Springtime Still Means Lawn Care

The lawn remains the living remnant of the romantic English garden in America.

Though there is much talk today about reducing the size of the lawn or eliminating it altogether, Americans still spend $40 billion a year on lawn care.

The lawn is alive and well.

On Sunday the Boston Globe Magazine included an article called “7 Steps to a beautiful lawn”.

The contents of the article reminded me of what nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote in the March issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1879: “There is nothing in the whole range of American gardening that is the subject of so much solicitude as the proper care of the lawn. ”

The lawn [from Wikipedia]

The Globe article listed the stops needed for a good lawn:

  • test your soil
  • add air
  • get planting
  • feed your lawn
  • mow it right
  • water but not too much
  • control weeds and pests

That amounts to the same information that nineteenth century  garden catalogs, books, and magazines told American gardeners.   Instructions for planting a lawn have not changed much in two hundred years.  Nonetheless, we enjoy reading it every spring.

Perhaps Meehan was right when he said: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us.”


By the end of the Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Had Become Big Business

When you think of a simple seed or a single plant that would be perfect  in  your garden, the image of your ideal garden might also come to mind

That image stems from the experience of gardening or at least a desire to garden.  What could be more simple than a seed or a plant?

The business of selling seeds and plants in a consumer society took on proportions no one expected.

By the late nineteenth century with new printing technology and new methods to deliver products, along with national advertising, the garden industry became big business.  Seeds and plants, often illustrated in color, were sold in catalogs that were printed in the millions and sent from coast to coast.

By  then the business of selling seeds and plants had changed drastically through mass production and distribution.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America”, which appeared in Business History Review (2004), writes: “Between 1850 and 1880, demand for trees and flowers boomed, spurred on by worldwide plant exploration, the introduction of many new ornamental varieties, and a plethora of agricultural and horticultural publications that encouraged hands-on horticulture and delivered practical advice to would-be gardeners and orchardists.”

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

The garden industry evolved from a close-knit community of horticultural professionals who knew one another like Thomas Meehan, James Vick, and Peter Henderson  and who also knew their customers.  Businessmen  around the country sought to sell their garden products to a consumer eager to buy what the company catalog offered.

Seeds and plants in packages big and small  traveled the country on railroad, express delivery, and through the post office.  It almost seemed that everyone could have a package delivered, no matter where you lived.

As the consumer culture grew, so did the selling of products like seeds and plants. Maul’s catalog cover of 1900 [left] illustrated so well that the garden business, as depicted in the two large buildings of the Maule Seed Company in the catalog pages, had evolved not only  to fill the needs of the modern consumer but to announce to the world how big the business had become.



Monrovia Continues Tradition of Selling the English Garden

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries sold American gardeners the English garden.

That message appeared in the company catalogs, in garden magazines like Gardener’s Monthly, and books by landscape designers like Elias Long and Frank Scott.

The plant grower Monrovia now promotes the cottage garden in a new marketing campaign for its plants.

The cottage garden has a long tradition in the history of the English garden.

The English nurseryman and writer William Paul in his book The Hand-Book of Villa Gardening (1855) recommended the periodical Cottage Gardener, first published in 1850.

William Robinson (1838-1935)  recognized that we could learn a great deal from the gardening skill of the cottage gardener. He wrote in his book The English Flower Garden: “Why should the cottage garden be a picture when the gentleman’s garden is not? The reason is that one sees plants and the vegetation not set out in any offensive geometrical or conventional plan.”

On its webpage simply alled Cottage Garden Monrovia  writes, “The romantic English cottage garden is the ancestor of American country. Both were born in the spaces around ordinary homes filled with extraordinary flowers.”

Monrovia's illustration of the Cottage Garden

Monrovia’s illustration of the Cottage Garden

The essentials of the cottage garden, described in detail, include the arbor gate, white lattice, containers, and, of course, old-fashioned plants like flowering shrubs, roses, lilacs, and trees like the magnolia. Flowers from perennials add a bit of color.

The tradition of recognizing the garden skill of the English continues.

