The Myth of the Cottage Garden Inspired the Perennial Border in Victorian America

Something about the expression ‘cottage garden’ creates a warm feeling and even a sense of nostalgia among gardeners.

Cottage gardens became popular in both England and America when late nineteenth century writer and horticulturist William Robinson and landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll wrote that cottage gardens provided a sensible way to garden in a small space.  Gardeners, they concluded, could learn from the cottage garden style.

Allison Kyle Leopold in her book The Victorian Garden writes: “Cottage gardens seemed enchantingly simple, their colors soothing rather than stirring, their only structure a hedge, a picket fence, a tumbledown stone wall, along which randomly planted borders of blooms and vines grew in seductive fashion.”

Growing your favorite plants in a small space seemed the essence of the English cottage garden.

But then Leopold wonders whether the cottage garden was not really a myth.

She writes, “Of  course the romantically untidy cottage gardens for which 19th century Americans longed, while popular in England, were little more than a fantasy…Beginning in the 1870s, however, nostalgia for sentimentalized cottage gardens that never really existed helped reintroduce late Victorians to the charms of the herbaceous borders.”

It was, after all, Robinson who complained that planting annuals in carpet beds was a waste of time. Gardeners ought to plant perennials and thus avoid the maintenance of such carpet beds that each year needed to be set in the lawn.

And so after the 1870s once again perennial borders played an important role in the garden first in England and later in America.  Such borders had been popular once as New York seedsman Peter Henderson wrote in his book Gardening for Pleasure, published in 1883, “The old-fashioned mixed borders of four or six feet wide along the walks of the fruit or vegetable garden, were usually planted with hardy herbaceous plants, the tall growing at the back, with the lower growing sorts in the front…But the more modern style of flower borders has quite displaced such collections. and they are now but little seen.”

The cottage garden ideal provided a renewed interest in the perennial border.

Today a garden near the nursery at White Flower Farm in Connecticut provides a wonderful example of an English border of perennials [below]. Notice the variety of plants with the short in the front and the tall in the back.

The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.





Gardeners, Even the Best, Feel Frustrated

The last few days provided time to rake and prune and clean up the garden since it is spring and that’s what we gardeners do at this time.

I even planted dahlia tubers and nasturtium seeds.

The garden demands attention which often turns into periods of work, sometimes long and other times short.

Yet I wonder if we can ever feel satisfied with the garden.

Cornish BookAlma Gilbert and Judith Tankard wrote their book A Place of Beauty about the late nineteenth century houses, artwork, and gardens of the art colony in the town of Cornish, located in northwest New Hampshire.  Many of the gardens were designed in the formal style which was experiencing a renaissance at that time both in England and also here in America.

Landscape designer and writer Rose Standish Nichols (1872-1960) lived in Cornish then and cultivated a garden that often won nothing but praise from visitors.

Nichols, however, felt frustrated in her work as a gardener. She once wrote about her own garden, “To tell the truth, the garden as a whole verges on failure.”  Compared to other gardens and with what she thought were meager results from flowers that needed extra attention like roses and peonies, Nichols revealed a sense of frustration in the digging, staking, and constant weeding which define the role of every gardener.

Yet it was precisely that work in her own garden that made her such a resource as a landscape designer for others.

Gilbert and Tankard write, “No other garden that Rose designed for any of her clients seems to have exuded such charm, peace and contentment.”

We gardeners move forward in gardening because we enjoy the process, along with the little moments of awe and even fun that the garden provides. Those moments we treasure even though at other times we may feel frustration. 

American Garden Magazines Have Long Encourged the Lawn

Garden magazines play an important role in learning about gardening. Unfortunately, if you look at the history of American gardening, it is difficult to pinpoint the number of such journals.

Cornell University Professor of Horticulture L. H. Bailey wrote in 1900 in his three-volume reference book called The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, “It is probably no exaggeration to say that more than 500 horticultural journals have been started in North America. There are more than sixty in continuance at the present moment.”

The nineteenth century garden magazines included advertising for plants, seeds, and, of course, whatever the lawn demanded.

Notice here [below] an ad from an 1888 issue of American Agriculturist, a periodical that covered agriculture, but also devoted several pages to gardening. The products in the ad from the seed firm Peter Henderson and Company, located in New York,  included whatever a homeowner needed for the lawn: grass seed to get that perfect look, a roller to make sure the surface of the soil was flat, fertilizer to feed the new grass, and even a lawn mower.

The ad also featured an illustration of the lawn outside a suburban home.  Whether a property was one acre or one hundred acres, the lawn played an important role in the landscape.

Henderson Seeed Company ad in 1888

Henderson Seed Company ad in 1888

In the ad Henderson also offered the reader his pamphlet called “Everything for the Lawn” in which he provided instructions on installing and maintaining a lawn.

