As GardenSIte's plant specialist I always keenly anticipate the HTA National Plant Show. This is my chance to visit nurseries, find out what's trending in the horticultural world and source new stock, all from under one roof.
Britain's place in the world was key to Victorian garden design. With an Empire on which the sun never set, it was natural that plants would be gathered from the furthest pink shaded corners of the globe. They would then be transported back to, and this is important, not only grand gardens but the modest plots of the burgeoning middle classes.
Better communications helped to spread horticultural knowledge and ideas. Inventions such as the lawn mower impacted on what could be achieved and how much nature could be controlled. And increased leisure enabled more time to be spent in the garden either looking after it or relaxing.
Neatly manicured lawns and well stocked exuberant borders were the order of the day. Your ornate planting scheme would include many seasonal plants in geometric patterns, summer bedding behind neatly snipped box. The path and edging would be terracotta tiling leading to a doorway bordered with climbers.
With the importation of more exotic plants and an increasingly ostentatious approach, gardening was all about show not harmony with nature. It wasn't until the late 19th century when a more naturalistic planting was once again promulgated.
There was an increasing interest in the science of hybridization with the development of many new cultivars, and if there is anything that absolutely symbolizes this trend it is the rose.
There were so many new rose varieties that whole gardens, or at least beds in more modest spaces, were devoted to them. To suit the times, and before being superseded by the more modern hybrid teas, the hybrid perpetual roses had large scented decorative white, pink or red blooms. The beautiful red scented Countess of Oxford, the luscious pink Georg Arends, the darkly crimson Empereur du Maroc or the white Gloire Lyonaisse were all new to the Victorians.
Dahlias were another popular plant with over 500 cultivars. You can understand why, with their vibrant colours and showy disposition. 'White Aster' and 'Kaiser Wilhelm' with yellow petals tinged with dark red, are two of the surviving hybrids.
All the world's a plant
It might be easier to list plants that the Victorians didn't favour. Trawling the world for the bright and beautiful, here are just a few of the popular ones: Agapanthuses with their showy purple flowers, hollyhocks - tall with spikes of rosette blooms, 'Love Lies Bleeding' showing off its crimson tassels, snapdragons, asters, chrysanthemums, yellow and red calceolarias, marigolds, pansies, violas, hyacinths, lilies, irises, sweet peas and red hot pokers. In essence, showy, vibrant flowers full of colour with a touch of the exotic.
Shrubs, the bolder the better to show off your status, included hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, forsythias, cotoneasters, skimmias, camelias, magnolias, viburnums and fushias. No gardener would think it a bad idea to place a yucca in the most inappropriate setting, the idea was to flaunt every acquisition.
Ferns were also tremendously well regarded, perhaps because land owners could show off their impressive glasshouses and ferneries, the only places where tender specimens could survive. They were also thought to boost your love life. Fern collecting expeditions set off in all directions and there was even a name for the addiction, Pteridomania or Fern-Fever resulting in the near extinction of some native species. The fanaticism is unsurprising as they add texture, drama and represented the Victorian values of endeavour and exploration.
Ornaments were important to add structure and interest to the Victorian garden, bird baths, sundial, statues, urns – placed surreptitiously or as a focal point. If you can't get hold of an original, Haddonstone have been manufacturing cast stone ornaments from original designs for the past 40 years and their extensive range contains all the ornamentation required to reproduce your own Victorian artifacts.
Again particularly if gathered from some far off land, many types of trees were valued, none more so than the Monkey Puzzle which became commercially available in the 1840s. Fruit trees also became fashionable, so it would be interesting to plant a Victorian variety such as the sweet Egremont Russet or the heavy cropping Newton Wonder. For pears, choose the excellently flavoured Triomphe De Vienne that has been growing vigorously since 1864 and, from the same pollination group, Josephine de Malines.
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