Civility Inspired Nineteenth Century Landscape Advice

Do you ever feel that you mow the lawn to keep peace with your neighbor?

We live in a community in which others form expectations for what our home landscape should look like.

Such thinking has roots in nineteenth century advice on landscaping from writers like landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and seedsman James Vick.

In her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening the author Judith Major writes about Downing’s insistence on landscaping with a sense of rural art and taste, no matter what the size of the property. At the same time Downing urged his readers not to forget that a home owner cultivated the landscape for the town, the community, the country.

Major writes “As Downing professed, taste once formed became contagious, and he devoted himself to molding the country’s taste.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1992) supported the philosophy that pride in a home landscape carried over into a sense of community pride.

Two illustrations from his 1879 seed catalog Vick’s Floral Guide depict that view.  First he showed a house in ruins with a shabby landscape. [below]


Vick Thistles and Roses 1

Then he presented an illustration of that same house cleaned up with an attractive landscape. [below]

Vick thistle and rose2

The idea that by taking care of your own property you are also helping the nation motivated Vick.

Vick wrote, “Our country is becoming very beautiful. Flowers are to be seen almost everywhere in town and country. They adorn both the costly mansion and the little cottage home, and are quite as appropriate to the one as the other. We have tried to do a great deal to aid in this good work, and think we have not labored altogether in vain…Beautiful orchards and lawns, gardens, and tasteful houses abound, where, a few years ago, we saw the crooked rail fence, the trees and stumps and small log cabins.”

Like Downing, Vick advocated taking care of the home landscape to benefit the community.

Civility inspired nineteenth century landscape advice.



Nineteenth Century English Gardenesque Landscape Preserved in Delaware

How I remember my visit one summer to the Rockwood Mansion and its grand landscape in Wilmington, Delaware. I found this garden while I was doing research at the University of Delaware Library.

Rockwood in Wilmington, Delaware

Rockwood in Wilmington, Delaware with its conservatory on the right.

The house [above] was built in the 1850s and its landscape has been preserved. Rockwood provides insight into the style of landscape in the mid-nineteenth century on a property of a wealthy retired banker.

The owner Joseph Shipley who had lived in England for several years loved the English garden. He designed his landscape at Rockwood in the English garden style called gardenesque.

John Claudius Loudon, the eminent English horticulturist, writer, and landscape designer, loved the natural landscape design of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, but also wanted to make sure there was room in the garden for new plants, especially trees and shrubs.

In the early nineteenth century plant hunters searched the world to bring back to England plants that would delight a gardener.  In order to show off these new plants, which became an essential part of the new style of landscape, Loudon proposed a new word for that kind of garden where a natural look would include collections of trees and shrubs.

He called that design ‘gardenesque.’

When Shipley returned to America in the early 1850s, that is the kind of garden design he prefered for his own property.

A brochure about the Rockwood property that I received on my visit said, “The gardens were done in the Gardenesque style, which was a style developed from the 18th century theories of the Sublime, Beautiful and Picturesque…while adding garden ornaments and flower beds to its repertory.”

'Wyncote', watercolor by John McGahey, 1840

‘Wyncote’, watercolor by John McGahey, 1840, illustrates the gardenesque inspiration for Rockwood.

Shipley wanted to design his landscape in Wilmington to resemble his property in England which was called Wyncote.

John McGahey captured Wyncote’s spirit of gardenesque in his 1840 watercolor, simply called ‘Wyncote.’ [above]

Rockwood extends into 382 acres of farm and woodlands. The landscape surrounding the house includes a lawn, groups of tress, flowering shrubs, curved pathways, and, of course, ornamental gardens.

The gardenesque, according to the Rockwood brochure, focuses attention on the individual plants; foreign species were introduced and developed as a major element of the garden.

You can still visit the house and explore its historic landscape.

The nineteenth century English gardenesque landscape is preserved in Delaware.

Rockwood in Delaware

Rockwood in Delaware

The English Taught America Landscape Gardening

I am reading a book about New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) with the title To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening. Many refer to him as America’s most important nineteenth century landscape designer. He inspired even Frederick Law Olmsted.

