Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

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Wisteria at the Home of John Adams

This is the time of the year the purple flowers of the wisteria vine put on their show.

America’s most famous wisteria has to be the one that climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams’ house, part of the Adams National Historic Site, in Quincy, Mass. At this time while in bloom it usually attracts  both history lovers and gardeners.

A wisteria vine, Wisteria sinensis, climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams home in Quincy, Mass.

The vine  came to England from China in 1816.

As the story goes, according to a book by Wilhelmina Harris, long-time superintendent of the Site, First Lady Abigail Adams planted the vine.  Abigail died in 1818, and Donald Wyman, noted horticulturalist from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, wrote that the vine, which originates in China, was introduced into America in 1816.  So it is quite possible Abigail planted it.

The wisteria vine grows slowly but once it is rooted pushes aggressively along any surface it can climb.  You need a trellis or arbor to support it.    Bob MacKenzie, the head gardener at the Adams house, said,  “We have to keep trimming it so that it does not take over the house.”

Plant Explorers

When England sent plant explorers around the world, beginning in the eighteenth century, trees and shrubs as well as this wisteria were part of the find.  English gardeners treasured exotic plants like this wisteria called Wisteria sinensis.  In the nineteenth century it was common for Americans to import English exotic plants.

According to Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden by Ippolitio Pizzetti and Henry Cocker, two East India  Company captains transported the first plants of Wisteria sinensis from China in May of 1816.

Shortly after that the Wisteria sinensis must have made its way from England to Quincy and  the Adams home.

In the nineteenth century the English gave America exotic plants as well as a garden style.  As in the case of the wisteria, the plants eventually became part of our landscape pallette.

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Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

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Frustrated I Cannot Get to My Garden

Today I saw trays of spring flowers outside the supermarket.

Though I loved seeing them as a sign of spring, they also reminded me of my current dilemma.

I have been trapped in our condominium for six weeks now, due to the state’s shelter in place rule.

My garden is at our house in the neighboring state.

I cannot go there without enduring a two week lock-down here when I return.

To avoid that I simply stay away from my garden, located only an hour away.

That does not mean I don’t think about the garden.

Here is the entrance to the house along with a bit of the garden. [below]

Front entrance, lined with shrubs, perennials, and annuals

Notice the rather tall red dahlias called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ on the right. The cement container, filled with coleus and geraniums, stands at the corner of the cement entry.

In the mean time

Right now I read about gardening. I think about what I will do once we can travel out of state more easily.

The plants I want this summer come to mind. I know I will plant more caladium.

Worry about Deer Damage

Possible deer damage sometimes demands my attention about this time in spring. I know I may have to address such damage if I should find it.

Luckily a few weeks ago I was able to enlist a landscaper in the area to put down Milorganite fertilizer over the lawn and flower beds. Though it is not sold as a deer repelant, it does a good job ih keeping deer away.

Yesterday I heard the governor say we still have a few more weeks for the lock down to continue.

Hope it ends soon so I can see my garden, in whatever shape I find it.

I will be so delighted first just to see the garden and then to walk the familiar garden paths.

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New Book Traces History of American Garden

We can learn a great deal about gardening by looking at garden history.

A new book Iowa Gardens of the Past by Beth Cody takes the reader on a journey of gardening in Iowa since 1850.

In the process of looking at gardens over a century and a half the reader also learns about the changing American garden asesthetic. You see how the garden continues to be a work of art.

What was happening in Iowa was also happening around the country. The book describes the evolution of the American garden.

Landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, (1815-1852) proposed a lawn with few trees as the basis of the landscape. A flower garden could be included behind the house as well.

His designed look you might call the Romantic English park aesthetic.

Cody writes, “Only the wealthy could afford a house and landscape in the style Downing proposed.”

During the high Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s the market for annuals, perennials,and bulbs grew with the demand of home gardeners. New bright and showy species of new plants came from Asia, Africa, and South America.

Then home owners had more leisure time to plan, grow, and maintain gardens in an ornamental style. They did so with flowers like roses and dahlias.

The images in the book are not only of mansions or large houses, but often, especially in postcards, you will see an ordinary house and garden.

The World Expositions held in 1876 in Philadelphia and 1893 in Chicago introduced American gardeners to Japanese gardens.

Americans fell in love with the Japanese style, so after 1900 even in Iowa you could find a Japanese-inspired landscape.

