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Plant Collecting Doomed the Classic English Garden

Plant collecting is something that most gardeners enjoy.  Some gardeners even refer to their garden as a ‘collection.’

We gardeners are sometimes haunted by the question whether a collection of plants can really be an example of landscape as an art form.

Garden writer and artist David Stuart in his book Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy discussed the same issue.

Stuart, David Garden TriumphantHe takes as his starting point the history of the classic English garden of the eighteenth century, or the picturesque garden as it was called.

Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but reaching its peak in the nineteenth century. the English coveted plants from Africa, Asia, and the Americas.  That habit of collecting plants, however, was to have a devastating effect on the classic English garden design.

Stuart writes: “Throughout the eighteenth century, new plants began to flood the country [England] from all the Americas and most of Asia. By the end of the century they were flooding in even faster, yet there was nowhere to put them, no way to integrate them into the garden…They [gardeners] hankered after a mode of gardening that would allow them to show their wonderful plants to the world.”

In that decision to show them off, the garden took on a new look, that of a collection.

He concludes, “Consequently, by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape garden was quite clearly doomed.”

The classic landscape garden featured the lawn, the curved pathway, minimal or no flowers at all, and shrubs.  It was the garden as designed by eighteenth century gardener to the King Lancelot Brown.

Since gardeners wanted to display new plants, they had to make room for them. The garden became a collection of plants.

Today the same question seems to face every gardener. 

How do you respond?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Yes, I’ve been reading about the same phenomenon myself, as I write my own book about the history of ornamental gardening in Iowa, trying to summarize how A. J. Downing’s style, so influential here and everywhere in the US in the mid 19th century, came to be as it was. The whole banning flowers thing was doomed to failure, of course. Such strict edicts against human nature can only result in fads, not lasting change. Thanks for the book recommendation — I’ve ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. -Beth

    1. People want to collect plants no matter what since gardening is for many of us, after all, a hobby. However landscape design often suffers when the collector side of ourselves prevails.

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