Two Irish Gardens Inspire Herbaceous Borders

Two Irish gardens inspire herbaceous borders.

Since the late nineteenth century when English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) encouraged the herbaceous  border rather than beds of annuals, the border has been an important part of garden design.

Once garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1935) arrived on the English garden scene and befriended Robinson, she also became an advocate of the herbaceous border.

David Stuart writes in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens “The great Edwardian herbaceous border has a fascinating past, and has been resilient enough to evolve into new forms relevant to contemporary gardens.”

Thus, he implies that we still include the herbaceous [American gardeners say ‘perennial’] border in the garden.

Two Irish gardens might provide some inspiration.

Late last fall I saw two herbaceous borders in Ireland, one at Powerscourt Castle and the other at the

Powerscourt herbaceous border [courtesy photo]

birthplace of St. Oliver Plunkett called Loughcrew.

Loughcrew’s border was installed in the nineteenth century. The original Powerscourt herbaceous border predates that period but the current border was installed with new plants in 2014.

Both included dozens of perennials as well as a few annuals like dahlias, which were blooming at that time.

In 1883 William Robinson wrote in his book The English Flower Garden, “In planting, plant in groups, and not in the old dotting way. Never repeat the same plant along the border at intervals, as is so often done with favorites.”

You need to fill the whole border with plants. Robinson wrote, “Have no patience with bare ground”

Now that we are approaching summer, perhaps a herbaceous border might be in the works for your garden.

These two Irish gardens certainly stand as a testament to how beautiful such a border can be.



Ireland’s Powerscourt Features Perennial Borders

Ireland’s Powerscourt features perennial borders.

My recent trip to Ireland included a visit to Powerscourt, the estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, whose long history dates back to the twelve century.

The extensive garden at Powerscourt contains many wonders, including two long perennial borders, that have made it one of Ireland’s treasures.

During the nineteenth century the walled garden’s perennial borders were installed.  They reflect the gardening world’s interest at that time in perennials rather than annuals.

Powerscourt border [courtesy photo]

Perennial borders at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

In the nineteenth century Viscount Powerscourt said,”The planting of the choice plants and shrubs, and seeing them increase year by year in size and beauty has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

When garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) and later garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both encouraged gardening with perennials, borders of perennials became popular in the English garden.

Powerscourt includes other areas of nineteenth century garden style like an Italian garden in the terraces that link the house to the lake below. The terraces were constructed between 1843 and 1867.

The design of the garden reflects the desire to create a garden that is part of the wider landscape.  You can view the garden from the upper terrace where you can enjoy the harmony among garden slops, terraces, flower beds, trees, and the lake.

What caught my attention was the extraordinary collection of plants in the walled garden of perennials.

The fact that they are of mature size, well maintained, and number in the hundreds certainly contributes to the spender of the present-day Powerscourt garden.





















Garden Advertising Sometimes Exaggerates

Garden Advertising Sometimes Exaggerates

Advertising in America as an industry began with the N. W. Ayer & Son Company in Philadelphia in 1867.

From that point on advertisers through the media of the day sought to persuade a consumer to buy a particular brand of a product.

Lydia Pinkham was among the first to use such advertising to market her patent medicine, a remedy for female complaints. She combined vegetable compound laced with nineteen per cent alcohol to make up her medicinal beverage.

The garden industry of course through the seed companies and nurseries did not shy away from ads to promote their wares as well.

You would think that today, one hundred fifty years later, we are smart enough to reject false claims in advertising.

Not true.

Sometimes, even today, garden advertising exaggerates what the company promises.

A ‘garden in a box’ seems to imply you simply plant something like the company’s seed strips and wallah, you have a garden.

Mike Lizotte from American Meadows said, “We’ve all seen the ‘meadow in a can’ seed products at our

Wildflower mix from Aerican Meadows

Wildflower mix from American Meadows

favorite big box store. Don’t be fooled by the nice packaging.”

There is always something left out in advertising in order that the ad can make its point.

In the ‘garden in a box’ that something happens to be the work it takes to maintain a garden, and see it through to its flowering.

Also, the product may be inferior. There may be fewer seeds than promised.

Garden advertising is really like any advertising. The buyer has to be aware of the kind of promises made by the seller.

Adrian Higgins, garden writer for the Washington Post, recently wrote an article entitled “Growing wild – by design.”

He said, “A few years ago, there was the notion that meadows were so eager to sprout that

American Meadows

American Meadows

you could buy a can full of wildflower seed, sprinkle the contents on a piece of cleared land and you would have a floriferous meadow in perpetuity. But there is no meadow genie in the can.”

Though we need to proceed cautiously with ads, advertising for the garden at the same time it tries to sell something also informs the consumer about new products.

Nineteenth century New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) recognized that part of advertising.

Vick wrote in 1880 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly “Those desiring reliable information upon horticultural subjects will find much that is valuable in these [advertising] pages.”


Hollyhock Remains Cottage Garden Choice

Hollyhock remains cottage garden choice.

