Story and photos by Lee Reich
Garden fashions tend to come and go. Such was the case with Victorian bedding, a landscape style popular from about 1865 to 1900. Combining large, decoratively shaped garden beds with masses of single or contrasting brightly colored flowers, Victorian beds were an attention-grabbing, and often fragrant, outdoor element. Sometimes they were even punctuated by large, lush-leafed tropical plants. Such elaborate gardening became possible after the middle of the 19th century, when increased travel and commerce delivered new plants and hybrids, and the introduction of cheaper glass panes made greenhouses—necessary for giving annuals an early start—more affordable.
But this festive look came at a price, literally. Because the flowers were annuals, each spring heralded a new wave of planting—and perhaps even replanting some flowers, like popular bachelor’s buttons, that petered out before the growing season ended. Spent flowers might also need to be “deadheaded”—that is, to be pinched or clipped to redirect the plant’s energy into seed formation rather than pumping out new flowers. Poor execution, overuse, and the time and money these gardens required all eventually contributed to their fall from favor. Nonetheless, Victorian bedding may still have a place in today’s gardens—not only around houses built when bedding was at its peak of popularity, but even, with some modifications, to accompany later homes. A look at one of the period’s shining stars can provide fresh inspiration on this gardening style.
An Era Example
The gardens at Mohonk Mountain House, a historic hotel in the Hudson Valley region of New York, are a textbook illustration of Victorian bedding. Mohonk’s beginnings stretch back to 1869, when Albert K. Smiley, forebear of the hotel’s present owners, purchased the mountaintop site. Within a few years, work began in carving out gardens from the surrounding wilderness, including beds for annuals. Today, as has been done every spring for more than a hundred years, Mohonk’s gardeners move tens of thousands of bedding plants from the greenhouses into the fertilized soil of planting beds to create a patchwork quilt of color on the manicured lawns. Although the beds are permanent, each year the garden staff evaluates plants to plan for the next year’s designs.
Nourishing such exuberant growth demands rich soil. At Mohonk, enormous amounts of dirt were initially hauled in to beef up the thin, infertile, acidic ground that had originally been home to pitch pines and mountain laurels; today, compost created onsite helps maintain the soil’s fertility. Enriching the soil of a home landscape shouldn’t require such heroic efforts, but any garden—especially one with beds of hungry annuals—will benefit from having the soil dosed with organic materials like fresh or rotted autumn leaves, mushroom “dirt,” or compost.
Annual plants, which have to set down new roots every year, also need soil that’s consistently moist in order to thrive. When rainfall fails to deliver the needed 1″ of water per week (easily measured in a coffee can or other straight-sided container), providing additional water through drip irrigation—an amenity not available to Victorian gardeners—or sprinklers maintains strong growth.
In keeping with their historical roots, the beds at Mohonk Mountain House are packed full of plants popular during Victorian times, such asgeranium, coleus, and cleome. Heliotrope, mignonette, and flowering tobacco are other historically accurate plants that have the added benefit of suffusing the gardens with heavenly aromas. Any contemporary gardener could do well incorporating these plants into beds, as well as more carefree varieties, like the Supertunia Raspberry petunia, which naturally sheds its spent flowers and so doesn’t need deadheading to stay spry. With the current appreciation for edible landscaping, red-leaved Swiss chard, brightly colored sweet peppers and eggplants, lettuces in a variety of colors and textures, and other ornamental vegetables also could share the floral beds.
Mixing It Up
Mohonk’s gardens also combine Victorian bedding with other landscape styles, and at-home gardeners can take cues from this stylistic blending as well. The British landscape and American picturesque (or romantic) styles also popular in the latter half of the 19th century are as prominent on Mohonk’s grounds today as they were in its early years. Stately trees—including cutleaf and weeping beeches dating back to the garden’s beginnings, as well as dawn redwood, tree lilac, and red oaks—reign over 2,000 acres of rolling parkland, in the British tradition. So there’s no need to give a home landscape wholly over to Victorian bedding to the exclusion of other styles. Remember, one reason bedding fell out of favor was its overuse.
Fanning out from Mohonk’s Victorian beds, with a nod to the American picturesque landscape style, are vine-covered pergolas and arbors and a two-story summerhouse, all constructed of rustic cedar. The summerhouse design was taken from a sketch in a book by America’s pre-eminent 19th-century landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing. These rustic fences and arbors visually tie the gardens together and link them to the surrounding woods, recalling Downing’s preference for using low-key garden ornaments to enhance the surrounding natural beauty. A favorite spot at Mohonk is a rustic catwalk bridge that takes you across a rocky ravine through perennial flowers happily commingling with shadbush, mountain laurel, lowbush blueberries, and other natives.
None of these elements are out of place in contemporary gardens, where, after years of attempting to overpower Mother Nature, she is once again being welcomed. Victorian bedding can easily be used, as it is used at Mohonk, as a transition from the “civilized” to the “natural.” Mohonk’s 30 acres of manicured lawn and gardens sit congenially, along with the hotel itself, as a pocket of civilization in a vast wilderness. And wilderness it is: Beyond the grounds, more than 6,000 acres of surrounding forest are protected by the nonprofit Mohonk Preserve, while to the south, the Minnewaska State Park Preserve encompasses another 12,000 acres.
Your manicured Victorian beds could likewise sit close to your home, with more naturalistic landscapes at further reaches of your property, a plan that makes practical as well as aesthetic sense.
Is it time to re-landscape? Learn how to have a more sustainable garden.
Lee Reich lives in an old house in upstate New York; his new book, Landscaping with Fruit, is available through Storey Publishing.Published in: Old-House Journal April/May 2010