Victorian – Picturesque, Neoclassical, ‘Gardenesque’ garden 1837-1901
The Victorian period in America (but corresponding to the reign of Queen Victoria in England), encompasses a rich mixture of architectural styles: Gothic Revival, Italian or Tuscan Villa, Italianate, Eastlake, Romanesque, and Queen Anne Revival (Fig. 18). Peaks, gables, bargeboards and every kind of embellishment typify the period. Houses are elevated through grading and raised basements to create more of an impression, requiring stairs to reach the porch. Foundation plantings, particularly evergreens are not used, and large trees are set away from the structure. House paint is often in three or more colors, to bring out the decorative ruffles and flourishes, usually with darker trim, lighter body. Interiors contain a profusion of detail including many large plants such as ferns and palms. Glass conservatories, and sometimes aviaries, usually adjoining the parlor or dining room, are a must for an upper-class home. Exotic, tropical plants are used potted indoors or set out as annuals. Terrariums, called Wardian cases are popular. All these elements provide a rich, if sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere.
From 1853 to 1930 planned suburban communities are built utilizing the elements characteristic of the Picturesque
Gardenesque - the beginning of Victorian bedding
J.C. Loudon, an English author formulates the Gardenesque style, hastening the demise of the natural landscape and creating a vocabulary for the Victorian garden. This bedding style is first used on terraces surrounding estate homes, but is later used for the entire garden of a middle class home. Loudon believes that all trees and shrubs should be exotic and treated as botanic specimens, and displayed with labels. This is a reaction to the natural look of earlier design, which to his mind is so close to natural that it is simply ‘nature’, and not a work of art. Loudon does allow exotic plants arranged in naturalistic groups, if they are properly labeled.
Victorian garden plan
Victorian gardeners, tired of the simplicity of the Romantic garden style, favor large-leafed plants, carpet bedding, rustic gazebos, conservatories, arboreta, and clipped box hedges. They include a profusion of often over-sized garden elements such as statuary, tiered fountains, amorphously shaped fishponds, ivy-covered walls, arbors, trellises, gazebos, rock gardens, and hanging baskets. These added objects are often of foreign design, such as Oriental stone lanterns, Italian statuary, or a summerhouse in the Chinese style. The invention of the lawn mower in 1860 makes possible the easy maintenance of a sizeable expanse of neat lawn. The diversity of detail of planting beds, including carpet bedding, and accent pieces in an otherwise uniformly open space, makes the lawn the only unifying element.
Victorian gardens are often themed, including the pansy, the fernery, rock garden (which enjoys a revival in the 1930s), literary garden, topiary, rose, Japanese, children's, the fairy garden, and the old fashioned cottage garden (smaller American gardens are often of the last variety, see Colonial Revival garden). A large garden may incorporate a smaller theme garden, separated by plantings to form its own garden ‘room’.
Victorian garden plans after 1860
Informally arranged garden bed shapes evolve to include the teardrop, paisley, diamond, star, or circle. In larger yards these “islands” are built up to create a kind of labyrinth. Trees and shrubs are treated as specimens, and planted singly. The typical quarter acre Midwest front yard garden of the mid-nineteenth century is densely planted with mixed beds of bulbs, annuals, and perennials, has serpentine paths, and is enclosed by a fence.
Carpet and simple bedding design
The small garden plan
For the urban townhouse with a tiny front-yard garden a popular treatment is to keep the center clear or feature an urn planted with a combination of coleus, nasturtiums, caladium, or ivy. This area is grassy or covered in rocks, edged with straight narrow flower borders and enclosed with a decorative iron fence. If a pathway is needed it may curve, slowing down the eye to give the illusion of a larger space.
Flowers for a small garden
Popular borders include variegated ivy, white alyssum, double-curled parsley, golden feverfew, and varieties of dusty miller. Small flowers are favored in the small garden, pansies, and crocuses in the spring, with lobelias and verbenas in summer. Large flowers such as hollyhocks or over bright ones as zinnias or marigolds are thought best used in a large garden.
