Visit to a NH Public Garden Provides a Surprise

Every year in late August I make an effort to visit Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The gardens are filled with annuals that look terrific by this time of the year, the end of summer.

When I took this photo at 7 am last week [below], I had no idea how it would turn out since I was just snapping as I walked around the garden, which is the way I often take pictures. When I saw the photo later, I was surprised beyond words.  The photo captures the color and majesty of the garden in a kind of mystical way. It was an overcast morning and that provided a misty moment, perfect for the photo.

The garden and foundtain at Prescott Park, with the waterfront in the back

The garden at Prescott Park with waterfront in the back

You can see the dozens of coleus plants, with fuchsia as well, that surround the fountain. The red bricks on the path reflect the rain of the night before. A bit of mist appears on each side, and in the distance benches in front of the Portsmouth waterfront.

You find so many annuals throughout the garden, planted usually in a formal design, yet when you see them in full bloom at the end of the summer, they look like they have always been there, creating so much of Prescott Park’s splendor. This early morning photo captures a glimpse of that feeling.

Now you see why I make the annual trip to Prescott Park.

I am sure you probably have a garden, whether public or private, that you enjoy every summer as well.


Growing Succulents in the Garden Might Be the Latest Fashion – but How New Is It?

On my recent trip to Reno I visited the Sierra Water Gardens, a garden near downtown that specializes in succulents, water plants, and koi.

The garden’s own landscape in various designs of plants, water, and containers demonstrated quite well what the garden featured. The garden sits right on the Truckee River, which is quite low right now because Reno had little snow this winter, but there was enough water for the occasional water feature I came across as I walked the garden.

I saw succulents by the dozens in tiny pots awaiting the customer. Succulents can store water, or else they adapt to little water.  Cactus is one example, but also the sedum, certain forms of euphorbia, aloes, and, of course, agave, but there are many to choose from for that succulent garden.

I wondered how new is our attraction to growing succulents in the garden.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1886 April issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly, “The question is what to do with pot plants in the summer?…Succulents like aloes, cactuses, and century plants do very much better when set out in the open ground; and this is often a great advantage, as the huge tubs these plants are often kept in all summer are dreadfully troublesome…These succulents can be so arranged that they make pretty effect in the open air.”

Meehan encouraged growing succulents in the garden. Thus cultivating succulents has a long history in the American garden.

In 1901 Cornell University Professor of Horticulture L. H. Bailey wrote in his Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture that succulents would make a fine bed for ornamental planting.

This is a black and white drawing that appeared in Bailey’s volume. [below]

Ccylcopedia of Horticulture, 1901

Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, 1901

Bailey also suggested a less formal approach might be used. He  wrote, “When a large number of mixed genera and species of succulents is available, exceptionally attractive plantings may be produced by a combination of these in more natural rather than formal designs.”

Here is the entrance to the garden in Reno. [below]

entrance xxx

Entrance to the Sierra Water Gardens in Reno

And of course I had to take a picture of the succulents for sale in their tiny pots. [below]

Succueltns plants for sale at the XX Garden in Reno.

Succulents  for sale at the garden

It was a grand visit to the Sierra Water Gardens. I had never seen so many succulents in one setting and that made the trip so worth taking.  Thanks to my nephew in Sparks, Nevada who let me know about this special garden, and thanks to the sales team we met that morning at the garden who made us feel right at home.



Victorian Gardeners Debated Beds or Mixed Borders

Today garden fashion includes both using the same plant in a mass setting but also mixed perennial borders.

That was not always the case.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Two major gardening themes, beds and borders, defined the form and shape of Victorian gardens…Most arbiters of the new, dramatic single-species beds would have avoided [mixed beds] which was scorned as ‘promiscuous’ plantings, quite a damaging judgement at the time.”

In 1888 the journal called  American Agriculturist also discussed the question. In the issue from March of that year appeared an article with the title “Our Flower Garden the Coming Season.” The article said, “The advocates of these two styles of gardening soon engaged in controversy, each advocating his style with vigor. “

Generally annuals were used in beds while perennials made up the major part of a border.  The AA wrote, “This planting in the ‘bedding system’ is for the most part confined to tender or half-hardy plants, and must be expensive, whether one purchases the plants, or propagates himself the many thousands required.  In this method of planting flowers lose all individuality, but help make up a mass of color.” Beds often had an intricate design on the lawn. The bed needed weekly maintenance to keep the color and the height of each plant to preserve the design.

The bedding system used colorful plants like geranium, verbena, lobelia and alternanthera. The American Agriculturist wrote about that style in these words, “In this, plants of low stature are planted close together, so that their flowers produce masses of contrasting or harmonizing colors.”

