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Planting a Victorian Style Landscape

The 19th century was the golden age for horticulture in the United States. Developments in the sciences of botany, horticulture, plant pathology, and greenhouse technology all contributed to a compilation of knowledge about how plants grow and the best ways to cultivate them. This knowledge was disseminated to the public via the proliferation of books and magazines. Also during this time, new exploration around the world produced hundreds of new plant species for collectors and gardeners alike.

The American gardening tradition officially began during the 19th century, even though it had its origins in Europe. During this time, the U.S. was gaining its own individual identity as well. Communities were becoming more settled and people were building a strong sense of place. As a result, they were more apt to embellish it and make it beautiful by creating ornamental landscapes around their homes and buildings.

There are several steps you should consider before you design and install a historic or period garden for a 21st century landscape. First, the period of the home’s architecture and its general location should be reflected in the garden design and in the plant choices. Appropriate trees, shrubs, and perennials can be selected by consulting experts, exploring the Internet, and even visiting some historically restored landscapes and gardens. It is important to remember that many plants that are currently out-of- favor were fashionable over 100 hundred years ago – plants like the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus) species, Rose of Sharon, or Silver maple. Today, however, the Ailanthus and Rose of Sharon are invasive, and the maple is considered a weed tree.Study the garden literature of the period. Old seed catalogs (which I collect) offer a particularly rich source of information. These catalogs are available in many state or county historical archives and often are part of the collections at universities. Shrubs were important to Victorian landscapes and clumps or groupings would have been spaced intermittently along the property boundary or along a walkway, with specimens occasionally planted in the lawn. Fragrant shrubs such as lilac, mock orange, or a favorite rose were situated near the doorway or near windows. Shrubs were chosen for their unusual flowers and autumn color, often with berries for winter appeal and for the birds to consume.

The annual bedding craze of flower gardening was in full swing during the Victorian era. Annuals and even tropical plants were selected on the basis of uniform habit and bright color, and they were planted in designs ranging from simple to complex. The more complex designs were reserved for public institutions and parks; the simpler plantings were installed at private residences. A few flowerbeds were often situated within the view of the front windows in either a ribbon pattern or in a circular bed.

Nearly every house had a porch or veranda, and the perfect accompaniment was a trellis for flowering and foliage vines. These vines were not only decorative but also provided shade in the heat of the day. In some cases, vines such as Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, or honeysuckle were trained to completely cover the walls of brick houses.

Tall or particularly dramatic perennials were planted with the shrub groupings to fill in any vacant areas or voids. Delphiniums, lilies, and hollyhocks were used for this purpose. Peonies and phlox were planted in the lawn as stand-alone plants or included with the shrub border. Annuals included sweet alyssum, four o’clocks, sweet peas, zinnias, and daisies, to name just a few. Annual flowerbeds were often laid out in a foursquare pattern or the more familiar shape of a long rectangular herbaceous border. Furthermore, the Victorians enjoyed having fresh flowers and would harvest flowers from their gardens almost daily for arranging indoors.

Many historians consider the Victorian Age as a time of excess ornamentation. The ideal landscape reflected this preoccupation with color and decoration and would have included various garden features including urns, statues, rustic furniture, fountains, birdbaths, and wrought-iron fencing. The gazing ball dates at from the turn of the 20th century, and those plastic pink flamingos were still items for the future.

Without a doubt, nostalgia and sentiment still prevails for this type of old-fashioned, Victorian garden. Perhaps with a few fragrant flowers and shrubs, a few climbing vines, a water feature, and a rustic bench in our own landscapes, we can return to this bygone era when life was slower and nature was queen.


White or Pink Dogwood

(Cornus florida or rubra)

Hawthorn (Crataegus "Winter King")

Magnolia (Magnolia Virginia)

Flowering crabapple

(Malus "Sugartyme")

Snowball bush (Viburnum opulus)

Japanese quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)

Weigela (Weigela florida)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Phlox (Phlox 'Miss Lingard')

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)

Richard A. Liberto is a landscape designer, horticulturist and consultant.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please email Richard at info@designinghomelifestyles.com

Bedding plants, such as petunias provide continuous summer color.

A planted urn adds visual impact in the formal garden.

A cutting garden of annual flowers is integral to a Victorian garden.

The choice of flower color is reflected by the color of this Victorian home.

This 'bas relief' is a focal point in the garden.

A “basket weave” pattern ­brick walkway winds through a garden.

The Victorian garden traditionally mixes seasonal flowers with shrubbery.