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Finally Read the Book The American Flower Garden (1909)

The debate about America’s dependence on the English in learning how to garden has a long history.

That sense of homage to the English garden appeared in an American garden book from 1909.

For some time I have wanted to read it. The name of the book is The American Flower Garden.

The author Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday (1865 – 1918) wrote under her pen name Neltje Blanchan.

She was a United States scientific historian and nature writer.

There were only 1600 copies of this book printed.

The notes for the book at the Boston Athenaeum include this treasure of a phrase: “This is no. 684.”

I thought the book would describe in detail how the American flower garden looked in 1909 which I wanted to know. To a certain degree the book does that.

The book, however, begins with the long-standing debate about landscape as natural or formal.

Theme in the Book: Nature vs. Art in the Landscape

What I had heard about this book is that it was an American version of English garden writer William Robinson’s book The English Flower Garden (1883). It was Blanchan’s defense of the American garden.

Like Robinson’s book, this one has two general divisions.

The first part is about creating a landscape from the conditions you find present in the land. The designer must pay close attention to the ‘genius loci’ or spirit of the place.

The second deals with the palette of the many trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that you could plant.

Book’s Opening

In the opening section of the book Blanchan wrote that she thought there was too much dependence on England’s garden tradition.

She said, “Not until quite lately have we had any garden literature of our own, and even now England continues to supply most of the text books.”

Robinson’s Ideas Prevail

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a debate between those who saw the landscape as nature and those who considered it a work of art, with all the essential formality.

Like Robinson, Blanchan disliked the carpet beds on the lawn, filled with annuals that demanded high maintenance.

She wrote, “If the amateur gardener can think of no better way to grow annuals than to cut up a lawn into geometric beds, planting circles within circles, or row after row of ageratum, lobelia, coleus, cigar plant, geraniums, dusty miller, asters, and salvia, it would be better for the appearance of his place that he never grew a flower at all.”

The photo [above] shows the restored nineteenth-century garden of Henry Bowen in Woodstock, Connecticut with its ribbon borders that were then in fashion.

Since the early 1700s, the English had been designing landscapes in the ‘natural’ look. That meant lawns, trees, some water, and very little presence of flower gardens.

It is that lawn that Blanchan loves when it has an undisturbed and extended look.

She recommended a lawn but with no carpet beds or ribbon beds on them. She said, “Such excrescences on a fair green lawn can be likened only to pimples on the face of Nature.”

Now I am glad I read Neltje Blanchen’s The American Flower Garden.

I enjoyed learning about the state of the American home landscape and flower gardening in the early 1900s.

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