Each garden style, beds and borders, offered a certain value. The AA article wisely concluded with a recognition of value in each of the two forms of garden fashion. The article said, “As in most controversies, this has resulted in a compromise. Those who most strongly espoused the mixed border, the plants suitable for which are mainly hardy herbaceous perennials, have discovered that these plants may be so disposed as to be very effective, either in the different tints of their foliage, or by planting them so that their flowers will form pleasing effects, and thus secure all the advantages of the ‘bedding system’ in a much more permanent manner. At present, some of the most skilled horticulturists of Europe are giving attention to the grouping of herbaceous perennial plants.”

So it is today we see value in both mass planting and perennial borders.

Here is an example of mass planting of four coleus varieties in the Fuller Gardens in North Hampton, New Hampshire. [below]

Mass planting of coleus in several differnt colors at Fuller Gardens, North Hampton, NH

Mass planting of coleus in several different colors at Fuller Gardens, North Hampton, NH


Lavender Field in Reno, the Perfect Garden for a Wedding

I just returned from a few days in Reno, Nevada, spending time with family. While there I visited a few gardens even though the temperature at times rose to 102 degrees.

A garden that took me by surprise was Lavender Ridge, a field of almost an acre covered in lavender, growing in straight rows. Though the blue flowers were just coming out, they will bloom till the end of August.

The garden sits on the edge of the city, with the hills of Reno as a backdrop. The owners have made the garden an ideal setting for weddings. The garden includes an area of chairs for the guests, a rock garden with a waterfall, and tables for the dinner following the ceremony.

It is however the sight of the rows of lavender that draws your attention.

I thought how people have used lavender in so many ways over the centuries.

In her book Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants 1640-1940 Denise Wiles Adams mentions the early use of lavender on the west coast in the mission gardens. Lavender, she writes, also served as an edging plant in nineteenth century American gardens.

An article in Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick’s 1881 issue of his Vick’s Illustrated Monthly said, “In Olean, Cattaraugus County, in the State of New York, I recently saw the finest plants of Lavender I think in America. They were in pots in the window-real beauties-as good as they are in Sussex, England…The Lavender is of ancient race and holds its rank in spite of all the new plebian beauties that have come in vogue.”

Even Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1880 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly  included an article entitled, “A Plea for the Old-Fashioned Lavender.” The writer said, “I remember a garden I visited frequently while I was in Southern Europe, and to me, one of the sweetest, prettiest things in it, was a hedge tenderly guarding the flower beds, a hedge, all silver and purple, of modest, old-fashioned Lavender.”

Then as if to remind his readers of how important lavender is in the garden, Meehan writes in the same issue, “Let us honor our gardens with this ancient patrician plant that stands in its simple suit of silver and purple, and claims a place among flowers that gold and scarlet can never fill.”

Lavender comes from the mint family and gardeners have long considered it both an herb and a shrub. Its blue colored spiked flowers provide aromatic oil. The gift shop at Lavender Ridge offered both lavender oil and soap for sale. The dried flowers are also fragrant.

A gardener needs to ensure certain growing conditions for lavender to succeed. Reno provides that setting because the plants in the garden looked quite healthy. Lavender thrives in full sun with sandy alkaline soil. The son of the owner told us an irrigation system helps at Lavender Ridge. There is not much to do in the garden, he said,  except cut the plants back in the fall and keep the rows weeded in the summer.

I think what is so beautiful about lavender is to see it planted in rows or as a hedge. The Lavender Ridge Garden in Reno grows its lavender in that way. No surprise that the afternoon we visited a wedding was about to take place.

Lavender Garden in Reno

Lavender Ridge in Reno



The Myth of the Cottage Garden Inspired the Perennial Border in Victorian America

Something about the expression ‘cottage garden’ creates a warm feeling and even a sense of nostalgia among gardeners.

Cottage gardens became popular in both England and America when late nineteenth century writer and horticulturist William Robinson and landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll wrote that cottage gardens provided a sensible way to garden in a small space.  Gardeners, they concluded, could learn from the cottage garden style.

Allison Kyle Leopold in her book The Victorian Garden writes: “Cottage gardens seemed enchantingly simple, their colors soothing rather than stirring, their only structure a hedge, a picket fence, a tumbledown stone wall, along which randomly planted borders of blooms and vines grew in seductive fashion.”

Growing your favorite plants in a small space seemed the essence of the English cottage garden.

But then Leopold wonders whether the cottage garden was not really a myth.

