The Victorian Garden in Season


Although much Victorian garden literature on the pleasure-garden was directed towards ensuring floral beauty in spring and summer, there was also growing interest in enjoying the "autumn garden".

A garden column signed "J.W.C." in the New Monthly Belle Assemblée (1852) suggested that in making a new shrubbery it was important 'to avoid overcrowding, and in disposing those [new shrubs] intended to remain permanently, have an eye to their future habits and characters, not only as regards their inflorescence and summer appearance, but also the influence they are likely to hold amongst the tints of autumn. The light of this branch of our art is only just dawning upon us, and is decidedly worthy of the greatest attention and observation, and notes should be constantly made of whatever new ideas bearing on the subject come before us.'

Victorians clearly appreciated "Indian summers" just as we do. In October 1860 a reader of the Ladies' Treasury was advised, in answer to her query, that she would 'even at this late season, enjoy a trip into the country, very much indeed. Many trees are still clothed with foliage, though we must own they are in the livery of decay. The garden can still boast of the Michaelmas daisy, the dahlia, the Chinese chrysanthemum, and the delicate and constant monthly rose; and though the poet asks,
    Whither are the violets gone.
    Those that bloomed of late so gay,
    And in fragrant garlands strown
    Deck'd the blooming flower-queen's sway

still, there are violets that blossom a second time, towards the close of autumn; for instance the sweet-scented Neapolitan and the Russian violet. Then butterflies are still seen on sunny days sporting among the lingering flowers. We would particularly direct the attention of "M.L.N." to the beautiful red admiral butterfly...'

Conservatories and Winter Gardens

The Victorian passion for glass in the garden came into its own in the winter to protect tender varieties, force bulbs and plants for the house, and also to provide a sheltered area where the delights of a garden could be savoured even in the depths of winter.

Charles M'Intosh's Practical Gardener ('new and improved edition' 1840) was written from the perspective of his experience as gardener to the King of the Belgians at Claremont, Surrey and current role to the Duke of Buccleuch at Dalkeith Palace, where the 'projected new flower gardens' would 'occupy about thirty acres of an alluvial valley.' Not surprisingly from this background of horticulture on a grand scale he referred to several types of conservatory and stove houses, in addition to various greenhouses for specialist collections viz: 'the heathery, the geranium house, the bulb house, the green-house aquarium, the camellia house, the orangery, the propagating house, and the cold pit or frame'. Not, of course, he stressed, all intended to be included in any one garden, but so a particular "tribe" of plants should have a specially designed house to itself with no attempt to cultivate together 'plants of discordant habits and natives often of the very opposite sides of the globe.'

Erica Masonia and Erica Depressa detail from an Illustration in The New and Improved Practical Gardener and Modern Horticulturist etc. (pub Thomas Kelly 1840)

M'Intosh's calendar of work for December in the Flower Garden, however, recognises that many plants 'hitherto treated as green-house plants' were now, by keen gardeners, being acclimatised to British life outside the glasshouse, and he gives advice on how to best to conduct such experiments.

Elizabeth von Arnim on Greenhouses and Women

In her best-selling first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) Elizabeth von Arnim uses the development of a garden as a counterpoint to the oppressive domestic and social atmosphere of northern Germany, and, as here, to comment on humankind. 

Finding one November morning that her tea roses had survived a night of ten degrees Fahrenheit of frost "Elizabeth", the first person narrator, reflects
'I am beginning to think that the tenderness of teas is much exaggerated, and am certainly very glad I had the courage to try them in this northern garden. But I must not fly too boldly in the face of Providence, and have ordered those in the boxes to be taken into the greenhouse for the winter, and hope the Bouquet d'Or, in a sunny place near the glass, may be induced to open some of those buds. The greenhouse is only used as a refuge, and kept at a temperature just above freezing, and is reserved entirely for such plants as cannot stand the very coldest part of the winter out of doors. I don't use it for growing anything, because I don't have things that will only bear the garden for three or four months in the year and require coaxing and petting for the rest of it. Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.'