Focal points in the small garden
Hanging baskets of fuchsias, and petunias or a variety of planters including urns, pots, tubs and wheelbarrows expand the smallest garden space (Fig. 23). Containers are painted, with faux designs, decoupage or decorated with shells or seeds. Urns, which are used as sculpture in the Romantic era, now are simply planters. Popular container plants for a sunny spot are geraniums, phlox, sweet alyssum, portulaca and heliotrope, with begonias for shade. Above all a small city garden should be "dainty and neat" (Leopold, 1995).
Cast iron in the Victorian garden
Color in the Victorian garden
Exterior plantings are rich in texture and color that, to our eyes, may seem garish, with trees and flowerbeds randomly dotting an expanse of lawn. Color specialty gardens are an alternative, limiting the color range to one color, e.g. featuring all white flowers and silvery foliage as in a moonlight garden. Other popular one-color gardens are in yellow, pink, and blue, while gardens with exclusively red flowers, are considered in poor taste.
Flowers - annuals, perennials, aquatic plants
At the mid century, the increasing wealth of the American middle class and their desire for unique outward display drives the introduction of hundreds of new plants including varieties of cannas, clematis, coreopsis, coleus, gladiolas, Japanese lilies (Fig. 25), and pampas grass. In 1842 Robert Fortune, a Scotsman, brings many new
Victorians, however, do not give up their perennial favorites including the rose, pansy, peony (a favorite border perennial), and Dutchman's pipe. Hybridization reaches a peak, with many new cultivars of old favorites such as the rose, lilac, and hollyhock. Favorite bedding annuals are scarlet verbena, zonal geranium, and echeveria (Stuart).
Trees and shrubs
Trees and shrubs, including the new weeping and contorted forms of trees and shrubs and varieties with unusual texture or color are all planted as specimens. Preferred shrubs are lilacs, mock orange, and snowball hydrangea. Trees or shrubs planted in multiples are usually along property lines in mixed hedges.
Red Cedar and American Arborvitae are the two most popular native trees for hedges. Norway Spruce and hemlock are also used, providing dense growth and a tolerance for pruning. Hedges are usually of mixed species including lilacs, sweetbriar rose, Vanhoutte spirea, and Rugosa rose.
Screened porches are to the Victorians what patios are to later eras – a principal outdoor living space, and include a porch swing or other seating. Porch columns support vines, including wisteria (Fig. 26), honeysuckle, morning glory, ivy, clematis, ipomoea, and climbing roses. Vines are a key element of a Victorian garden, surrounding windows, doorways and fences, hiding an unattractive feature or softening the edges of large upright structures, accentuating the height but making no attempt to hide the foundation.
Curved gravel paths, usually five to six feet wide, allow two people to easily walk side by side (ladies are wearing long full skirts).
Midwest Victorian gardens
Minnesota, is recognized as a territory in 1849, opening the way for a wave of immigrants. The new settlers quickly proceed through the steps of rough housing to their first real homes (made easier by sawn planks and manufactured nails). Early gardens may be utilitarian, but access to local nurseries allows for quick development. Wisconsin has a nursery by the 1860s and Minnesota is not far behind with one in Anoka, by 1872. In the first years, this nursery provides a selection of hydrangeas, lilacs, and roses, plums, cherries, grapes, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, and 15 varieties of hardy apples. Settlers also bring seeds with them or order by mail from the many seed houses out East. The front yard on a 1/4 -acre lot during 1840-1850 differs from current gardens mainly in that it is more densely planted and always enclosed by a fence.
A brief description follows of the more common Victorian era building styles in the Midwest during this most eclectic era, with variations in garden design for each style. Also included are a short description of English gardener Gertrude Jekyll, and the contribution she made to the changing fashion in garden design.