Nineteenth Century Gardeners Needed Seed Companies

Nineteenth century gardeners needed seed companies.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries played an important role in what gardeners planted.

Many new plants were coming into Europe and America from plant collectors traveling the world in search of new garden plants. Sometimes a nursery would sponsor such a trip.

The seed companies made available the seeds from these new plants.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered dozens of flower seeds in the various Departments of his catalog. [below]

Thus he made the newest plants available to Victorian America.

1873 list of seeds for sale in Vick’s catalog

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “Plant collectors might have braved the Himalayan and Andean snows in vain, and the work of the plant breeder all ars gratis Artis had it not been for the coincident growth of the nursery trade to propagate and distribute the new garden plants.”

Thus Vick could display this illustration of a tranquil landscape filled with garden annuals from his collection of seeds in the Department he called ‘Annuals.’

In this scene from Vick’s  catalog of 1874 the parents stood on a summer deck to admire their landscape and take in the joy it brought their children, playing down below on the lawn. [below]

Vick Floral Guide 1874

The garden industry, to this very day, is instrumental in spreading the knowledge of new plants to the home gardener.

Hyams writes, “During the eighteenth century about 500 new plant species were introduced into English gardens; in the next century the newcomers were counted in the thousands.”

 

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Victorians Encouraged Winter Houseplants

Victorians encouraged winter houseplants.

It is the dead of winter and the house interior seems to provide nothing but dry air.

For this time of year the Victorians encouraged indoor plants.

Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book cowritten with her sister Catherine Esther Beecher The American Woman’s Home in 1869 recommended growing house plants to help bring humidity to the dry winter air in the house.

This black and white illustration appeared in the book, showing the detail of window and plants. [below]

From The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe

The nineteenth century garden industry provided decorative flower pots, hanging baskets and even miniature greenhouses, according to Thomas Schlereth’s Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915.

In 1873 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his catalog, “A bay window connected with a warm room, especially if facing South or East, makes an excellent place for keeping plants in winter.

“Few plants can endure the high temperature and dry atmosphere of most of our living rooms. The temperature should not be allowed to go above seventy in the day time, and not above forty-five in the night.”

Vick frequently shared instructions for taking care of the plants.

He said, “The main thing in keeping house plants in health is to secure an even temperature, a moist atmosphere, and freedom from dust. Sprinkle the leaves occasionally, and when water is needed, use it freely.”

Besides offering some leverage against indoor dry conditions, plants are also fun to see. It is a bit of the garden indoors.

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1876 Centennial Exhibition Featured Conservatories

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition featured conservatories.

The Victorian gardener in the late nineteenth century sought exotic plants that displayed color and form whether in the garden or in the house.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia showcased the love of such plants, especially in the windows of the house and in the glass houses or conservatories that many homes could then afford.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “The horticultural hall [at the Exhibition in Philadelphia] represented the Victorian love of exotic gardens in glass conservatories.”

The Victorian conservatory became an extension of the house.

Such greenhouses served an important role in the life and work of the nineteenth century gardener.

When glass became less expensive in the late 1830s, the middle class plant lover could afford to have such a conservatory or greenhouse.

In 1892 the Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston issued a seed catalog with a black and white drawing of an upper middle class house. Two men and two women were playing badminton on the front lawn. (below)

You also can see  a large conservatory attached to the house at the left. The conservatory provided a setting for tropical plants that the owner could cultivate and perhaps during the warm months position outdoors so the plant could enjoy the season’s warmth and rain.

A potted plant like a palm or lemon tree also added an exotic touch to the garden.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Attached conservatory in Parker and Wood Seed Catalog of 1892 [Mass Hort]

The Victorian conservatory, attached to the house, appeared both in England and America, assuring hours of gardening pleasure for its owner.

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We All Garden for Different Reasons

We all garden for different reasons.

As you know, people garden for various reasons.

Every gardener you ask would probably give a different answer.

Recently I came across a letter from one of the readers of the nineteenth century garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, published by Rochester, New York seed company owner, James Vick (1818-1882).

 Every issue of the magazine included letters from his audience of readers, spread around the country.

 In the August 1878 issue of the magazine one reader wrote, “Thousands of people grow flowers and derive no happiness from their culture, and often a good deal of pain. They grow flowers for the same reason that they build costly houses and dress extravagantly – to excel their neighbors, for display and ostentation.”

Vick’s Flower Chromo E, 1874

Gardening to such a person, according to the writer, meant keeping up with the latest garden fashion.

It was important to such a gardener to display that fashion as well.

The writer makes the point that there was “a good deal of pain” in this type of gardening.

