Overgrown, “Old-fashioned” Gardens

For the decade that I’ve worked on my garden I’ve been going for a lush, flower-packed, “old-fashioned” look, popular a century ago when there was a strident Colonial Revival reaction against Victorian gardens. Recently a good friend gave me a copy of a special edition of The Mentor (which had a logo/mission which I just love:  learn one thing every day) published in 1916 with a focus on “Historic Gardens of New England”, and after perusing the pictures inside, I realized that I’ve attained my goal, in a way. The author of the featured article, Mary Harrod Northend, was a native of Salem and consequently asserts that “the old-fashioned garden of New England reached its highest development” in her (my) fair city, though she highlights gardens in Newburyport, Portsmouth, and other New England towns as well.  Besides axial paths, arbors, and sundials, the key characteristic of her chosen gardens are their flowers:  not the exotic varieties preferred by the Victorians, but native (or better-yet, brought over by the colonists) varieties that will attain that perfect, bursting-forth-from-the-border look: peonies, hollyhocks, phlox, dianthus, bachelor buttons.  All contained within box borders, of course.

I’ve got the box borders (which really need trimming now) and the sundial, and some of Northend’s preferred flowers but others (hollyhocks and peonies) would take over my small garden so I’ve chosen other plants–like the meadowsweet on the left–that are still taking over my small garden.

To control the chaos, I’ve been putting in germander for edging; Northend doesn’t mention this great plant (similar to rosemary but hardy here in New England) but the Elizabethans loved it for their knot gardens. I’ve also included a few close-ups of some of my favorite plants, in bloom now:  alstroemeria (set against variegated calamint) and red baneberry (set against astilbe).

In the shade garden in the back is a “plant” over which I’ve clearly lost control:  a monstrous hydrangea shrub, now grown into a tree.  It seems to be tapping into the water pump for the pond right next to it, and is reaching for the sky! Follow the path and you run right into it–unfortunately I can’t seem to get a good picture of just how giant it is.  It’s scary.

And now some of Northend’s 1916 Mentor pictures for comparison:  the first is of the Hoffman house on Chestnut Street in Salem (now currently for sale), which featured a famous garden established by merchant/horticulturalist Charles Hoffman in the late 1830s and maintained for over a century.  The photograph below is centered on the “ancient” Dutchman’s Pipe-draped summer house, no longer there.  There has to be some structure in the center: pergolas, arches and arbors prevailed in the old-fashioned garden.


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