Poetry Inspired Nineteenth Century Gardens

What inspires a gardener can take many forms.

Often we depend on garden writers to tell us how the garden needs to look.

Nineteenth century poetry inspired two of the most famous English garden writers of that period, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson.

Both of them despised the bedding system of plants which was popular at that time.

The garden fashion style called carpet bedding, which filled a design with colorful plants on the lawn, spread among gardeners everywhere.

Both Hibberd and Robinson found solice in the writings of Tennyson.

Michael Waters writes in his book The Garden in Victorian Literature that poetry and fiction provided gardeners with ideas on how the garden should look.

Waters says, “Two of the most prestigious and prolific garden writers, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson, found in Tennyson’s poetry what they were looking for, and, more importantly perhaps, an absence of what they were not looking for.

“What they were not looking for was the poetic celebation of the bedding system.”

Robinson's book celebrates the value of perennials in the garden.

Robinson in his book The English Flower Garden recommends perennials over annuals in the garden.

He saw carpet beds as a waste of both money and labor.

By the end of the century there was a resurgence of interest in perennial beds and borders.

Robinson thus saw his work valued and inspiring to many gardeners, I am sure. They would take his advice about perennials.

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Dahlias and Me

We all love some flowers in the garden more than others.

That is the case with dahlias and me.

I love dahlias.

Here is ‘Creme de Casis’ which I grew this summer in a container along the driveway. [below]

Dahlia ‘Crème de Cassis’

It was the first time I planted this variety.

History of Dahlias

The dahlia first came from Mexico to Spain in the sixteenth century.

The Spanish priest, artist, and scientist Antonio Jose Cavanilles (1745-1808)  served on the staff of the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.

He drew illustrations of the dahlia in the late 1700s.

At about the same time the dahlia began to appear in England, France, Italy, and Germany.

From the early 1800s the dahlia had become a garden staple.

American gardeners enjoyed their first dahlias by the 1830s.

Even though it went through both periods of intense desire for the latest variety as well as disgust in just hearing its name, the dahlia is still around today.

Perfect Late Summer Flower

What I like most about this flower, besides its shape and endless variety of colors, is that it blooms in late summer until almost Thanksgiving here in the Northeast.

They begin in early August and continue til November.

James Vick on Dahlias

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1814-1882) grew hundreds of dahlias in his display gardens.

You would have found his field of dahlias about five miles north of the Rochester city limits.  [below]

Vick’s Seed House and Mill at his trial farm, located north of Rochester, New York. History of Monroe County, New York, 1877

Once the editor of the Illustrated Christian Weekly visited Vick’s dahlia field and wrote an article about his visit.

The editor’s article appeared in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly  of September 1879.

He wrote, “Mr. James Vick, of Rochester, N. Y., was the pioneer in the systematic growing of flower seeds, and without doubt the most extensive grower in America.”

That was quite the praise for Mr. Vick at a time when the seed and nursery business was growing around the country.

Then the editor raved about the blooms of the many dahlias he saw in the rows devoted to this flower at Vick’s seed farm.

He said, “Perhaps the largest field devoted entirely to one kind of flowers, at the time of our visit, was one filled with Dahlias, and containing six or more acres. It was supposed to include every variety known of real merit, and the display was gorgeous.”

What a sight that must have been – to see six acres of nothing but dahlias.

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Nasturtium – Popular Flower for Centuries

Every year I grow nasturtiums.

They are an easy flower to grow from seed. Just press the seed into the soil.

I had no idea that it had been a popular garden flower for hundreds of years. Over that time we have records of its presence in gardens.

In his book A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800 Mark Laird mentions the nasturtium.

He says in a particular flower garden “There were six pots of nasturtium [Tropaeolum] in 1691 on display as a florist’s flower.” A florist was someone who cultivated flowers to sell them later in the market.

These nasturtiums were in the ‘West Walk’, near the kitchen garden.

Dutch and Flemish Gardens

The Dutch and Flemish had introduced plants to England during this period.

Edward Hyams in his book English Cottage Gardens writes, “Dutch and Flemish horticulture was strongly felt [in the Middle Ages]; between 1550 and 1650 it added new vegetables to the English garden flora, as well as new flowers.”

Among the flowers was the nasturtium, which had come to Europe from Peru.

Laird says, “Double nasturtiums [Tropaeolum majus] came to England from Netherlands post 1686 from Peru.”

So indeed the nasturtium has flourished in our gardens for a long time.

Today we still grow them.

Renee’s Seeds in California offers sixteen varieties.

One of them ‘Buttercream’ is a favorite.

Here it is growing in a container outside my front door.

Nasturtium ‘Buttercream’

You can easily grow nasturiums in pots, borders, and under shrubs.

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Leaving My Garden after 33 Years

The last couple of weeks have provided me with all sorts of feelings.

We are selling our New England house after thirty-three years.

The land around our house, three quarers of an acre, has been my garden and has taught me so much.

I know people think the location is great. After all, we are only a block or so from the beach.

