The Victorian Garden in Season


English Summer in the Country

This extract from one of the Our Village sketches by Mary Russell Mitford reminded me that "miserable summers" have always been with us. Miss Mitford's essay "The Haymakers" was not about normal farming practice but about haymaking on her own  'two small fields, the one a meadow of some three acres, about a mile off, the other a bit of upland pasture not much bigger...' which could produce a 'minikin rick, not much better than a haycock itself' for the delectation of her 'frisky chesnut horse'. About one sixth of this sketch is devoted to the summer weather. These are the opening lines of her description:

 Last summer was, as most of my readers probably remember, one of no small trial to haymakers in general, the weather being what is gently and politely termed "unsettled", which in this pretty climate of ours, during "the leafy month of June", may commonly be construed into cloudy, stormy, drizzly, cold. In this instance the silky, courtly, flattering epithet, being translated, could hardly mean other than wet - fixed, determined, settled rain. From morning to night the clouds were dropping; roses stood tottering on their stalks; strawberries lay sopping in their beds; cherries and currants hung all forlorn on their boughs, with the red juice washed out of them; gravel roads turned into sand; pools into ponds; ditches into rivulets; rivers lost in their channels; and that great evil a summer flood appeared inevitable. "The rain it raineth every day" was the motto for the month. Mr. Sheridan's wicked interpolation in Mr. Coleridge's tragedy, "drip, drip, drip, there's nothing here but dripping," seemed made expressly for the month.
A Flower for the Season

This rather charming illustration of the little cyclamen, now flowering in our English gardens, comes from the Ladies' Treasury1865. Its sudden arrival always cheers my heart but according to the accompanying article the cyclamen's symbolic meaning is "Farewell pleasure'.

Just as in Britain today the bulb catalogues drop through our letterboxes in late summer and early autumn to tempt us, Victorian gardening books and magazines exhorted their readers to plan ahead for winter and spring colour.

"The Flower Garden" columnist of the Ladies' Treasury in September 1865 clearly had in mind bulbs planted to replace the beds still brimming with annuals in full bloom:

Bulbs must be procured and at once, and be started in reserve beds of moss or leaf mould, so that they may be transplanted when the beds now full of flowers are clear. By this means the blooms will be much finer than if delayed till October or November...The bulbs may be planted out in the ground in the early part of November.

The article mentioned a whole range of bulbs, flowering from winter to spring - from snowdrops to gladioli - which could be treated in this manner, but as I have already shown a hyacinth glass I thought a few notes on this well-loved plant might be appreciated.The culture of hyacinths both for the spring garden and forcing for indoors for the Christmas and New Year was popular throughout the Victorian period.

This illustration "Properties of the Hyacinth" is taken from the second volume of
The Gardener and Practical Florist1843

Charles M'Intosh's Practical Gardener (1840 edition) devoted substantial space to the hyacinth, unsurprisingly in the light of his remarks below, giving very detailed information on the composition of the ideal planting medium, and care of the bulbs:

'In the cultivation of this flower, the Dutch still excel us, and supply us annually with dried bulbs, which are sold by the nurserymen, the more common kinds at from forty to sixty shillings per hundred, the better sorts at from one to ten shillings per root, and there are only a very few of the most rare that are rated at more than ten pounds per root.'

[Whilst these prices may appear quite expensive enough to the modern reader, M'Intosh had already explained that in the eighteenth century the double variety raised by Peter Voerhelm and 'called the king of Great Britain ... was long sold for the sum of one hundred pounds sterling, a great price in those days...Instances have occurred of the price of one bulb being as much as two hundred pounds.']
But the Dutch clearly did not have everything their own way. Around the same period The Gardener and Practical Florist (Second volume 1843), originally published in monthly parts, championed the merits of another continental country's hyacinth cultivation.

Among the various items dealing with the hyacinth, one article gave lists of recommended varieties, including a dozen - 'the best and most certain for blooming in glasses' - and a priced list of 50 for bedding and potting from 'the hundreds' said to be found in the catalogues. Princess Elizabeth (single rosy red) appears to have been the cheapest at 2d per bulb, whilst double white Queen Victoria sold at 2s.6d. and the dark double blue Buonaparte even dearer at 3s. The most expensive, a 'splendid dark' double blue called Bouquet Constant cost 7s.  For mass planting in 'wildernesses or shady walks, or even in the open border' you could apparently buy mixed bulbs of various colours more cheaply, just as one buys daffodils for naturalising today. Some of the names of these varieties give a clue to the other country the editor seems to have regarded as specialising in the culture of hyacinths - France. This volume included an entire article "Culture of the Hyacinth in France' by M Doverge, where he revealed the care taken by growers to protect the bulbs and flower spikes -- "the blow" as he termed it. In outside beds the bulbs were planted between the end of September and the 15th of October. 'If frosts are apprehended, the beds must be covered with leaves, or dry litter, untainted by urine, which is highly detrimental to the roots. In spring-time this covering is removed...
Towards the month of April the blow comes on, and care is taken to prolong this period of beauty, by preserving the plants from the sun and rain, by means of canvas coverings  erected above, which are to be removed when the weather allows it.'

The cheap popular magazines, particularly in the later period, bore in mind that many of their readers had only small urban gardens, or no garden at all, yet wanted to grow flowers albeit on a miniature scale. Where the Ladies Treasury presupposed substantial beds devoted to mass bulb planting, the needs of those for whom a couple of bowls containing three or four bulbs was ambition enough were catered for in these penny magazines.

On October 19, 1895 readers of Home Chat were offered no less than four methods of growing the bulbs – potted in a china bowl of moss for a table decoration, the bowl being placed in a cool, dark cupboard for three weeks, with the moss kept damp; a very slow forcing method of growing the bulbs in pots, which were then sunk in the garden under protection for 'quite six weeks' before bringing into the greenhouse or indoors; a simple method [which must have appealed to those without a garden] of planting bulbs in pots of sand; and finally growing in a hyacinth glass.

See the main Gardening page for an image of a mid-century hyacinth glass. For those who wish to try this last method I hope to include the directions when I next update this page -- in time for Christmas and the New Year!

An Ominous Note: The Language of Flowers

Victorians were fascinated by  coded "meanings", so it is not surprising to find answers to correspondents and articles on the meaning of Christian names or - as here - the language of flowers:

From the Ladies' Treasury article "Gossip about Flowers and Plants":

'The hyacinth is a fatal symbol in a bouquet; it means "I cause your death" '
        [So you might prefer to offer double tulips in your offering] -
'The double tulip conveys the best wishes of the giver for "Honourable success" '
and the
'Common tulip is emblematical of a "Declaration of affection" '
        BUT make sure you know your tulip varieties because if you inadvertently include a "Cockspur tulip" you are apparently conveying the blunt message "I hate you"!


A Tulip Jardiniere

A few years earlier the Ladies' Treasury had included instructions for for working this decorated Tulip Jardiniere. It is to be hoped that the choice of tulips, if this were given as a gift, was judicious! The foundation was an empty biscuit tin and the embroidery was worked on 'half a yard of canvas called elephant canvas'. If I have interpreted the instructions correctly the background was worked in sea-green wool and the design has a grounding of magenta Berlin wool to set off the stylised floral pattern of crystal and white chalk beads. Gold braid was sewn between each row of the Grecian herring-bone stitching. Needlework of this type for mats, cache-pots, decorated baskets and photograph frames was common around this period.
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©  Barbara Onslow 2007   Page published October 2008 Last updated February 25th 2009