She writes, “Of  course the romantically untidy cottage gardens for which 19th century Americans longed, while popular in England, were little more than a fantasy…Beginning in the 1870s, however, nostalgia for sentimentalized cottage gardens that never really existed helped reintroduce late Victorians to the charms of the herbaceous borders.”

It was, after all, Robinson who complained that planting annuals in carpet beds was a waste of time. Gardeners ought to plant perennials and thus avoid the maintenance of such carpet beds that each year needed to be set in the lawn.

And so after the 1870s once again perennial borders played an important role in the garden first in England and later in America.  Such borders had been popular once as New York seedsman Peter Henderson wrote in his book Gardening for Pleasure, published in 1883, “The old-fashioned mixed borders of four or six feet wide along the walks of the fruit or vegetable garden, were usually planted with hardy herbaceous plants, the tall growing at the back, with the lower growing sorts in the front…But the more modern style of flower borders has quite displaced such collections. and they are now but little seen.”

The cottage garden ideal provided a renewed interest in the perennial border.

Today a garden near the nursery at White Flower Farm in Connecticut provides a wonderful example of an English border of perennials [below]. Notice the variety of plants with the short in the front and the tall in the back.

The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.





Old Fashioned Hellebore Appears at Spring Flower Show

The early spring array of flowers for the garden includes the Hellebore, a perennial from Europe and Western Asia. Today the plant enjoys a spot in the American garden as well.

It was therefore no surprise that the Hellebore appeared this spring in landscape designs at the Flower and Garden Show in Hartford, Boston and Chicago.

Nineteenth century English garden periodicals as well as an early American garden book wrote about the plant and how best to grow it in the garden.

In England’s Gardeners’ Chronicle an article by Thomas Moore appeared in the April 5, 1879 issue. Moore wrote “The present paper originated in a boxful of Hellebore flowers… These being supplemented by specimens from Mr. Barr, led to a visit to Mr. Barr’s bulb grounds at Tooting, where probably is to be found the most complete collection of Hellebores which at present exists, since it contains all that can be purchased both at home and abroad, or obtained from the most likely sources by other means.”

Since it was the variety called Helleborus viridis that appeared at the Spring Flower Shows, I was most interested in Moore’s comments about that plant. Here is a photo of the plant from the Boston Show. Notice its light green flowers.  [below]

Helleborus viridis at this springs's Boston Flower and Garden Show

Helleborus viridis at this spring’s Boston Flower and Garden Show

Moore wrote, “Leaving Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, in its several forms out of the question, the only Hellebores which are of much importance for the ornamentation of flower gardens are the forms – species or varieties it matters not – which are associated together as the respective representations of H. orientalis, H. viridis, and H. foetidus.”

H. viridis, an old variety of the Hellebore, can still provide color to the early spring garden.

Helleborus viridis

Helleborus viridis

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon wrote in his  book American Gardener, published in 1806, that the best time to transplant Helleborus viridis is in September.   Since his book is based largely on English garden authors from the eighteenth century, English gardeners grew H. viridis well before 1800.  Thus it has had a long garden tradition, first in the English garden and then later in the American garden.


A Primrose Steeped in Garden History

You never know what you will find at a spring Flower and Garden Show. For sure the Show  always offers a relief from winter, and that’s well worth it.

Sometimes however you find a surprise.

As I walked the aisles of the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show in Hartford last week, I came across a primrose in the designed landscape by Comets to Koi.

The variety was  Primula Elatior ‘Gold Lace’, with its popular name Victorian Lace Primrose. [below]

Connecticut Flower and Gaden Show 2015

Connecticut Flower and Garden Show 2015

This is an old variety of primrose that was popular in the English garden both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But it also became part of American gardens as well.

Rudy and Joy Putnam Favretti mention this plant in their book Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings. They list it among the annuals and perennials in the United States that appeared in gardens between 1776 to 1850.

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon also gave planting instructions for this tiny flower  in his book American Gardener, written in 1806.

According to, “In 1822, cultural details were described in great detail in the monumental work of the ‘Encyclopedia of Gardening’ for Victorian gardeners.” The English writer and gardener John Claudius Loudon had published the Encyclopedia as a resource for gardeners.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818=1882)  included the primrose in his seed catalog of 1874. [below]


Primrose from Vick 1874

Primrose from Vick’s seed catalog of 1874

This tiny hierloom plant, the primrose, on display at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, links a visitor to English garden history, American garden tradition,  as well as the seed industry in this country.



Island Beds Became Popular in Victorian Gardens

The Victorian garden took many forms during the nineteenth century, but one thing for sure was that if a particular garden style happened in England, it was sure to appear on American shores as well.

