The Victorian Garden Appeared both in England and America

English garden historian Brent Elliott refers to gardening in nineteenth-century England simply as Victorian.

In his book Victorian Gardens he lists the major trends in the English garden during that period, many of which were often mentioned in nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs as well.


Elliott Victorian Gardens coverElliott’s book traces the following Victorian garden trends that appeared in England during the nineteenth century:

  • Natural landscape design
  • Lawn
  • Rock garden
  • Gravel parterres
  • Spring bedding
  • Dwarfed trees as bedding plants
  • Dutch topiary
  • Mixed border
  • Carpet bedding
  • Wild garden
  • Continual transplanting for constant color in the garden
  • Color in drifts
  • Sweet peas as the dominant vertical flower
  • Arts and crafts style, including rustic bridges, arbors, and pergolas

In 1860 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “To those anxious to know the rapid progress horticulture is making on the American continent, the catalogues of the nurserymen are very instructive.”

Thus in their catalogs the owners of the seed companies and nurseries instructed the American gardener in the garden trends mentioned by Elliott from natural landscape design to the need for arbors and pergolas.  America embraced the Victorian garden in all its style and fashion.




Paxton Built a Rock Garden at Chatsworth in 1842 – the Latest Victorian Fashion

During the early Victorian period in England rock gardens became popular. A rock garden included plants suitable for that low water environment, often alpine plants.  It also became an opportunity to showcase plants collected from abroad.

Caroline Ikin in her new book The Victorian Garden writes, “The new alpine plants being stocked by nurseries inspired enthusiasts to create their own rock gardens, some imitating mountain scenery and incorporating scaled-down versions of the Alps or the Khyber Pass.”

chatsworth rockery 1842

The Chatsworth rockery today

Rock gardens sometimes  of a substantial size  appeared in the garden.  At Chatsworth in 1842 the Head Gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) laid out a rock garden with huge boulders. The Chatsworth rock garden became a statement also about its owners.

When I visited Chatsworth and took this picture [above], what struck was the scale of the rock garden. The stones rising up the hill seemed enormous in size. I wondered what marvels of  men and machinery made it possible to install this kind of garden in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the same time here among American gardeners an interest in rock  gardens also flourished. Rochester, New York  seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included an illustration of the popular rock garden in his garden magazine of 1879. [below].

Vick't Illustrated Monthly, 1879

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879


As the century came to an end more realistic rock gardens of a smaller scale became common.  Ikin writes, “Rock gardens became flatter and replicated more closely the native moraine habitat from which alpine plants were collected.”

The rock garden at Chatsworth illustrates how garden fashion influenced the nineteenth century English garden.

Vick recognized that and wrote in his Illustrated Monthly of February 1879, “The English people, I noticed, have a great predilection for rockeries and garden houses, and considerable taste and ingenuity is sometimes displayed in their adornment.”

How to Plant Trees for a Natural Landscape

English landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) designed landscapes around the turn of the eighteenth century. Since he was considered one who followed the landscape gardening style of Lancelot Capability Brown, he was familiar with and promoted the natural landscape.

He found that the use of trees if planted correctly could result in a more natural landscape .

In his book The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803)  he wrote: “No groups [of trees] will appear natural unless two or more trees are planted very near each other, whilst the perfection of a group consists in the combination of trees of different age, size, and character.”

Trees in an artificial scene

A. Trees in an artificial scenery

He then gave an example in a drawing of  what he called the ‘artificial scenery’ [above].

Then he presented a second drawing in which the trees are different sizes and shapes.  He calls that drawing ‘natural scenery’ [below].

He wrote “In the same drawing I have supposed the same trees grown to  a considerable size, but from their equi-distance the stems are all parallel to each other, not like the group [in the other illustration] where being planted much nearer, the trees naturally recede from each other.’

Thus he proposed the value of the natural look in the landscape, simply by the way the landscape gardener planted the trees.

He concluded with this remark: “It may be observed that the single tree, and every part of the first sketch, is evidently artificial, and that the second one is natural, and like the groups in a  forest.”

His remarks indicate that the natural landscape, or picturesque, demands planning and execution much like the intricate geometric style of garden design only for a quite different result.  The goal in the natural landscape is to replicate the look of a forest or woods in the landscape.

Trees in a natural setting

B. Trees in a natural setting



Did You Know the Seed Packet Originated with the Shakers?

When you buy seeds in that familiar packet, that paper envelope might just seem an ordinary part of any gardener’s life.

The seed packet however has a history.

