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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Victorian Gardeners Treasured Castor Oil Plant

Victorian gardeners treasured castor oil plant.

The ricinus, or castor oil plant, can offer both a showy color and tall structure for the garden.

It was a popular Victorian plant for both the outdoor vase and garden beds.

Tom Carter writes in his book The Victorian Garden “[William] Robinson lists as indispensable to the subtropical enthusiast ricinus (castor-oil plant), canna, polymnia, colocasia, uhdea, wigandia, ferdinanda, yucca, draceana, and palms.”

In his catalogs and garden magazine Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) often recommended ricinus.

Vick wrote in his magazine in 1878, “This class of plants [sub-tropical] is becoming very popular,

Tall ricinus fills the center of this flowerbed. [Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1878]

and are used in what is known as sub-tropical gardening, that is, gardens furnished with plants of a tropical, or sub-tropical, origin, such as Century Plant, Agaves, Cannas, Caladiums, Ricinus, Yucca, Wigandia, Tritoma, Pampas Grass, etc.”

Vick kept up with the latest fashion and trends in gardening for his customers. He wanted them to know and appreciate flowers from various parts of the world like the exotic sub-tropicals.

One customer wrote to Vick in 1868 about her ricinus seeds. She said, “Many thanks for the fine Ricinus seed I got from you last Spring. I have two of the finest specimens of the giant species, ‘Giganteus’, one sixteen feet four inches high, and one thirteen feet.”

Ricinus fit the Victorian flair for bold and beautiful in the garden. It can grow several feet high with leaves that can measure three feet or more.

You can still find ricinus at garden centers in the spring and early summer.

Who knows? Maybe this old-fashioned Victorian annual might fit the bill for that center spot in a container or that flower bed where you need just that look.

 

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Nineteenth Century Garden Writers Encouraged Vegetables

Nineteenth century garden writers encouraged vegetables.

Garden writers influence consumers.

Readers look to such sources to learn what to plant, what tools to buy, and what’s popular garden fashion.

The garden world enjoys it own share of garden media celebrities on whose every word eager fans depend.

So it is no surprise that in the nineteenth century historians note that at one point garden writers focused on growing vegetables rather than cultivating a flower garden.

Perhaps the emphasis on vegetable growing may have been related to the simple need to survive.  Vegetable growing and farming consumed the early decades of the country. Once we had food on the table, we could worry about a flower garden.

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter writes, “Until the middle of the century gardening writers dismissed flowers in favour of useful vegetable products.”

In the 1860s and 1870s seed company owners like Rochester, New York’s James Vick still featured growing vegetables.

Here in an illustration from Vick’s catalog. Vegetables almost surround the house. [below]

Vick wrote much about flowers and spreading the love of floriculture around the country.

One customer wrote to Vick, “No other florist has done so much to create a love of flowers.”

In 1874 he wrote in his seed catalog that gardeners could have almost as much fun in growing vegetables as in cultivating flowers.

In the catalog Vick wrote, “There is almost as much pleasure in growing a choice vegetable well, in bringing it to the highest possible state of perfection, as there is in producing a beautiful flower.”

Then Vick mentioned the lowly cauliflower, pictured in the left of the illustration. [above]

He wrote, “Indeed, some think with Dr. Johnson, that a Cauliflower is the handsomest flower that grows.”

Vick’s advice became important to his customers, so I am sure they followed his guidance even in growing vegetables.

 

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Victorian Homes Needed Lawn

Victorian homes needed lawn.

The lawn marked the landscape as contemporary in nineteenth century America.

Every Victorian house needed the lawn.

David Stuart writes in his book Garden of Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The front garden, except in the poorest examples, became the site of another piece of competitive gardening: the lawn.

“Of course the great eighteenth-century gardens had lawns, often vast, though these were either cropped by the park’s inhabitants such as fallow deer, rare breeds of sheep and cattle, or kept scythed by the garden staff.

“Soon, every Victorian house had a square of lawn, even if this was scarcely large enough to lie upon outstretched and could be cut with a few sweeps of the scythe.”

A beautiful illustration of a Victorian home with a lawn appears on the cover image from Clifford Edward Clark, Jr.’s  book The American Family Home 1800-1960. [below]

Eventually taking care of lawn became an important household task for the middle class.

As Frank Scott in 1870 argued so well in his book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, a homeowner took care of the lawn for the view, for what the neighbor would see.

Thus it was important, he wrote, to keep it cut and looking attractive.

And so Scott set the stage in the nineteenth century for all the stress homeowners feel in the need not only to cultivate a lawn, but to spend hours manicuring it so that it has that certain look.

Victorian homeowners needed a lawn, but a certain kind of lawn, with a certain look.

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Growing Orchids Reflected Social Status

Growing orchids reflected social status.

As material culture, plants can contribute to a person’s social status.

Certain plants often become connected to a higher social class.

That is the case with the orchid from the beginning of its introduction into eighteenth century England.

David Stuart in his book The Garden Triumphant writes, “Orchids of the tropical kind, mostly needed both jungle heat and humidity, were considerable status symbols from the moment of their introduction.”

As tropical plants, orchids demanded the comfort of a greenhouse or conservatory.

“By 1839 the glasshouses at Chatsworth were packed with orchids, many collected specifically for the Duke of Devonshire,” writes Stuart.

On a garden tour in southern Florida last year I came across this blue orchid growing on a tree. [below]

In this Florida front yard you can see orchids on a tree.

The flowers had the perfect combination of heat and moisture to survive on the tree trunk.

Really a beautiful sight.

It never occured to me to judge the social status of the owner of the house and garden.

Though the orchid provided many hours of pleasure to gardeners in nineteenth century America who could afford both the greenhouse and a garden staff to tend to them, today things have changed.

Victoria Zemlan in her article “By Hook by Crook: The Plunder of Orchids for the New World” says “Now, we can buy inexpensive orchids in almost any nursery, home improvement center, or grocery store, but 19th century orchids were an extravagance reserved for the nobility.”

Tom Carter, author of  The Victorian Garden which covers nineteenth century gardening,  says, “Orchids were another class of plants needing special arrangements, and only experienced gardeners attempted them.

“Even though orchids were beyond the scope of most gardeners, they appealed strongly to a curious public, and nurserymen vied to produce the showiest and most exotic specimens.”

Eventually nineteenth century nurseries in both England and America made orchids available to anyone who wanted them. They no longer belonged only to the wealthy.

Today any gardener may grow them.

Zemlan says, “Orchids haven’t lost their allure — Americans now spend more on orchids each year than on any other houseplant.”

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