Lawn Became Essential Landscape Feature

Lawn Became Essential Landscape Feature

Beginning in 1859, and for the next twenty-nine years,  Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan published a magazine called Gardener’s Monthly

In the first pages of each issue he provided advice on taking care of the lawn, thus reinforcing its importance in the home landscape for the reader.

He considered the lawn an essential feature for the home landscape, no matter what size.

Built in 1904 the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Massachusetts now forms part of the house and garden list of the Trustees of Reservations

Lawn surrounds the red brick house, giving the landscape that English garden look from the end of the nineteenth century.  [below]


The back garden at the Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Meehan wrote in the magazine’s 1860 issue: “The rarest flowers-the choicest fruits-the nicest arrangement of all things on the most scientific principles, are lost to us, if they are not crowned by a perfect lawn.  To the lawn we bow; and as a subject of horticulture, offer to the lawn our strongest allegiance.”

In February 1869 Meehan wrote in his magazine that the lawn meant more to Americans than to the English: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us. Our heats render the grass particularly refreshing.”

It is little wonder that the pursuit of the perfect lawn, the signature feature of the English garden, has a long history for the American homeowner.

Nineteenth century nurserymen like Meehan considered the lawn essential in the landscape.

Tree and Lawn at the Bradley Estate

Tree and Lawn at the front of the Bradley Estate

Garden Advertising Sometimes Exaggerates

Garden Advertising Sometimes Exaggerates

Advertising in America as an industry began with the N. W. Ayer & Son Company in Philadelphia in 1867.

From that point on advertisers through the media of the day sought to persuade a consumer to buy a particular brand of a product.

Lydia Pinkham was among the first to use such advertising to market her patent medicine, a remedy for female complaints. She combined vegetable compound laced with nineteen per cent alcohol to make up her medicinal beverage.

The garden industry of course through the seed companies and nurseries did not shy away from ads to promote their wares as well.

You would think that today, one hundred fifty years later, we are smart enough to reject false claims in advertising.

Not true.

Sometimes, even today, garden advertising exaggerates what the company promises.

A ‘garden in a box’ seems to imply you simply plant something like the company’s seed strips and wallah, you have a garden.

Mike Lizotte from American Meadows said, “We’ve all seen the ‘meadow in a can’ seed products at our

Wildflower mix from Aerican Meadows

Wildflower mix from American Meadows

favorite big box store. Don’t be fooled by the nice packaging.”

There is always something left out in advertising in order that the ad can make its point.

In the ‘garden in a box’ that something happens to be the work it takes to maintain a garden, and see it through to its flowering.

Also, the product may be inferior. There may be fewer seeds than promised.

Garden advertising is really like any advertising. The buyer has to be aware of the kind of promises made by the seller.

Adrian Higgins, garden writer for the Washington Post, recently wrote an article entitled “Growing wild – by design.”

He said, “A few years ago, there was the notion that meadows were so eager to sprout that

American Meadows

American Meadows

you could buy a can full of wildflower seed, sprinkle the contents on a piece of cleared land and you would have a floriferous meadow in perpetuity. But there is no meadow genie in the can.”

Though we need to proceed cautiously with ads, advertising for the garden at the same time it tries to sell something also informs the consumer about new products.

Nineteenth century New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) recognized that part of advertising.

Vick wrote in 1880 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly “Those desiring reliable information upon horticultural subjects will find much that is valuable in these [advertising] pages.”

Reno’s English Garden Still Shines

Reno’s English Garden Still Shines

This summer I once again toured the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden on my family visit to Reno, Nevada. It is a beautiful public garden with many smaller garden areas. [below]

The entrance to the May Arboretum and Botanaicla Garden.

The entrance to the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Reno

The May Arboretum is a showcase of plants in the transition zone between the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin Desert.

Here with an array of various gardens, including one devoted to High Sierra native plants, you will also find an English garden called the Burke Garden.

This garden includes a lawn and borders of perennials, as well as a few roses.

It is a beautiful garden and often the site of weddings.

