Making Garden History Come Alive

Mickey Cabot Bradley Estate.jpg

By Thomas Mickey

Every garden story includes a bit of history. For some gardens the link to the past is just more evident than others. As you write about a garden why not make the history connection more explicit?

When you dig into history and write about a garden, you enter a world of endless ideas, with many resources to help you along the way. You could write about the history of a plant, an old garden book, and even a place.

For example, when you write about dahlias, why not mention when they first became popular garden plants?Mickey Dahlia Chromolithograph.jpgThis happened in the mid-1880’s, although they had been in America since the early part of the nineteenth century. The dahlia went through an up and down period when it was in and out of fashion because people considered it garish and too showy.

mickey-bishop-of-llandaffA century later in the early 1990’s England’s Great Dixter Garden with Christopher Lloyd at the helm re-introduced the dahlia to the gardening world. He let everyone know that he loved the classic dahlia called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ with its little red flower and purple leaves. This dahlia first entered the garden scene in the 1920’s. With Lloyd’s recommendation, the dahlia took off again and became an even more popular garden favorite today.

Where do you find out about these historical connections in gardening? Reading old garden books is one way. You might also look at histories of the garden. Because the English garden has long served as a model for the American garden, you’ll often find American garden writers recognizing our debt to the English for teaching us about gardening and garden design.

One such writer was Wilhelm Miller, a Chicago landscape architect in the early 1900’s. He wrote books and articles along with many entries in The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, the classic garden resource published in 1901. Miller later wrote a popular book called What England Can Teach Us About Gardening. To further emphasize this connection the book’s original cover included an image of a romantic English garden. mickey-what-england-can-teach-us-about-gardening He also wrote an article with the title “English Effects with Hardy Plants” which appeared in The Garden Magazine in September 1909. In the article Miller said,

“The English have a deeper passion than we for ‘collecting.’ Everywhere you find someone who grows fifty or more varieties of his favorite flower, e.g. German or Japanese iris, or peony, or the florists’ penstemon. One English catalogue contains 346 varieties of phlox, 224 of border carnations, 180 chrysanthemums, etc. – fully three times as many as you can get in America.”

Garden writers can also chronicle the history of a place. Take for example Edith Wharton’s garden at The Mount, her country house in Lenox, Massachusetts, built around 1900. Wharton used her garden as a showcase for the Italian design that she loved. Her own landscape design book Italian Villas and their Gardens (1904) mickey-italian-villas-and-their-gardensput her in the forefront of the new interest in Italian garden design in that period.

Mickey Edith Wharton Home.jpgToday at The Mount her garden has been restored to its early glory, including the fountain with its flowerbeds. These gardens were part of a GWA Region I meeting earlier this year.

So instead of just writing about the newest dahlia – which is hard to do since there are hundreds of dahlias on the market – you might focus on dahlias as garden fashion, first in England and then in America.

You will also find that certain garden writers take as their theme the history of the garden. One of my favorite English writers is David Stuart. Over many years he has written several books about the history of plants and gardening.

Whether you write about a plant, a garden book, or a place, try finding a link to its history. To incorporate parts of garden history into your writing. All of this requires some research but that could be fun. You learn so much along the way.


Meet the Author

Tom Mickey.jpgThomas Mickey, a GWA member for twenty years, gardens on the New Hampshire seacoast. He is a retired Professor of Communication Studies at Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Mass.


Author: GardenComm

GardenComm, formerly known as GWA: the Association for Garden Communicators, provides leadership and opportunities for education, recognition, career development and a forum for diverse interactions for professionals in the field of gardening communication. GardenComm members includes book authors, bloggers, staff editors, syndicated columnists, free-lance writers, photographers, speakers, landscape designers, television and radio personalities, consultants, publishers, extension service agents and more. No other organization in the industry has as much contact with the buying public as GardenComm members.

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