American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

One of my favorite plant stories is how the poinsettia became a popular Christmas flower here in America.

In the nineteenth century it was common for garden magazines or journals to include articles from other garden publications, mostly English.  The source of the orignal story would often appear at the end of the article.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876 which he took from the English weekly journal called Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The article, simply entitled Poinsettia’ said, “Passing by these old friends, not without a word of hearty welcome be it well understood, we come to another plant which has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

Meehan continued with these words: “Its name commemorates a French traveler, M. Poinsett, by whom the plant was introduced to cultivation.

“He brought specimens to Charleston from Mexico in 1828, whence they were taken to Philadelphia; and specimens sent from the latter place to Edinburgh [Scotland] flowered in 1835, since which date it has become increasingly popular and plentiful in our stores.”

Poinsett had sent the plant to his friend Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880). Buist in turn mailed a specimen of the plant to his horticulturst friend in Scotland.  Soon after that the poinsettia, native to Mexico, became available to the public.

Today during this season you can see how poinsettias still fill the Grand Hall at The Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Poinsettias in the Grand Hall at The Breakers in Newport, RI. [courtesy]

American gardeners, just like the English, came to treasure the plant as an indispensable part of the Christmas holiday.

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Victorian Garden Fashion Reappears

Victorian garden fashion reappears.

Gardening has always been a mix of fashion and style.

A recent article in The English Garden called “Gardening features: the bedding display”  demonstrates renewed interest in the bedding out fashion, popular in the nineteenth century.

The magazine traces the history of this Victorian garden practice.

The article says, “Seed merchants sold special bedding plant seeds, which could be sent direct to gardeners using the newly available postal and railway network. By the 1880s, this ‘bedding boom’ had reached even the small suburban garden, with loud displays in island beds proudly placed right in the middle of lawns. These beds came in a variety of forms, all of which – bar the circle – were equally ridiculous. Who in their right mind would choose a star, crescent, heart, butterfly or ‘tadpole’ as a shape for a bed?”

The answer for that period was that many gardeners did, because it was the garden fashion of the day.

The article includes this fabulous photo as well. [below]  The scene looks like something out of the nineteenth century garden catalogs.

Some gardens, such as Lyme Park in Cheshire, are reintroducing or reinterpreting old bedding schemes. Credit: NPTL/Stephen Robson

Some gardens, such as Lyme Park in Cheshire, are reintroducing or reinterpreting old bedding schemes. Credit: NPTL/Stephen Robson. [Courtesy of The English Garden magazine]

When the author raises the question about who would do it, all I could think of is how often this idea appeared in the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs.

Peter Henderson, for example, the seed merchant from New York not only encouraged this practice but included an illustration of it on his catalog cover several times.

What is garden fashion at one time may seem strange at a later date.

That is what is happening here.

The idea of bedding out demands not only a lot of plants, but also a great amount of time in maintaining such a bed on the lawn.

I can see why people do not want to garden this way today.

When you see it, however, the first emotion is how beautiful it is, but then you think of the many hours it took to create this colorful design on the lawn.

At the high point of this garden fashion in the nineteenth century American landscape designer Frank J. Scott wrote his famous landscape handbook Suburban Home Grounds (1870).

He said, “To keep a great number of small beds filled through the summer with low blooming flowers and their edges well cut is expensive.

“If they are also planned so that the grass strips  between them must be cut with a sickle, few gentlemen of  moderate means will long have the patience to keep them with the nice care essential to their good effect.”

The cost of the plants and also the labor made him wonder if the practice was worth it.

Today the issues for bedding out still remain, thus making a gardener hesitate to cultivate such a bedding out scheme of planting.

That does not however stop gardeners from continuing this Victorian fashion.

The article from TEG magazine ends with these words, “It seems many private gardeners still believe in bedding, with bedding plants currently representing a third of UK consumers’ spending on garden plants.”

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Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sold Lawn

Nineteenth century garden catalogs sold lawn.

Nineteenth century seed company and nursery products guided the kind of home landscape people cultivated.

Landscape designer and garden historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote her Cornell master’s thesis called Ornamental Garden Design. 

She discussed mostly nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882), but also covered much garden history from that period, including discussion of the importance of the lawn for the middle class homeowner.

 

henderson-front-yard

 

Hanna writes,  “Nursery owners [in nineteenth century America], the horticultural journal editors, did not accept the wilderness aesthetic completely for it was not good for business.

“Instead they merged this romantic wilderness appreciation with the aesthetic picturesque and developed a form of English landscape garden design that was reliant upon the communal landscape.

“In other words, the new transportation systems of the roads and rail lines and land division of the suburban tracts set up shared views.”

In the cover image [above] from New York seedsman Peter Henderson’s 1899 catalog notice how in the back one property adjoins another with a lawn as their common bond.

