The Victorians were famed for their lavish gardens—living works of art carefully crafted according to aesthetic principles aimed at cultivating beauty, refinement, and leisure. Their approach was guided by the notion that a well-appointed landscape is like a “series of outdoor rooms” comprised of “walls” (border shrubs, fencing & paths), “floors” (lawn), and “furniture” (flowers, trees, statuary & décor). Each “room” might have its own theme. For example, kitchen herbs might be in one defined area, flowers of a certain color family, species, or geographical origin in another.
Fences, trellises, and ornamental shrubs were used to visually define the borders of the garden and to create distinct pathways throughout. Gateways, arches, and arbors served as thresholds to cross, reinforcing a sense of moving through space, from room to room, so to speak.
The lawn was approached as a blank canvas for creating a masterpiece of blooms and ornate garden décor. Large estates and formal gardens featured well-groomed expanses of grass maintained by horse-drawn mowers, while for smaller lawns, the newly patented push mower was employed.
Due to sweeping advances in plant breeding and specimen collecting during the mid-19th century, Victorian gardens boasted exotic arrays of flora from around the world. Common Victorian garden plants included Aster, Begonia, Bluebell, Calendula, Chrysanthemum, Cockscomb, Fern, Geranium, Heliotrope, Marigold, Moonflower, Morning Glory, Nasturtium, Orchids, Pansy, Periwinkle, Petunia, Primrose, Rose, Snapdragon, Sweet Alyssum, Tulips, and Zinnia. Trees were used to create shade, offering striking visual contrast between light and dark while providing a respite from the sun on a hot summer’s day. Weeping tree species of Willow, Spruce, Elm, Cedar and Cherry were especially beloved. Vines were trained across trellises to hide eyesores such as fences and tree stumps and to create shade on porches and pavilions. Ornamental urns, sculptures, water fountains, sundials, gazing balls, and birdbaths lent architectural and artistic appeal while cast iron benches, wicker chairs, and gazebos created spaces well-suited to socializing and entertaining.
While cottage gardens were more relaxed and less defined, formal gardens followed a highly structured layout. According to Ornamental Gardening for Americans, 1896, a proper garden should accord with 3 primary principles:
- Open Space
Let it be noted at the outset, that the partly open feature of a landscape is most essential, if we would have beautiful gardens. The open area affords a field for viewing the garden-beauty, a space for admitting cool breezes and sunshine; a playground for shadow, and then, most important of all, that degree of general repose and breath without which no garden can be satisfactory.
- Contrast & Interest
In employing trees and shrubs for ornament, such a selection should be aimed at ensuring the greatest possible degree of beauty and interest attainable. The right idea in the garden is to bring together such kinds of trees and shrubs as possess contrasting qualities. Beautiful effects spring from combining differently tinted species and varieties of the same genus. For instance, the light and dark Spruces, Pines, and others, may be contrasted with one another, and so on with different kinds indefinitely.
- Ornate Borders, Open Center
In the matter of general style and location of groups, it is obvious, as we consider the importance of retaining certain open stretches of lawn, that as a rule the masses must, in all small spaces, be set along the margins of the grass plat, keeping the center open. In all fair sized places, the boundary masses may jut inwards to a considerable distance here and there, and some isolated clumps be introduced for creating minor vistas. It is the special merit of the grouping system that it tends to give an enlarged idea of the size of the place. Grounds with the boundaries shut off by masses, and those arranged with irregular outlines, will look larger than they would if the boundary lines were plainly in sight.
Keeping these guidelines in mind, a Victorian garden of your very own is but a growing season away! Is your garden décor in need of a little refreshing? Visit the Victorian Trading Company garden department for a helping hand!
Now lastly, a few exquisite Victorian-style gardens for inspiration…
Hurd, Cheryl. “Victorian Garden.” Victoriana Magazine. <http://www.victoriana.com/gardening/victoriangarden.html>.
Weishan, Michael. “Elements of the Victorian Garden: Lawn, Shrubs, & Trees.” Old House, New Garden. Traditional Gardening Magazine. 4 Aug 2009. <https://michaelweishan.com/gardenblog/?p=830>.