In the early twentieth century the next important aesthetic was the movement to include naturalistic plants in the garden.

Even during the Depression of the 1930s people gardened. Cody writes, “Despite the economic challenges of the decade, more Iowans than ever gardened enthusiastically.”

In 1930 Theodore E. Sexier, from Ames, Iowa, planted the rose called ‘New Dawn,” the first plant ever patented.

Today I grow ‘New Dawn’ in my garden and it is truly a beautiful flower.

In the 1940s during war time seventy percent of Iowa households grew Victory Gardens.

Cody writes, “During the 1950s, there was a noticeable trend of men becoming more interested in oramental gardening, not just growing vegebtables.”

Photos and Illustrations

Cody includes in the book wonderful illustrations and photos of gardens big and small. She has assembled a truly amazing collection of two hundred and fifty photos and illustrations, each filled with a bit of garden history. [belowthe back of the book]

The Back Cover of the book

After the 1950s the garden became an outside room where the family could gather to entertain.

The formal garden had disappeared and more informal flower beds and containers of plants for the deck or patio became popular.

As it evolved, the American garden aesthetic became sometimes formal and sometimes natural with on occasion a combination of the two styles.

And Beth Cody found it all in Iowa gardens.

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Women Gardeners in Late 19th Century

You might easily associate the flower garden with the work of women.

After all, isn’t that how people thought about flowers in the garden?

Is it still true that men take care of the lawn and the vegetable patch and leave the flowers to women?

That’s an example of how gender has been linked to certain forms of gardening for centuries.

I found a pattern of the portrayal of women in garden advertising when I looked at dozens of seed catalogs from the late nineteenth century.

Women were alwayts dressed neatly, representing the upper middle class, the audience for the catalog.

In this catalog cover froim Peter Henderson in 1892 notice how prim and proper the woman presents herself. [below] She is cutting daffodils for tea or lunch, but certainly not working in the garden.

Henderson 1892 Catalog Cover

In fact, I did not see any women in the catalog illustrations actually working in the garden though I often saw them in the garden.

They may have been interested but did not, or perhaps could not, work in the garden.

Caroline Ikin wrote the book The Victorian Garden.

She writes, “The role of women in the garden was changing during the late Victorian era.”

We know that working class women gardened in the mid to late nineteenth century. They formed the major customer base for seed company owners like James Vick (1818-1882)

Vick wrote in 1878, “It is but a few years since woman was permitted to grace the festive board of agricultural and horticultural exhibitions. Now no occasion of this kind is deemed complete without her presence.”

Garden Club Movement

It was in the early 1900s that the Garden Club movement began in the United States. It was a formal way of recognizing woman’s role in the garden as designer and, if needed, both as planter and as weeder.

Then several books for women gardeners appeared on the market.

Women could not only enjoy looking at the garden, but could now more freely work in the garden, learn about botany, and even try landscape design.

Ikin writes, “With more middle-class women turning to gardening as a pastime and a means of self-improvement, a market was created for gardening books aimed specifically at women, as well as for tools and gadgets designed for female use.”

By the early 1900s the Garden Club movement here in the United States became the source of empowering women to garden, encourage native plants, and advocate for landscape design.

The late Victorian culture recognized women as gardeners.

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Darwin and Vick, Famed 19th Century Horticulturists

Who knew that one day history would link Charles Darwin and James Vick in the same memorial?

In England Charles Darwin conducted his research on plants and called it the struggle for life.

In his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory the author James T. Costa writes about Darwin’s many experiments with plants.

Costa says, “When we observe nature we often miss the struggle, seeing only peace and harmony, and mistake this for the natural condition of the living world.”

The garden is a place where plants struggle to survive. Some make it while others do not.

Darwin studied that struggle through his research of many years on plants. [below]

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – National Portrait Gallery

In America James Vick owned an important seed business in the second half of the nineteenth century.

At one point he received three thousand letters a day from his customers, seeking seeds of course, but also his advice. To them Vick was a trusted source on all things horticultural.

Here is the photo Vick included in his seed catalog after many of his customers requested a photo. [below]

James Vick (1818-1882)

Both Darwin and Vick died in 1882.

Memorial

Last week I came across a link between the two.

In 1883 at the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society its President mentioned both Darwin and Vick in a speech.

