An explosion of interest in gardens occurred during the Victorian age. This period was celebrated for its progress, invention, new ideas, and discoveries.
In Regency times, Humphry Repton had established the flower garden around the house. His style of gardens often contained rustic elements of grottos and ruins for pictorial effect, called the Picturesque style landscape. John C. Loudon developed the Gardenesque style and advocated the use of ornamental shrubberies, bedding plants, exotics, and a formal design that made each garden a work of art. But these gardens were limited to the wealthy.
By the Victorian period, the industrial revolution was at its height. The middle classes had more leisure time. Improved roads and transportation made it possible for wealthy middle classes to build villas on the outskirts of town where the air was cleaner. Seeking to display their wealth, they created showy gardens rather than landscapes that would harmonize with their location. Better printing systems allowed the spread of horticultural knowledge and inspiration. Edwin Budding’s lawnmower meant people were able to manage manicured lawns. The Allotment Act in 1887 made space for growing plants available to city dwellers at a reasonable rent.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 demonstrated the continued enthusiasm for new technologies and designs. Joseph Paxton created the Crystal Palace, for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria. Paxton also designed the new conservatory at Chatsworth and later sold small greenhouses to amateur gardeners, which, among his other business interests, made him a millionaire. By the late Victorian era, heated conservatories displayed rare exotic plants. The middle Victorian garden style was eclectic, varying from Chinese to Italianate. By the late period, fantasy-themed gardens were popular, as were those celebrating the British empire. The garden gnome made its debut along with other garden ornaments. Japanese influence increased the demand for acers, flowering cherries, peonies and chrysanthemums. The garden became a place for family pursuits, such as tennis and croquet.
The Victorian period was the golden era of plant collection. British archeologists were risking their lives to bring back artifacts from all over the globe, and botanical adventurers were returning with plants from around the world. Brothers William and Thomas Lobb were among the Victorian plant hunters. William recovered plants form North and South America while Thomas traveled to Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. George Forrest traveled to China, Tibet, and Burma and was responsible for introducing about 600 species of plants including rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, Himalayan poppies, and primulas. Joseph Hooker brought more species of rhododendrons from Himalaya. Robert Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese peasant and smuggled out cuttings of the tea plant from China into India, which enabled India and Ceylon to become established as major growers and exporters of tea. He also introduced 120 species of plants from China and Japan.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, ornamental plants popular during Victorian times included: Monkey puzzle, many species of fern, Mexican orange, Rose box, helix ivy, bamboo, slender vervain, silver ragwort, blue marguerite, fuchsia, heliotrope, trailing lobelia, pelargoniums, gentian sage, hornbeam hedge, katsura tree, edelweiss, Scots pine, Japanese snowball, araranthus, calendula, cornflower, satin flower, cosmos, California poppy, Gilia, sunflower, Virginia stock, baby blue eyes, Californian bluebell, phlox, and nasturtium. Vegetables included: broad bean, cabbage, cardoon, carrot, French bean, leeks, lettuce, onion, parsley, peas, radish, salsify, sea kale, and turnips. I was amazed to see North American plants like California poppies and bluebells, yucca, and others I think of as only grown in the Southwestern United States , Central and South America.
According to Cheryl Hurd, Victorian gardening was comprised of eight elements. 1. A front and rear lawn were imperative for a formal garden. Cottage gardens were more informal and smaller. 2. Trees were used to shade important parts of the house and to line the drive or approach to the house. Ornamental trees were popular. 3. Shrubs were used mainly for delineating property lines or marking paths. They might also hide unsightly areas or frame doorways. It was popular to mix shrubs. 4. Most properties were fenced. The more elaborate the home, the more elaborate the fence and gate. 5. Ornaments such as urns, sculpture, fountains, sundials, gazing balls, birdbaths and man-made fish ponds were all used. 6. Seating benches, seats, pavillions and gazebos were as decorative as possible. Rattan and wicker furniture was used on porches and in sun rooms. 7. Carpet bedding, the use of same height flora, was popular until Gertude Jekyll became popular. She believed each flower and plant should be grown for its intrinsic beauty and a border called for plants of varying height—lowest at front. Roses were extremely popular. 8. Vines of all types were used.
Those interested in specific gardens and influential designers of the era should read about Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson [author of The English Flower Garden], Sir Joseph Paxton, William Andrew Nesfield, and John Claudius Loudon.
"Victorian Gardening," by Cheryl Hurd, The Victorian Era Online, http://www.victoriana.com/
"Garden Highlights," The Royal Horticultural Society, 2006, www.rhs.org.uk/gardens
"A History of British Gardening," BBC Gardening, www.bbc.co.uk
Gertrude Jekyll's Lost Garden, Rosamund Wallinger, printed in England by the Antique Collectors' Club Ltd. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Garden Art Press, 2000.