At one time Shaker communities needed to sell seeds to survive. That became their first business that continued for a good part of the nineteenth century.  They invented the packet as a way to market their garden seeds.

By 1790 the Shakers who lived in New Lebanon, New York started a seed business, selling in bulk to local farmers.

The inspiration for packaging the seeds would forever be attributed to this New York community of Shakers.

Shaker book coverM. Stephen Miller writes in his new book From Shaker Lands, and Shaker Hands, “Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the New Lebanon Shakers did something that forever changed the way seeds were sold. Although the details are again rather sketchy, it is certain that the community began to package seeds in, initially, small paper envelopes for retail sale.”

The Shakers there conducted a business of selling seeds for nearly a century.

In the nineteenth century as commercial seed companies developed, first on the East coast, each of them used the same packet idea as the marketing tool for their seeds.

The Shakers also published a catalog or broadsheet that listed the seeds for sale.

Miller writes: “The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the phenomenal and interrelated growth of the advertising and printing industries, and the Shakers were very much a part of this.”

The Shakers also constructed special boxes to display the seeds in general stores.  They used advertising including chromolithographs in striking colors to sell their seeds.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, due to many reasons including a decline in Shaker membership and the growth of the commercial seed business, the Shaker seed business lost some of its steam.

Selling seeds was among the first of the businesses in which Shakers invested time and energy.  To them we owe the invention of the seed packet, now so familiar to American gardeners everywhere.


Late Nineteenth Century American Garden Writer Treasured the English Garden Tradition

Rochester, New York nurseryman George Ellwanger (1848-1906) wrote a book in 1887 called The Garden’s Story.

In the book he  recognized that he was a gardener in a long line of gardeners, including the English gardeners who first encouraged the natural landscape design style early in the eighteenth century.

He credited three gardeners, two English and the other American, long gone but an important influence on his own gardening. He mentioned the English poet and gardener Alexander Pope, English gardener and historian Horace Walpole, and America’s landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) English art historian, writer, and gardenist

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, Ragley Hall, 1756

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was an English art historian, writer, but also a gardener.

Ellwanger wrote: “Pope was a gardener, of course. That he was passionately fond of gardening can not be doubted in view of his statement, as given by Walpole, that of all his works he was most proud of his garden. He was a landscape-gardener rather than a floriculturist, however, painting with trees instead of flowers; and when we look over the great field of those artists whose canvas was Nature herself, where shall we find one who possessed the flowing, natural touch of Downing?”

Ellwanger recognized the importance of these two early English garden writers, who later inspired the American nurseryman and landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Isabel Wakelin Urban Chase in her book Horace Walpole: The Gardenist credits Walpole with defining the new taste in gardening based on the principles of “picturesque beauty’. She writes: “Walpole has been regarded as the best contemporary historian of the changes in gardening which took place in the mid-eighteenth century.”

By the end of the nineteenth century Ellwanger recognized the contribution that Walpole had made to gardening by then expressed in landscape gardening in America. That design relied on the romantic English garden style, so loved by Downing.


Victorian Garden Style Still Popular Today

When I visited Pittsburgh  for the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium a couple of weeks ago, I saw several gardens.

The garden at the Newington Estate, one of the oldest homes in a town twelve miles west of Pittsburgh called Sewickley, was one of my favorites.

This garden dates back to the nineteenth century when the Victorian garden was in style here in America. The garden got me thinking about what after all makes a garden ‘Victorian.’

The book by Katherine Knight Rusk Renovating the Victorian House helped a bit. She includes a section on installing a Victorian garden.

For the landscape design she recommends that you consult Andrew Jackson Downing’s book Cottage Residences (1842) where you will find several black and white drawings of detailed plans for a garden.

Newington Garden in Pittsburgh

Newington Garden in Pittsburgh, including fuchsia in containers

You can easily find old varieties of plants for such a Victorian landscape at many nurseries today.

It is amazing that gardens today often include several of the plants she recommends.

For flowers she favors Canterbury bells, dahlia, fuchsia [see them above in containers] geranium, lily of the valley, marigold, nasturtium, rose, salvia, and tulip, to name just a few.

The trees she lists include dogwood, magnolia, and weeping willow.

Some shrubs in the plant list are boxwood, holly, lilac, and rose of sharon.

The vines she recommends include clematis, English ivy, and wisteria.

I am sure you grow may of these plants already in your garden. I know that I do.

The Victorian garden style is still popular today, at least by choice of plants American gardeners use.


Gravel instead of Grass for a Front Lawn

We know the lawn has long been an important part of the home landscape.