You would think that an area like Reno which has dry weather, and also water problems, would not encourage an English garden because of its maintenance and demand for regular watering. In fact, the day I visited the temperature was quite high, and I needed to keep out of the sun.

But the Burke Garden forms part of the Arboretum.

To me it provides an opportunity for visitors to see what an English garden looks like.

That is, after all, one of the reasons we visit public gardens.

We want to learn about gardening.


Exhibit Showcases Celia Thaxter’s Salon

Exhibit Showcases Celia Thaxter’s Salon

This must be the summer of all things Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

Earlier this summer I posted here about her biography that I had just read.

Then I wrote about the wonderful Childe Hassan (1859-1935) exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Recently I saw another exhibit about Celia in the same city.

The Salem Athenaeum is hosting a free exhibit called “Celia’s Salon: America’s First Artists’ and Writers‘ Colony.”  The exhibit runs through September 23.

This is a  beautiful collection of materials that illustrate the richness of Celia’s salon at her family’s hotel on Appledore Island, off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire.

She invited hotel guests who also happened to be artists, musicians, and writers to spend either the morning or the evening in her salon. Some would bring their art work, musicians would play, and Celia would read at times.

Childe Hassan was the leader of the American Impressionists and the most prolific and successful artist working in that style. Celia became his friend from the start of his yearly visits. Illustrations of his work also form part of this exhibit.

In the collection there is a photograph of Celia, sitting in her salon. The extremely cluttered room is filled with tables covered in doilies, pictures, drawings, china artwork, even a music stand.  There seems to be no room for anything else.

This painting at Appledore, used in the promotion of this exhibit, highlights the sea and the flowers that Celia grew in her famous garden. [below]


Scene of Appledore Island used in promotion of the Exhibit at the Salem Athenaeum.

The artist William Morris Hunt gave Celia lessons. She had taken up painting of pieces of china like cups, saucers, and flower vases, some of which appear here in a glass case.  At that time when literati and artists filled Celia’s salon, people were also writing her, requesting her china artwork.

This exhibit offers a glimpse into the life of this famous American poet and gardener from the late nineteenth century.

Victorian Seedsman Encouraged Advertising

Victorian seedsman encouraged advertising.

New York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote several popular garden books in the late nineteenth century.

He also believed in the power of advertising for his company.

In 1884 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly a speech that Henderson had given that year at the Chicago Convention of Nurserymen.  He quotes Henderson as saying, “Advertising is rapidly becoming a fine art, and the more it advances as a fine art, the more advertising will be done and the more profit will result from it.”

As a business, the seed industry had its share of competition.  The amount of advertising sometimes distinguished one company from another.

Henderson catalog 1885

For example, this chromolithograph cover [above] from Henderson’s seed catalog of 1885 promoted the company as modern and progressive, but still classic. The company promised to fill every need a gardener may have.

Meehan wrote the following in another issue of his magazine from that same year, “Perhaps in no other country is the press so liberally patronized by seedsmen, florists, and nurserymen as in the United States. In their advertising seasons, which cover most of the months of the year, we can rarely pick up a periodical that does not contain some of their advertisements.”

Henderson was not alone among his Brothers of the Spade, fellow garden merchants.  He believed in advertising for any modern business to succeed, including the garden industry.

English Coveted American Plants

English coveted American plants.

Recently I read about a restored garden called Painshill near Cobham, Surrey, England.

What caught my attention was that its restoration includes a garden of American plants.

Painshill dates to the eighteenth century, the time of the birth of England’s landscape garden, which distinguished itself as more natural rather than symmetrical and formal in design. The Honourable Charles Hamilton (1704-1786) created this garden between 1738 and 1773.

He included all of the elements of the landscape garden of that time: lawn, vistas, a grotto, a lake, classic structures, and, of course, collections of the latest plants like American plant varieties.

Painshill image from Garden-Guide

Painshill [from Garden-Guide]

When Hamilton established the garden, there was a keen interest in cultivating American plants.

In the eighteenth century John Bartram (1699-1777) sent seeds of American plants from Philadelphia to his English admirers, coveting American plant varieties.

Hamilton was among that group.

