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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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.

 

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Nineteenth Century Bedding Plants Included Popular Geranium

Nineteenth century bedding plants included popular geranium.

In the nineteenth century planting annuals in beds on the lawn became a popular fashion.

Plant collectors had introduced tropical and sub-tropical plants and gardeners wanted to display them in the landscape.

Among the new plants gardeners fell in love with was the geranium or pelargonium as it was called.

Stuart writes in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens, “The great bedding genera of mid-nineteenth century gardens – Calceolaria, Petunia, Verbena and Geranium (Pelargonium) – were popular not only because they were brilliantly colorful, assuaging the contemporary taste for gaudy and intense effects, but also because, being from the sub-tropics, they were ‘seasonless’.  As soon as the plants were growing, they also began to flower.”

It was the pelargonium that become the most popular flower for the summer garden.

Stuart says, “The bedding garden owed much of its popularity and ubiquitous appeal to the pelargonium that Masson had collected in South Africa.”

Plant collector from Kew Francis Masson died on one of his plant hunting trips in Montreal in 1805.

Today growers continue to hybridize Pelargoniums. A variety ‘Vancouver Centennial’ celebrates the one-hundreth  anniversary of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. [below]

Pelargonium ‘Vancouver Centennial’ [Courtesy of White Flower Farm]

In 1883 the English garden writer William Robinson wrote in his book The English Flower Garden  that pelargoniums were either from the southern hemisphere or bred by European growers.

Today we see few of the varieties from the nineteenth century. Stuart writes, “As with verbenas and calceolarias, most of the geranium varieties are lost.”

Nonetheless we still fill our summer flower beds with the newest and most popular annual geraniums. 

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Victorians Loved Winter Indoor Gardening

Victorians loved winter indoor gardening.

Recently I received a press release from Costa Farms about growing house plants in the winter.

The company’s argument that encourages indoor plants sounds quite similar to what I have read in the seed and nursery catalogs of the nineteenth century.

Costa Farms advises us to “infuse new life into spaces by decorating with easy-to-care-for houseplants. It’s simple to give rooms, from bedrooms to bathrooms and even kitchens, a small pick-me-up during winter months.”

Justin Hancock, garden expert at Costa Farms, says “The key is picking a plant that likes the room’s environment.”

Victorian gardeners loved nothing more than plants in the house during the cold days of winter.

Under the title “House Adornments” Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his catalog of 1872 , “Nothing gives a home a more cheerful appearance in winter than a few plants and flowers, and when they are accompanied with tasteful accessories, the fine effect is much increased.”

In the same catalog Vick sold articles a homeowner needed for indoor gardening such as a black walnut shelf on bronze brackets, a black walnut fernery, and a walnut window garden box.

This Illustration of indoor gardening from Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1869 book The American Woman’s Home shows how plants in the window can provide a sense of comfort to the summer gardener. [below]

Illustration of indoor plants, including vines, from Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book The American Woman’s Home, 1869.

Yesterday a catalog arrived in the mail from Logee’s. The nursery, located in Connecticut, is one of my favorite greenhouses. It offers great plant choices for the indoor gardener. The new catalog lists thirty-eight new plants, just the inspiration a gardener needs.

It’s winter. No wonder, just like Vick’s catalog once encouraged, advertising for indoor plants now fills my mailbox.

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National Garden Bureau Honors Pansy

National Garden Bureau honors pansy.

Who doesn’t like the pansy?

The National Garden Bureau  loves it so much that it just declared 2017 the Year of the Pansy.

This tiny plant has a long history in our gardens. It became popular in the Victorian era of the nineteenth century.

Until then most people considered it a weed.

Today pansies are a hybrid plant cultivated from wildflowers in Europe and western Asia. Much of the collection and cultivation of pansies can be attributed to horticulturists in the UK and Europe more than two hundred years ago.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) often wrote about the pansy, and also received letters about this flower from his customers.

He wrote, “The Pansy is a popular flower with both florists and amateurs, giving abundance of bloom until after severe frosts, enduring our hard winters with safety, and greeting us in the earliest spring with a profusion of bright blossoms.”

It was the smiley face on this plant that Vick and his customers loved.

Pansy ‘Delta Premium Marina’ [Thanks to the National Garden Bureau]

Garden pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are a mixture of several species, including Viola tricolor. Oftentimes the names “pansy”, “viola”, and “violet” are interchangeable.

The American Violet Society classifies modern pansies as having large-flowered blooms with two slightly overlapping upper petals, two side petals, and a single bottom petal, with a slight beard in its center.

Pansies are considered annual bedding plants, used for garden decoration during cooler planting seasons.

According to the NGB, “Pansies come in a rainbow of colors: from crisp white to almost black, and most all colors in between. They are also a great addition to your spring or fall vegetable garden as they are edible and pair well with lettuces. They can also be candied and used to decorate sweets or other dishes.”

Vick wrote in 1874, “The Pansies make such a beautiful bed, and are so interesting as flowers that we are anxious all should succeed with them.”

Then he wrote about the flower’s likeness to a human face. He said, “No flower is so companionable and life-like. It requires no very great stretch of the imagination to cause one to believe that they see and move, and acknowledge your admiration in a very pretty knowing way.”

Did he mean that these plants know you love them?

 

 

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