NY Italian Garden Reflects Victorian Period

NY Italian garden reflects Victorian period.

A recent visit to the Sonnenberg House and Gardens in Canandaigua, New York revealed a bit of American garden history.

The drive on the New York thruway back to Boston from the Association for Garden Communicators annual conference in Buffalo meant passing the Sonnenberg estate which is not far from Rochester.

There I saw the nine gardens that dot the estate landscape including the Italian garden.

Located in the area directly behind the house the Italian garden is filled with plants, many potted for the summer season. [below]

The Sonnenberg landscape includes this Italian garden behind the house.

In 1900 the owner Mary Clark Thompson, whose father was once the New York governor, hired Boston landscape architect Ernest Bowditch. A couple of years later he designed this Italian garden for Mrs. Thompson.

The center of the Italian garden includes a Fleur-de-lis pattern of flower beds.  The popular ‘carpet bedding’ pattern appears on the lawn.

This garden design reflects the Victorian interest in Italian gardens at that time. In 1904 novelist and garden design enthusiast Edith Wharton, following her trip to Italy, published her book  Italian Villas and their Gardens.

You could define the ‘Italian’ garden as a reflection of the Renaissance garden that later also influenced the landscape of Versailles.

The Sonnenberg garden displayed that grand formal style of design with water features along with straight lines of clipped shrubs and several planters filled with tall, showy tropical plants.

The coleus for the carpet beds in the Italian garden were grown in Sonnenberg’s own Lord and Burnhan greenhouse.

Visiting this grand estate and garden is like a trip into the late Victorian period. 

Sonnenberg House and Gardens, restored and now well maintained, is one of America’s most preserved country estates from that time.

 

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Victorian Conservatories Reflected Class Status

Victorian conservatories reflected class status.

A couple of years ago I visited Pittsburgh during the annual meeting of GWA, the Association for Garden Communicators.

There I saw the Phipps Conservatory, designed by Lord and Burnham of New York City, at the Pittsburgh Botanical Garden.

This summer in Buffalo, during another GWA annual meeting, I had the opportunity to see the Lord and Burnham Company’s South Park Conservatory at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. The designers modeled it after the Crystal Palace in England.

When it opened in 1900, it was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and was ranked the ninth largest in the world. [below]

Such conservatories also reveal a bit of garden social status for that time.

Wealthy homeowners included a greenhouse or conservatory as part of the requirements of a modern house.

The Conservatory at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens

On the drive back home from Buffalo I stopped at the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion in Canandaigua, New York, right off the New York thruway.

In 1903 the Lord and Burnham firm also designed the Sonnenberg conservatory and greenhouse complex. [below]

 

Sonnenberg’s Conservatory and Greenhouse Complex

There is a similarity among all three glass structures more than the same designer.

They remind me of the importance that conservatories had on gardening during the Victorian period of the late nineteenth century.

To have a greenhouse or conservatory spoke to the homeowner’s wealth and knowledge about plants.

The conservatory became a status symbol as well.

No surprise that these Victorian gardens, two public, and the other private, included such a structure.

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Victorian Container Gardening

Victorian Container Gardening

Gardener Lucy M. Clark writes the following guest post on how the Victorian influence in gardening still lives on. 

 

Victorian estates paid a lot of importance to landscaping and container planting.

The Victorian Period was a time of vanity, culture, and high regard to social class. Back then it mattered that you were rich and had an estate with beautiful landscaping. Gardening was among the most well-loved leisure activities, including container planting.

If you want to venture into Victorian container planting, here are some tips.

Parlor plants were common decorative materials in the Victorian era.

A Brief History

For this topic, it’s important to note that plant life had become so much more diverse in that era. People would plant these delicate florals and rare species of plants in beautiful vases, jars, and pots. This type of gardening is known today as Victorian container planting. This practice turned gardening into an art form. They were using expensive brass jars, cement pots, and other unique containers for both indoor and outdoor plants.

Brass jars and carved vases were commonly used as planters.

Some of the more lavish Victorian homes would have greenhouses and solariums where their plants could thrive. However, since Victorians loved to decorate with rich, dark colors, and heavy embellishments, the indoor plants had to be tough to be able to survive the harsh conditions of a typical Victorian home. These included heliotropes, palms, jasmine, and ferns among many others. Victorian indoor plants were considered not just decorative materials but also a mark of one’s social class.