Nurseries have always been at the forefront of telling their customers that the English garden is the model.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1862 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “All of our readers have heard of the excellence of English gardening.”

In 1862 Philadlephia


New Film Captures NH Poet Celia Thaxter and her Nineteenth Century Garden

Recently I saw the new short video Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden about the late nineteenth century poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

During the summer she  lived on Appledore Island, located off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. Her family owned the hotel on the island and Celia worked there for many summers.

In the garden she loved  Celia grew annuals to decorate the hotel during the summer. Her garden measured 50 feet by 15 feet.

The new video, which runs for about thirty minutes, captures the spirit of her garden, past and present.

The house went down in a fire in 1914, but volunteers have preserved Celia’s garden.  In the garden today you see the flowers in the same spot that Celia planted them. She left the details of her work in the garden in her book An Island Garden, probably her most famous book and still worth reading today.

The video uses photographs from the nineteenth century as well video of the present garden. Several interviews of volunteer gardeners appear as well.

Celia Thaxter's island garden measures  50 feet by 15 feet.

Celia Thaxter’s island garden measures 50 feet by 15 feet.

Today the plants for the garden are started at the UNH greenhouses in Durham.

The most popular flower, and the one many people ask about, is the Scabiosa. The hop vine that Celia grew in her garden continues in the same spot.

Marigolds and Calendula were her favorite flowers, along with the blue Batchelor button.

Celia collected her seeds from friends who came to the hotel, but also from seed companies. Perhaps one of her seed sources was  the James Vick Seed Company from Rochester because she mentioned his death in a letter to a friend within weeks after his passing.  She wrote, “Old Vick has died.”

Today, as the film portrays, people visit the garden every summer from the end of June until the third week of August.  The property provides a learning environment as part of Cornell University’s  Shoals Marine Laboratory.

What astounded me was that the garden today includes every plant variety Celia details in her book. The total number planted each summer is 1600.

If you get a chance to see the video, take the opportunity and learn about one of America’s most celebrated nineteenth century gardeners.

Here is a chance for you  to check out the video.  I have included here the video’s trailer [below].  Enjoy.




Nineteenth Century Newspapers Cultivated a Practice called Puffing

When you read the newspaper, you generally know the difference between an article and an ad.

The Boston Globe, for example, in its Sunday magazine sometimes offers a section of several pages labeled at the top center simply ‘Advertisement.’  Thus the  reader knows that the organization or company behind this material paid for this insert.

Things were a bit different for newspapers in the nineteenth century.

At that time it was common to include articles in the paper about products and organizations that had agreed to advertize. The articles offered a positive evaluation of the product or organization. The practice was called ‘puffing’.

Ellen Gruber Garvey writes in her book The Adman in the Parlor: “Puffing meant touting products or businesses in what appeared to be editorial matter in magazines and newspapers, and was a long-standing if sometimes controversial practice.”

Stephen Fox The Mirror MakersPatent medicines like Lydia Pinkham advertised extensively in nineteenth century newspapers and magazines. Stephen Fox in his book The Mirror Makers writes: “Newspapers might print editorials or news stories about the remarkable Mrs. Pinkham in the hope that she would renew their ad contracts.”

Thus there were was little separation between news stories and advertising.

The garden industry of that time took part in this practice as well.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness writes in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth -Century Horticultural Boom in America” that editors sometimes “puffed” the  products from seed companies and nurseries.

The division  between advertising and news articles is not always clear even to this day, but in the nineteenth century when readers were sold goods in news columns, that division was even more difficult to discern.

The goal, of course, was to entice the consumer to buy a particular product.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries participated in the practice of puffing, much like other businesses of that time.



The Government Encouraged the Lawn

In nineteenth century America homeowners expected a lawn as part of the home landscape.

Encouragement came from seed companies and nurseries, of course, but also from the Government.

