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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Differing Views of Nineteenth Century Garden

Differing Views of  Nineteenth Century Garden

The way to plant a flower garden changed during the nineteenth century.

Two American seedsmen wrote differently about how to install a flower garden.

Boston seedsman Joseph Breck (1794-1873) wrote The Flower Garden in 1851.

In the book he recommended the placement of the garden as a border before a window with southern or southeastern exposure.

He carefully laid out for the reader the design of the flowerbed.

Breck wrote, “This outward border will be the most appropriate place for flowering shrubs, and tall herbaceous biennial and perennial plants”.

When he discussed what flowers to plant, Breck listed several annuals, plus Dahlias and Gladiolus and Roses, with a few choice perennials. He recommended native plants like Lobelia Cardinalis, Aquilegia Canadensis, Aster Novae Anglae and Solidago.

Breck wanted a flower garden in bloom during each season. Choosing the right plant would have provided that color. His borders were to be filled with annuals, perennials, and native plants.

Carpet bedding croppedNew York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote his book Gardening for Pleasure in 1875. In it he also discussed laying out the flower garden.

He admitted at the start that old-fashioned mixed borders with hardy herbaceous plants were “now but little seen”. He wrote, “The mixed system still has its advocates, who deprecate the modern plan of massing in color as being too formal, and too unnatural a way to dispose of flowers.”

The fashion he discussed called ‘massing of color’ referred to the use of many annuals of the same variety to create a display of one color. The plants were to be placed in a pattern or ribbon line like in the Sunset Seed and Plant Company catalog of 1897. [above]

The words “They Grow” in the catalog cover here might have been planted with Alyssum, which of course needed to be trimmed regularly.  Mass beds needed many plants of the same variety but also much maintenance to keep them short.

Henderson wrote, “A single misplaced color may spoil the effect of the whole.”

Thus these two nineteenth century seedsmen offered two different forms of the flowergarden.

In 1851 Breck advocated for a border of annuals, perennials, and native plants. In 1875 Henderson promoted the modern carpet bed, a design of mass planting with annuals.

I am ending with this  photo of the beautiful perennial borders from the Scottish garden Carolside in Earlson. [below] Just received this on Twitter from Great British Gardens.

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland [Thanks to @BritishGardens]

 

 

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