Parlor Plants

Parlor plants have a way of brightening up the room and making it feel more luxurious. As in Victorian homes, parlor plants go well with heavy home embellishments. You can choose from a wide array of parlor plants if you wish to incorporate one into your own home. Thankfully, we now have modern solutions to improving plant growing conditions indoors. Here are some parlor plants that were common in the Victorian era. Maybe you want to consider getting these too!

Sword Fern

Back in those times, ferns were used as decorative material in various containers. These included metal, wood, pottery, paper, and even gravestones. Because of pteridomania, the craze among gardeners for ferns, people had their own parlor plant ferns in lavish vases and pots.

Sword ferns can grow 3-4 foot fronds, which were truly a sight to see in that era. The now popular Boston fern was later discovered in 1984 by a Massachusetts florist.

 Sword ferns are a common parlor plant in the Victorian era.

Aspidistra

Hailed as a “cast iron” plant, the Aspidistra was favored by many Victorians because it didn’t require much maintenance. In fact, this plant can survive low light and neglect. Just give it some good soil to thrive. Occasionally the Aspidistra produces brown and purple flowers near its base and grows with large, glossy leaves with clumpy and corn-like features.

Palm

Another Victorian favorite was the Kentia parlor palm, which was pretty much a constant in Victorian photographs. The Kentia palm can grow up to 5-12 feet indoors and has lush, arching leaves. This structure makes it quite the visual in Victorian homes. The less light this type of palm receives, the more foliage it produces.

 The Kentia palm is a favorite parlor plant among Victorians.

Jerusalem Cherry

The Jerusalem Cherry parlor plant was given its name because of its popularity around Victorian holidays. It is a native to Peru and grows as a shrubby and bushy houseplant with white flowers that turn to red-orange berries. Unlike the three other parlor plants, the Jerusalem Cherry is much more high-maintenance. The plant requires high indoor humidity, as well as bright lights to support both structure and flowering. While its berries add a lot of color to a Victorian room, these are somewhat poisonous. Today’s florists and garden centers would replace these parlor plants with ornamental pepper.

Choosing Containers

Because it wouldn’t be Victorian container planting without beautiful containers, you may want to choose vintage ones that blend perfectly with luxurious, dark-colored Victorian rooms. Considering that you want these parlor plants to mimic the classic Victorian style, you can’t say no to vintage articles of furniture and decorative materials.

This specialty shop offers antique vase and brass jar copies that can be used for Victorian container planting.

Luckily for the classics-at-heart, you can get copies of Victorian vases and planters in specialty shops and garden stores. You can choose from a variety of classic designs and materials for the perfect containers that will match your room. You can also make good use of wooden planks or pallets to make your own vintage jardinieres. These are great for both indoor parlor plants and outdoor florals and shrubs.

Of course, nothing can match the charm and history of authentic Victorian plant containers. For the Victorian era lovers, you may want to check out your local antique store for some of these pieces.

Conclusion

It’s a comfort to know that a lot of people are still committed to preserving the Victorian culture, whether it be in fashion design, arts, or, in this case, gardening. With its expansive influence on modern society, the nineteenth century is truly a gift.

 

Hi there! I’m Lucy – founder of GardenAmbition.com and I’m a self-confessed garden fanatic. Gardening has always been a passion of mine and will always be my favorite pastime. Now that I am married and have one adorable son, I have the time to write and share my personal experiences with other garden enthusiasts.

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Plant Hunters Still Search for Exotics

Plant hunters still search for exotics.

Traveling around the world in search of plants for the home garden may seem like a dream job.

The plant however sometimes turns out to be more than just a plant.

Sarah Rose’s book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History tells the story of English plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812-1880).

She traces the  mid-nineteenth century journey of Fortune into China to bring back tea plants. Fortune hoped they would grow in India and thus compete with the Chinese tea market.

Kew Garden

Fortune visited Kew Garden in London, the center of botanical research for the “entire world” as she puts it. Rose writes: “Fortune steps up to a great greenhouse, the Palm House, gloriously situated on a hill.”

That reminded me that when visiting London a couple of years ago it was important that I see the Palm House at Kew. Here is my first view of it that sunny day. [below]

The Palm House, built from 1844-48, at Kew Garden in London to house plants collected abroad.

The size of this shiny structure overpowers you as you approach.  How impressive it must have been in the nineteenth century when greenhouses and conservatories were only available to the wealthy until eventually the price of glass fell.

Plant hunters, like Fortune, represented horticultural institutions such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their quest for the newest plant varieties for the English garden.

At Kew the plants would find a home in the new Palm House.