In 1897 the USDA published the Yearbook of Agriculture which included a chapter on the lawn.  The report said: “A perfect lawn consists of the growth of a single variety of grass with a smooth, even surface, uniform color, and an elastic turf which has become, through constant care, so fine and so close in texture as to exclude weeds,’ which, appearing, should be at once removed. Briefly, such a lawn may be secured by thorough preparation of the soil and the application of suitable fertilizers; by seeding with pure seed of the highest quality; by proper attention to irrigation and the maintenance of fertility; by the prompt removal of weeds, and, finally, by the frequent and intelligent use of the roller and lawn mower.”

In nineteenth century America the lawn appeared from coast to coast.

In nineteenth century America the lawn appeared from coast to coast.

With such support, and detailed instructions, it was no surprise that the perfect lawn became the goal of every home owner across the country.

The lawn took on the role of symbol for social status as people moved to the suburbs where real estate agents promised  there would be enough space for a lawn in front of the house.

The USDA report included an example of where one could have seen an example of a ‘perfect lawn’.  It said, “Among the finest lawns in this country are some of those at Newport, R.I.”

The estate gardens of the Gilded Age, as at Newport,  showcased the kind of lawn that was also ideal for any American homeowner.


Nineteenth Century Estates along the East Coast Included an Extensive Landscape

From the early 1800s as wealthy Americans built their homes on the East coast, it was important to design the landscape as well in a particular style.

Landscape gardening, or landscape design as we now call it, followed the principles of the picturesque from the England of the eighteenth century, but added ornamental gardening as well to form a new type of garden design called the Gardenesque.

So of course there were lawns but also collections of plants, like evergreens at the Hunnewell estate in Newton, Mass. (below)

Hunnewell pinetum in Wellesley, Mass. built in XXXX

Hunnewell pinetum in Wellesley, Mass. begun in 1843

Julie Higginbotham wrote in the journal American Nuseryman, “By 1800, the East was dotted with landscaped estates, including properties on the Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, the shores of Connecticut, and the environs of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.”

Alice Morse Earle wrote in her book Old Time Gardens  in 1901, “Palatial homes [were] surrounded by all the wealth and beauty that the landscape gardener of those days well knew how to create…The art of making beautiful homes in America…was [already] in full flower.”

It would not be long before middle class homeowners in the suburbs also wanted the same kind of landscape as these estates, though on a smaller scale.

The seed companies and nurseries were, of course, there to help.  All that was needed was that the homeowner have an eye for art and design in the landscape.

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magaze Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1881: “The residents of villages, or the suburbs of them, are most favorably situated to indulge their taste in beautifying places of moderate extent. No great wealth is necessary for this purpose, but a genuine love for art and nature.”

It all began earlier here in America with the kind of landscape that surrounded the estate.




The Native Virginia Creeper Still Popular in American Gardens

In my photos from the California trip I made a few weeks ago, I found an image of the vine called Virginia creeper, climbing up the wall near a window at Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook Winery in Rutherford.  The leaves were turning a bit crimson at one spot on the wall, a sign of autumn in the air.

For a long time I thought this native plant was invasive and ought to be avoided.  Now I even see new varieties appearing on the market at the local nursery.

Virginia creeper, or Parthenocissus quinquefolia, an easy to grow vine, has a long history in this country.

The James Vick Seed Company offered it in the company catalog of 1890 under the name Ampelopsis quinquefolia.  The seeds he offered cost only ten cents.  Another name for the plant was ‘American Ivy’ since it was often compared to Boston ivy, which is not a native plant but from Asia.

Today the grower Proven Winners offers  a new variety of Virginia creeper called ‘Red Wall’ which I planted last summer. It, of course, has bright red color in the fall, with blue fruit.  This summer I saw a little growth but I am not worried since I know it takes a while for this vine to reach its potential.  The Boston Ivy I planted took several years to cover a wall.

Virginia Creeper climing the wall here at Francis Ford Copola's Ingkenook Winnery.

The Virginia creeper vine climbs  the wall here at Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook Winnery in Rutherford, California.

