Gardening Basics

The Victorian Garden and its Influence in America

By Nina Koziol

What do carpet beds, moon gardens, cottage gardens, specimen trees, snowball bushes and fragrant peonies have in common? They are all part of the tapestry that made up the Victorian-era garden in America. This article provides a brief history of the key ideas that dominated that period and of their continued impact on the garden designs of today.

The Golden Age of Horticulture

Hi, my name is Nina Koziol. I love to collect old gardening books, seed catalogs, garden-themed post cards and photographs, particularly those that date from 1870 to 1900. They provide a fascinating glimpse at the flowers, vegetables and garden design ideas of that era, many of which are still relevant today. This period is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Horticulture. It was a time when plant explorers introduced new and exotic annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vines into the marketplace. Hybridizers began creating new plants that offered larger flowers and double blossoms, as well as unusual bi-colored flowers.

The Introduction of the Lawnmower

In 1870, the lawnmower was introduced to the American market. Frank Scott published “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds,” which contained garden designs that homeowners could adopt. The black-and-white drawings showed various houses and grounds sprinkled with trees, shrubs and planting beds. There were a series of dotted lines — sight lines — from the “windows” across a wide expanse of lawn. Scott focused on something that is often overlooked today — the importance of sight lines from the windows in our houses into our gardens. The view you see from inside your home is just as important as how your landscape looks to a passersby. Scott liked the idea of looking out windows into the front and side yards and seeing a nicely mown lawn dotted with unusual flowering trees and shrubs, evergreens, and in some designs, a sweeping curved bed of perennials.

Carpet Beds

The lawnmower created a carpet of green upon which wealthy homeowners could create carpet beds—flower beds filled with hundreds and sometimes thousands of annuals in very elaborate designs. The designs ranged from fleur-de-lis and stars to floral “clocks,” ribbons, geometric patterns, and even names spelled out with flowers. Some municipal park districts and Disney’s Epcot Theme Park at Orlando, Florida, still use elaborate carpet bedding schemes in their landscapes.

Among the many popular flowers used in Victorian carpet beds were marigolds, celosia, silvery leaved dusty miller, asters, poppies, ageratum, pansies and geraniums. Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus) and fountain grass (Pennisetum) — two grasses available today, began appearing in catalogs and magazines in the 1890’s along with Rugosa roses, hostas and canna lilies.

Scott recommended placing fragrant shrubs like viburnum, lilac and flowering almond around the foundation of houses. Up until the Civil War, most homeowners had very little foundation planting. That’s because physicians thought that placing plants too close to the house would create damp, unhealthy conditions that would lead to consumption (tuberculosis). That thinking changed as the economy grew and big houses were built with tall stone foundations. In fact, fragrant shrubs were thought to soften the stonework and allow the fragrance to drift indoors on warm summer days.

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