In many cases plants like the weigela which Fortune brought back from China in the 1840s eventually became part of the English garden palette.

Nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries later listed the plant as a garden favorite, and so American gardeners would plant weigela as well.

Rose writes: “Fortune popularised a remarkable variety of flora in the wake of his Chinese travels.” His “discoveries” included the bleeding heart, the white wisteria, twelve species of rhododendron, and the chrysanthemum.

We now know that  when plants from other habitats become part of a new environment, there may be no natural predators.  The result is that such plants can overrun the local landscape.

The interior of the Palm House at Kew.

Rose writes, “Today there is only guarded enthusiasm for the mass globalization of indigenous plant life.”

Nonetheless, plant hunters like Fortune still search the world for exotic plants that will grow in the American garden.

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Carpet Bedding at Nineteenth Century White House

Carpet bedding at nineteenth century White House

Last year on a visit to Miami’s wonderful ocean front villa and garden called Viskaya I saw rows of croton, the popular tropical plant.

Croton which grows outdoors in warmer regions of the country can add color and structure to any garden or bed.

In her book All the Presidents’ Gardens Marta McDowell writes that carpet beds at the White House in 1888 included croton.

Carpet bedding was a Victorian craze that took off towards the end of the nineteenth century.

McDowell writes, “Carpet bedding is the gardening equivalent of elaborate Victorian jewelry, furniture, and fabric.”

It is an ornamental style of garden fashion in which a design of something like a circle, diamond, or triangle is planted on the lawn with colorful flowers and leaves.

It was the idea of a head gardener in mid-nineteenth century England and America adopted the style as well as England.

McDowell says, “It is as ornamental as the Tiffany stained glass screens and light fixtures that had adorned the interior of the White House since the 1880s.”

It was a fashion that the White House gardeners adopted for the end of the century,

She includes in the book a wonderful quote to support that view.

Here it is.

In 1888 the editor of the magazine American Florist wrote, “I saw some excellent examples of carpet bedding in the White House grounds, but I find in my notebook particular reference to two immense beds of crotons that in themselves amply repaid me for my visit. The beds were twenty-five feet in diameter, with about 350 plants in each, seventy-five varieties being represented together.”

Crotons

While in Florida last year, I met representatives from Costa Farms, a Florida and South Carolina grower of tropical plants.

The company sells crotons which for us in the northeast become house plants. [below]

Crotons from Costa Farms

There are dozens of cultivars today.

We can only imagine what a scene the massive carpet beds of crotons must have made in the White House garden of the late 1880s.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian Carpet Beds

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian carpet beds

A week ago I visited the nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe house and garden in Hartford, Connecticut.  At the same time that Stowe lived there Hartford attracted other artists and writers.

Stowe remains best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Some argue that the book galvanized the issue of abolition and even contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War here in the US.

Her house stands as it did in the nineteenth century.

A Victorian garden still surrounds the house.

Luckily the staff at the Stowe Center provided a guide to her garden. The property is small but includes much of what was important to middle-class gardeners at that tine.

A herb garden, a blue garden, and even a wildflower garden are just some of the expressions of Stowe’s love of gardening.

As I rounded the corner at the front of the house I noticed a large circle of flowers in the lawn.

It was a carpet bed, popular in the Victorian garden of the nineteenth century.

Since this was only mid June, the flowers in the bed were quite small.  The variety of  flowers however caught my attention.

In the center of the bed you could see both a castor oil plant and elephant ears. By summer’s end both of these will be tall plants that will give a sense of height and structure to this round garden.[below]

Carpet bed on the lawn at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Conn.

In 1869 Stowe co-wrote the book The American Woman’s Home: Principles of Domestic Science with her sister Catherine Esther Beecher.

The book includes several chapters on the woman’s role in making an ‘economical, healthful, beautiful, and Christian home.’

There is a section in the book about gardening. They write, “In yards which are covered with turf, beds can be cut out of it, and raised for flowers. A trench should be made around, to prevent the grass from running on them.’

A row of red bricks now circles the colorful flowers that I saw. 

They write, “These beds can be made in the shape of crescents, ovals, and other fanciful forms.”

That became, of course, the Victorian obsession with carpet bedding and ribbon bedding.

The staff at the Stowe Center told me that Harriet Beecher Stowe favored flower beds over kitchen gardens.

That was evident as I walked around the house.

 The restored landscape reflects the Victorian style of gardening popular at that time.

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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.

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Nineteenth Century Victorian Garden Reconstructed

Nineteenth century Victorian garden reconstructed.

