Defining the English Garden

Defining the English garden

The sweeping lawn of the English landscape garden developed in the 

Lancelot Capability Brown 

eighteenth century under the inspiration of gardener to the King Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

Tim Richardson writes in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England, and even across much of Europe and parts of America; it was primarily Brown’s example which inspired the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘English garden’.”

So we have Brown to thank for the lawn which has long defined the English garden both in Europe and in America.

Today the term ‘English garden’ is full of so many meanings.

When we use words that have multiple meanings, we tend to be on a higher level of the ladder of abstraction because we are not clear.

Academic and Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction, a concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolve from concrete to abstract.

Thus, for example, the more you want to confuse your audience, the more likely you are to use words that do not have a clear meaning.

You could say that such is the case with the expression ‘English garden’.  Because of its history it has so many meanings.

Which English garden do you mean?  From what period?

One thing we do know however is that the lawn has been an integral part of the English garden since the eighteenth century.

Here is Chatsworth, north of London, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Derbyshire. [below]

England’s Chatsworth 

Over the centuries several landscape gardeners provided its design, but it was Brown that installed the extensive lawn in the eighteenth century.

Today Chatsworth stands as one of his most famous English gardens, marked by his signature lawn.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian Carpet Beds

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian carpet beds

A week ago I visited the nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe house and garden in Hartford, Connecticut.  At the same time that Stowe lived there Hartford attracted other artists and writers.

Stowe remains best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Some argue that the book galvanized the issue of abolition and even contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War here in the US.

Her house stands as it did in the nineteenth century.

A Victorian garden still surrounds the house.

Luckily the staff at the Stowe Center provided a guide to her garden. The property is small but includes much of what was important to middle-class gardeners at that tine.

A herb garden, a blue garden, and even a wildflower garden are just some of the expressions of Stowe’s love of gardening.

As I rounded the corner at the front of the house I noticed a large circle of flowers in the lawn.

It was a carpet bed, popular in the Victorian garden of the nineteenth century.

Since this was only mid June, the flowers in the bed were quite small.  The variety of  flowers however caught my attention.

In the center of the bed you could see both a castor oil plant and elephant ears. By summer’s end both of these will be tall plants that will give a sense of height and structure to this round garden.[below]

Carpet bed on the lawn at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Conn.

In 1869 Stowe co-wrote the book The American Woman’s Home: Principles of Domestic Science with her sister Catherine Esther Beecher.

The book includes several chapters on the woman’s role in making an ‘economical, healthful, beautiful, and Christian home.’

There is a section in the book about gardening. They write, “In yards which are covered with turf, beds can be cut out of it, and raised for flowers. A trench should be made around, to prevent the grass from running on them.’

A row of red bricks now circles the colorful flowers that I saw. 

They write, “These beds can be made in the shape of crescents, ovals, and other fanciful forms.”

That became, of course, the Victorian obsession with carpet bedding and ribbon bedding.

The staff at the Stowe Center told me that Harriet Beecher Stowe favored flower beds over kitchen gardens.

That was evident as I walked around the house.

 The restored landscape reflects the Victorian style of gardening popular at that time.

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Victorian England Treasured US Rhododendron

Victorian England treasured US rhododendron.

Right now you see rhododendrons in bloom everywhere.

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I always look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

Here’s a view of my garden right now. [below]

A scene in my garden with two rhododendrons that are blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.  At that time they were more popular in England than here in America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870 lamented the fact that Americans did not appreciate the rhododendron.

He wrote, “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

Today we acknowledge the battle between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  The issue is certainly not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to appear in the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron.

Eventually, it assumed an important role in American gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted used the rhododendron extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

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Public Relations Campaign Attacks Clover

Public relations campaign attacks clover.

The lawn has been a part of the home landscape since the eighteenth century.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both treasured the English lawn, the inspiration for all lawns American.

Clover in the lawn. [Courtesy of Today’s Homeowner]

Clover, the tiny four leafed plant we all love, has been a part of the lawn for decades as much as bluegrass.

Then in the 1950s a chemical company, to advance a weed killer, used a public relations campaign to declare white clover a weed.

Warren Schultz tells the story in his book The Chemical-Free Lawn. He writes that in the 1950s “a major producer of grass seed and chemicals launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover. Clover is a weed, the company declared. It doesn’t belong in the modern lawn.”

The goal of the campaign was to sell a chemical to kill lawn weeds, including clover.

