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A Diary Reveals the History of the Nineteenth Century American Garden

In restoring a garden from an earlier time period any documents about the history of the garden certainly may help to understand what it looked like at a particular time.

A southern Louisiana garden called Rosedown Plantation has been restored to its nineteenth century charm, thanks to a detailed diary that the owner Martha Turnbull kept.

Turnbull book cover LSUpressMartha’s diary, along with excellent commentary, has recently been made available in the new book The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull Mistress of Rosedown Plantation (Louisiana State University Press).

I loved the book because it traces how we gardened here in America before and after the Civil War.

Martha writes in detail about what she planted on her 28 acres, though many more acres made up the plantation.  The reader comes away with a sense of how horticulture changed in the nineteenth century.

In the earlier years her gardening focused on vegetables and fruit, especially strawberries, but later her concern  turned to ornamental gardening with roses, dahlias, and chrysanthemums.

Slaves left the plantation after the Civil War, but some stayed at Rosedown to help with the gardening. Martha provided housing and wages in exchange for their help.

Martha gives us a window on the nineteenth century American garden since she lived until 1896, the day before her 85th birthday, and began the diary in 1836 when she put in the garden.

Since I am interested in nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, I was happy to see how much she depended on garden companies, especially in the northeast.  She purchased seeds and plants from the Robent Buist Company in Philadelphia and Prince Nurseries on Long Island in New York.

Rosedown Plantation

Landscape architect Suzanne Turner who did a superb job of editing the book, says “The predominant  theory or aesthetic that Martha Turnbull would have encountered in [John Claudius] Loudon and [Andrew Jackson] Downing was that of the romantic picturesque landscapes, or the ‘modern’ style, as opposed to the old or ‘formal’ style.” Thus the garden design of Rosedown was based on the popular English romantic style.

Turner provides a wonderful commentary on Martha’s work in the garden, often quoting horticultural books and articles of that period.

This is a more than a book about a Louisiana gardener. For me it is the history of American gardening in the nineteenth century.

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