But it is the garden that I will miss.

The house, built in 1948, sits on a hill of New Hampshire ledge.

From the Beginning

Over many summers I would attack a different area, and create a special garden.

No surprise that today I have a white garden, a yellow garden, and a blue garden. Also, perennial beds and borders add wonderful color as well.

The plants I met along the way are too many to list. Some of them still enjoy a spot in the garden.

I must say that I learned gardening by doing. I saw that plants need soil, water, and sun in varying degrees to grow and prosper.

My back yard with my shed to the right.

No surprise that I lost many plants. That is how I learned.

Here is one of my favorite memories from the garden. Every summer the wrought iron table in the backyard would support a pot of ever flowering petunias. [below]

Petunias bloosom on this wrotught iron table in the backyard.

My garden was home to many treees, some decades old.

No surprise that in the fall if I would have leaves everywhere, including on the steps to the front door. [below]

Lately we have been sorting and packing.

Not easy, especially when it comes to anything related to the garden like garden tools.

My next garden adventure will be to create an outside patio of color at our shady condo. Gardening in containers will become my outside focus.

I take consolation in the thought that I have learned so much about gardening over these many years, but I have learned much about life as well.

No surprise that I met so many wonderful gardeners. I can truly see why people love gardening.

Local Newspaper Story

For a local story about this farewell to the garden, please check out the Seacoast Media story “Longtime garden writer Tom Mickey bids his garden goodbye.”

We come, we give, we live, we work, we enjoy, and we move on to the next advernture.

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Celia Thaxter’s Garden in Portsmouth

Nineteenth century poet and gardener Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) spent her summers on Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire.

There in the summer she planted a garden with heirloom Victorian flowers.

She records her garden experience in her wonderful book called An Island Garden. There are many colorful images of Celia and her garden including this one by Boston artist Childe Hassam. [Below]

For the past several years volunteers have worked on the island to create Celia’s garden.

They planted in the same spot where she gardened, following the plant list of fifty varieties from her book.

This summer was different.

The threat of the coronavirus made boat travel to the Island impossible.

So the same volunteers, with the support of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, built her garden at Prescott Park along the water in downtown Portsmouth. [Below]

Celia’s Garden at Prescott Park

You see three beds, each measuring 5′ by 15′ and planted with many of her flowers. The list includes cleomes, poppies, and zinnias.

It is a wonderful collection of annuals, biennials, and perennials. [Below]

Celia’s flowers,including a single dahlia at upper right corner

Rolling Green Nursery in nearby Greenland sells many of her flowers in a special collection under her name.

On the seacoast of New Hampshire everything related to Celia Thaxter is revered. Her garden at Prescott Park is no exception.

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English Garden Continues Its Influence

We know we have come a long way as gardeners here in the US.

We do not have the kind of dependence on the English garden that we once had. In 1906 Wilhelm Miller, an American landscape designer from Chicago, wrote the book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening.

A recent online article by Nancy A. Rubling seems to readdress that dependence and indeed recognizes that it is still happening.

The article “The English Garden Endures” makes the point that the English garden contiues to influence garden fashion.

Old-fashioned blossoms in one of the gardens at Helmington Hall [Harpur Garden Images]

Rubling writes, “With their classic hedges and bounteous blooms, traditional English-style gardens remain a popular perennial in the formal landscapes of stately estates around the world.”

Kathryn Bradley-Hole, garden editor of Country Life magazine, says “Many designers are making beautiful English gardens with a modern twist.”

Some of the elements of that modern look include ornamental grasses and easy-care perennials.

Whether rows of perennials, shrubs in a line, or a grand lawn, it is so easy to see how the English garden asetheic continues its grip on the American gardener’s imagination.

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Petunias Slowly Gained Garden Prominence

 I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly from 1868.

It took decades for the petunia to attain the status of a coveted flower in the garden.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeared in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit said, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  

By 1868 flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 catalog of seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, NY listed eight varieties of petunias.

Vick wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

Even today.

A petunia variety from Proven Winners that I love is Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’

One summer I grew it in a container in my backyard on top of this wrought iron table [below]. 

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with many flowers in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is one of the top ten most popular summer annuals, according to the National Garden Bureau.

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Oehme van Sweden Landscape at Service Credit Corporate Office

Service Credit Union built its new corporate office on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth, NH in 2012.

The building received the gold LEED award as a leader in energy and environmental design for the four-story structure.

It uses ninety-eight percent less energy than the usual non-environmentally sound building of the same square footage.

The Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects from Washington, D.C. designed the landscape in their style called the “New American Garden.”

The landscape on fourteen acres is truly a beautiful, evironmentally-sound, and inviting outdoor green space.

The large yellow Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ lines the front of the sign with the corporate name. [below]

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ at the corporate sign

Oehme van Sweden’s Philosphy

The company website of Oehme van Sweden explains its forty-year old philosophy of landscape design.

“Our firm transformed the field of landscape architecture with the New American Garden style of design, distinguished by a balance of horticultural complexity and architectural craftsmanship.

