The Victorian Age lasted over a long period and holds an evolution of style, but there are characteristics that stand out among Victorian gardens, just as there are in Victorian architecture and costume.
This was a time when plant exploration came into its own. The middle class expanded with an accompanying barrage of tastemakers, opining on everything from manners to interior decoration, architecture styles to garden landscapes. Ideas such as “a small city garden should be “dainty and neat”" were common. Some of those who molded public opinion, through their writing and landscaping, were William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, Andrew Jackson Downing, and J.C. Loudon.
Victorians embellished everything, and their gardens were no exception. Porches often hung with vines, trellises were attached to walls and vines grown upon them, and urns filled with greenery ad flowers were used liberally in the landscape.
The early “allotment”, or community garden.
Hillclose gardens, survivals of Victorian plots, give some insights into what was valued in a garden. Some were Kitchen gardens, others ornamental, many contained a restful garden house. Visit these gardens if you are ever in the Warwickshire part of England.
J.C. Loudon, an English author formulated the Gardenesque style, and Andrew Jackson Downing became an influencer through his popular books which outlined house plans and the way the exteriors and properties should appear. “Picturesque, Neoclassical, and Gardenesque” styles all became recognizable fashions in the landscape, as well as in architecture (which went hand in hand).
The Picturesque Style
Today’s ideals of viewsheds might derive from some of the ideals of this design movement. Rev. W. Gilpin wrote inspirational essays and journals which gave rise to much of these ideals. Uvedale Price interpreted these for landscaping… “retain old trees, rutted paths, and textured slopes, rather than to sweep all these away”
The Neoclassical Style
The Neoclassical, or Beaux-Arts Era, included grand vistas with axial forms of pathways and roads, water features, or “tapis verts” (expansive lawns). “Symmetry, balance, and elegance” were very important.
The Gardenesque Style
When plant collecting came into its own during the Victorian age, this style developed to showcase specimens of the plants, and recognize the efforts of the gardener. Island beds became popular, along with small scale features from nature.
Architectural styles and their corresponding gardens:
House architecture styles and their period garden styles:
- Gothic Revival 1850-1900
Romantic, Picturesque garden
- Second Empire 1860-1880
Formal, Neoclassical garden
- Italianate 1860-1890
Gardenesque garden, carpet bedding
- Eastlake 1870-1880
Gardenesque garden, carpet bedding
- Queen Anne 1885-1900
Gardenesque garden, with carpet bedding
- Romanesque 1880-1900
Gardenesque garden, with carpet bedding
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This creates the first impression many have of Victorian gardening, both because it was so popular and because famous reactions against its excess resulted in the type of gardens we like so well today. Still used in public spaces, bedding can be judiciously employed in today’s gardens,too.
“Bedding out” might be seen as an expansion of the parterre. “A parterre garden is a type of formal garden created by 16th Century French nursery designer Claude Mollet. Mollet based his design on the square boundaries and elaborate interior patterns of English knot gardens.” It was expected to be viewed from an elevated place such as an upperstory window.
Bedding out often took the geometric shapes and the massed color evident in parterres. Using bright annuals, bedding out shapes often were fanciful:hearts, crescents, and paisleys.
Lawns became important and were used for framing views, garden flowers, and as “play spaces” for lawn games. Think of ubiquitous pictures of badminton and croquet games on a summer afternoon.
Flower Borders and Rosegardens
Rose gardens and perennial borders caught the public taste and developed into collections of full season interest.
Island beds within lawn areas came into their own, with the usual geometric shapes supplemented by paisley and kidney shapes.
Shubberies and Garden Rooms
Diverse choices such as hydrangeas, lilacs, and roses, plums, cherries, grapes, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, and apples were all popular plantings in these gardens. The idea of bountiful produce from one’s garden grew hand and glove with ideas of planting purely for visual pleasure. These two desires often found separate “rooms” with the front yard acting as a parlor of decoration and taste, while the back yard retaining humbler designations including the fruit and vegetable patch, drying yard, and child’s play area.
Vanhoutte spirea, lilacs, mock orange, and snowball hydrangea were all popular choices of the time.
Fences were highly popular, outlining boundaries and ornamenting the garden at the same time. Fences were of metal, cast iron or wire, and wooden, the proverbial picket and mixtures of brick plinths and iron fences, dripping with roses, or vines and lined with shrubbery. Like the interiors, the garden was layered with a rich display of textures.
House Foundations and Porches
The foundations of a house were not disguised with shrubs the way modern plantings often are, while porches were heavily draped with vines such as Dutchman’s pipe, honeysuckles, ivy, clematis, wisteria, or morning glories.
Growing annual or perennial vines on a trellis provided privacy for a front porch, shade and cooler spaces indoors, and adornment for a triple advantage- no wonder vines were such popular elements in the planting plans!
Trees and shrubs, including the newly introduced weeping and contorted forms of trees and shrubs, and varieties with unusual texture or color are all planted as specimens (planted singly to highlight them). Preferred shrubs are lilacs, mock orange, and snowball hydrangea. Trees or shrubs planted in multiples are usually along property lines in mixed hedges.
~ See Chapter 7 of ‘Creating Period Gardens’ by Gunda Grotans Luss
Her list of plants.
Victorian Style for Contemporary Gardens
How might you interpret Victorian style for your own home and garden? Rarely do people today want to have to fuss over trimming grass from around a myriad of pots and dots around the yard. We are our own gardeners for the most part, and have to constrict the time and effort that a landscape demands. Here are a few ways to give a Victorian feel to the landscaping, without as much of the busyness and work that the original Victorians would have deemed fitting.
Quick and Easy tips…
- Place some “bedding out” close to the house, in a dooryard garden or as symmetrical islands in reasonable sizes and number.
- Use some Urns or containers filled with “curiosities” at the entry points of the house.
- Choose a couple “specimen” trees to feature, underplant with easy care groundcover.
- Remove some foundation plants, perhaps introduce some in topiary form.
- Lace a trellis at the porch with a vining plant.
- Drape roses over the fence.
- Create rooms in the back of the property for Victorian kitchen garden, theme garden, and/or “lawn games”
-continue reading about Victorian Gardens