Carpet bedding and the wild garden were two garden fashions in the Victorian garden of that period.  American received both with enthusiasm and energy.

Another garden fashion became the island garden in the landscape.

Anne Jennings in her book Victorian Gardens presents both a history of the island garden and then includes  instructions so the gardener today might incorporate such a design.

She writes about the island garden in these words: “Choose tall, substantial plants for the back of borders or in the centre of island beds. These will also provide a structural element to the planting scheme…For flowering plants try canna, rheum, or datura, and for foliage use banana, castor oil plant, thus or Chusan palm.’

After I read those words I realized that in my own garden this summer I had planted an island bed with a banana in the  center. [below]

The plants round the banana included Sedum ‘Matrona’, hosta, and annuals like red petunia and white verbena.

Banana plant in island bed

This summer’s island bed in my garden included a Banana plant at the center.

This bed appears on the front lawn, as you can see.

A bit of Victorian garden design still proves worth incorporating today as well.



No Garden without Shade

You have probably visited many shade gardens over the years, sometimes with a group and other times alone.  Perhaps you cultivate your own shade garden as well.

The special feature in the shade garden is that the gardener has chosen plants that will tolerate shade to a greater or lesser degree.

We know what plants will survive in that environment and if we don’t, we soon learn. That is part of the experience of gardening.

Recently I came across early English landscape gardener Batty Langley’s book New Principles of Gardening (1728). Langley (1696-1751)  rose to become an advocate for landscape gardening in the early eighteenth century.  His practical garden writing inspired both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson here in the United States.

In the book Langley wrote, “There is nothing more agreeable in a Garden than good Shade, and without it a Garden is nothing.”

It may seem he is going overboard in his love for shade, but stop and think. There is something soothing about plants in shade. Cool, green, refreshing are words that come to mind.

This photo [below] from my garden illustrates the variety of plants you can incorporate in a shady area.

A red Japanese maple stands at the center of a shady area in my garden.

A red Japanese maple stands at the center of my shade garden.

This garden includes a red Japanese maple as the center, surrounded by spireas, hostas, hydrangeas, and daylilies.

Even tiny red roses blossom in the area on the lower right where a bit of sun appears now and then.

There is something so peaceful about a shade garden.



Aruncus Offers Unique Beauty in the Garden

Recently the Newsletter from the Somerville Garden Club included an article about Aruncus dioicus or Goat’s Beard.

When I read the article, I thought of this plant in my own garden.  I planted a row of them at the back of the perennial bed over twenty years ago.

This is truly an old-fashioned perennial that was once called Spirea Aruncus.  It loves shade so I chose it for my garden where minimal sunshine appears.

I wondered too what nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries wrote about this plant.

In 1885 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article from the weekly English garden journal Gardener’s Chronicle in his magazine called Gardener’s Monthly.  The title of the article was “The Aruncus offers unique beauty in the garden.” I loved the title and made it the title of this post.

The article said, “A grand plant, not by any means so abundant as it should be in our gardens, owing to its very distinct and effective appearance.  Of course there are positions in the garden where it would be out of place, but there are many others to which it would give additional beauty. We have yet much to learn and appreciate in the arrangement of hardy plants.”

Then the author, whose name was simply noted at the end of the artilce by ‘T,’ described the plant. He said, “I may say, for the benefit of those unacquainted with the plant, that it grows from 3 to 4 feet high, with large divided foliage, and immense plumes of white flowers, forming when established most conspicuous objects.  I lately saw several masses 3 and 4 feet in diameter, and as much high, and nothing could surpass their unique beauty.”

A row of Aruncus in bloom takes center stage in my garden in NH.

Recently a back row of Aruncus in bloom took center stage in this perrenial bed in my NH garden.

Because this plant is so big, it is probably better to position it in the back of the perennial bed or border. Garden books often advocate for planting Aruncus in a damp or moist area, but I grow it in dry soil with no problem.

The garden journal called Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1897 said, “Spirea Aruncus is popularly known as the ‘Goats Beard.’ It is a very effective species and one of the best of border plants. It is a native of England, grows from three to four feet in height, and blooms during the months of June and July. The foliage is very handsome, the leaves being of pinnate form and of a light green color. Flowers are a creamy white and borne in large branched panicles.”

The two nineteenth century garden magazines certainly give high praise to this plant.

Aruncus is one of our native plants even though Vick’s magazine said it was native to England.  The American Beauties Native Series offers it for the gardener among its collection of plants.

Aruncus dioicus is an easy plant to grow and does not take over an area.  I like that about it.

No surprise that it deserves a spot in anyone’s shade garden.