“We infuse botanical expression in the form of color, texture, movement, and fragrance.

“Our designs embrace the seasonality of the American meadow and magnify ecological systems, sustainable processes, and aesthetic values.

“The New American Garden boldly reveals the ephemeral through mystery, intrigue, and discovery.”

In August of 2010 Eric Groft, vice president of Oehme van Sweden, presented the landscape design to the team at Service Credit in New Hampshire.

Groft wanted to familiarize the Service Credit staff with the work of Oehme van Sweden and the philosophy behind the New American Style.

That style includes mass plantings of native plants, ornamental grasses, and perennials with abundant pathways and water features.

In 2012 the company hired the local Portsmouth firm Piscataqua Landscaping to install the plants, lawn, pathways, and water sites.

Today the same local firm maintains the property.

In keeping with the Oehme van Sweden aesthetic there were hundreds of plants.

Plants

The number included ten thousand grasses, twenty-seven thousand perennials, and sixty-five thousand bulbs. One hundred trees and a hundred shrubs rounded out the list.

Paths and walkways wind throughout the property. [below]

Mass planting of ornamental grasses and perennials makes a bold statement.

Today employees have areas in the landscape for an outdoor lunch break. Neighbors can freely walk the property as well.

A visitor notices immediately the large swaths of ornamental grasses that make up so much of the design.

Three wells on the property supply the water for the plants.

Rain gardens, with two feet of water in spring, help with collecting rain water as well.

Scott Arsenault, Director of Grounds at Piscataqua Landscaping, says it takes his team eleven to twelve hours to cut the grass.

Black-top walkways wind through the property.

The landscape seems much bigger when you are inside and start to walk the grounds.

Mulch helps to keep down the weeding. [below]

Ornamental grasses along with large areas of lawn fill the landscape.

Over the years many books have been written about the Oheme van Sweden approach to landscape. The titles include Gardening with Nature and the newest The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design.

Service Credit Union’s Corporate Office gives employees as well the city of Portsmouth a chance to see the Oheme van Sweden landscape style called the New American Garden.

That style has developed into an important chapter in landscape design history.

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Hosta Grows in Granite

This past week the gospel reading at Sunday Mass included instructions known to every gardener.

The story Jesus told was that without adequate soil a seed will not flourish.

Jesus said, “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 

 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 

“Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Here is a story about a seed that found a home in granite.

House Built on Granite

My house is built on granite so stone surrounds us.

It is not easy to garden on this property which is three quarters of an acre.

When the house was built in 1948 the contractor brought in plenty of soil, especially for the front and back lawn. [below]

Front of the house with lawn, shrubs, and perennial beds.

The rock is mostly on the side of the house and along the driveway.

Over the years I have gardened with great success and much happiness.

Red maple, planted in the granite’s pocket of soil. Nearby red roses, spirea, sedum, blue sedge grass, and epimedium add color as well.

Hosta ‘Black Beauty’

Recently I identified a large dark green hosta, with rippled leaves. It has grown over the years right in an area of granite.

The Hosta, a seedling of Hosta ‘Black Beauty’, is gorgeous in the granite. [below]

Hosta ‘Black Beauty’ seedling

You can see the granite fron the low mid point to the far right.

The plant sits right in the middle.

Over time this large hosta variety becomes a large plant, measuring forty-eight by thirty inches.

It is close to that size now.

Hosta ‘Black Beauty‘ comes to us from Kate Carpenter (1984).

I have a small patch of this variety quite near this ledge.

Evidently, many years ago, one of its seeds found a great home, right in the ledge.

Today it still grows there. It found enough soil to become such a marvelous treat for the eyes of the gardener and any visitor.

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Victorians Teasured Colorful Flowers

Victorians believed that colorful flowers needed to fill the garden all summer.

In his book The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters writes, “The massing of plants in showy color schemes grew rapidly in popularity.”

Waters provides three reasons for those colorful Victorian gardens.

First, the influx of foreign plant materials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Second, the hybridization of already available species, including dwarf varieties of older plants.

Third, the introduction of greenhouses, in which huge numbers of tender annuals could be raised for wholesale use.

Thus, Waters says, “Brillance of color became the top prerequisite of the mid-Victorian garden.”

Verbena

The list of plants every garden had to have included the verbena.

The verbena, a Victorian favorite, continues among the best sellers for the garden industry.

Today the plant grower Proven Winners constantly searches for ever newer varieties of plants.

PW has introduced a beautiful, new verbena called ‘Dark Blue’.

James Vick

The Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) mentioned the popular verbena in his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1881.

He wrote, “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

The Vick Company of course offered verbenas in its seed catalog. [below]

Vick won awards for his verbenas at State Fairs around the country including Michigan.

He wrote in 1880 in his garden magazine: “Among our garden flowers none is more valuable and more prized than the Verbena.”

The verbena was, however, only one of many annuals that offered colorful bloom in the Victorian flower garden whether for beds, borders, or containers.

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