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Recreate Your Grandmother’s Garden

Old-fashioned gardens were sprawling collections of flowers, vines, and herbs that grew large and in abundance. Imagine such a welcoming space in your own garden.

| Winter 2012/2013

  • "The old-fashioned garden! What a host of memories come sweeping back. Who of us does not instantly see the dear old place where we joyfully tripped after our grandmother as she pottered about ... What a riot of color wherever we looked." —Northrup King Catalog, 1915
    Illustration courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Library
  • Early in the 20th century, nursery and seed catalogs often included collections of plants for those who had lost the plants of grandmothers' gardens.
    Illustration courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Library
  • "What roomy, grand old gardens were those of our grandmothers, and what beautiful things grew in them." —Ladies Floral Cabinet Magazine, 1884
    Illustration courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Library
  • Floriferous, fragrant, and loosely arranged rather than in a set design, old time gardens of perennials and annuals were similar to the English cottage garden. The plants were chosen for durability and sentiment and often obtained by swapping with friends.
    Illustration courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Library

It may surprise us to know as we race through the 21st century that folks way back in the Victorian era were longing for a simpler time. They, too, felt the rush of technology. For them it was the train and telegraph, a bit later the telephone and automobile that threatened to destroy the quiet of their rural and small-town lives. As well, they were reacting to the stiff styles of carpet bedding and ribbon bedding, with annuals all lined up in a row or laid out in geometric patterns.

We first hear these refrains in the 1880s, and they are repeated for decades.  As late as 1939, magazines and catalogs were lamenting the fast pace and calling for old-fashioned, or grandmother’s gardens. And what did they mean by “old-fashioned” or “grandmother’s” gardens?

As one early writer noted, the term “old-fashioned garden” was an elastic one, but was characterized by a large variety of plants blooming at different seasons and in such abundance that no one was afraid to pluck them. Floriferous, fragrant, loosely arranged, rather than in a set design, these gardens of perennials and annuals were similar to the English cottage garden. The plants were chosen for durability and sentiment and often obtained by swapping with friends. Pioneer gentlewomen, who had much work to do, wanted plants which rewarded a maximum amount of flowers with a minimum amount of care. All agreed that profusion and informality were hallmarks.       

In one catalog, Peter Henderson painted this charming picture:

"It is June and there is an abundance of roses; sweet brier, too, and moss roses. Pansies lift their bright faces from borders of sweet alyssum, dusty miller, marvel-of-Peru, coleus, forget-me-nots, and mignonette. Iris, lemon lilies and ribbon grasses nod in the soft breezes. Peonies, red, white and pink sway gracefully above their rich green leaves.

A little later the garden lilies, amaryllis, tuberoses, and other sweet-smelling things, hollyhocks, foxgloves, sweet peas, gladiolus, lady slippers and gay poppies will make the garden a riot of beauty.



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