Schultz says, “Its point of view carried the day, and now homeowners spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of this once-popular plant, blind to its fine qualities.”

Clover has long been a part of lawn seed mixes. 

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about the value of clover in 1878 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick said, “Kentucky Blue Grass, with a little White Clover, about a pound to the acre, and a few ounces of Sweet Vernal Grass, will make a good lawn.”

In 1936 Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening also noted the value of clover.

Under the name, white clover, or Trifolium repens, Taylor’s says, “It is the chief clover in grass mixtures and makes a valuable constituent of lawns.”

In the past garden books and magazines often said that clover was valuable for the lawn.

More recently in Pennsylvania the Lehigh Valley Master Gardeners wrote in their blog, “Clover is a legume, like soybeans, and it has the ability to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a form readily available to plants, including the grass it shares soil with.  People liked clover for this reason and it lessened the need for fertilizing the lawn.”

The public relations campaign in the 1950s was succesful. Today it is common for companies selling herbicides to consider white clover a weed.

In this time of frequent draught and renewed interest in native plants, why not reconsider the case of the clover, and even, as many people are doing, welcome it as an integral component of the lawn?

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Reno’s Roses Rock

Reno’s roses rock.

Last week I visited family in Reno, Nevada which goes by the name “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

What amazed me was the number of roses I saw in bloom, many at private homes as I drove around the city.

It seemed wherever I went, I saw red, orange, yellow, pink, and white roses.

The premier rose garden in Reno has to be Idlewild Park’s one acre Rose Garden.

Here is the sign that welcomes you to the garden. [below]

 

Reno’s Rose Garden entrance sign

Volunteers have managed the garden for years. There are many award-winning roses on display. Many of them are clearly marked, which gardeners appreciate.

There is a pavilion at one end of the garden that gives a sense of home to the garden. You use this structure as a landmark to find the rose that you like.

You can see the blue roof of the pavilion from anywhere in the garden. [below]

Reno’s Rose Garden pavilion

Though I have visited the garden many times, I never noticed the mosaic at the steps of the entrance. It is a stunning scene of roses in bloom, with a blue background, possibly to reflect the top of the pavilion. [below]

The Rose Garden mosaic at entrance

On another day I visited the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which is a gallery of many gardens, including the labyrinth garden, near the parking lot.

In that garden I saw this bright orange rose bush in full bloom. It was a bright sunny morning, the sun caught the color on the blooms. [below]

Roses in the Labyrinth Garden in Reno’s May Botanical Garden

The National Garden Bureau has named 2017 the “Year of the Rose” in honor of this flower’s unique place in gardens throughout the United States and the world.

I have a few rose bushes in my garden, which, here in the northeast, are not in bloom yet.

From my short preview in Reno, I look forward to their bloom in glorious color within a short time.

 

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Victorian Home Landscape Required Lawn

Victorian home landscape required lawn.

The lawn became an important part of the American home landscape in the nineteenth century.

The seed and nursery catalogs often featured a lawn in illustrations and offered the best method of laying out and cultivating a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  was no different. He often wrote about the lawn.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1878 he referred to the lawn as a jewel, an emerald.

He said, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment. A few beds of foliage plants or flowers, or vases, are like diamonds set in emerald, and the latter, especially, impact a graceful elegance which nothing else can give. They are infinitely superior to the most costly statuary, which is better suited to the hall than the garden, and quite out of place in such simple, unpretentious places as are most of the private gardens of this country.”

This illustration of ‘Home Grounds’ appeared in his magazine in 1880. [below] Notice the lines of the flowing lawn.

Home Grounds. Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1880 [Courtesy of the Five Colleges Depository at the University of Massachusetts]

It was the homeower’s duty to provide the lawn because it alone was the important setting for the home.

In February of 1879 Vick wrote, “Those who do not make home beautiful and happy are morally or intellectually inferior, generally both, but not always.”

It was as if there were a moral imperative to cultivate a lawn to demonstrate a homeowner had taste.

A  customer from Nebraska wrote Mr. Vick in 1880 and asked, “What is the best Grass for lawns, and also the best ornamental and shade trees for lawns? If convenient, will you give the plan of a lawn?”

 Every Victorian home needed a lawn.

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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Bradley Estate Features New Display Garden

Bradley Estate features new display garden

Recently  I visited the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Massachusetts, a property owned by the Trustees of Reservations.  This is one of the Trustees’ eleven public garden properties.