Today I volunteer in the nineteenth century Victorian garden of Sarah Parker Rose Goodwin, wife of New Hampshire’s Civil War governor Ichabod Goodwin.

Several years ago the Goodwin house was moved a few blocks, from Islington Street to the historic water district. Its new home is the living museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called Strawbery Banke.

Located near the downtown area, Stawbery Banke’s cultural landscape traces three centuries of gardening in Portsmouth.

Sarah’s garden notes and diary inspired the reconstruction of her garden.

The garden illustrates the use of flowerbeds, called carpet bedding, that was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Sarah Goodwin loved her garden as author Margaret Whyte Kelly describes in her biography Sarah- Her Story.

Sarah Goodwin’s garden today in Portsmouth, NH includes the popular nineteenth century English garden fashion called carpet bedding.

In her journal Sarah wrote: “I like all the varieties of landscape gardening–I like bedding out.”

Bedding out followed the design of planting  featured in carpet bedding, where the same plant, usually a variety of an annual, was cultivated and kept closely trimmed throughout the summer.

Thus, Sarah’s gardening reflected what English gardeners of that period also enjoyed in the garden: bedding out, carpet bedding, and ribbon beds.

Today visitors to Strawbery Banke have the opportunity to walk the gravel pathways of a nineteenth century Victorian garden.

If you happen to visit the Goodwin House, look around and you might see me in the garden weeding or watering.

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Victorian Garden Catalogs Sold Ideal Landscape

Victorian garden catalogs sold ideal landscape.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery industries advertised their seeds and plants to an emerging group of middle class homeowners through catalog essays and images of an ideal garden and landscape.

The publications sold the dream of a home landscape that included a lawn, trees, and shrubs.  They promised a setting the homeowner would enjoy by simply purchasing the necessary seeds and plants.

The link between the family and the role of the home landscape also emerged as a popular theme in books for home plans as well as contemporary literature like The Mother’s Magazine and Family Circle.

The Mother’s Magazine included a short story called “Strangers and Pilgrims” in its issue of January 1875. The author Mrs. J. E. McConaughy wrote, “Many a bright evening did the family spend over the plan of the new house, perfecting all its details. When it was finished, and the last bright carpet laid, the furniture all in its place, and the beautiful lawn in perfect order, the family moved into it.  At last they were home.”

In his 1878 garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick  (1818-1882) included an image of  the ideal home with a before [above]  and after [below] look in what he called “Thistles and Roses.” The landscape transformed after purchasing seeds and plants shown brightly in its manicured lawn and those necessary plantings around the home.

Notice in the second image [below] a woman stood on the front lawn. The home was her domain where  her good taste in the landscape provided the proper setting to raise a family.

The seed and nursery industry catalogs used  themes like home and family to promote a Victorian landscape with a  lawn, trees, shrubs, vines, and flower beds of annuals, reflecting what was in style with English garden design at that time.

Vick’s two illustrations tell the story.

One can only imagine the Victorian homeowner thinking words like “I too could have this beautiful landscape.”

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Understanding Nineteenth Century Vernacular Gardens

Understanding nineteenth century vernacular gardens.

I just finished reading Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Home Gardening.

What made the book so worthwhile was the research that paved the way for the book.

While working on her master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, author Lee Somerville chose to examine nineteenth century vernacular gardens in Wisconsin.

She defines vernacular gardens as the gardens of ordinary people who lived in ordinary homes.

The treasure for her research turned out to be the records of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society.

Each year from 1869 until 1928 WSHS published the proceedings of its annual meeting,  Two Society journals The Wisconsin Horticulturist (1896-1903) and Wisconsin Horticulture (1910-1967) supplemented the annual report.

With the help of these primary resources, and many secondary resources as well, Somerville sought to understand the vernacular garden of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Wisconsin.

She covers home landscape design, plants, and the lawn for both rural and city properties. She includes landscape drawings, clearly detailing the vernacular garden over this period of time.

At the end of the book she makes recommendations for anyone considering either creating or restoring a vintage garden. She writes, “Photographs, letters, journals, maps and publications usually available at local or regional libraries and historical societies for researching a particular garden can be a starting point for researching any particular garden.”

That is exactly what Lee did in the research and writing of this book.

The book includes many photographs and illustrations. The end of the book features a listing of heirloom plants, including trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials grown in vintage Wisconsin gardens.

Anyone interested in old gardens, but especially the evolution of garden design in this country would  enjoy this book.

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