Nineteenth Century Nursery Owners Taught America How to Garden

I remember the day as if it were yesterday.

In downtown Philadelphia the Pennsylvania Horticultural  Society office includes a library of a substantial size, filled with books, periodicals, and other assorted material.  Since the Society has been around since 1827, the collection includes much for a researcher to explore.

The morning I spent there was my first encounter with the writing of New Jersey book seller Elizabeth Woodburn, who started her company in 1946.  She specialized in books on the history of gardening.

In an essay she wrote in 1976, which I found that morning, Woodburn said: “Horticulture in this country was developed and taught by U. S. Nurserymen. They grew the plants. They issued the catalogs. They wrote the books. They wrote all but a few of the gardening  books from the earliest through the middle of the nineteenth century. It was simple cause and effect. If they wanted to sell seeds and plants they had to tell people how to grow them.”

Henderson catalog coverThe directness of her statement still strikes me as so powerful.

This is a woman who knew a great deal about garden literature.

Her conclusion was one that has stuck with me even after several years have passed since I first read those lines.

Peter Henderson (1822-1890) from New York embodied the nineteenth century seedsman and writer that Woodburn referenced.

He sent out regular catalogs, but he also wrote several books that became quite popular during the late nineteenth century.  His book titles included Gardening for Profit and Gardening for Pleasure in which he proposed English garden design as essential for the home landscape for American gardeners.

The title of his 1889  seed catalog [left] said it all: “A Manual of Everything for the Garden.”

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