Archives Open A Window on American Gardening

I just finished reading a wonderful new book on the history of the American garden.

The book, Everything for the Garden, is not thick but is filled with many engrossing photos and illustrations.

The book is based on the collection of garden books, catalogues, and related ephemera in Historic New England’s Library and Archives.  The time frame is the nineteenth into the early twentieth century.

Five excellent essays by prominent garden historians, writers, archivists, and designers make up the volume.

Garden historian Judith Tankard writes about our long dependence on the written word, especially garden books.

She says, “Even though today’s information is readily available on the Internet, the old-fashioned pleasures of thumbing through catalogues and how-to-publications still exist.” There is something that still attracts us to the printed word in the form of a garden book or garden magazine. We want to hold it in our hands.

Late nineteenth century catalogues from seed companies included vegetables depicted as humans in an effort to sell their seeds.  That whimsical artwork is still fun to see.

Garden Statues

Any history of the garden must of course include statuary.  Here archivist Richard Nylander reminds the reader how different the gardener’s choice of such statuary can be, depending on the decade. He highlights three such garden ornaments.

The first garden accessory he mentions is the sculpture Bird Girl (1936) which also appeared on the cover of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 I found his second statue, that of St. Francis, one that I had never thought of but certainly one that I have seen in many gardens. Francis, after all, is now the patron saint of ecology with his love of animals and nature.

 Finally, he reminds the reader of the ever-popular, ever-repulsive, Pink Flamingo craze from the 1950s. What fun.

Garden Fashion

 The idea that the garden is subject to fashion and style appears over and over in the book as the writers discuss the time and place of a particular form of the American garden. For example, the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century stimulated interest in old-fashioned flowers and gardens. It was an interpretation of what people thought the Colonial garden might have looked like.

Alan Emmet includes many images of period gardens like Hunnewell’s in Wellesley, Mass. and Celia Thaxter’s off the coast of New Hampshire.  He admits the difficulty in preserving a garden. Emmet writes, “A garden is probably the most fragile, the most perishable form of art.”

The final essay by Virginia Lopez Begg presents an overview of the Garden Club movement in America.  She spells out the importance of the movement for women. The movement also changed our views of horticulture and landscape design.

The book ends with a listing on the inside of the back cover of some of the many properties, with their fabulous gardens, that Historic New England manages.  Now, as spring approaches, we need to visit these gardens and enjoy them once again in person.

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New Book Cover Arrived

Last week turned out to be extra special for me.

On Monday Ohio Unversity Press sent me the cover for my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth Century Seed Company.

James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York, owned one of the largest seed companies in the country.

The book tells Vick’s story, especially his passion to teach people about flowers.

Here is the cover:

The colors jump out at you and ask you to sit down and read Vick’s Victorian-era story..

I am quite happy with the Victorian look and feel of the design. Vick’s seed catalog from 1874 is the back ground, now colored in that brilliant blue.

Don’t expect to see the book until mid to late Fall.

What do you think of the cover?

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New Book Traces Garden Club History

I just finished a wonderful book about American gardening, Everything for the Garden.

Historic New England published it. The organization, whose name before was the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, maintains dozens of historic properties in New England.

The book inlcudes a chapter by landscape historian Virginia Lopez Begg called “An Unexpected Story: Social Revolution and the Garden Club.”

In that chapter Begg details the importance of the garden club movement in America.

She writes, “The garden club movement helped to transform the landscape of America and the women of America.”

In the early twentieth century the garden club gave women a voice in gardening by encouraging women’s civic involvement through gardening.

At a time when women were struggling for their own right to vote, the garden club movement gave women a unified voice in the areas of botany and horticulture.

That voice eventually involved important national issues like highway beautification and the use of native plants.

In 1904 the national movement started with the founding of the Garden Club of Philadelphia.

The Garden Club of America, now the parent organization, published the two-volume book Gardens of Colony and State in the 1930s.

The volume lists in both word and illustration many historic gardens throughout the country, several in New England.