It was a beautiful spring day, sun shining and temperatures warm, but not hot.

I had heard about the new display garden, and that’s what I wanted to see.

The house which is the Bradley Estate’s main structure dates to 1904. Mrs. Bradley established a formal garden, a large kitchen garden, a rhododendron path, and extensive lawns on this property of 90 acres.

The formal garden takes up the area behind the house. It is composed of a large lawn and several parterres.

The parterres with their new shrubs, perennials, and annuals, just planted, make up the new display garden.

Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate new display garden

What struck me first was that each parterre had the same plants, all in colors of chartreuse and purple.  I found out later that they are the official colors of the Trustees of Reservation as well.

A wonderful brick wall, installed 150 years ago, surrounds this garden. Since the wall dates to the early history of the house, it adds a lot of character to the setting.

As I walked the pathway in this garden, several of the plants that are in the parterre seemed familiar to me. I realized that I grow many of them in my own garden.

Then I found out that the grower Proven Winners offered these shrubs, perennials, and annuals to the Bradley Estate in hopes that the Estate would become in the future a Proven Winners Signature Garden.

A couple of  lectures are planned with Proven Winners this summer in June and July.

This is the first year the Bradley Estate, under the guidance of its horticulturist Jeff Thompson, is working with Proven Winners.

I hope visitors take advantage of this property and enjoy this new display garden in a landscape designed in America’s early 1900s formal period by Boston landscape architect Charles Platt.

 

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England’s Landscape Garden Beginnings

England’s landscape garden beginnings

We owe the origin of the landscape garden in England at the start of the eighteenth century not to just one person.

It changed gardening forever because it gave a new form to landscape. But what inspired the idea in the first place?

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden has thought about the beginnings of this English garden tradition.

He writes, “The landscape garden did not arise out of stately profession of Taste, as the Whigs would have us believe, but of an explosion of creativity.”

Thus it was no accident that poets, artists, and writers would be at the forefront of this landscape movement.  Poet Alexander Pope rose to become one of the pioneers of the landscape garden.

As Richardson points out, The Spectator essay [by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712] is generally held to be the jumping off point for the English landscape garden.

The people who were stirring the ship that would bring this new vision of landscape to England wanted, as Richardson writes, “to carve a new face for Britain out of the soil itself.”

And so they did.

The garden, at least for England and America, has never been the same since.

The chief quality of the modern landscape garden design was its variety, the total of several features that would make up the landscape garden

We often simply refer to the difference in garden design before and after the early eighteenth century as the formal garden versus the natural look to the landscape.

Richardson writes, “Even more than concepts such as ‘naturalism’, ‘informality’ or ‘wilderness,’ or even the symbolic content of the design, it was variety which emerged as the most important structural element of the eighteenth-century landscape garden.”

It was a variety in the design which included soil, plants, stone, water, woodland areas, forests, and even farming that marked this new moment in gardening history.

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Nineteenth Century Victorian Garden Reconstructed

Nineteenth century Victorian garden reconstructed.

Today I volunteer in the nineteenth century Victorian garden of Sarah Parker Rose Goodwin, wife of New Hampshire’s Civil War governor Ichabod Goodwin.

Several years ago the Goodwin house was moved a few blocks, from Islington Street to the historic water district. Its new home is the living museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called Strawbery Banke.

Located near the downtown area, Stawbery Banke’s cultural landscape traces three centuries of gardening in Portsmouth.

Sarah’s garden notes and diary inspired the reconstruction of her garden.

The garden illustrates the use of flowerbeds, called carpet bedding, that was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Sarah Goodwin loved her garden as author Margaret Whyte Kelly describes in her biography Sarah- Her Story.

Sarah Goodwin’s garden today in Portsmouth, NH includes the popular nineteenth century English garden fashion called carpet bedding.

In her journal Sarah wrote: “I like all the varieties of landscape gardening–I like bedding out.”

Bedding out followed the design of planting  featured in carpet bedding, where the same plant, usually a variety of an annual, was cultivated and kept closely trimmed throughout the summer.

Thus, Sarah’s gardening reflected what English gardeners of that period also enjoyed in the garden: bedding out, carpet bedding, and ribbon beds.

Today visitors to Strawbery Banke have the opportunity to walk the gravel pathways of a nineteenth century Victorian garden.

If you happen to visit the Goodwin House, look around and you might see me in the garden weeding or watering.

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