The author Judith K. Major tries to link Downing’s aesthetic to the English landscape Major, Judith To Live in the New Worldgardeners of the late eighteenth century. She argues that he comes close to Humphry Repton in his writing about the landscape. Downing admired Repton, just as he did the English horticulturist, writer, and landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon.

Such English garden writers inspired Downing’s book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening

Major argues that Repton borrowed from both Andre Le Notre and Lancelot Capability Brown. She quotes Repton in these words, “I do not profess to follow either Le Notre or Brown, but, selecting beauties from the style of each, to adopt so much of the grandeur of the former as may accord with a palace, and so much of the grace of the latter as may call forth the charms of natural landscape.”

Repton tried to combine the elements of both a formal landscape and a natural landscape in his own style of landscape design. Downing in turn sought to position himself in that same English garden tradition.

Downing wrote in 1849 that “modern landscape gardening owes its existence almost entirely to the English.”

The English taught America landscape gardening through the voice of A. J. Downing.

Caladium Grows Well in my Garden of Shade

In mid March I found in the local Job Lots a bag of three caladium bulbs. The variety was called ‘candidum’ which just glows with its green veins on large white leaves.

I knew that the caladium needed a lot of shade. Since shade fills my garden much of the day, I decided to grow it and planted the bulbs in a clay pot. Though it took several weeks, the caladium leaves finally appeared. [below]

Caladium candidum growig in a pot on ledge in my garden

Caladium ‘candidum’ growing in a pot on ledge in my garden

What I did not know is that this plant has long been a part of first the English garden and then the American garden.

James Vick in his 1880 seed catalog called Floral Guide presented an illustration of a flowerbed with rather tall tropical plants, including a caladium. He wrote, “They give us a taste of the luxuriance and glory of tropical foliage, and on lawns where there is sufficient room, nothing will afford greater pleasure. We give an engraving showing one of these beds. It was fourteen feet in diameter.” [below]

Bedding system of gardening as it appeared in Vick's seed catalog in 1880

Bedding system of gardening as it appeared in Vick’s seed catalog in 1880. You can’t miss the large caladium leaves in the middle.


Vick then described the plants in the bed in these words, “The tall plants in the center included three Ricinus, or Castor Oil Plants, the next row nine Canas, about eighteen inches apart; then a circle of nine Caladiums, about thirty inches apart.”

Just a few years later Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan sought to learn more about the caladium. He wrote in the 1884 issue of his magazine Gardeners Monthly , “Having the past Spring come into possession of some Caladium bulbs, the growth of which has since proved a source of great satisfaction, I desire to inquire more about this interesting family of plants.”

The English by that year had already cultivated several varieties of the caladium.

An article in the January 12, 1884 issue of the English garden magazine called Gardener’s Chronicle said, “Among the many varieties of stove plants [needing bottom heat] the Caladium holds an important place. Public admiration is not unduly lavished on it for its beauty, its delicacy, and its graceful and ornamental appearance.”

The article then listed twenty-three varieties of caladium, including ‘candidum’, described in these words: “Candidum, with large bright white leaves, and with finely marked green ribs and borders.”

Never did I suspect that the day I entered that Job Lots store would provide a journey into garden history, but that’s what happened. 

Caladium grows in my garden of shade.

Amaranth, an Old Fashioned Annual, Still Popular

Yesterday in the specialty foods section of a chain store I came across a 16 oz. package of Amaranth Grain, described as “Superfood from the Ancient Cultures of Latin America.”

That reminded me of course of the popular amaranth plant, which for us here in New England is an annual. Right now at the end of the summer the amaranth stands tall with its colorful foliage, adding a special quality to a border of annuals.

The amaranth, though a warm climate plant, enjoys a long history in American gardens.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick in his catalog of 1880 wrote, “The Amaranthus embraces a large class of plants, mainly valuable for their ornamental foliage, the leaves of most varieties being highly colorful, while in some the form as well as the color is desirable.”

He mentions the variety called ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ which is still available at local garden centers.