Though I have not had great success in growing hollyhocks in my garden, a recent article in The English Garden magazine about this plant and its role in the cottage garden caught my attention.

England’s traditional cottage garden has long provided an image of a garden of wonder. There is something about the cottage garden that gardeners everywhere love.

Perhaps it is that the image of the cottage garden holds out the promise that you can fill a small space for a garden with color, structure, and eye-catching beauty.

TEG’s Magazine article called Top 10 Cottage Garden Favourites lists ten flowers for a cottage garden.  A photo accompanies each plant suggested.

The plants include old favorites like the hollyhock.

Here is the image of the hollyhock from the article. [below]

Hollyhock, TEG magazine article

Hollyhock, The English Garden magazine article

The hollyhock shares a long history with American gardeners as well.

In this late nineteenth century ad from the Peter Henderson Company in New York we see how important this flower had become for the summer garden. [below]

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper's

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper’s

Henderson writes in the ad, “Every garden may now be enriched with this stately Queen of Flowers, grown as easily and flowering as quickly as any garden annual.”

Such words of praise almost makes you want to try the seed.

Maybe that is why the Hollyhock has long been a staple of the cottage garden.  It is easy to grow (for most) as well as stately and  showy in the garden.




Perennials Changed Victorian Gardening

Perennials changed Victorian gardening.

Perennials play an important role in our gardens today. It’s as if we could not garden without them

In the history of the American garden that was not always the case.

As in Victorian England, in the mid nineteenth century annuals became the important plant, especially the bright and colorful varieties imported into the country from Asia, Africa, and South America. Such plants added constant color to the summer garden.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) advocated for the use of perennials in the garden.  He wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1880, “The wealth of beauty presented by the hardy perennials is inexhaustible, and we can only pity those who are content to confine their attention to a few beds of tender plants, however bright and gay they may be while in their best conditions.”

Look at this glorious garden in the landscape of an eighteenth century mansion in Scotland called Carolside. [below] Perennials abound in this garden.


Carolside Garden

The Carolside garden in Scotland

Perennials and annuals can be used together, especially because the flowers of most perennials usually last for only a short length of time.  Annuals, on the other hand, give us their best the whole growing season.

The English recognized a change in gardening that included perennials. In the July 1880 issue of his magazine Vick quoted the English publication called The Gardener, “The flower garden of the present time seems to be undergoing a slow transition. There is a blending of tender with hardy plants which is most desirable; tender and hardy plants appear only to have rival claims until they are placed side by side, when it is found that the attractions of either are about evenly balanced.”

By the end of the nineteenth century when English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll laid out a garden, she insisted on an array of perennials to give color and structure to the garden.

To this day perennials provide much of the beauty in the garden.




Differing Views of Nineteenth Century Garden

Differing Views of  Nineteenth Century Garden

The way to plant a flower garden changed during the nineteenth century.

Two American seedsmen wrote differently about how to install a flower garden.

Boston seedsman Joseph Breck (1794-1873) wrote The Flower Garden in 1851.

In the book he recommended the placement of the garden as a border before a window with southern or southeastern exposure.

He carefully laid out for the reader the design of the flowerbed.

Breck wrote, “This outward border will be the most appropriate place for flowering shrubs, and tall herbaceous biennial and perennial plants”.

When he discussed what flowers to plant, Breck listed several annuals, plus Dahlias and Gladiolus and Roses, with a few choice perennials. He recommended native plants like Lobelia Cardinalis, Aquilegia Canadensis, Aster Novae Anglae and Solidago.

Breck wanted a flower garden in bloom during each season. Choosing the right plant would have provided that color. His borders were to be filled with annuals, perennials, and native plants.

Carpet bedding croppedNew York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote his book Gardening for Pleasure in 1875. In it he also discussed laying out the flower garden.

He admitted at the start that old-fashioned mixed borders with hardy herbaceous plants were “now but little seen”. He wrote, “The mixed system still has its advocates, who deprecate the modern plan of massing in color as being too formal, and too unnatural a way to dispose of flowers.”

The fashion he discussed called ‘massing of color’ referred to the use of many annuals of the same variety to create a display of one color. The plants were to be placed in a pattern or ribbon line like in the Sunset Seed and Plant Company catalog of 1897. [above]

The words “They Grow” in the catalog cover here might have been planted with Alyssum, which of course needed to be trimmed regularly.  Mass beds needed many plants of the same variety but also much maintenance to keep them short.

Henderson wrote, “A single misplaced color may spoil the effect of the whole.”

Thus these two nineteenth century seedsmen offered two different forms of the flowergarden.

In 1851 Breck advocated for a border of annuals, perennials, and native plants. In 1875 Henderson promoted the modern carpet bed, a design of mass planting with annuals.

I am ending with this  photo of the beautiful perennial borders from the Scottish garden Carolside in Earlson. [below] Just received this on Twitter from Great British Gardens.

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland [Thanks to @BritishGardens]




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