Perhaps because it was done not for the joy of it, but for the display it provided for one’s neighbors.

For many gardeners there is a physical, emotional, and even spiritual joy that comes from spending time in the garden with plants, water, earth, and stone.

Perhaps that is one reason today we read about the focus on meditation and contemplation associated with gardening.

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Newport Mansions Feature Christmas Poinsettias

Newport mansions feature Christmas poinsettias.

Everyone knows that Newport, Rhode Island is home to the grand mansions of America’s Gilded Age.

Right now three of the mansions have taken on a festive holiday look.

Until January 1 you can visit these three Newport mansions, The Breakers, Elms, and Marble House, decked out in lights and the holiday colors of red, green, and gold. The Preservation Society of Newport County, the group that oversees eleven historical properties in Newport, has made this holiday display at the mansions available to visitors for more than twenty-five years.

Decorated Christmas trees dot the rooms of the mansions. The trees sometimes surprise you when you turn a corner and see a tall evergreen decked in gold and red as in the Gothic Room of Marble House.

The dining room tables are set with period silver and china, and individual white candles illuminate the windows. Christmas wreaths and evergreens decorate walls.

Three thousand poinsettias add color to the rooms of the three houses. The plants, grown in the Preservation Society’s own greenhouse,

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

are removed and replaced several times during the six-week holiday season to ensure the displays remain fresh.

The poinsettias at The Breakers really stole the show for me.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built in 1895, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad.

Its interior includes rich marbles and gilded rooms, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, and open-air terraces with magnificent ocean views.

In the Grand Hall of The Breakers stands a 15-foot tree made of red poinsettias. The room with its walls of yellow stone and a 50-foot high ceiling that seems to go up forever shines with the red color of the poinsettia.

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas Tree to the left

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas tree, made of poinsettias, to the left

When The Breakers was built, the poinsettia, originally from Mexico, had become popular throughout the country.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced the poinsettia to the garden industry, once said that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876.

Meehan said that this plant “has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

And that is truly what you find at The Breakers. The blossoms of the poinsettias brighten up the mansion in a holiday spirit.

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We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.

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Victorian Seed Industry Launched Hybrid Search

Victorian seed Industry launched hybrid search.

At the moment I am reading about the nineteenth century history of garden annuals.

Hybridizing has become an important topic to examine during this period.

Richard Gorer writes in The Development of Garden Flowers that hybridizing was not extensively practiced until the early nineteenth century.

You will find a history of hybridizing in Noel Kingsbury’s book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

Though he covers farming, especially corn, which is so dependent on hybrids to increase the yield quality and stamina, Kingsbury also addresses horticulture and gardening.

When Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1870s hybridized the petunia by crossing two varieties, he came up with his own double cultivar called ‘Vick’s double fringed.’

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick gives an account of how he crossed the petunias.

He filled a room in his greenhouse with single-flowering plants while nearby he filled another room with plants bearing double flowers. He then took a basket of double flowers to the area containing the single petunias. Next he shredded the double flowers in search of pollen and collected it with a camel’s hair brush. This pollen was transferred to the pistils of the single flowers.

This was an expensive way to generate seeds. It was however from this method that Vick added his own petunia cultivar called ‘Vick’s New Fringed.’

Vick joined a long line of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries who experimented with hybridizing.

The potential of hybridizing for even more new garden plants expanded in the early twentieth century, as Kingsbury notes, with the work of L. H. Bailey in New York and Luther Burbank in California.

Kingsbury recognizes the work of seedsmen like Vick. He writes, “Commercial seedsmen were quite important in the development of many vegetables and flower varieties.”

 

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Crane Estate Restores Italian Garden

Crane Estate restores Italian garden

Since for several months I had heard about the beautiful restored Italian garden at the Crane Estate, I had to visit.

The non-profit Trustees of Reservations owns the property called Castle Hill and its Crane Estate, right along the ocean on Boston’s north shore in the town of Ipswich.

Today Castle Hill remains a 165-acre National Historic Landmark.

When Chicago industrialist Richard Crane bought the property as a summer home for his family in 1910, he built an Italian villa.

In 1928 he replaced it with a 59-room English-style mansion. [below]  A gravel drive welcomes a visitor to  the house.

The Crane Estate mansion on Castle Hill in Ipswich, built in 1928

The house, high on a hill, is situated quite close to the waters of the Atlantic.

That day I saw this beautiful view of the ocean from the terrace outside the house. [below]

View of the water from the mansion at the Crane Estate

The Italian garden was the first and most elaborate of the gardens created by the Cranes.

