Home Grounds Blog

     What goes around, comes around, as the saying goes. What was true in the late 1800's 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. This gardening style and accompanying plant palette is a trend often known as "Grandmother's Garden."
 Grandmothers garden 2.jpg
      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. Although native plants are increasing in popularity now for reasons such as helping pollinators, a century ago they often were more readily available than new introductions.
     In addition to native 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. These include such as the canna and castor bean, large elephant ears and smaller but similarly shaped caladiums. These days we see lots of ornamental grasses used in gardens, such as the fountain grass, just as they used then. Roses, phlox, and hollyhocks were among the perennials commonly planted and are still popular now.
     Often appearing haphazard or growing at random, grandmother's 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. These gardens inspired them and often 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."
     If you'd like to create such a garden, to be an "artist" or "genius", landscape architect Thomas Rainer notes that three design principles should be employed. Cottage gardens were overflowing with massed plants; individual plant types aren't as important as sheer volume. You shouldn't be able to see soil or mulch, and don't use groundcovers.
     Secondly, many "filler" plants were used. These perform as their name indicates, to fill in around other plants. Examples of fillers might be the spreading perennial geraniums or masses of low ornamental grasses.
     Thirdly, cottage gardens had a mix of flower types for variety. You'll want to use upright spikes such as hollyhocks or foxgloves or false indigo, along with button shapes such as bee balm, daisies such as cone flowers, clusters such as tall garden phlox, and plumes such as astilbe or goatsbeard.
     These American old-fashioned gardens of yesteryear 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. 
Grandmothers garden 1.jpg            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 often incorporated vegetables and fruits for aesthetics and show, rather than just for food as in the working and prior colonial gardens. Such "multi-functional" gardens are once again popular, and a component of permaculture.
     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.
     Gardens, just as music and other works of art, really are a result and reflection of society, the conditions, and lifestyles of the time. For more on this period of gardening, generally between the Civil War and World War I, consult your library or used book sellers for Grandmother's Garden, The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915, by art historian May Brawley Hill. Information for this article was obtained from Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont.



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