He said, “I have to record the names of two men, whose labors have been largely for the benefit of farmers and horticulturists, Charles Darwin and James Vick.

“Charles Darwin, who died at the ripe age of seventy-four, was considered the greatest horticulturist of the age. He was the author of many valuable works…

“James Vick, who died at Rochester, N.Y. May 16, was aged about 64 years. At the time of his death he was at the head of one of the largest seed establishments in America, and his Floral Guide [Catalog] had a circulation of over 200,000. His success has been marvelous. His labors are finished, but the good he has done will endure forever.”

Darwin and Vick, famed 19th century horticulturists

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Garden as Tapestry

Are you a plant collector? Or is your garden based on a strict landscape design that you cannot disturb by adding plants, willy, nilly?

However you garden, you need to select the plants.

The plants can come from anywhere.

When you assemble them, you are making your garden a tapestry.

Stephen Harris wrote in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, “Any garden is a tapestry of botanical histories. Some plants are native, some have been introduced, and others evolved in the garden.”

When I think of a tapestry, I think of a mix of things, not just one item.

This garden [below] in a photo I took on the Almalfi coast is an example of nineteenth century carpet bedding with designs in colorful flowers and leaves. It aslo reminds me of a tapestry, or mixture of various plants.

Flowerbeds on the Amalfi coast

In 1973 noted horticulturist Donald Wyman from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum wrote a wonderful article in Arnoldia called “The History of Ornamental Horticulture in America.”

He said, “It is of interest to note that in gardens and landscape plantings of a general nature in the northern United States, half of the plants used are of oriental origin, a quarter are native to Europe and only a quarter are native to America.”

He was also making the point that our gardens are a collection of plants both exotic and native.

You might call it a tapestry.

What kind of tapestry is your garden?

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No Garden without Nasturtiums

I recently ordered five packets of nasturtium seeds.

The varieties are both the climbing or spreading variety and the clumping kind of flowers.

Every garden needs to have nasturtiurms.

The main reason is they are so easy to grow. No potting inside weeks before the ground warms up. This seed you can plant right in the ground or in an outdoor container.

The Garden Museum in London sent me this beautiful illustration of ‘Empress of India’ nasturtiums by British artist Hannah McVicar.

‘Express of India’ Nasturtium by artist Hannah McVicar

Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening says this about the humble Nasturtium: “The common garden nasturtium comprises the genus Tropaeolum, the only one of the family Tropaeolaceae…They are native of the cooler parts of South America.”

James Vick, the nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner, included Nasturtiums in his catalog, magazine, and his book as well.

He wrote, “Flowers of all the different shades of yellow, orange, and red….They are very desirable.”

In his seed catalog of 1873 Vick said, “This flower has of late been much improved, the blossoms being larger and more showy.”

How can we loose? Nasturtiums show superb qualities for the gardener: easy to grow, with splendid flower color, and ever so dependable.

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Two Ways to Reproduce a Plant

Annuals play an important role in the summer garden.

How do so many annuals make it to your garden center in the spring?

The major methods to reproduce a plant are through a seed or a cutting.

The new plants you see at the garden center probably came there as a cutting.

This is how it works.

A cutting is planted in a small container of soil or medium. Growers call that small container a plug.

Richard Craig, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote the article “Creating a More Beautiful World: A Century of Progress in the Breeding of Floral and Nursery Plants.”

The article appeared in the scientific journal HortScience.

Craig recognizes the importance of the plug in the business of propagation.

He says, “I believe that the development of plug-culture technology was one of the most important developments of the century.”

Pleasant View Garden

Pleasant View Garden in Loudon, New Hampshire grows thousands of plants each year for Proven Winners.

Not too long ago I wrote a post here in which I mentioned Pleasant View uses cuttings extensively for its annuals.

The cutting as a plug is then sold to garden centers.

Here is a greenhouse at Pleasant View Garden with hundreds of plugs waiting to find a home in some garden center or nursery. There they will be potted and cared for in hopes in the spring customers will buy them.

Pleasant View Garden, Loudon, New Hampshire.

Stephen Harris in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900 also recognizes the importance of cuttings for the garden industry.

He writes, “Traditionally, gardeners have two basic approaches to multiplying the number of a plant: sexual propagation using seed or clonal propagation using some form of cutting.”

It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that through new grower technology cuttings for plugs became the major form of propagation for the garden industry.

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