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The Garden Gate: Gardeners adapt through the ages

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Gardening has a history as old as mankind itself. All the ancient civilizations had gardens. Their remains are to be found in graves and excavations of Egyptian temples, in Ninevah on the Tigris River and in China and Pompeii.

The gardens were primarily to grow food, but they eventually became popular for ornament, medicine, wine and the enjoyment of gardening in its own right.

There have been gardens of many styles and many fashions, and they have provided a continuity from century to century.

The 19th century was an exciting period for gardeners. Clipper ships trading with China brought forsythia, kerria, wisteria and bleeding hearts, fuchsia, dahlias, gloxinias, cannas, red salvia and petunias back to this country.

Lobelias and geraniums came from Africa. Orange trees came from Spain, and marigolds from Mexico.

It became the fashion to plant a single round bed of massed flowers in the center of the front lawn or circular driveway, brightly planted with cannas or scarlet sage. Coleus, alternating in color, might encircle it.

This was a “show” garden, brightly colored, while the old-fashioned roses and other plants were relegated to the garden behind the house.

In keeping with the Victorian taste for excessive ornamentation, mass-produced cast-iron ornaments were placed about the garden in the late 19th century.

Basin-like fountains supported by cranes or topped with cupids, urns for red geraniums, vine-like grillwork or settees, tables or chairs were all inexpensive enough for the average family to afford.

They were more often seen in gardens than the more expensive statues, urns and fountains. Many a homeowner had a cast-iron stag on the front lawn.

At the end of the Victorian era there was a compromise between the over-sentimental landscape and the over-embellished flower garden. The informal gardens, and particularly the English-style herbaceous border, became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Few yards were without a mixed flower border, few lawns without the addition of flowering shrubs.

Many great gardens in the 20th century until the beginning of World War II were developed on large estates in most sections of the United States.

Famous plant collections were made for formal gardens, which often followed French or Italian formats.

Other estates were designed with a series of gardens which might include one of the formal styles as well as an oriental garden and a natural woodland garden.

Most often, however, a large formal house had a large garden filled with annuals, perennials and bulbs grown haphazardly, even though this was the heyday of the trained landscape architect.

For the first time, at this point, women were admitted to the hitherto entirely male ranks of the recognized landscape designer-architect, and such notables as Ellen Shipman and Gertrude Jekyll became famous.

Gardening entered a new phase by the mid-20th century. Social conditions had so changed that the labor needed for the upkeep of even moderate gardens was hard to find or to pay for. Few people today can afford to maintain the old order of a staff of gardeners, and gardening has become largely a do-it-yourself project.

Sometimes either a weekly handyman is employed to mow the lawn and do some clipping and weeding, or the general upkeep of the garden, especially of the lawn, is provided by a garden service under contract.

As a result, ease of maintenance is the aim of all garden designers and homeowners.

The whole garden design of the latter half of the 20th century may be said to be one of economy and great personal ingenuity, where the utmost is made of a small area, even if it is only a patio, beside a pool or a terrace with a view.

A development of recent years has been the annual garden tour. These have become a feature of many city suburbs and small towns.

This is an event where a group of gardens of various kinds is offered for a tour sponsored by a garden center or garden club. Tickets are sold for a fundraiser to benefit some project, usually for civic betterment. One suspects that it is also a means of doing a little bragging on the part of the garden owner as to his ability as a do-it-yourselfer.

This has also become the age of the specialty garden, as well as the specialty garden club. The prevalence of herb gardens, rose gardens, wildflower gardens, and the like has increased.

Flower shows are more popular than ever and are another way of displaying one’s prowess as a gardener.

It is far more satisfying to show off one’s own prize roses or chrysanthemums than of those of one’s employed gardener.

It seems fairly clear that gardening is as important a part of the human experience as it has been from time immemorial, and that it will no doubt go on being an important one for the foreseeable future and beyond.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.