At the turn of the century when women were bonding in various kinds of organizations to claim a voice, it was no surprise that gardening with its emphasis on horticulture and landscape design also became the focus of one such group.

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Japanese Knotweed Jumped the Wall

Did you know that Japanese knotweed jumped the wall?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries English gardeners hosted exotics.

They took great satisfaction in growing plants that flooded the country from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Plant hunters then searched the globe for worthwhile garden plants.

There were various kinds of plants, including vines. One such entry was Japanese knotweed.

Unfortunately, Japanese knotweed became an unwanted invasive species.

Garden historian Stephen Harris writes about this vine in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Once an exotic plant has ‘jumped the wall’ it can have profound effects and often very difficult to control.”

The example he cites is Japanese knotweed. [below]

[Thanks to: WASHINGTON STATE
Noxious Weed Control Board
]
Polygonum Cuspidata, Japanese Knotweed

Harris says, “Japanese knotweed [is] a species which has now spread over much of the UK following the flurry of interest it aroused in the mid-nineteenth century.”

It is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s worst invasive species.

Botanical gardens, like Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, still search the world, especially China, for plants that will grow in US gardens.

Today we know a lot more about invasive plants than we did when Japanese knotweed first arrived in England in 1850.

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Winter Appeal of Garden Catalogs

The cold, snow, and ice sometimes get to me.

I know that feeling also makes me appreciate the garden catalog.

Right now a catalog appears in my mailbox every few days. I love them.

This week I came across a wonderful article in the English magazine The Living Age from January 3, 1914. The name of the article is “On Flower Catalogues” by Jessie Fielding Marsh.

Marsh delights in the arrival of the garden catalog at her doorstep.

Here is a seed catalog from that time. Look at the warm, rich colors on the cover. This is probably the kind of catalog that would have come to her door.

Title: Catalogue of Seeds. Source: Front Cover, Nursery catalogue, Richard Smith & Co. 1898

She writes, “Catalogues are for grey days, dark days, when our outlook on life is a sad one, when our plants lie under the earth and there seems no prospect of any return of color and warmth.”

She ends the article with a wonderful sense of hope.

Marsh writes, “Yes, in winter you read your catalogues – in summer you live them!”

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Hunnewell Pinetum: Garden as Collection

Plant collecting is nothing new.

The nineteenth century revealed an interest in both collecting and showing off plants. In the early part of the century such a hobby became the pastime of the wealthy.

By the end of the century the middle class had joined the ranks.

One method was to plant a collection of conifers.

Stephen Harris mentions that hobby in his book, Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Gardeners, especially the wealthy with land and gardens to fill, were attracted by the landscape possibilities of conifers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.”

The Boston area included an important example of collecting conifers.

Not far from Boston, in the town of Wellesley, in 1867 Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810 – 1902) planted a fourteen acre pinetum, or garden of pines.

Thus he was able to display his collection of evergreens.

Hunnewell’s goal in creating this special garden appeared in his 1906 biography called Life, letters, and diary of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell.

He said  “In it will be my aim to plant every conifer, native and foreign, that will be found sufficiently hardy to thrive in our cold New England climate.” 

The Hunnewell Pinetum (1906) is located near Boston in the town of Wellesley.

 Today three hundred sixty towering conifers still grow in his pinetum, now open to the public.

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Two Typical Victorian Flowers

Everyone can easily list two important Victorian flowers.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor hesitates not one moment and presents his two typical Victorian flowers.

He writes, “The hollyhock and the scarlet geranium are what one thinks of as typical Victorian flowers.”

Taylor then explains why he includes the hollyhock. He says, “The hollyhock almost qualifies as a true florists’ flower.”

He gives the history of the hollyhock which I did not know. It seems that a shoemaker from Saffron Walden named Charles Baron introduced it to England from the Grand Orient in the sixteenth century.

Another choice

I guess we are all entitled to an opinion here.

My first choice for the most important Victorian flower would have to be the dahlia. The dahlia is both big and showy. Those are qualities one thinks of when you think of the Victorian era, especilly the 1890s.

