If you’re a lover of the outdoors, then you’re well aware that we’ve reached one of the most wonderful times of the year! The sun is shining, the weather is warming, and we’re leaving our winter dens to step outside and breathe in the fresh springtime air. April is also National Garden Month, which gives us a perfect excuse to don sunhats and gardening gloves and start cultivating our outdoor spaces.
While we’re very happy to be outside in our gardens again – turning the earth and planting seeds and bulbs that will bloom in the months ahead – this time of year also brings to mind the glorious gardens of the Victorian era. The Victorians were notorious for planting extravagant gardens, but they didn’t just plant pretty things for utilitarian or cosmetic purposes. Rather, their gardens reflected a larger philosophy about outdoor living in general.
In an attempt to create outdoor parlors for leisure and entertaining, Victorian landowners essentially turned their yards into natural extensions of their indoor environments. Utilizing both new and existing flora, they meticulously crafted elaborate layouts and arrangements outside their homes and cultivated them in ornate, structured ways that were pleasing to the human eye.
Victorian gardens, then, can be understood as a series of outdoor rooms, each with distinct “walls” (border hedges, fencing, paths), “floors” (lawns), and “doorways” (gates, arches, hedge openings). The “furniture” in these rooms consisted of trees, bushes, and flowers, as well as architectural adornments placed strategically throughout the gardens.
New technologies were created in the 19th century that allowed for better outdoor cultivation and landscaping. Invented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830, the lawnmower aided in developing the basic garden “floor.” Manicured sections of lawn were planted and grown between pathways and major garden focal points, providing a uniform canvas on which to plant flowers in ornate, tightly controlled designs and patterns. While the lawn was pleasant enough to look at, the plants were the true works of art – ornamental, decorative, and meant to be admired.
The variety of plants and flowers in Victorian gardens grew in the 19th century, as well. Because England’s economic and cultural reach was rapidly expanding across the globe, Victorians had greater access to new and exotic plantlife. As a result, people began breeding and introducing impressive new floral varieties to their own gardens. Common Victorian flowers included begonias, chrysanthemums, orchids, snapdragons, roses, pansies, periwinkles, marigolds, petunias, primroses, morning glories, tulips, geraniums, and bluebells.
In what is now seen as a Golden Age of Horticulture, new gardening innovations began to grow in every direction during the Victorian Age. “Carpet bedding” involved planting foliage flowers closely together to create a tapestry or decorative “carpet” effect. (Think the lush, ornamental gardens at Disney’s Epcot.) “Specimen trees,” or unique trees grown primarily to be focal points, featured variegated leaves or impressive, distinct forms (like weeping willows). Trees such as spruces, elms, cherry trees, and willows also provided shade that was both decorative and functional.
Some of this new vegetation inspired entire themes in Victorian gardens. “Moon gardens” were created by growing plants and vines that bloomed all-white flowers. These garden “rooms” were gorgeous during the daytime, but they were especially mesmerizing in the twilight hours and at night. Moon gardens were some of the many Victorian gardens that featured “snowball bushes” such as hydrangeas and viburnums, with large white flowering heads that created striking décor along garden paths.
The “furniture” of Victorian gardens went well beyond flowers and trees, though. Ornate sculptures, birdbaths, statuary, fountains, and sundials were placed amid plants and trees to add classical elegance, while ornamental benches and gazebos provided attractive places to rest and entertain.
While many of us will be planting beautiful gardens of our own this spring, we probably won’t be planting anything quite as elaborate as the gardens surrounding Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage. But we can certainly imagine the gardens that grew boldly and beautifully on expansive 19th century estates.
Several Victorian-style estate gardens have been recreated and preserved in the UK, including Gravetye Manor in Sussex; the Chawton House gardens in Hampshire; Waddeson Manor in Buckinghamshire; Bodnant Garden in Conwy, Wales; Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire; Kew Gardens in London; Wakehurst Place in Sussex; and Cragside House in Northumberland.
But now that we’re able to start traveling more widely in the United States again, our wanderlust has us thinking about spectacular gardens we can visit closer to home. Below are a number of the most beautiful gardens you can visit in the United States to see unique and unexpected flowers, plants, and trees without having to fly across the ocean.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden – Richmond, VA
The historic Lewis Ginter Garden features 50 acres of themed gardens, winding pathways, and a classical domed conservatory. Themed gardens include a Rose Garden, a Children’s Garden, and a Cherry Tree Walk.
United States Botanic Garden – Washington, D.C.
Established in 1820, this living plant museum is the oldest continually operating public garden in the United States. Focal points include a vibrant rose garden and a two-acre “secret” garden called Bartholdi Park with the Fountain of Light and Water as its centerpiece.
Missouri Botanical Garden – St. Louis, MO
Founded more than 150 years ago, these garden grounds feature 79 acres of garden displays that include a 14-acre Japanese garden, the estate home of garden founder Henry Shaw, and a magnificent bearded iris garden with almost every color in the rainbow.
Portland Japanese Garden – Portland, OR
Tucked into the hills of Portland’s Washington Park, the Portland Japanese Garden features 12 acres with eight distinct garden styles. Explore tranquil garden ponds, an authentic Japanese Tea House, sand and stone gardens, and a stunning view of Mt. Hood.
New York Botanical Garden – Bronx, NY
Established in 1891, this impressive 250-acre garden – the largest in the United States – features 50 specialty gardens hosting more than a million plants and a Victorian-style glasshouse.
Desert Botanical Garden – Phoenix, AZ
One of the most unique gardens in the United States, the Desert Botanical Garden hosts more that 20,000 native desert plants, including an impressive variety of cacti and succulents.
Other notable American gardens include The Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Dallas, TX, and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.
We hope you’re able to visit one or two of these must-see gardens (or the dozens of other gorgeous public gardens across the U.S.) this spring or summer, and we hope you enjoy growing your own garden throughout the remaining sunny months of the year. If you need any help refreshing your garden décor, furniture, or accessories, you’re always welcome to shop our Garden Collection here.
Happy National Garden Month, and happy Spring!