In May 2006 Painshill was awarded full collection status for its John Bartram Heritage Collection, by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens.

Today Painshill comprises 158 acres of the original more than 200 acres.

What I find so interesting in this story is the idea that the eighteenth century English aristocracy wanted American plants.

That in itself makes the Painshill restoration so important to me.

Usually it is the other way around: we Americans want everything English in the garden.

Warner House Features English Garden

Warner House features English garden.

Portsmouth, NH’s  Warner House, built in 1716, is celebrating its 300th Anniversary. Merchant Archibald MacPhaedris built the house in the style of a London townhouse.

The Warner House at 150 Daniel Street is Portsmouth’s earliest Georgian mansion. The house stands today as a testament to the refinements and tastes of merchant shipowners during Portsmouth’s Colonial Period.

The large red brick house sits on a corner city lot. [below]

Behind the house you find the garden. On my recent visit I wondered how the garden took its current form.

Warner House Portsmouth

The Warner House in Portsmouth,NH at the corner of Daniel and Chapel Streets

No record exists of what the garden looked like with earlier owners.

According to Jeff Hopper, the Warner House manager, the landscape area in the back of the house was probably just a yard, an enclosed grassed area. An early owner, like MacPhaedris, probably had a pleasure garden on his land across the street where he and his guests could enjoy a walk through a lawn, shrubs, flowers, and vines in full bloom.

That is somewhat of a conjecture. No plan or illustration exists to illustrate what a garden across the road, in front, or behind the house looked like.

In the early 1930s the Warner House Association bought the property from the heirs rather than have the property demolished to make room for a gas station.

At that time Edith Wendell, the guiding light behind the Association, contacted the prominent landscape architect Fletcher Steele (1885-1971) to suggest improvements to the landscape.

Steele had just finished the design and planting in the Colonial Revival style of the Mission House in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In 1936 Fletcher Steele proposed a plan to Mrs. Wendell. The plan was discovered in 1995 at the Hamilton House in Berwick, Maine, owned by the non-profit group called SPNEA which now goes by the name Historic New England.

Here is Steele’s plan:

Fletcher Steele plan for the Warner House 1936

Fletcher Steele’s plan for the Warner House 1936 [from the book The Warner House: A Rich and Colorful History, 2006]

That plan never was realized in the landscape as Steele envisioned it.

For several years working as volunteers, members of the Portsmouth Garden Club have planted and maintained the current Warner House garden.

Caroline Fesquet, the head gardener and member of the Portsmouth Garden Club, has continued the perennial borders along the entire perimeter of the property.  She has included many plant varieties but no hybrids or plant introductions after the 1930s.  She regularly amends the soil but with only organic material.

The perennials include daylilies, hosta, phlox, and an edging of lamb’s ears. She says, “I’m putting an English garden look on this garden which is appropriate.”

Caroline has provided a design with inspiration and skill. She wants to complement the period of the house.

When she began four years ago, there was a perennial border along part of the back fence. She extended it to the front.

Today the garden reflects a bit of the Colonial revival Steele design. His proposed borders are there but planted now in perennials rather than lilacs.  You will also see his walkway to Chapel Street. He also suggested a wooden well house, which guided the design of a beautiful shed, built in 2001, used to store garden tools.

The challenge in restoring a period garden demands a sense of what the garden looked like at a particular time.

The history of this house, as a home for the MacPhraidris, Warner, Wentworth, Sherburne, and Penhallow families, stretches from the Colonial Period to the 1930s.  Thus, trying to create a period landscape may require that a garden historian/designer focus on one time period.

Caroline has chosen mainly the English garden design principles from the late nineteenth century, expressed in her beautiful perennial borders.  That was the time when Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, both influential English gardeners, encouraged such planting of colorful perennials rather than carpet beds or bedding out of annuals.







Fletcher Steele’s Naumkeag Design Restored

Fletcher Steele’s Naumkeag Design Restored

A few weeks ago I visited Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The house and garden date to the first half of the twentieth century, reflecting a bit of the period of the grand Gilded Age mansions and gardens. This iron chair from the afternoon garden on the side of the house reflects that time. [below]

The chair in the afternoon garden

The blue chair in the afternoon garden

The glory of the day had to be to walk around and see the restored Fletcher Steele garden.

