Victorian Flower Fashion

Victorian Flower Fashion

American gardeners  fell in love with annuals after 1850 during the Victorian period.

The use of perennials in the garden re-emerged by the end of the century. They became stylish through the encouragement of English garden authorities like William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

A T. W. Wood and Sons catalog cover [below] from the late 1880s shows a bed of annuals. The round bed sits in a well trimmed lawn.

Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1872: “The evil which accompanied [flower beds, ribbon beds, and carpet beds] was nearly banishing from cultivation the beautiful and interesting tribe known as hardy herbaceous plants. From early spring til late in the fall some of them were in bloom.”

In 1882 Warren H. Manning, New England plantsman, wrote: “The use of tender plants and annuals for bedding purposes in summer decoration has been in vogue for about a quarter of a century, and they have almost entirely superseded hardy herbaceous plants for general cultivation.”

When the English garden style  emphasized perennials rather than annuals, we discovered the English had been enjoying many of America’s native perennial plants for decades.  By the end of the century native American perennials became  a part of our home landscape as well.

As we had for the whole century, America followed the style of English garden design.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs provided the gardener with inspiration. They also pointed out the latest garden fashion.

Annuals were popular from 1850 until the late 1870s when perennials once again took center stage.

What do you think is the garden fashion today?

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American Gardening Has Long Imitated English Style

American gardening has long imitated the English style

At breakfast this morning I glanced at the label on the marmalade jar.

I read the words ‘An English Classic.’ Who knew my marmalade belonged to a long line of English jams and jellies?

Here I have often written about America’s dependence on English gardening fashion.

Recently I came across a reference to that relationship.

Historian Robert H. Wiebe wrote the book The Search for Order 1877-1920.

Wiebe says, “For more than a century… Americans’ freedom and their democracy, their heritage and their culture, all acquired meaning through a comparison, explicit or implicit, with the British model.”

In the early 1900s Chicago horticulturist and landscape designer Wilhelm Miller spelled out that relationship as it concerned gardening in his book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening. (below)

Miller made the point that since the English have been gardening for so long, we needed to look to them as a guide for what we ought to do here in America.

To a certain extent his argument was true.

How often did garden writers in the nineteenth century compare an emerging American style of gardening to that of the traditional English garden?

Dahlias

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey wrote in his Magazine of Horticulture in 1838 about the English love for dahlias.

He said,“The dahlia has done more, in England, than all other plants together, toward the dissemination of a taste for gardening.”

Then he wrote how our dahlia gardens here in America might soon resemble the quality of the English.

Hovey said “I believe the time is at hand when our gardens will produce dahlias equaling the English.”

Today we Americans subscribe to the magazine The English Garden. Each spring Americans flock to visit the Chelsea Flower Show. English garden tours remain popular in this country.

American gardening, like so much here, has long imitated the English.

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Too Many Trees Spoil the View

Too many trees spoil the view in a landscape

When planning a home landscape, it is a good idea to choose the number of trees you plant carefully. You want not too many, and not too few.

Though he was discussing trees in a park, Samuel Parsons in his book Landscape Gardening (1891) offered advice usefull also to the home owner.

He wrote, “We must be careful always to keep open considerable stretches of turf, endeavoring rather to flank than to cross with plants the direct line of vision through to the background.”

He wanted an unobstructed view of lawn.

In 1978 landscape historian from Dumbarton Oaks David Schuyler wrote the book called Victorian Landscape Gardening .

The book was actually a facsimile of landscape architect Jacob Weidenmanns’ book Beautifying Country Homes written in 1871. This image appeared in the book. [below]

A drawing from Victorian Landscape Gardening

Notice that the drawing illustrated in the long dotted line the unobstructed view between the two properties.

The advice seems to make sense.

Whether you have one acre or a hundred acres, create the opportunity for a visitor to see the lawn in a long view because too many trees spoil the view.

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Beware the Coleus and Geranium

Beware the coleus and geranium

Who doesn’t love the two popular annuals coleus and geranium?

It turns out that New York’s Superintendent of Parks Samuel Parsons (1844-1923) showed little regard for these two annuals.

