Cassidy Moody/ Missouri Botanical Garden
With the growth of industrialization, advances in science and technology, and the fascination with innovation and exotic destinations, the Victorian Age became a time of immense creativity and experimentation in the garden. “As public gardens became more prevalent both in England and the U.S., more people fell in love with gardening,” says Dana Rizzo, senior horticulturalist and designer, South Garden beds in the Victorian district at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “The growing middle class now had the leisure time and disposable income to fill their gardens.”
Elements of Victorian design still add elegance and whimsy to modern gardens. “You don’t need to recreate an entire Victorian garden to get the feel,” says Leslie Harris, certified horticulturalist and host of the podcast, Into the Garden. “You can incorporate single elements or design a corner of your garden with these features without overwhelming your space.”
Here are the most enduring Victorian garden design traditions plus tips for how to make them part of your own garden.
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Topiary and Clipped Greens
Neatly clipped hedges and greens in elaborate shapes were a standard in Victorian gardens. Traditionally, topiary was a formal element in large estate gardens and was considered a symbol of status. “You had to show off,” says Rizzo. “Your garden was in competition with others, and garden designers vied with each other for commissions from wealthy clients.”
Plant this look: If you’re not ready to hire a full-time gardener or deal with the regular maintenance of topiary, consider adding plants that retain their symmetrical forms without trimming, such as round shrubs.
Tropical and Exotic Plants
Driven by increased exploration and travel, gardeners had more access to a number of new and unique plants from around the world. “Plant explorers brought back exotic new seeds and specimens to display at home under glass or in a glass conservatory on the estate, while plant breeders experimented with new plants,” says Harris. Tropicals, and especially ferns, were immensely popular and gave an exotic flair to gardens. Pteridomania, or “fern fever” was at its height in the mid-1800s, with collectors scouring the globe to support this new hobby.
Plant this look: Display potted tropicals, such as parlor palm, a Victorian favorite, in containers around your patio or indoors. Or, plant ferns outdoors in shady areas of the garden.
For the Victorians, more was also more! “It was really about an explosion of colors,” says Harris. “Big, blowsy gardens overflowing with bold, bright colors showcased new plants.” There wasn’t just one type of plant used, but popular flowers included dahlias, roses, petunias, and especially geraniums. Cottage gardens, which combined flowers and edibles in an informal manner, also evolved toward the end of the Victorian age.
Plant this look: Instead of focusing on a specific, restrained color scheme, plant lots of different colors of flowers in containers and beds to bring a sense of unrestrained joy to your garden.
“Tightly-planted garden beds were laid out with lots of color and pattern,” says Rizzo. “There was a tight ‘pin-cushion’ planting with no bare ground visible. Typically, there were 2 to 3 species of flowers in the bed to form a geometric pattern. Basically, you’d cram in as many plants as possible to achieve a mosaic effect.” The technique also sometimes is referred to as carpet bedding because the design resembles a patterned rug.
Plant this look: Tightly plant a container for an instantly lush feel, or create small geometrically-shaped beds.
Statuary, Sundials, Urns and Other Garden Structures
While statues were part of earlier garden styles from Italy and France, the Victorian garden also featured statuary, sundials, obelisks, gazing balls, urns and ironwork of all sorts, says Harris. An ornate trellis, arbor or orangery, where citrus trees were protected from cold weather, also were part of many Victorian gardens.
Plant this look: Incorporate a few decorative pieces to punctuate your garden, such as a pair of urns, which do not necessarily need planted to add style.
Wrought iron became especially popular and was often used in fencing or decorative benches. On large estates, benches gave you a place to rest and admire the garden, says Rizzo.
Plant this look: A garden bench is always a wonderful way to stop and admire the views. Also, you can use pieces of salvaged iron fencing as accents or backdrops in planting beds if you don’t want to fence an entire area.
Estate homes would feature a large outdoor fountain, but a cottage garden might include a bird bath or two, says Harris.
Plant this look: Small wrought iron or concrete birdbaths offer a touch of Victoriana without requiring a garden overhaul.
Victorian cottage garden style includes many different kinds of flowers and edibles, and the Victorians had a special love for aromatic plants such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and scented geraniums, says Elizabeth Fogel, senior horticulturalist at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia.
Add this look: Scented plants are never out of style because fragrance adds another layer of enjoyment to your garden. Plant them in containers, along the edges of hardscape to soften edges, and in beds in large swaths.
Victorians created mini-habitats to showcase their newly discovered plants, such as alpine plants and ferns, says Harris. The idea was to mimic what you’d find in a natural setting on a stony cliff or mountainside.
Add this look: While you may not be able to transform your garden into a mini-mountainside, you can create a small rock garden with plants tucked among strategically and artistically placed rocks.
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