Therese O’Malley says in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design: “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was an essential element of the American designed landscape.”

Homeowners  today address the issue of the lawn in different ways. In parts of the country where water is at a premium that might mean decreasing or even eliminating the lawn.

The Lou Weiss household in Pittsburgh took an unusual step by eliminating the front lawn completely and replacing it with gravel (below).

Gravel lawn in Pittsburgh

Front gravel lawn at the Weiss house in Pittsburgh

I visited their house a couple of weeks ago on my trip to Pittsburgh for the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium.

Instead of grass, Weiss has covered the area in gravel. The gravel allows rainwater to percolate through channels leading to a rock cistern. Water from the cistern and the roof is recycled for use in the home and the vegetable garden out back.

When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it.

The Weisses kindly invited us into the house. The beautiful design of the landscape complements the features of this modern white house. It is no surprise that the house and landscape have both received a lot of press over the years, often in architecture magazines.

I must say, though, that the front lawn really took me by surprise. It seems an extreme way to deal with the landscape, but there is something that I like about. Maybe it’s the white color of the house that complements the gravel so well.

Though most American gardeners probably cannot take the step that the Weiss family did, the gravel lies there in the midst of a long tradition of the lawn which is the heart of the English garden. The seed and nursery industries of the nineteenth century often encouraged the lawn in their catalogs.

Philadelphia nurseyman Thomas Meehan wrote so matter of factly in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1882: “The garden is made up in the main of trees and shrubs, lawn and flower-beds.”


Victorian Glass Houses Inspired Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh to attend the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium one of the highlights for me had to be our trip to the Phipps Conservatory, the steel and glass structure which was built in 1892.

Phipps XXX

The main entrance to the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

It was then that industrialist Henry Phipps gave the Conservatory to the city of Pittsburgh as “a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.”

The glass structure reflects the nineteenth century Victorian era with its love of greenhouses with showy plants. The English plantsman Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) built his glass structure in 1851 in London for the Great Exhibition and called it the Crystal Palace.  That began the popular movement to include a glasshouse or conservatory for the home gardener as well.

The decades following Paxton’s structure saw greenhouses appear, big and small, both in England and in America.  It was from that tradition Lord and Burnham built this grand Pittsburg structure.  On the wall of the center area of the Phipps Conservatory you can still see the original plague [below] with their names as the builders.

This plague on the wall of the conservatory

A plague on the wall of the Phipps Conservatory

The structure includes a center area with two arms that house various plant collections. Each year the Phipps offers four seasonal flower shows.


Inside the Phipps

The Palm Room inside the Phipps Conservatory

The left and right sides of the original center area have their own particular plant collection and design.

The XXX interior of the Glasshouse

The interior of the Broderie Room in the Glasshouse

On the west side the Broderie Room, modeled after the French knotted garden, is a delicate scene of carefully clipped boxwood shrubs surrounding beds of colorful flowers. On my visit the garden itself was off limits to visitors. All we could do was simply admire from the top landing the detail and, of course, the hard work of the gardeners in maintaining this beautiful setting.

Today the Broderie Room serves as a popular wedding venue where the couple  can exchange vows within the garden itself.

The visit to Phipps was the highlight of my time in Pittsburgh.  I only wish more people could see this building, a lesson in American garden history.


When Plants Just Die

As gardeners we know that sometimes plants just die on us.  Did you ever wonder why?

I remember three plants in particular where that happened to me.

A yellow shrub called Kerria japonica ‘picta’ sat in the center of my yellow garden for fifteen years. Each spring tiny yellow flowers appeared. Than one spring as other plants were starting to put on their show of color this shrub just died.

Over ten years ago I bought a small black pastic container of Zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’, from Hampton, NH’s Fuller Gardens’ plant sale. Last fall I decided to divide it because it was overtaking other plants.  I left sections of it in the same spot and just cut away some of the plant here and there to allow more space. This year not one sign of this grass appeared.  It was gone.

A short Viburnum called ‘Bailey compact’ [below] also failed in my garden after many years. One spring all the branches were simply dried up and I had to dig it up and replace the plant.

Viburnum Bailey

Viburnum ‘Bailey compact’ in my garden before I dug it up.

Why does a plant just die?

Rochester plantsman George H. Ellwanger wrote his book The Garden’s Story in 1887. In the book he said, “Apart from climatic influences the failure of certain plants is often puzzling.”

Ellwanger wondered, just like you and me, how plants sometimes just die.

No Nineteenth Century Home Landscape without a Lawn

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