Even though it is a native plant, American garden writers have long praised the Virginia creeper. In 1903 Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer wrote in her book Art Out-of-Doors: Hints on Good Taste in Gardening, “The Virginia-creeper adapts itself in the most versatile way to supports as it may find, now twining around a fence or lattice and throwing out long free streamers, and now spreading a flat yet gracefully flowing mantle over wide, plain walls.”

Virginia creeper is native to the eastern United States.  Donald Wyman wrote in the 1949 edition of his book Shrubs and Vines for American Gardens: “All turn a vivid scarlet in the fall and are about the first of the wood plants to show fall color. Because of its wide distribution and its general usefulness, it should not be omitted from any list of vines.”

Caution, however, ought guide any gardener thinking of planting this vine. Many gardeners recommend you avoid planting it on a building, but let it grow freely on an outside wall or fence, at a distance from the house. Virginia creeper may harm the clapboards of a house once it becomes established.

I planted the ‘Red Wall’ variety on a stone wall along the road so there is no need to worry about damaging the walls of the house.

This vine resembles poison ivy, but poison ivy has three leaflets that make up the leave, and Virginia creeper has five. The Latin word ‘quinquefolia’ means five.

In my garden I often see Virginia creeper growing wild and spreading along the ledge that covers a great deal of my property.  You can be sure I count the leaves.




The Public Garden Blithewold Features Exotic Plants

Yesterday I visited Blithewold, a public garden in Bristol, Rhode Island. Don’t remember ever  driving there in the fall so I was surprised to find so much color in the landscape as I walked around the garden.

One plant that got my attention was the Harlequin Glorybower [what a name] or Clerodendrum trichotomum.

It is a small tree, probably eight feet high, planted along the wall at the corner of the North garden, right near the house.  It’s a great choice for fall color since it forms brilliant blue berries surrounded by red calyxes by this time of the year.

Harlequin Glorybower at Blithewold in Bristol, RI

Harlequin Glorybower at Blithewold in Bristol, RI

I mention this tree because it is native to China and Japan, but it grows well at Blithewold, which boasts of many exotic plants.

In nineteenth-century America the search for newer plant varieties often supported an inclination to explore areas outside rather than within the United States, including China and Japan. Through most of the nineteenth century, the seed and nursery catalogs considered native plants to be less desirable for the home landscape or garden than exotic or imported plants. Garden historian Denise Wiles Adams in her book Restoring American Gardens examined American seed and nursery catalogs from 1750 well into the early twentieth century and found that there were one hundred and three plants listed continually in the catalogs. Although there were a number of native plants on the list, the majority were exotic.

Today the argument about the need to grow native plants is important, but American gardeners can still enjoy exotic plants in the garden as we always have.

Blithewold proves an example of a public garden that cultivates both native and exotic plants.


This Moon Gate at Blithewold features perennial beds on each side.  Moon Gates were a feature of Chinese gardens the English introduced in the late nineteenth century to their gardens.

This Moon Gate at Blithewold features perennial beds on each side. Moon Gates were a feature of Chinese gardens the English introduced in the late nineteenth century to their gardens.  Soon after that American gardeners included this Chinese feature in their gardens as well.


Heritage Museums and Gardens Showcase a Shrubbery

On a recent trip to Heritage Museums and Gardens on Cape Cod in the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts I noticed in the garden a row of heavily pruned evergreens.

What came to my mind was the idea of a shrubbery, in this case,  referred to as a collection of well-clipped shrubs.

In the book Keywords in American Landscape Design we read “By the 1840s, shrubbery had developed as a distinct garden feature defined by graduated, intermixed vegetation; placement along walks, roads, flower gardens, and lawns.”

This example of shrubbery on the lawn fits that definition.

Heveily pruned hedges at Hertiage Museums and Gadens

Closely pruned shrubs at Hertitage Museums and Gardens

These shrubs at Heritage offer a display on the lawn.

The lawn certainly is highlighted, but the evergreens stand out as well in their well clipped style as a year-round effect.

In the English garden shrubbery is distinguished from the flower garden and the pleasure ground.

When we group shrubs together in a pleasing design like this at Heritage, we create such a shrubbery.