Understanding Nineteenth Century Vernacular Gardens

Understanding nineteenth century vernacular gardens.

I just finished reading Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Home Gardening.

What made the book so worthwhile was the research that paved the way for the book.

While working on her master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, author Lee Somerville chose to examine nineteenth century vernacular gardens in Wisconsin.

She defines vernacular gardens as the gardens of ordinary people who lived in ordinary homes.

The treasure for her research turned out to be the records of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society.

Each year from 1869 until 1928 WSHS published the proceedings of its annual meeting,  Two Society journals The Wisconsin Horticulturist (1896-1903) and Wisconsin Horticulture (1910-1967) supplemented the annual report.

With the help of these primary resources, and many secondary resources as well, Somerville sought to understand the vernacular garden of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Wisconsin.

She covers home landscape design, plants, and the lawn for both rural and city properties. She includes landscape drawings, clearly detailing the vernacular garden over this period of time.

At the end of the book she makes recommendations for anyone considering either creating or restoring a vintage garden. She writes, “Photographs, letters, journals, maps and publications usually available at local or regional libraries and historical societies for researching a particular garden can be a starting point for researching any particular garden.”

That is exactly what Lee did in the research and writing of this book.

The book includes many photographs and illustrations. The end of the book features a listing of heirloom plants, including trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials grown in vintage Wisconsin gardens.

Anyone interested in old gardens, but especially the evolution of garden design in this country would  enjoy this book.

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English Garden Inspired Victorian America

English Garden inspired Victorian America.

The early 1700s in England saw a revolution in landscape design. The design included a more natural look, often with an area called ‘the park’, and of course a lawn and trees along with water as a prominent feature.

This new landcape, embodied in the English garden, rejected the formality of earlier garden design.

Laid out in the mid 1700s Stourhead represented that design. Here you see its palladian bridge that separates two areas of the garden. [below]

Bridge at Stourhead

Palladian Bridge at Stourhead

The landscape was called modern to distinguish it from the older, or ancient design style which was more both formal and symmetrical.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s America also adopted this modern style, especially on the east coast estates of the wealthy.  The sweeping lawn and curved path ways to the house embodied the English garden in its modern look.

The division between ancient and modern landscape style persisted well into the nineteenth century in Victorian America.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in the 1881 issue of his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What is called the modern or natural style of landscape gardening had its origin in England at the commencement of the eighteenth century. Previously to this time the style of ornamental gardening in Great Britain was similar to that of the other nations of Europe, which, in contradictinction to the natural, is termed the artificial style.”

Vick often wrote about the value of the English landscape in its modern design. His new seedhouse, built in 1880, included a landscape in that modern style. [below]

Vick's seed house 1880

Vick’s seed house 1880

Though the revolution in English garden design began in the 1700s and continued into the 1800s, today we still can experience its impact.

We talk about a return to a more natural look, with the use of native plants, and even naturalizing with bulbs in the landscape, as a way of separating that design from the more formal and symmetrical look.

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