abbey Landscape Receives Funding

Capability Brown’s Abbey landscape receives funding.

We just finished celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

I have enjoyed reading the posts about the celebration in England that included many events during the year and even a video.

You can find news about the year-long celebration of Brown’s anniversary on the website simply called

Brown influenced the development of the landscape garden in the mid-eighteenth century.

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden writes that a bit of formality in the garden initially marked the emerging new eighteenth century garden. He says, “An element of formality remained an important ingredient in even the most fashionable gardens until well into the 1730s.”

That lasted until the touch of Brown appeared on the scene.

Richardson says, “It was only in the second half of the century, and the advent of ‘Capability’ Brown, that the landscape of rolling pasture and naturalistic lakes became the norm.”

Brown emerged as the most signficant English landscape gardener at that time.

It was his lawn that became the mark of his work on any given landscape.

Milton Abbey, landscape designed by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century

The fourteenth century Milton Abbey near Blandford Forum in Dorset rests on a Capability Brown landscape apparently nicknamed “The Great Stare” by the great landscape architect himself. [above]

Recently the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Abbey over a million pound grant to repair the buildings, improve facilities for visitors, and enhance the connections between the Abbey and the five hundred acre landscape designed by Capability Brown.

Today the Abbey continues in the great Benedictine tradition of hospitality to all visitors. The grant will help the Abbey, its staff and volunteers to extend their welcome, and ensure that the Abbey and its  landscape are restored for the inspiration and enjoyment of generations to come.

The grant will support the rediscovery of historic walks, drives, and viewpoints in the landscape designed by Brown between 1763-83.

Brown’s historic landscape at Milton Abbey will continue as a living example of the English landscape garden of the mid-eighteenth century.



Empress Josephine’s English Garden

Empress Josephine’s English Garden

The landscape garden of the early 1700s took the English garden in a new direction.

The garden assumed a less formal look, replacing it with a more natural scene, especially with the extensive lawn and curved walkways.

The reach of the new or modern English garden traveled beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Even the French enjoyed it.

France, which had given the world the grand formal look of Le Notre’s Versailles, adopted this view of the English landscape garden at Chateau Malmaison, the country estate of Empress Josephine (1763-1814).

In his book Jardin de la Malmaison H. Walter Lack writes, “[The previous owner] laid out the garden of great beauty in the English style, with a remarkable number of very rare and exotic trees and plants.”

This painting by the artist A. Garnerey captures the open grassed area at Malmaison. [below]

The open lawn at Malmaison, country estate of Empress Josephine. [Painting by  A. Garnerey]

Empress Josephine’s architect Louis-Martin Berthault (1770-1823) “created a large, slightly undulating lawn and had it planted with groups of trees; vistas were also created.”

The Malmaison Temple in the garden. [Painting by A. Garnerey]

Berthault built a little temple with six columns. [above] To include such a temple also reflected the new English garden style as seen in gardens of the 1700s like that of Stowe and Stourhead.

Josephine built her extensive botanic garden at Malmaison, introducing many exotic plants including the dahlia from Mexico.

The new trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals found a home in the perfect setting of this English garden on French soil.


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.






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.










America’s Landscape Gardening Pioneer

America’s landscape gardening pioneer, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

Andrew Jackson Downing

The English developed a new form of garden design in the early eighteenth century.  They called it ‘modern’, or natural.

This design style included a lawn, trees, curved pathways, water, stone work, and sometimes even beds of flowers.

Eventually America adopted this English garden design, or landscape gardening, especially after 1850 for the middle class home landscape.  Before then it appeared mostly on the estates of the wealthy outside cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

Boston horticulturist and nursery owner Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) published a periodical called Magazine of Horticulture .

In 1840 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “Attention is given to the laying out of gardens, and that small beds of turf are occasionally introduced on which groups of flowers are planted; but, other than this, there has  been no attempt made, that we are aware of, to introduce landscape gardening, even among the many suburban villas, which abound in the vicinity of our large cities.”

Hovey saw few landscapes designed in the English style.


New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing meanwhile was busy writing his book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening which first appeared in print in 1841, one year later.

Then in 1844 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “A taste for landscape gardening is gradually extending.”

Hovey does not give the interest in landscape gardening exclusively to Downing, but Downing’s work certainly gave America  an opportunity to understand the importance of English garden design.

Downing wrote articles for Hovey’s magazine, so Hovey certainly knew him and his work.

Andrew Jackson Downing would become the most important proponent by mid nineteenth century America for the modern English garden design.