New York landscape architect Steele (1885-1971), along with the owner Mabel Choate, provided Naumkeag’s modernist garden design over a thirty-year period.

Unfortunately, the garden had become overgrown.

Now at a cost of 2.6 million dollars the Trustees of Reservations, owner of the house and garden, has restored the forty-four room house and its eight acres of gardens.

Steele’s famous blue steps bordered with white birch trees had become overgrown.  In the last couple of years fifty new birch trees replaced the original line of trees. [below]

Blue steps

Fletcher Steel’s Blue Steps, the most famous piece of his design at Naumkeag.

The Chinese garden, with its Moongate entrance installed in 1955,  took twenty years to build. This garden began with two stone Chinese dogs.

In the renovation of the Chinese garden over two hundred trees that had become overgrown were removed.

Steele’s landscape includes several gardens like the Tree Peony Terrace and the Rose Garden. Both have been given a new look as well.

A linden allee has been installed off one side of the house, not far from the animal cemetery.[below]

Linden allee

This allee of linden trees is part of the restoration.

Naumkeag today is worth a visit, or revisit, to see the restored work of one of the most famous of American landscape architects.

Loudon Befriended Early American Seedsman

Loudon befriended early American seedsman.

Writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) influenced the development of the English garden during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of the English garden.’

Loudon shared a friendship with New York seedsman Grant Thorborn (1773-1863), both originally from Scotland, and living in England when they met.Loudon and the Landscape

In her book Loudon and the Landscape: From Country Seat to Metropolis Melanie Louise Simo wrote that Loudon and Thorburn enjoyed after dinner conversation together at Loudon’s home.

Thorburn sailed for America in 1794. He settled in New York where he established a seed company in 1802, one of the earliest in the country.

In its 1899 catalog the Thorburn Company [below] laid claim to its longevity as a reason for a customer to send in seed orders. The catalog said, “Our leading business principle has always been to supply only the very highest class of seeds. The fact that we have commanded the leading wholesale and market-gardeners’ trade of this country for nearly a century should justify our claim to the patronage of those who have not yet experienced the advantage of dealing with us.”

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

In his writing about the garden in the catalogue, Thorburn liberally quoted from English garden authorities, including the English garden ideas of his friend Loudon.

The Oregon State University website for its wondeful seed catalog collection says, “Thorburn quoted liberally from English gardening authorities including Loudon, but added his own notes on how plants performed in America.”

Through the words of his friend Loudon Thorborn proposed the English garden design to his American customers.

Edith Wharton’s Mount Features Shade Garden

Edith Wharton’s Mount features shade garden.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote not only fiction, but her interest in house and garden design inspired both books and articles as well.

She wrote 40 books in 40 years.

Wharton named her house in Lenox, Mass. The Mount. There in the Berkshires she felt inspired to write some of her best work.

In 1902 Wharton designed both the house and the garden at The Mount.

Over the past several years the garden has been carefully restored to its original design.

That design follows a formal Italian look, made of straight lines and symmetry.

At one end of garden you see the formal flowerbeds with the Italianate fountain in all its formal glory in the center.

At the other end of the garden, which you arrive at by walking a tree-lined stone path, she positioned the ‘walled garden.’

When she designed the walled garden, the trees and shrubs she installed were small. Then there was plenty of light.

Today you encounter in that same garden a deep shade since everything has grown to such a height.

Thus the gardeners who maintain the area have now planted hosta, astilbe, and ferns.

This is the view out from the walled garden to the back of the property where you can just catch a glimpse of a body of water in the distance. [below]

shade garden at the Mount

The walled garden is now this shade garden at The Mount in Lenox.

The design of Edith’s garden is formal, but now also includes this garden of shade.

In the early twentieth century when renewed interest in the formal garden appeared both in England and America, Edith Wharton captured the popularity of that design in her own garden.

Today the restored garden at The Mount offers the visitor a chance to capture a sense of that moment in the history of American gardening.