Victorian Fern Houses on a Modest Scale

Illustration of Asplenium Viride from The Fern Garden  Groombridge and Sons. 2nd ed. 1870

Fortunately Victorians did not need to control royal and ducal gardens. or even run-down aristocratic German ones, to enjoy the vogue for gardening under glass. There was plenty of advice, both practical and inspirational, for those of far more modest means.

Shirley Hibberd's The Fern Garden - How to Make,Keep and Enjoy it or Fern Culture Made Easy was a slim little volume which devoted as much attention to the "Fireside Fernery" as to the rockery and the greenhouse.
'Thousands of amateur fern growers have only a glass case in the sitting-room for a fern garden. In the heart of a great city where gardens are unknown, and even the graveyards are desecrated by accumlations of filth, the fern case is a boon of priceless value. It is a bit of the woodside scaled down with the life of the wood in it ...'

Example of one of the more elaborate fern cases described

And even in the chapter "The Fern House"  modesty - at least in size of glasshouse- is the order of the day.
'We are now becoming  "expensive and hard to please." We want a fern house - oh dear! how our wants increase with increase of knowledge and advance of taste' the chapter opens. A grand fern house- that of the nurserymen, Veitch and Sons, is certainly described, but then 'Pardon my boldness, but in truth I have scarcely met with a fernery to surpass Mrs. Hibberd's in beauty and interest though it is on an extremely small scale.'
The illustration below shows it - tucked into an awkward corner of the house - in an earlier existence with staging for flowering plants (in the cross-section), until neighbouring building works and planting blocked out 'the nice gleam of sunlight that enlivened the house from 2 p.m....and the house become unfit for flowering plants. Instead of  bringing an action against the neighbour who devoured my sunshine, I brought an action against myself, and the verdict was that the shady house should be forthwith converted into a fernery.'
The adaptation is then described in detail, and the lack of permanent heating stressed; heat being provided from the back wall, which is that of the drawing-room, so that only when frost is particularly severe is recourse to 'Hays's constant stove or Hinks's petroleum stove' needed.
'As a winter garden and as a peculiarly charming scene - if well done and well kept- the fern house is worth something to a home bird, and as an amusement for an invalid it is invaluable.'

The reference 'amusement for an invalid' is echoed in the remark of the hospital secretary of the new Hospital for Women 'Something that is growing is always such a pleasure to the patients, and they are so interested in the springing up of the new fronds of the ferns, which thrive better than almost anything else in the wards.'

Victorian Outdoor Winter Garden

Charles M'Intosh's manual is so comprehensive, drawing on the writings of other horticultural practitioners as well as his own experience, that the modern reader is bound to find in it some remarks that seem almost contemporary (if, that is, one substitutes a word like "house" for "mansion"). Here he describes the charms of a "winter garden" :

* 'A very interesting winter flower garden might be formed, in some warm sheltered situation, at no great distance from the mansion: this garden should be planted with evergreens, which, however sombre in appearance in summer, when all around is gay, in winter would give rise to pleasing associations, by their verdure and clothing, when other flower gardens are naked and bare. Such a garden was once laid out with great taste by Mrs. Siddons, the celebrated tragic actress.
A winter garden is not wholly without its flowery ornaments...A very interesting collection of winter flowering plants might be cultivated with good effect ...'

Among the plants M'Intosh mentions are daphne mezereum, kerria japonica, cydonia, 'crocus in endless varieties', snowdrops, winter aconite, primulus and 'the arctic saxifrage, which flowers profusely under the snow.'

The illustration at the top of the page is taken from a vignette on the title page of the Ladies'

ANSWERS to the CHRISTMAS PUZZLES on the Christmas Crackers Page.
(On this page because People in Glasshouses shouldn't throw Stones.)
1. Because the boxes are always in Tiers.
2. When it is a-jar.
3. When it is to.
4. Eusebius. You see by us.
N.B. Eusebius was the author of The Church History, the earliest work to trace the rise of Christianity during its first three centuries.  

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©  Barbara Onslow 2007   Page published November 26 2007 Last updated New Year's Eve 2015.