Repton Brought Back Flower Gardens

We know in the modern English landscape garden dating from the early eighteenth century the extensive lawn took center stage.

Flower gardens were there, but not emphasized until serious plant collecting from around the world emerged, as well as the support of landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818).

Garden historians attribute renewed interest in flower gardens to Repton.

Andre Rogger in Landscapes of Taste: The Art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books mentions a significant threesome in Walpole’s book The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780).

Rogger argues that Walpole linked the three most important landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century.

Rogger writes, “The tripartite sequence [in Horace Walpole’s book] William Kent followed by Lancelot Brown followed by Humphry Repton established the canon for the history of English landscape gardening.”

The Victorian Garden

It was Repton’s focus on flowers that makes him so significant as gardening with flowers emerged in the nineteenth century.

In The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters, though not a historian as such, looked at the image of ‘garden’ in Victorian fiction and poetry.

Repton appears important to such artists because he brought back the flower garden to its important position near the house.

Waters writes , “Repton believed this would restore not only the art of gardening but also the social functions of the garden.

“That this was Repton’s major contribution to the history of garden design is occasionally acknowledged in Victorian fiction.”

For Repton flowers ought to be viewed both by the garden’s owner and the visitor.

Mick Thompson, writing in the journal Garden History, says, “During the second half of his career as a landscape gardener. Repton led the way in returning flower gardens, both formal and informal, close to the house where they could be seen and enjoyed.”

Repton includes flowers in this illustration from his Red Book for Ashridge of 1813. [below]. Flowers dot the lawn in both beds and borders.

The Countess of Bridgewater’s Flower Garden; detail from Repton’s Red Book for Ashridge (1813).
Share

Resist Colonial Attitude toward Plants

Last week I came across an amazing new article entitled “It’s time to decolonise botanical collections.”

The author Alexandre Antonelli is the Director of Science at Kew, England’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

The main idea of the article is that plants were not ‘discovered’ like a treasure in the sea. They might well predate by many years the first time their species was recorded.

Antonelli writes, “For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south.

“Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants.”

Exotic plants are still taken from other countries and brought to the homeland of the plant hunter.

Kew became the major destination for plants from other countries, for the purpose of improving the gardens of England.

Antonelli recognizes the subtle racism in that attitide that has endured for centuries.

Kew will tackle structual racism in plant and fungal science. He says, “We will strive to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.”

Also, he says “Our current work on a new science strategy is an opportuntity to ensure our research is framed in the context of equality, diversity, and inclusion.”

Herbarium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Book Currently Reading

What’s really more than a coincidence is the book I am currently reading.

The title is A Natural History of the English Garden by Mark Laird.

Laird traces England’s involvement with plant collecting from 1650 to 1800, one hundred fifty years.

He writes about the important English botanists and horticulturalists from that period including John Evelyn, Peter Collinson, Philip Miller, Mary Delany, and William Curtis.

Each of them loved plants, especially the newer varieties arriving in England.

They all cultivated gardens and often wrote about their collections, or like Mary Delany created works of art that illustrated plants.

The goal of plant hunting around the globe was to build up the plant collection at Kew.

Laird writes, “Plant collecting had obvious relevance for apothecaries and doctors.”

By 1778 in Kew “plants from across the seven seas were being added to the original compendium of the four continents.”

It was common for English aristocrats to foster plant collections in their own gardens as well.

No individual’s plant collection however rivaled that of Kew.

Kew housed all the finest in exotics available to England.

Thus, because Kew represents such a vast and important history of plant collecting, Antonelli’s remarks are all the more relevant.

They force us to rethink at this time the collecting of plants, including for institutions like botanical gardens.

Share

Newport’s Restored Blue Garden

A restored garden always brings a sense of excitement.

You are seeing a garden the way it was first installed.

Or so you think.

Last week I visited the restored private garden called Blue Garden in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island

The garden is located in an area just past the Gilded Age seaside mansions on Bellevue Avenue. You proceed on Ocean Avenue and shortly you arrive at the property located on Beacon Hill Road.

To say the garden has been restored is only the beginning of what the philanthropist and horticulturalist Dorance H. Hamilton and her team of architects, contractors, and landscape designers have created.

The restored Blue Garden is a glorious garden experience.

Environtmental Concern

What I learned was that though the garden has been restored, the new garden is in keeping with serious environmental and maintenance concerns.

For example, the many plants that have been introduced demand far less upkeep than the original varieties included on the Olmsted plant list of 1913.