They chose the Olmsted firm in Brookline to design the garden. The garden, to which you descend as you walk from the house, includes remarkable stonework in archways, terraces, and statues.  Its fountain stands at the center, along the front wall. 

In this picture of the garden you get a sense of how low it is. The house is in the background to the left. [below]

The restored Italian garden of the Crane Estate

Many of the perennials that make up the garden beds would be familiar to any gardener.

They include sedum, phlox, echinacea, and monarda.

In the early 1900s perennial beds were the fashion. So was the Italian garden.

After all, that was the time that popular garden books included Charles Platt’s Italian Gardens (1894) and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens.

The four-mile, white-sand Crane Beach, which I have visited many times over the years, is located just beyond the entrance to the road that takes you to the house.  The beach has become a wonderful summer attraction for many on the north shore.

This garden at the Crane Estate, restored in the last year or so, certainly reflects the period of the house along with its owners’ love of the Italian garden.

 

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NY Sonnenberg Mansion’s Special Garden

NY Sonnenberg Mansion’s special garden

The Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion in Canandaigua, New York offer much to see for any gardener.

A number of different gardens are spread throughout the fifty-acre property with its Gilded Age mansion. 

On a recent visit I found the blue and white garden, near the house. It must have made such a pleasant retreat. [below]

Blue and white garden at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion

The walk-way of pavers connect the garden to the house. It is as if the garden were an outside room.

Making a garden seem like an an outside room became a popular style of garden design in the early 1900s when this garden was installed at Sonnenberg.

Plants

The garden grows familiar plants, each chosen for its color and final size for this special setting.

Today the blue flowers include gentian salvia, lobelia, larkspur, and delphinium.

For white blossoms a visitor will see sweet alyssum, campanula, phlox, hyacinth, and agapanthus.

The flowers are combined with ferns and palms from the greenhouses.

The over-all aesthetic for this blue and white garden relies heavily on the Victorian period when colorful flowers, as well as ferns and palms, took center stage both inside and outside the house.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in 1878, “Earnestly have we desired to see the people of this country appreciate the beauties of nature, study nature’s laws, and, above all, love flowers and delight in their culture.”

Art in the Garden

The garden also features an oval pool as well as a marble summerhouse with a statue of a female figure in its center.

Along the edge of the pool you will see a white marble statue of a boy riding a dolphin. Supposedly this sculpture dates back three hundred years. [below]

Summerhouse and statues in blue and white garden

The blue and white garden lines the wall behind the house which must have made it easy for anyone wandering out from the door of the house to enjoy the garden.

Today any visitor to Sonnenberg, now a state historic park, can also enjoy this special garden.

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Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines

Victorian dahlia ‘White Aster’ still shines.

The online garden business called Old House Gardens works with twenty-one growers in fifteen states to provide it’s tubers and  bulbs.

The Sun Moon Farm in Rindge, New Hampshire supplies some of it’s dahlia tubers.

Recently I drove to Rindge to check out Sun Moon Farm, and, of course, see its dahlia field.

No fancy sign welcomes you to this CSA working farm. During the growing season the farm supplies vegetables to households in NH as well as Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Sun Moon I found many dahlias in bloom.

The rows of dahlias seemed to go on forever. [below]

Rows of dahlias at Sun Moon Farm

A dahlia I was in search of was the dahlia ‘White Aster,’ first offered for sale in 1879.

That makes it, according to the Old House Gardens’ catalog, “the world’s oldest surviving garden dahlia.”

I was amazed at the long row of ‘White Asters’ I saw that morning. Magnificent. [below]

Sun Moon’s dahlia ‘White Aster’ filled its own row in the field with its cheery white flower.

This dahlia shines with its hundreds of small, ivory globes, making it a treasured pompon type which just might add that white color you need in a late summer bouquet.

A letter about white dahlias appeared in Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879.

A customer wrote, “For four years I have grown dahlias in my garden…

“Last spring I wanted a white one and mother bought me a root for twenty-five cents. When it had flowers in September, it was the prettiest thing I ever saw.

“The flowers were not half as large as my old ones, just as pretty as could be, and didn’t look much like Dahlias, but more like Asters.

“This plant was the nicest plant I had, for there were, I guess, hundreds of flowers”

In response Vick wrote the following: “There are plenty of the small Dahlias, and of all colors that can be desired, except the long sought blue.

“There are two very good white sorts White Aster and Little Snowball.

“This class of Dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet, and bears great numbers of flowers, from one to two inches in diameter.”

Vick recommended ‘White Aster’ but also recognized the importance of dahlias for the fall garden.

He wrote, “The dahlia is our best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”

 

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