University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring, Summer News Article

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

What goes around, comes around, as the saying goes. What was true in the late 1800s is repeating itself in the beginning of this new century. Just as people then were yearning for a simpler life--nostalgia for the past as they faced the new industrial revolution--so are people looking for a simpler time during this technology revolution and information age.

Many of the plants and the gardening styles today are similar to those of a century ago, giving credence to another saying that nothing is really new, just rediscovered. I'm referring to a gardening trend that is known as Grandmother's Garden.

It is really the American cottage garden, an old-fashioned garden of hardy perennials, annuals (many self-sown like Johnny Jump-ups), and native American plants. Often appearing haphazard or growing at random, this garden 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 these gardens inspired them and are seen in their works. This is well stated by Frank Waugh in his 1910 book, The Landscape Beautiful. He notes that "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 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 World War I.

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.

The book contains many early black and white photographs of the various artists and their gardens. 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 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 and to paint Monet's Giverny gardens. Just as Monet planted his famous garden to paint it, so have many American impressionist painters done the same.

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, used the native plants of this period.

Interestingly, women writers also were beginning to encourage women to garden as a relief from their constrained lifestyles, and as an 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 species from warmer climates, including 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 gardens. Roses, peonies, phlox, and hollyhocks were among the perennials commonly planted.

These American old-fashioned gardens differed from gardens abroad, such as the English gardens, in that they were most often the work of one 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 also were 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, which were separate from the living quarters and entities unto themselves, the old-fashioned gardens were located close to the house. They often were used as intimate living spaces or an outdoor room, much as we see in today's home gardens.

Most of our garden traditions and trends today originated during the period of Grandmother's Garden (1865-1915). While we often hear of the influence of English gardens and horticulture literature of that period on American gardens, many of these concepts actually were 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 among the North, the mid Atlantic, South, the Frontier, and the Pacific Coast, differences further illustrated in the book Grandmother's Garden.

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