I saw frequent groupings of white Scaevola aemula and blue Veronica ‘Magic Show Wizard of Ahhs.’ They complement each other quite well.

The two pools still form the backbone of the garden. They sit exactly where they were in the 1913 design of the Blue Garden by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

The garden had been left for years and became severely overgrown with invasive plants like the Norway maple.

When Mrs. Hamilton purchased the property in 2012, she wanted, above all, to restore the Garden.

She succeeded.

With over two thousand annuals, perennials, vines, and shrubs along with two hundred fifty evergreens in the three acre garden-site you experience a bit of yesterday, but designed with today’s concern in water and land preservation.

The design of the garden still reflects the formal garden style which was popular in the early 1900s, with such landscape designers as Charles Platt, Edith Wharton, and, of course, the Olmsted Brothers firm.

Everything the builders found as they dug up the original garden, where it could be, was recycled in some way.

Though the builders had the original plant list from Olmsted, they opted, where possible, for plant varieties that were easier to maintain.

Plan a Visit

Newport in the summer becomes a major attraction for the State of Rhode Island. Nonetheless, the Blue Garden ought to be on your list of places to visit.

Remember that the Blue Garden is a private garden and open only at special times. Thursdays til October you can join a guided tour of the Garden. Email the Director Sarah Vance ahead of time since the number of visitors admitted is limited.

The Blue Garden: At the top of the pergola Wisteria frutescens, ‘Amethyst Falls’ and along the cement edge blue Lobelia in containers.
Share

In Search of Coleus ‘Main Street’

Every summer garden needs coleus.

Whether in containers, a border, or a bed there is a coleus that will add color.

Nineteenth century Victorian gardeners used this plant for colorful carpet beds.

Many will peform well in shade, but some newer varieites do best in sun.

For the past three summers I have searched out both local nurseries and big box stores for the new coleus series called ‘Main Street’.

I would eventually find one or two varieties, mostly one.

The new one I found for this season is ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ [below]

Coleus ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ Photo courtesy of Dummen: Rush Creek Growers.

In the past I have planted coleus ‘Main Street Oxford Street’ and also ‘Main Street Granville Street.’ I liked both of them for their color and shape.

When I searched on line for a history of this series what surprised me is how many varieties of ‘Main Street’ are out there.

Quite a few.

The coleus, a colorful summer treasure, has a long history in the garden.

History of the Coleus

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

For more ideas about coleus varieties for this summer, check out suggestions from the National Garden Bureau on Pinterest .

Share

Women in Horticulture: Yesterday and Today

I am currently reading Michael Waters’ book The Garden in Victorian Literature.

This title fits into my general area of interest, the history of the garden.

 In this case I am looking at how novelists and poets wrote about the garden in the Victorian period.

Such literature tells us a great deal about the garden, but also about the role of women in horticulture.

Women in Horticulture Week

Earlier this week I discovered that June 1-5 is Women in Horticulture Week.

I can see a thread between the two sources of our understanding the garden as a cultural phenomenon: Victorian fiction where the garden takes center stage and the evolving role of women in the garden.

Katie Dubow, president, Garden Media Group, the primary sponsor of this special week, says,  “Women play a crucial role in the horticulture industry—not only as entrepreneurs, growers, researchers, marketers and employees at all levels, but also as the largest consumers of home and garden products.”

Victorian Literature, Women, and the Garden

Victorian literature paints its own image of women and the garden.

We know that the nineteenth century was a time in which the influence of women was relegated to taking care of the family, and in terms of the garden, mostly tending to flowers.

Waters writes, “An assumption almost universal in Victorian literature: women, not men, have a natural and privileged affinity with flowers.”

Women were then even compared to flowers: beautiful and sensual, and there to bring a sense of feeling and emotion to taking care of the household.

Though women had a lot to do with running the household, they were not encouraged to seek any fulfillment outside the home.

By the end of the nineteenth century women were voicing their own frustration with that role.

Women wanted to be more self-determining.

Slowly that role of women emerged to provide women leadership roles in the field of horticulture.


It is a good idea  to support, honor, and promote women professionals and their achievements during Women in Horticulture Week.

Today’s woman in the garden is quite different from her Victorian ancestor.

Here is Monet’s beautiful Victorian painting, “Woman in the Garden.”

Claude Monet Woman in the Garden 1866
Share

Wave Petunia Celebrates 25 Years

The petunia, first brought from Argentina to England in 1831, provides a powerful example of the importance of hybridizing in the garden industry.

We continue to grow petunias, and, in fact, they are among the top sellers each spring.

