University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

Grandmother's Garden. May Brawley Hill, 1995. Harry Abrams Publ. 240 pp.

What goes around, comes around, as the saying goes. This was true in the late 1800's, and once again is similarly repeating itself in the late 1900's. Just as people then were yearning for a simpler life, a nostalgic one of the past, during the industrial revolution, so people are now during the technology revolution and the information age. Many of the plants and the gardening styles are similar, giving credence to another saying that nothing is really new, just rediscovered. So a book on the gardening of a hundred years ago is quite relevant today.

Grandmother's garden is really the American cottage garden, an old-fashioned garden of hardy perennials, annuals (many self-sown as with Johnny Jump-ups) and native American plants. Often appearing haphazard, or growing at random, it was actually designed as a painting with an eye to composition using color, shape and texture. It is no wonder then that so many painters, writers, poets and other artists created such gardens. Or, that such gardens inspired them and are seen in their works. This is quite well stated by Frank Waugh in his book The Landscape Beautiful of 1910. "Every botanizing old maid, male or female, knows plant names. Every good nurseryman knows the plants. Only the artist and the genius know how to blend these materials into pictures of abiding beauty."

Gardens, just as music and other works of art, really are a result of and reflection of society, the conditions and lifestyles of the time. In her book, Grandmother's Garden, The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915, the art historian May Brawley Hill uses her knowledge of art to describe and illustrate the period of great gardening changes in America between the Civil War and First World War. This book is a wonderful insight into the American writers and impressionist painters of the period, and the subsequent Arts and Crafts movement. But unlike other art books on this period, the author uses her knowledge as an avid gardener to describe the landscaping and plants reflected in these artists' works.

Early black and white photographs are shown of the various artists and their gardens, and painters' works are reproduced in color to illustrate their garden works. The landscapes and plants are described as well as how the artists composed their paintings and what they attempted to illustrate. Painters include those such as Childe Hassam, especially known for his paintings of Celia Thaxter's garden on the Isles of Shoales; and John Leslie Breck, who was the first of the American artists to gain access to and paint Monet's Giverny gardens. Just as Monet planted his famous garden to paint it, so did many American impressionist painters.

The author begins with insights into why these gardens came about, and why they were mainly the works of single women. With the unrest of the Civil War, people were yearning for a more stable time, the Federal period of the past, and hence use of the native plants used in this period. Women writers were also beginning to encourage women to garden, as a relief from their constrained lifestyles, and outlet for physical activity and creativity. For them, the garden was an escape from their confining everyday life, as well as connection to a nostalgic past.

Nurseries, seed and plant catalogs, and plant imports and explorations-- a reflection of the increasing ease of transportation of this period-- introduced many new plants to gardens of this period. These include many from warmer climates, like many of our present day bedding plants. Sunflowers were popular then, as they have become once again. Tropical plants, especially those with bold foliage, were introduced into the more formal Victorian gardens--another trend rediscovered in today's garden trends. Perennials commonly found were roses, peonies, phlox and hollyhocks.

These American old-fashioned gardens differed from gardens abroad, such as the English gardens, in being the work of one person (and as we've seen that person usually a woman) instead of a team of gardeners, usually men. They were often rectangular beds, bordered by planks, stones, or low-growing plants, compared to the English borders. These old-fashioned gardens were also different from the more formally designed estate gardens of the period, the formal Victorian gardens, or the functional gardens of working farms. The old-fashioned garden incorporated vegetables and fruits for aesthetics and show, rather than just for food as in the working and prior colonial gardens. Unlike the larger estate gardens and those of England, separate from the living quarters and entities unto themselves, the old-fashioned gardens were close to the house. They were often used as intimate living spaces, an outdoor room, much as today's home gardens.

Most of our garden traditions of today and trends originated during the period of Grandmother's Garden from 1865-1915. While we often hear of the influence of English gardens and horticulture literature of that period on such American gardens, many of these concepts were actually written about prior to these books and ideas being known in America. They arose simultaneously, and independently, and so are a true reflection of our own gardening heritage. This heritage differed between the North, the mid Atlantic and South, the Frontier and the Pacific Coast-- differences further illustrated in the book Grandmother's Garden.

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