He wrote the book Landscape Gardening in 1891. In it he discussed these two plants.

He said, “Farm door-yards and Newport lawns alike distort themselves in the gay but unfortunately often garish colors of the coleus and geranium. No need to advocate their use. They have achieved a foothold that is not likely to be soon shaken.”

He disliked their colors, but he was most unhappy that they were assuming an important role in flower gardens.

Parsons gave his reasons for not liking these two plants.

He wrote, “As we find them presented on many grass plots, their appearance is vulgar, inharmonious, and barbaric.”

That is pretty heavy criticism for two simple plants.

Today

Well, today the coleus and the geranium have certainly found a home in our flower gardens.

Here’s a coleus called ‘Neptune’s Net‘ that I planted in a container on my lawn. 

This coleus is called ‘Neptune’s Net.’

With its shades of lime and burgundy this coleus looks splendid in a gray cement container.  It stayed there the whole summer.

Though Mr. Parsons failed to find any value in the coleus and geranium, today they have become an integral part of many summer gardens, whether in a container or in a bed.

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Old Fashioned Flower Garden Still Rocks

Old fashioned flower garden still rocks –

Victorians loved flowers in all their color.Late nineteenth century garden writer and landscape manager for Central Park Samuel Parsons loved flowers.

 

He wrote in his book Landscape Gardening, first published in 1891, “I believe in making a distinct and comfortable abode of flowers – in a word, a flower garden, and an old-fashioned one, if you choose to call it so.”

Even though his job was to supervise the maintenance of one of America’s landscaped gems, he still loved flowers.

He said, “Flowers really satisfy us better, and do better in the garden, where we can coax and tend them a little.”

Gardeners know that flowers will only satisfy when we can take care of them.

As we enjoy spring now, perhaps you, like I am, are deciding on what flowers to plant in your garden.

Seeds just arrived in the mail for nasturtiums and cosmos, two easy flowers to grow from seed.

A few weeks ago I ordered a few dahlia tubers.

You can see that in the next few weeks I will be busy planting flowers to enjoy during the summer and fall.

There is something so special about an old-fashioned garden, filled with plants we have known for yerars.

Parsons put it in these words, “The growth of a renewed regard for the simple and often old forms of single flowering plants is a promising sign in horticulture.”

What he means I think is the joy we find in growing old familiar plants.

Nineteenth century Rochester seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) loved flowers as well. Through his work he tried to instill that love in his many customers scattered around the country.

Here is an illustration from his monthly magazine, filled with some of his favorite old fashioned flowers. [below]

James Vick chromolithograph, 1873

Mother’s Day Weekend Plant Sale

The annual Herb Plant Sale of the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America will once again be held in conjunction with Mass Hort’s Gardeners’ Fair at Elm Bank, 900 Washington Street, Route 16, in Wellesley, Mass. 

The date is Saturday, May 11, rain or shine. 

Mass Hort members can shop from 8 to  9 a.m.

The general public is welcome from 9 a.m. to  3 p.m.

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High Style Victorian Ornamental Gardening

High style Victorian ornamental gardening

In the nineteenth century plants from around the world became available for the English garden.

Such plants created a thirst for an ornamental gardening style that spread around the country.

Thomas Carter writes in his book The Victorian Garden, “Professional plant-hunters and amateur naturalists – many of them missionaries of the Church – travelled all over the world in search of unknown species to satisfy a taste for the spectacular.”

Such plants transformed the garden into formal beds, container planting,  and lines of shrubbery. [below]

Victorians treasured their ornamental gardening.

Carter writes, “The high style of Victorian ornamental gardening reached its peak in the 1850s and 1860s in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham and of the private estates like Trenthem and Shrublands.”

Eventually America took up ornamental gardening as well.

Nineteenth century New Jersey seed company owner Peter Henderson included formal ornamental design in his book Gardening for Pleasure. [below]

Notice the formal beds near the front door to the house.

Today we continue the search for plants to contribute to the ornamental gardening style that we love.

Plant hunters still travel the world in search of that new plant.