It is the same petunia from the nineteenth century, but hybridizers have had a field day with this flower.

In 1894 Boston seed company owner W. W. Rawson wrote about the petunia in his catalog. 

Rawson wrote, “The brilliancy and variety of their colors, combined with the duration of their blooming period, render them invaluable.” 

Today the petunia comes in many colors, and the flowers are either single and funnel shaped, ruffled, or doubled.

Wave Petunia

The Ball Horticultural Company brought the Wave petunia (Petunia x hybrida) to America in 1995. 

Since the Wave petunia first appeared, the petunia world has not been the same.

This year is Wave petunia’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Wave Petunia

According to Wave’s blog, a Japanese brewery bred the first Wave petunia.

“Beer and wine companies often employ horticulturists who grow plants for the many flavors and components that go into making their products. Back in the 1990s, this particular company was exploring opportunities for wine-grape breeding when it uncovered a vigorous spreading petunia growing wild just like a weed. “

And so the Wave petunia was born.

The little white flower from South America took the English garden world of the nineteenth century by storm

It continues to do so to this day.

Rawson once said, “It was only a few years ago that they were comparatively unknown, and now no garden is considered complete without them.”

The latest All-American Selections winner is Wave ‘Carmine Velour.’ [below]. The shape of the flower and its color say it all.

Wave ‘Carmine Velour’

The Wave petunia continues to be a stunning flower for both a container and a garden bed.

Share

Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

Share

Wisteria at the Home of John Adams

This is the time of the year the purple flowers of the wisteria vine put on their show.

America’s most famous wisteria has to be the one that climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams’ house, part of the Adams National Historic Site, in Quincy, Mass. At this time while in bloom it usually attracts  both history lovers and gardeners.

A wisteria vine, Wisteria sinensis, climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams home in Quincy, Mass.

The vine  came to England from China in 1816.

As the story goes, according to a book by Wilhelmina Harris, long-time superintendent of the Site, First Lady Abigail Adams planted the vine.  Abigail died in 1818, and Donald Wyman, noted horticulturalist from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, wrote that the vine, which originates in China, was introduced into America in 1816.  So it is quite possible Abigail planted it.

The wisteria vine grows slowly but once it is rooted pushes aggressively along any surface it can climb.  You need a trellis or arbor to support it.    Bob MacKenzie, the head gardener at the Adams house, said,  “We have to keep trimming it so that it does not take over the house.”

Plant Explorers

When England sent plant explorers around the world, beginning in the eighteenth century, trees and shrubs as well as this wisteria were part of the find.  English gardeners treasured exotic plants like this wisteria called Wisteria sinensis.  In the nineteenth century it was common for Americans to import English exotic plants.

According to Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden by Ippolitio Pizzetti and Henry Cocker, two East India  Company captains transported the first plants of Wisteria sinensis from China in May of 1816.

Shortly after that the Wisteria sinensis must have made its way from England to Quincy and  the Adams home.

In the nineteenth century the English gave America exotic plants as well as a garden style.  As in the case of the wisteria, the plants eventually became part of our landscape pallette.

Share

Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

Share

Frustrated I Cannot Get to My Garden

Today I saw trays of spring flowers outside the supermarket.

Though I loved seeing them as a sign of spring, they also reminded me of my current dilemma.

I have been trapped in our condominium for six weeks now, due to the state’s shelter in place rule.

My garden is at our house in the neighboring state.

I cannot go there without enduring a two week lock-down here when I return.

To avoid that I simply stay away from my garden, located only an hour away.

That does not mean I don’t think about the garden.

Here is the entrance to the house along with a bit of the garden. [below]

Front entrance, lined with shrubs, perennials, and annuals

Notice the rather tall red dahlias called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ on the right. The cement container, filled with coleus and geraniums, stands at the corner of the cement entry.

In the mean time

Right now I read about gardening. I think about what I will do once we can travel out of state more easily.

The plants I want this summer come to mind. I know I will plant more caladium.

Worry about Deer Damage

Possible deer damage sometimes demands my attention about this time in spring. I know I may have to address such damage if I should find it.

Luckily a few weeks ago I was able to enlist a landscaper in the area to put down Milorganite fertilizer over the lawn and flower beds. Though it is not sold as a deer repelant, it does a good job ih keeping deer away.

Yesterday I heard the governor say we still have a few more weeks for the lock down to continue.

Hope it ends soon so I can see my garden, in whatever shape I find it.

I will be so delighted first just to see the garden and then to walk the familiar garden paths.

Share