Prescott Park in Portsmouth, NH now features a new variety called ‘Early Splendor’. The local nursery The Pick of the Planet donated this plant and many other annuals for the front garden border at the main entrance to the Park on Marcy Street. [below]

The border of perennials at Prescott Park in Portsmouth, NH includes the red tipped amaranthus called 'XX'

The border of annuals at Prescott Park in Portsmouth, NH includes the red tipped amaranthus called ‘Early Splendor’ standing tall in the back

Though ‘Early Splendor’ is a new variety of amaranth, it still expresses the characterizes of an amaranth that make it such a beautiful addition to the summer garden.

In his book of 1806 called American Gardener Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon wrote about the tri-color amaranth as an annual in the garden. He gave instructions to transplant annuals in June, including the amaranth. He said, “You may now transplant into the borders and other places where wanted, all the different kinds of annual flowers that succeed in that way…such as amaranthuses of various sorts.”

The amaranth, an old-fashioned annual, still remains popular.



By 1900 the Formal Garden Reappeared

Garden design changes depending on what is important to the culture. Like food and clothing, our gardens also take on an appearance that is in fashion.

During eighteenth century England the picturesque or natural garden took center stage. A garden design that looked most like nature’s work inspired landscape gardeners like Kent, Brown, and Repton from that period.

Things changed by the end of the nineteenth century with a return to the formal garden both in England and America.

One of the leaders in the formal garden movement in America was the architect turned garden designer Charles Platt (1861-1933). Here is a picture of his house in the early 1900s in Cornish, New Hampshire. [below]

The home of Charles Platt in New Hampshire. [House & Garden, April, 1924]

The home of Charles Platt in Cornish, New Hampshire. [House & Garden, April, 1924]

Anne Helmreich in her book The English Garden and National Identity: The Competing Styles of Garden Design, 1870-1914, said “The rise of the formal garden paralleled the development of the landscape architecture profession [in England]. [In America] Charles Platt dedicated his career to gardens laid out in an architectural manner.”

Platt designed in the formal style, even in his own garden. Here is an image of his garden from the magazine House & Garden. [below]

The formal garden of Charles Platt in New Hampshire. [House & Garden, 1924]

The formal garden of Charles Platt in New Hampshire. [House & Garden, 1924]

Platt was at the center of the American movement for a return to the formal garden. Charles Downing Lay wrote in the journal  Landscape Architecture in 1912 “Platt entered architecture through the garden gate.” He first designed gardens and then later the house.

According to the book Edith Wharton and the American Garden, although they are better known for their artistic and literary contributions to American culture, Charles Platt, Maxfield Parrish, and Edith Wharton each played a signficant role in the transformation of the early twentieth-century garden in the United States.

It was the Italian garden that inspired both Platt and Wharton. Platt wrote his book Italian Gardens in 1894. A few years later Wharton wrote Italian Villas and Their Gardens to share her fascination with the Italian garden. Parrish provided the illustrations for her book. [below]

Wharton Italian Gardens book

A similar landscape change was happening in England at the same time. Thus, the formal garden appeared both in England and America by the end of the nineteenth century.

New Plants Shaped the Nineteenth Century English Garden

Eighteenth century England witnessed a garden built on aesthetic theory, especially the picturesque.

In the picturesque view a landscape gardener depicted the landscape in plants, stone, and water much as nature would.  Such a view, if done in taste, could result in a sense of awe in the onlooker. Andre Rogger writes in his book Landscapes of Taste, which is about the late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humphy Repton, “Exercising the rule of taste, was, for Repton, the principal duty of the professional landscape gardener.” 

Horticulturist, landacpe gadenr, and writer John Claudius Loudon

Horticulturist, landscape gardener, and writer John Claudius Loudon

Unfortunately, John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), a disciple of Repton, though he treasured that view of the landscape, developed his own landscape theory, called the gardenesque, centered on the idea that the modern landscape was a place to showcase plants.

Rogger writes, “Loudon’s ‘Gardenesque’ school designs were no longer shaped by aesthetic theories but by the science of horticulture and botany.”

By the early nineteenth century, when Loudon was in his prime, plants were coming into England from around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

The wealthy aristocrat, of course, wanted to display the new plants he had acquired as does anyone who believes that the garden reflects and creates a sense of fashion for a particular time and place. The collecting of plants became the popular gardening style.

Loudon was simply responding to the current interest in botany with its focus on the study of plants. Thus it was no surprise that annuals, many from warmer climates, replaced the earlier use of perennials in the English garden.