He made the statement at the top of the ad “Everything for the Lawn” to  ensure that the reader knew that his company would supply anything needed for that perfect lawn.

Thus garden publications sold not only products but also the importance of the lawn.

Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Recommended Only a Couple Outdoor Vases

Yesterday I drove by a house with a rather large collection of pots out front. There must have been two dozen plant containers, mostly plastic, outside the front door, on the steps, and along the walkway. The number seemed out of scale for the property.

That scene made me wonder just how many vases or urns should you have out front during the summer.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery companies did not hesitate to tell you how many garden containers were appropriate.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  recommended in his seed catalog Floral Guide in 1873 that on the lawn the home owner ought to place two vases, filled usually with annuals:  “We often see several small vases scattered over the lawn, but the effect is bad. It is best to have one or two that command attention by their size and beauty.”

Thus it is quite clear that any lawn decoration with urns ought to include only one or two of a substantial size and filled with flowers and colorful leaves.

[below] This container of coleus ‘Neptune’s Net’ from last summer stood tall on my lawn for several months.  I wanted to see the effect of using only one plant in a container.

Who knows, perhaps Vick had some influence on my decision.

Coleus xxx

A blue stone vase with Coleus ‘Neptune’s Net’ on my front lawn


In 1856 the English horticulturist Shirley Hibberd in his book  Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste wrote: “Wherever the occasion will admit of large vases of very simple design, a few of such will be preferable to any number of smaller examples, even if the the latter are ornamented in the most costly manner.”

Vick seems to echo the same sentiment in his suggestion, twenty-years later.

Hibberd concludes, “A poverty of ornament is as miserable as an excess is ostentatious.”

The Lawn Takes Center Stage in the English Garden

It is spring time and time to think about the lawn.

Focusing on the lawn at this time means you want the grass to look healthy, so you may sprinkle compost to keep it green. You also want to make sure your lawnmower works so you can keep the grass cut at the height you like.  We certainly have things to worry about with the lawn.

We have the English to thank because we inherited the lawn from them.

When writing about the state of the English garden in the early eighteenth century, Richardson Wright says in his book The Story of Gardening: From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Hanging Gardens of New York, “For all the new vegetables and flowers and shrubs, the greatest glory of all was the English lawn.”

We see the lawn in this 1894 catalog cover from the Barlett and Dow Seed Company in Lowell, Mass. [below].

Notice the rural setting for the house, surrounded by a lawn that covers much of the area around the structure. Beds of flowers and shrubs dot the lawn. A stone wall in front provides a sense of boundary.

But it is the lawn that takes center stage.

In the June 1860  issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote: “If we carefully analyze the distinctions between a beautiful natural scene, and a well-kept garden, the most striking difference is in the lawn.” One year later in 1861, he wrote: “The management and care of the lawn is of first importance. It is to the lawn more than to any other part that we owe the highest pleasures of gardening.”

The lawn continues to be important to the American gardener. A reporter from the Boston Globe interviewed me for a story that appeared yesterday Sunday, May 9 with the title “Is the American Lawn Dying?” Simple answer: not yet.


Seed Catalog from 1894

Seed Catalog from 1894

England Provided the Model for Horticultural Societies in America

The Spring Flower Shows held recently across the country provide gardeners an opportunity to learn the newest trends along with many of the traditions in American gardening.

I enjoy the annual Flower Shows and this year I attended the Show in Chicago, Hartford, and Boston. Many notes and photos from these Shows prove to me that I found something worthwhile at each of them.

Chicago Flower ShowFlower Shows, according to Richardson Wright in his book The Story of Gardening: From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Hanging Gardens of New York, came as a natural consequence of the forming of horticultural societies in America.

The states with the earliest such horticultural societies include New York (1818), Pennsylvania (1827) and Massachusetts (1829).

Mass Hort SocietyHorticultural societies in America, however, reflected a similar group already in operation in England. Wright says in his book, “These organizations had frankly been based on the scheme of the London Horticultural Society, founded in 1804.”

The annual Flower Show provides us with another example of America’s dependence on the English for learning about the garden. 

Showy Plants Filled Outdoor Containers in late Nineteenth Century America

It’s spring and time to consider what you will plant in that container in your landscape.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries encouraged planting such outdoor containers or, as they called, vases or baskets.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) had specific instructions for planting a vase to place outside where everyone could see it.

He advised a tall, showy plant in the center like a yucca, banana, or canna. A shorter plant to fill out the mid section like a verbena or petunia. Finally, a hanging plant like an ivy or coleus to droop down the sides of the container, never, of course, to touch the ground, but hanging low nonetheless.

The image below is from his catalog called Vick’s Floral Guide of 1880. [below]  In it he wrote, “Of all the adornments of the lawn, nothing is more effective than a well filled and well kept vase.” Notice that it sat right on the lawn.