No fence separates the properties because the continuity of the lawn was an important landscape principle called ‘shared view.’

The nursery owners encouraged the lawn because it was part of the English landscape garden design aesthetic, but also because it was good for business. That landscape style sold lawn seed and lawn mowers.

And so it was no surprise, according to Hanna, that the English garden with its lawn became the model for the suburban, middle class American home landscape of the nineteenth century.

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Lawn – Still Essential Landscape Feature

Lawn – Still Essential Landscape Feature

In his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly of 1881 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote, “What can be prettier than a well-kept emerald lawn illuminated by a few beds of bright flowers, or elegantly colored foliage, kept right and in perfect order from June to October.”

The lawn has long played a central role in the home landscape.

The lawn is still important to homeowners. Matt Nichols, owner of M. J. Nichols Landscaping in Quincy, Mass. says, “People still very much want a lawn.”

Nichols considers the lawn the easiest planting to maintain, once installed, especially for new homeowners.

According to a survey conducted by researcher Bruce Butterfield at GardenResearch.com, last year consumers spent $10.9 billion on do it yourself lawn care, spending on such items as power equipment, seed, sod, fertilizer, and even irrigation. Lawn care sales have increased at a compound annual growth rate of seven per cent from 2010 to 2015. He says, “People continue to spend on the lawn.”

The lawn has been an important part of the home landscape since the beginning of the country. The English landscape of the eighteenth century called ‘modern’ included a lawn. Even our founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, wanted that modern landscape with its lawn.

It was no surprise that in the early nineteenth century homeowners who lived in wealthy suburban areas around Boston like Brookline and Milton included a lawn in their landscape.

Title: Catalogue of Seeds. Source: Front Cover, Nursery catalogue, Richard Smith & Co. 1898 Description: Front cover of the nursery catalogue of Richard Smith and Co of Worcester, depicting a posy of cut flowers and a garden scene. Date: 1898.

 Front Cover, Nursery catalog, Richard Smith & Co. 1898

Later in the century when middle-class suburban homes began to appear, the lot for a new house often included an area in the front for a lawn.

A lawn thus demonstrated a bit of social status.

This 1898 catalog cover from the Smith Seed Company in Worcester, Mass. illustrated the classic lawn for the home landscape. [left]

The lawn also presents an attractive environment for simply situating the house. Nichols says, “Grass helps with curb appeal.”

Butterfield expresses a similar sentiment. He says, “People are only interested in keeping up the lawn for appearance.”

In the 1880s the Vick Seed Company wrote: “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”

Homeowners still want a green lawn. The recent drought was merely a bump along the way to that dream of a sea of green.

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Atlanta Gardens Feature Victorian Caladium

Atlanta gardens feature Victorian caladium.

The recent Garden Writers Association annual meeting in Atlanta featured several garden tours.

Caladium beds appeared in a few of the gardens.

Since I just started growing caladium in my New England garden the last couple of years, I was quite interested in seeing how these shade loving plants grew in Atlanta.

Wherever we saw them, I found them to be healthy and vigorous, showing the best of color with their fabulous leaves of green, white, and red.

Here is one garden with its bed of caladium. [below]

Caladium at Atlanta

Caladium bed in an Atlanta garden

The caladium has appeared in gardens since the Victorian period.  Then they naturally ranked among the choicest plants for the garden because of their large, colorful leaves.

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) sold it in his catalog of 1880. The plant however does not appear in his catalog of the early 1870s.

He wrote, “The Caladium is one of the handsomest of the ornamental-leaved plants. Roots obtained in the spring will make good plants in the summer.”

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly of 1879 he wrote instructions on winter care for the caladium.  A customer from Newfield, New York wrote that the previous year he had lost the caladium that he had stored in the basement.

Vick responded in the magazine, “They should be kept in a cool, dry place, and in sand.  A good, well-drained cellar usually offers a suitable place, but they should be stored on shelves, and not on the cellar botton.”

This is certainly timely advice, since we are now in the midst of the month of October, time to think about over-wintering such tender tubers.

Vick offers timely advice.

If protected over the winter, next spring the caladium tuber will be ready to plant in the garden.

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Garden Company Name Influences Customers

The garden company name influences customers in choosing products.

The public relations journal called Public Relations Tactics arrives on my desk every month.

This journal provides articles on what’s new and current in public relations practice.

A recent article called “Understanding Brands and Influencer Relations” caught my attention.

Since the Public Relations Society of America publishes this journal, I generally feel confident about the quality of its articles.

The word ‘influencer’ in the title made me curious. 

Influencers happen to be individuals who can persuade others, like their readers if the person were a journalist or blogger, to notice and perhaps choose a certain brand of a product.

The author Heather Sliwinski says, “Think of bloggers, and other social influencers, as brand ambassadors.”