New plants shaped the nineteenth century English garden.

Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Taught America How to Garden

During most of the nineteenth century the supply of books and journals were limited to the wealthy, upper class in this country.

Seed and nursery catalogs, however, were sent to everyone who wanted one. Thus the catalog became a coveted piece of literature for the middle class and the laborer as well.

The garden catalog offered its readers not only seeds and plants, but also lessons in horticulture.

In 1885 W. D. Brackenridge wrote an article entitled “Horticultural in the United States during the Last Fifty Years” which appeared in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s garden magazine The Gardener’s Monthly.

He said, “The country has arrived at a high state of progress in horticulture, much of which is due to the writings of the Downings, Wilder, Barry, Meehan and many other noted men, combined with the work of the American Pomological Society; not forgetting the aid afforded by descriptive and illustrated catalogues spread broadcast over the length and breadth of the land by the almost innumerable nurserymen and florists in every section of our diversified and fertile country.”

Here is the cover of the Richard Smith catalog of 1898. [below]

Title: Catalogue of Seeds. Source: Front Cover, Nursery catalogue, Richard Smith & Co. 1898 Description: Front cover of the nursery catalogue of Richard Smith and Co of Worcester, depicting a posy of cut flowers and a garden scene. Date: 1898.

Smith not only sold seeds and plants but also taught his customer how and where to plant them.

Notice the landscape design which appeared much like the English garden and became part of that instruction by its mere presence on the cover. The lawn, fountain, and the flowerbeds reflect the English garden of the late nineteenth century.

Repton’s Red Books Became an Art Form

The English garden tradition of the late eighteenth century owes much to landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818).

Repton presented his clients who sought his advice on designing a landscape with what he called his ‘Red Book’, a collection of several pages of both text and drawings that were intended to guide any improvements on the property. The book included drawings of the house and landscape before and after his proposed design.

According to Andre Rogger, in his book Landscapes of Taste: The Art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books, the Red Book became Repton’s most important contribution to the garden.

Roger Repton 2Rogger writes, “It was through the Red Books, rather than his gardens, that Repton achieved recognition and secured his place in English garden history.”

The Red Books he left his clients remain Repton’s legacy to this day. Over twenty-five years Repton worked on four hundred estates. Yet when you mention his name, the topic of his Red Books immediately comes into the discussion.

Beautiful in both text and drawings, many by Repton himself, the books have taken on a life for themselves.

Repton continued the tradition of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) with a focus on the picturesque landscape, with its emphasis on the English lawn, but added a bit of formality to the landscape as well, especially in his formal terraces and balustrades as well as beautiful flower gardens, like the rosary or rose garden. He illustrated much of that new look of the garden in his drawings in the Red Books.

Thanks to the GardenHistoryGirl blog, I learned that Repton summarized his landscape design approach in his book called Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, published in 1794. The University of Wisconsin digitized the book in full color, making it a real treasure for the garden historian in all of us. Be sure to check it out.

Repton’s Red Books became an art form.

Visit to a NH Public Garden Provides a Surprise

Every year in late August I make an effort to visit Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The gardens are filled with annuals that look terrific by this time of the year, the end of summer.

When I took this photo at 7 am last week [below], I had no idea how it would turn out since I was just snapping as I walked around the garden, which is the way I often take pictures. When I saw the photo later, I was surprised beyond words.  The photo captures the color and majesty of the garden in a kind of mystical way. It was an overcast morning and that provided a misty moment, perfect for the photo.

The garden and foundtain at Prescott Park, with the waterfront in the back

The garden at Prescott Park with waterfront in the back

You can see the dozens of coleus plants, with fuchsia as well, that surround the fountain. The red bricks on the path reflect the rain of the night before. A bit of mist appears on each side, and in the distance benches in front of the Portsmouth waterfront.

You find so many annuals throughout the garden, planted usually in a formal design, yet when you see them in full bloom at the end of the summer, they look like they have always been there, creating so much of Prescott Park’s splendor. This early morning photo captures a glimpse of that feeling.

Now you see why I make the annual trip to Prescott Park.

I am sure you probably have a garden, whether public or private, that you enjoy every summer as well.