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Ploughing furrows we still follow; The huge debt today's gardens owe to the Victorians, in design and new plants, is investigated by Roger Clarke.

Byline: Roger Clarke

The Victorians gave us an age of invention, exotic introductions and an explosion of ideas in almost every walk of life, including the garden.

Many of the inventions failed to catch on, such as the doctor's cane introduced at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Perhaps it was the built-in enema and test tubes which put people off.

While we have the Millennium Dome, which caused hardly a ripple of excitement, apart from its remarkable cost, the Great Exhibition had Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace which was a sensation, the largest building ever constructed, 2,100 ft long and 400ft wide all in glass and iron.

Paxton had learned his architecture in designing ever-larger glasshouses at Chatsworth where he was head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire.

Giant glasshouses and conservatories were a feature of the age and Paxton's designs were a forerunner of the more modest prefabricated structures in our gardens today - not so much crystal palace as glass shed.

But Paxton gave us more than the greenhouse. Ten years before the Great Exhibition The Gardener's Chronicle appeared, the first weekly gardening newspaper, with Paxton a co-founder.

A year later, in 1827, the Horticultural Society held its first fete in Chiswick - the Chelsea Flower show had begun. The society earned its royal title, becoming the RHS in 1861 when it moved to Kensington.

And amid all this were the gardens and gardeners, ploughing the furrows we still follow. The wealthy Victorians went in for the Italian style on the grand scale, stone terraces linked by wide steps and decorated by vases, formal fountains, sculptures and balustrades.

The style spread to middle class villas with statues, terracotta paving and rope edging, urns and terraces and formal beds and plantings.

Geometric beds cut in lawns were all the rage with diamonds, circles, squares and even more elaborate shapes filled with stylised plantings of bedding plants which included many we grow today - lobelia, dahlia, pelargonium, fuchsias and so on - all half hardy annuals.

Annuals and traditional cottage garden plants were not just out of fashion but virtually banished. The view was that a garden should show the skill and art of the of the gardener - or in many cases, the gardening staff. It had the added benefit of also showing off wealth.

Any old peasant could grow annuals, so it had to be half hardy plants to show, first, how clever you were, and second, how rich you were to have heated greenhouses or to buy expensive plants.

Expensive imports such as tree ferns, camellias, azaleas, magnolias and rhododendrons were planted in extensive shrubberies and arboretums. The huge growth in new introductions was in part down to the splendidly named Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward who discovered in 1829 that plants could grow in a sealed glass jar for years and created the first Wardian Cases.

Plant hunters such as Robert Fortune who gave us winter jasmine and weigelia, and the legendary 'Chinese' Wilson were flooding the market with spectacular introductions.

Lower down the social scale, in the middle class villas, the Victorian shrubbery was still an essential but on a less expensive scale, it was virtually flowerless with privet ever present.

Down in the worker's cottages, all the annuals so disdainfully discarded by the better heeled found a welcome home where they were bred and showen at numerous garden societies known as florists' clubs.

If you wanted to look really clever, and rich, you went in for carpet bedding displays with plantings in complex patterns. The Victorians did not use the bedding plants we tend to incorporate in our schemes today but went for dwarf foliage plants along with dwarf succulents.

Even the councils got in on the act with corporations trying to outdo each other in their parks and open spaces. But as Victoria's reign progressed, so did the evolution of gardening with the natural movement which started with William Morris's garden in 1859.

Back came the cottage garden plants with drifts of colour rather than stylised beds. Height, shape and form became important with perennials, biennials, bulbs and annuals grown together. Gertrude Jeykll entered the movement and almost single-handedly gave us the herbaceous border .

The movement did not survive the First World War but its influence did and most modern gardens show Victorian elements with mixed borders, geometric formal beds and modest Italianate terraces or patios and our features such as statues and obelisks and our cast furniture.


The Red House, set in an old Kent orchard in Bexleyheath which was designed for William Morris by Philip Webb in 1859. This was the first garden of the Arts and Crafts movement which brought together architectural detail and craftsmanship and natural planting - a sort of cottage garden for the upper classes. From the garden came Morris's first wallpaper pattern, Trellis (right), introduced in 1862, which took the rose trellises at Red House for its inspiration. Garden designer Webb added the colourful birds The Victorians also gave us an amateur gardener whose influence can be seen in almost every suburban garden, Gertrude Jekyll. This is Jekyll's home, Munstead Wood in Godalming, the first collaboration of the legendary partnership of Jekyll and architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Both gardens feature in Arts and Crafts Gardens by Wendy Hitchmough published by Pavilion.
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Title Annotation:Gardening
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 20, 2001
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