This 1888 catalog cover from the John Lewis Childs Seed Company in New York says it all. [below]

Childs catalog cover of 1888 bursts in dahlias.

I could live with the geranium as the other top choice for that period of the nineteenth century. Everyone grew geraniums.

What are your top two Victorian flowers?

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Nineteenth Century Introduced Flower Gardens

Nineteenth century introduced flower gardens

In the eighteenth century the classic English garden took the form of an extensive lawn, a lake, a deer park, and trees to line the property. There was little room for a flower garden.

The famous royal gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1715-1783) designed his many contracted landscapes around the country in that style.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor tells the story of how the flower garden assumed its important role.

He writes that the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) became a lone voice, encouraging the planting of flowers in the landscape.

Taylor says, “Humphry Repton’s evident, though subordinate, interest in flowers and flower gardens marks the beginning of a change in taste.”

Flowers began to take on a small, but significant role, in the landscape.

Taylor says, “The eighteenth century was flower-conscious in its gardening, but very far from exclusively so. The flower garden, generally speaking, took up only a very small proportion of the total garden area, and was secluded from the house.”

Repton however encouaged flowers in the landscape. Early in the nineteenth century he painted a scene of a garden of roses that he simply called ‘The Rosarium.’

His painting represents an entire garden area dedicated to the beautiful and now essential rose.

This is his painting:

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

Today we take flower gardens for granted. We assume they have been around forever.

As Taylor points out, there was a gradual development of interest in flower gardens. Eventually, especially by the late Victorian period, such gardens would become essential.

It was the nineteenth century however that introduced flower gardens.

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Garden Flowers Familiar to Generations

Garden flowers familiar to generations

We all love garden annuals like lobelia and asters in the summer garden.

Such annuals, and many like them, have been part of our flower gardens for centuries.

Why is it that every garden center in the spring sells the same flowers like carnations, impatiens, and petunias? Because they are familiar.

We garden with plants that have been part of the garden world for decades and even centuries. The varieties may change because we have so many hybrids, but the plants are familiar.

Garden historian Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book The Victorian Flower Garden, “It is The Gardener’s Dictionary and its author [Philip Miller] that must occupy the most honorably prominent place in any account of the background to the Victorian garden.”

Catalog cover of familiar flowers in 1882
[D. M. Ferry & Co.]

He argues that the Victorian garden has roots, literally, in the gardens of earlier decades, especially the 1700s when plants were arriving in England from around the world. It was then that botanist Miller (1691-1771) supervised the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote about the garden.

Some of the flowers Miller mentions include the crocus, the snowdrop,hyacinth, and narcissus for spring.

The list also includes anemone, stock, the rose, tulip,carnation, phlox, and coreopsis, mostly for summer.

So our flower choices are familiar because we have been growing them for decades and even centuries.

Perhaps that is why it is difficult for gardeners to try new plants when spring appears.

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Formal vs Natural Garden Design

Formal vs natural garden design

There has long been a battle with various levels of passion between those who love formal garden design and those who don’t.

Some prefer the ‘natural’ design as the English proposed it in the early eighteenth century. It became the style of garden for decades and still persists.

Landscape designer and nurseryman from Pennsylvania and later California J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) ranted about the absurdity of the formal garden in his book Adventures of a Horticulturist (1935).

J. Wilkinson Elliott

Elliott said, “I do not like formal gardens. I consider them an abomination and a thorn in the flesh.”

He was pretty clear where he stood on the issue.

Then he gave his reasons.

He wrote, “The first rule to be observed in making a good garden is to make it as natural as possible, and that does not mean that design is not necessary.”

Even though the garden looks more natural, it still takes the art of design to realize it.

Eliott concluded, “The best-designed garden is one that looks as though it had not been designed.”

He wrote that in 1935.

Today we still make a distinction between natural and formal. Some gardens showcase a bit of each type of design.

Wonder what Elliott would think of that?

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