74 Vase-Well-Cared-ForVick described this vase as simply ‘a well-cared for container’ and  bemoaned the fact that sometimes gardeners neglected the container and the plants dried up simply for lack of attention.

He wrote in his catalog of 1874 “Last year we published an article on the proper treatment of Baskets and Vases, showing that many failed simply because the plants were famished, destroyed entirely, or condemned to a miserable struggle for existence simply for want of water.”

Then he reminded his readers that his advice is worth taking in these words: “Our friends who treated the vase, last year, so badly, have also profited by our remarks, and we have a drawing as it appears, September 2d. It certainly speaks for itself.” [below] The words below the vases read, “Vase of 1872″ and “Vase of 1873″, demonstrating that this particular gardener had learned how to care for container plantings since the prior year.

Vick's Floral Guide 1874

Vick’s Floral Guide 1874

Now that it is spring you have to decide not only what plants to put in the outdoor container, but also to schedule your time for maintaining that container.




Writing about the Cottage Garden Appeared in 17th Century England

As garden trendsetters in late nineteenth century England, landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll and garden writer William Robinson opened the door for middle class gardeners to take greater interest in the garden of the cottager.  They recognized the skill it took to garden in a small space.  Both thought gardeners could learn from the cottage gardener.

Before that time there was little written about the cottage garden since from the early eighteenth century the only garden of interest to major writers was that of the aristrocrat who owned acres of land and employed a team of gardeners.

There had however always been an interest in learning about the cottage garden.

An English garden magazine called Cottage Gardener: Pratical Guide in every department of Hoticulture and rural and domestic economy appeared by the mid nineteenth century.  The magazine offered the cottager articles like “Our Village Walks.”

Earlier yet we see that one seventeenth century garden writer did not exclude the cottage garden in his work.

cottage garden

This cottage garden in Delaware shows a small space planted with annuals, perennials, shrubs, and vines.

In his book The Story of Gardening Richardson Wright said, “By 1677 [the English agriculturalist] John Worlidge could write, ‘There is scarce a cottage in most of the southern parts of England but has its proportionable garden, so great a delight do most of men take in it.’ And ever since the cottage garden has been one of the delights of England.”

The joy of the cottage garden was the owner’s ability to garden in a small space. Often the house was close to road, offering a limited area for cultivating plants.

To this day we love the cottage garden perhaps because many of us continue to garden in a limited area and we hunger for inspiration.

Rosa Rugosa Came from China to England then to America

Along the seacoast here in the northeast you will find Rosa Rugosa, that shrub rose with the bright red flowers and round fruit.  It has in fact over many decades found its way along much of the ocean roadside.

British plant explorer Robert Fortune brought it to England from China in 1845.

Soon this rose became popular for American gardeners as well.

Newton, Mass. nurseryman William Kenrick in his 1832 catalog for his nursery plants does not list Rosa Rugosa among the dozens of roses he offered for sale.  Surely Kenrick, whose nursery some referred to at the time as the ‘largest in New England,’ would have offered Rosa Rogosa if by then it had made its way to America.

Rosa rugosa, courtesy of TripAdviser

Rosa rugosa on Cape Cod [courtesy of TripAdvisor]

In the 1885 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included a letter from Rose Terry Cooke. She wrote, “What is there about Rosa rugosa to make it desirable? I paid a dollar for one, on the recommendation of catalogues, and I think any of our wild roses more beautiful than this bristling, single blossomed, coarse-leaved bud.”

By then garden catalogs were selling Rosa Rugosa and gardeners, or at least some, wanted this new rose.

American Gardening magazine wrote in 1897, “And what garden is complete without a Rosa Rugosa? None. A rose garden without a representative is the play of ‘Hamlet’ without the moody Dane.”

That line says it all, don’t you think?  Every garden needed a Rosa Rugosa.

America Introduced Foundation Plantings in Front of the House

The traditional English garden does not include the foundation plantings you see around the front of the house.

That part of the landscape was an American invention in the early twentieth century.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Foundation shrubbery did not come into widespread practice until after the turn of the century.”

Real estate agents and nurserymen thought shrubs provided the best way to cover up the high foundation on which the house stood.  Thus, everybody used shrubs in the front of the house without any question.


The Olmsted firm designed this Oldfields landscape in  Indianapolis

In the early twentieth century the Olmsted firm designed this landscape [above] at Oldfields, located in a small corner of Indianapolis that was a highly exclusive enclave of wealthy estates in the early 1900s. The estate is one of the best surviving examples of a Country Place Era estate in the United States.

You can see the foundation plantings along the wall of the house, which eventually became the home of the Lilly family that owned the international Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company.

What early landscape designers never imagined, of course, was that homeowners would allow foundation plantings to grow without pruning and sometimes even spread up to the second floor of the house.