No surprise that our gardens are filled with both native and exotic plants.

 

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Victorians Loved Foliage Plants

Victorians loved foliage plants. –

One summer I planted a banana (Musa ensete) in the center of a bed along the driveway.

The plant looked majestic among the low growing perennials and annuals that surrounded it. [below]

Banana plant in island bed in my garden

Then I remembered that the Victorian gardener in the second half of the nineteenth century also loved tall, showy, foliage plants.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden wrote, “Since the early 1860s, gardeners had used many of the foliage plants which had previously been treated as stove or greenhouse subjects to add a contrasting element to floral bedding during a summer.”

Foliage plants could include canna, colocasia, and yucca as well.

Here is a photo of a banana at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show. It is in a pot but still shows off its bold foliage for the passer-by.

A banana in an exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

This summer I plan to make sure my blue container on the lawn has a large red cordyline, another of my favorites.

In that way I will be keeping up the tradition of the Victorian gardener who treasured plants with bold leaves.

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Victorian Conservatory Became Essential

Victorian conservatory became essential

Victorian garden fashion demanded several elements.

Plants that stood out became essential for their structure and color.

The list included ricinus, canna, yucca  – all with their bold leaves.

To grow and cultivate  plants during the winter a conservatory, attached to the house, became a must for all serious Victorian gardeners.

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

Carter says in his book The Victorian Garden, “Eventually the conservatory became a Victorian cliché – a necessary attachment to any house of even modest pretentions, and often, no more than a place where pot plants could be brought in.”

Serious gardeners then cultivated orchids which demanded special growing conditions.

Eventually the middle class would also grow orchids in their version of that essential greenhouse or conservatory.

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When Annuals Lost Their Appeal

When annuals lost their appeal

From the mid nineteenth century England encouraged gardening with beds of annuals.

The arrival of glorious summer plants from warmer climates like Africa, Asia, and South America had encouraged that fashion.

In the 1870s however garden writer William Robinson criticized the practice. He advocated for perennials and native plants in the summer garden.

The cost of growing in the greenhouse the necessary dozens of annuals became expensive.

Another issue became  the maintenance to keep the annual beds weed-free and trimmed to the proper height and width.

Perennials would reward the gardener with bloom year after year, Robinson wrote.

Growing  native plants would also reduce the expense of the annuals since they are readily available in local fields, mountains, and woods.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden writes about the inevitability of the demise of the extensive growing and maintaining of beds of annuals.

William Robinson

Robinson himself had once been an advocate of annuals but no longer.

He wrote the book The Wild Garden in which he proposed plants other than annuals for the summer garden.

Carter says, “The movement away from the true Victorian style during the last decade of the century reflected in, and partly brought about by Robinson, … was inevitable.

 “It has been maintained that bedding, with its emphasis on annuals and a limited number of perennials, caused gardeners to disregard old-fashioned plants, bringing some of them close to extinction.”

Today we continue to preach the gospel of native plants. 

It’s not that we can’t grow annuals. It’s that we also have beautiful native plants.

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Victorians Loved Cut Flowers

Victorians loved cut flowers

The Victorian period in the nineteenth century ushered in a love for cut flowers from the garden.

Here is a beautiful chromolithograph from William Rawson’s seed catalog of 1888 called ‘Gems from the Wild Garden.’ The image visualizes what a glorious choice of flowers for tea and lunch were available to the Victorians. [below]

Rawson Seed Company, Boston

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter calls this love of cut flowers from that period ‘floristry.’

He writes, “Competition was the essence of floristry, and the spring and summer months were filled with shows held all over the country.”

The flower shows proved an outlet to show off flowers like roses and dahlias.

I remember on ‘Downton Abbey’ when Maggie Smith’s character said,
“My yellow rose won top prize at the county fair.”

Even in the cities Victorian gardeners took pride in floristry.

Carter writes, “Workers in the industrial towns took to floristry as about the only form of gardening open to them in the restricted spaces of urban living.”

Whether in country or city, Victorians encouraged floristry and so they enjoyed their cut flowers.

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