Gardening Past and Present: A New Garden Based on Vintage Designs

When we tackled the restoration of the back yard we did not have a solid plan in place.  I had a rough idea where the hardscaping would go, but we really did not engage in much careful planning since we were most focused on removing invasives and making the ground accessible.  Now that the bulk of the hardscape is complete, we are turning our attention toward the plantings. We now think about the garden in terms of “rooms” which must simultaneously have unique characteristics in terms of plants, design, and themes but which must also fit together into a cohesive whole.  As we develop the themes for each of the rooms, we will continue to refine those areas to create unique spaces.  This means a lot of moving plants, adding plants, and taking away plants.  I’m sure that if we had hired a skilled garden designer we could have simply plopped down our plants once and for all and been done with it.  I don’t know how much fun that would be though.  I like that this garden is evolving and changing over time.  I suppose it also reflects my status as an amateur; when I get something right in the garden it is often due to experimentation or happy accident.  That’s fine–many great things have come from passionate experimentation and happy accidents.

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A garden room in need of a theme.  The ramped steps to the left need some work; they will be made narrower to increase planting area.  The area looks deceptively small here.  The bed is much deeper than is apparent in this pano image.  I will remove almost all of the plants, build the soil, and replant as an heirloom flower garden.

The bottom left of the garden, the area where the steps that ascend the hill begin is in need of an overhaul.  There will be some hardscape work to be done, but nothing nearly as intensive as has been completed over the past few garden seasons.  The soil needs improvement so I will need to add substantial amounts of compost.  As far as design goes, we envisage a garden “room” that invokes or honors some of my early garden memories; my grandmother’s garden. We are early in the design phase with the idea that hardscape construction and soil amending will happen this fall and planting will be done in the spring of 2020.  Here is what the new garden design must accomplish:

  1. The plant materials must be selected from heirloom varieties that would have been common in gardens from the mid 20th century or earlier. The challenge is that many older varieties of herbaceous plants are not widely available in garden centers, so much of the plant material will need to be propagated from seed obtained by firms specializing in heirloom plants.  Thankfully there are a few of them.
  2. Though we are creating a unique room in the garden based on heirloom plants, the plant selection must still meet a couple of essential standards: they must be non-invasive, they must attract wildlife, and the majority of the plants must be native species.
  3. The layout of the new garden must invoke vernacular design from the last century which could include garden arbor, formal clipped hedges, or some other features commonly found 60 to 80 years ago.
  4. Undoubtedly this new room will have a unique feel, but it must still have continuity with the rest of the garden.

In short, the garden must pay homage to the past while fitting with the rest of the garden design and keeping to contemporary standards for ecological sensitivity.  A garden for the past and the present.

Two initial tasks then.  One, Hilary is developing plans to improve the ramped steps that currently serve as the entry to the garden.  Task number two is to research plant choices and design features from many decades ago.  I have obtained a few vintage gardening books from the 1930s through the 1950s that are a wealth of information and ideas and give me an idea of how people thought about gardens and gardening back then.

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The Better Homes and Gardens book is the newest of my historical gardening books having been published in 1951

Apparently women used to garden in dresses with full makeup and a pearl necklaces, outfits that would have impressed June Cleaver.

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1950s husband: “Honey, just because you are doing manual garden labor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing a nice dress with your hair and makeup done.”  1950s Wife: “If it weren’t for the Valium and whiskey sours I would have murdered you by now and buried you under the rose bushes.”

Some of the plant choices were also pretty cringe-worthy by modern ecological standards (Privet! English Ivy! Turf!), as was the generous use of pesticides (DDT!).

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Nothing calms cold war anxieties like a nice flower garden.  Remember Jimmy, duck and cover! Nuclear holocaust jokes aside, that garden design is a reminiscent of a cottage style with plants leaf to leaf and stem to stem jostling for position. Most of the pictures depict more formal borders, but here and there this classic English style creeps in.

But, the images I have come across are also evocative of my earliest garden memories and the gardens quite charming with swathes of snapdragons, cone flowers, hollyhocks, bachelor’s buttons, blue bells, and foxglove.  It is hard not to be a bit nostalgic or wistful when leafing through these books (and I acknowledge that nostalgia is at least party contingent upon my white male privilege).

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The borders are pretty narrow, but the climbers on the front of the house are dramatic.  The garden fits the scale of the house very well (though I’d have less turf grass), and nothing screams 1950s suburbia like a white picket fence.  I unironically love this.
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Apparently there was a time in the not too distant past when people cared for and repaired their tools instead of just pitching them in the landfill and buying a new disposable POS shovel from Home Depot.  God, people were CRAZY back then.

One thing that has struck me while reading through these old gardening books is not so much the garden design (predominately formal but some cottage inspiration) but rather the very human and humane scale of the houses.  These books were meant to give gardening advice to the average suburban homeowner and so it is the average home that is depicted.  Some are classic American vernacular architecture (like a cape or colonial revival) while some are classic mid century modern forms.  In all cases, the houses are small but tidy and well balanced and welcoming unlike the post 1970s horror/ crime-against-architecture-and-humanity that is the McMansion.  We forget that in 1973 the average house size was a modest but comfortable 1,500 square feet; today that number is 2,467 square feet.  In the early 1950s it was only about a thousand square feet!  Somehow people managed to comfortably raise larger families in much less space with much less stuff.  Go figure.

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Here is Better Homes and Gardens vision for the suburban oasis.  A small home based on vernacular styles with a single detached garage.  No McMansions and no snout-houses.  That said, one problem is apparent in the vintage gardening books which is the endorsement of expansive and resource intensive turf grass, a harbinger of the coming turf grass wastelands as part of the McMansion craze.  Double or triple the width of those borders and you’ll be in better shape.

This is already a fun project and I have not even dug a bit of soil yet.  The challenge will be in merging the formal features of mid century American gardens (such as clipped hedges) with the more naturalistic aesthetic we have been following thus far.  I believe we are up for such a challenge.  Stay tuned for more posts as this project moves along.

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