My thoughts, of course, went back to the nineteenth century garden industry. Were there influencers back then?

Seed company owners like W. Atlee Burpee, Peter Henderson, John Childs, and James Vick became brand ambassadors for the nineteenth century garden industry.

Their audience was the middle class woman who loved gardening.

If Vick or Henderson said or wrote something, it was common for consumers to take notice.

Henderson placed this ad in Harper’s magazine. [below]

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper's

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper’s magazine

You see illustrated the ideal customer: a middle class woman who liked gardening, and was in the search of the newest. Here Henderson wrote in the ad, “Sensational Flower Seed Novelty.”  A new variety of hollyhocks was available for this gardener.

A nineteenth century seedsman, like Vick, sometimes approached a newspaper editor, also an influencer, with press material to promote Vick’s seed company.  If a story ran, Vick would send the editor packets of seeds in gratitude.

Like today, the influencer has a following. That’s how he or she received that name.

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Nineteenth Century Targeted Garden Advertising

Nineteenth century targeted garden advertising.

Public relations and advertising professionals often need an index of available promotional sources. Such an index would include information like the circulation numbers of a media outlet.

They need to know, for example, how many people receive a particular magazine.

Since the late 19th century, advertising companies have put out directories of media available for a business considering placing an ad.

Such directories gave advertising more precision in reaching its audience.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) researched such directories for his own garden advertising.

Thus he showed an awareness of the latest in advertising as a science, as they called it then.

Vick wrote in his garden magazine of 1881 Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “There are over ten thousand different publications in America, and with all those we have more or less correspondence during the year. In this  work we are much aided by the excellent publications of the leading advertising agents, such as Geo. P. Rowell & Co., of New York, and N. W. Ayer & Son, of Philadelphia [the first US advertising firm].”

Vick continues, ” These books not only give the names, location, and character of the newspapers, magazines, etc., but, in most cases, the circulation.”

This magazine ad [below] appeared in American Agriculturist, a popular journal whose audience was middle to upper class homeowners who would buy a mower for that perfect lawn.

An ad in the magazine American Agriculruist May 1888

An ad in the magazine American Agriculturist May 1888

So nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries needed to know what publications their consumers read.

Then through a particular publication they could target its audience.

Ever since moden advertising, born in the nineteenth century, has used what we now call media directories like Cision to appeal to their consumers.

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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.”

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Victorian Seedsman Encouraged Advertising

Victorian seedsman encouraged advertising.

New York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote several popular garden books in the late nineteenth century.

He also believed in the power of advertising for his company.

In 1884 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly a speech that Henderson had given that year at the Chicago Convention of Nurserymen.  He quotes Henderson as saying, “Advertising is rapidly becoming a fine art, and the more it advances as a fine art, the more advertising will be done and the more profit will result from it.”

As a business, the seed industry had its share of competition.  The amount of advertising sometimes distinguished one company from another.

Henderson catalog 1885

For example, this chromolithograph cover [above] from Henderson’s seed catalog of 1885 promoted the company as modern and progressive, but still classic. The company promised to fill every need a gardener may have.

Meehan wrote the following in another issue of his magazine from that same year, “Perhaps in no other country is the press so liberally patronized by seedsmen, florists, and nurserymen as in the United States. In their advertising seasons, which cover most of the months of the year, we can rarely pick up a periodical that does not contain some of their advertisements.”

Henderson was not alone among his Brothers of the Spade, fellow garden merchants.  He believed in advertising for any modern business to succeed, including the garden industry.

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Loudon Befriended Early American Seedsman

Loudon befriended early American seedsman.

Writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) influenced the development of the English garden during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of the English garden.’

Loudon shared a friendship with New York seedsman Grant Thorborn (1773-1863), both originally from Scotland, and living in England when they met.Loudon and the Landscape

In her book Loudon and the Landscape: From Country Seat to Metropolis Melanie Louise Simo wrote that Loudon and Thorburn enjoyed after dinner conversation together at Loudon’s home.

Thorburn sailed for America in 1794. He settled in New York where he established a seed company in 1802, one of the earliest in the country.

In its 1899 catalog the Thorburn Company [below] laid claim to its longevity as a reason for a customer to send in seed orders. The catalog said, “Our leading business principle has always been to supply only the very highest class of seeds. The fact that we have commanded the leading wholesale and market-gardeners’ trade of this country for nearly a century should justify our claim to the patronage of those who have not yet experienced the advantage of dealing with us.”

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

In his writing about the garden in the catalogue, Thorburn liberally quoted from English garden authorities, including the English garden ideas of his friend Loudon.

The Oregon State University website for its wondeful seed catalog collection says, “Thorburn quoted liberally from English gardening authorities including Loudon, but added his own notes on how plants performed in America.”

Through the words of his friend Loudon Thorborn proposed the English garden design to his American customers.

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