We’re fortunate to live in an area with many Victorian-style homes. In Victorian times, leisure time became a bit more prevalent and gardens began to expand from simple kitchen gardens to those containing plants for beauty and fragrance. The Victorian age came to be known as one of the great eras for gardening.
The Victorians were the first to create beautiful lawns — the art of growing lovely green grass became a serious pursuit. Entertaining moved onto the lawns in the form of lovely lawn and garden parties. A broad well-tended lawn, accented with a formal garden, was a must.
Victorian gardens are more formal than the cottage garden look. Plantings need to be neat and symmetrical. Flowerbeds planted with flowering plants of the same height became a popular garden element called carpet bedding. The outline of a design or motif was filled with the same color, variety and height of plants.
Gertrude Jekyll, a famous Victorian gardener and author of books on gardening, preferred the ‘herbaceous border’. This style of border grew lower plants along the edge and continued up the ladder of height with the tallest varieties grown in the back. Her philosophy of growing was that each flower should be appreciated for its own intrinsic beauty. Mixing colors, textures and heights added dimension to the flowerbed. Anyone who reads English mysteries will recognize the term ‘herbaceous border’, as it’s usually trampled when the police are searching for clues.
Fencing was an important feature of a Victorian garden. Ornate iron fences and gates allowed a view of the yard, but also delineated where one yard stopped and another began. Picket fences were considered rustic and if used was covered in vines and meandering roses. A natural fence of shrubs was preferred to a wooden one. Shrubbery planted around foundation was done out of a sense of color and design rather than an attempt to cover the foundation. A mixed bag of shrubs might be used to add interest. Popular shrubs to use in a Victorian garden include: Vibernums, Spirea or bridalwreath, Mock Orange, Forsythia, Quince, Boxwood, and Clove Bush. The flounce of flowering shrubs like peonies and hydrangeas were enjoyed and used by Victorians in the landscape and as a way to enhance fences.
The contemporary view often follows the Bauhaus theory of less is more, but the Victorians aspired to a different philosophy. From the gingerbread lace on the front porch to the use of ferns to adorn and create a look of tropical paradise, the theme for the day was to ornament the home, the yard, and life in general. Strategic positioning of ornaments in the yard and flowerbeds brought a sense of wealth and prestige to the homeowner. Birdbaths, sundials, obelisks, and gazing balls all found their way into the Victorian flower garden and yard. The use of empty urns to adorn the entrance to the backyard was a popular choice.
The surprise end to a walk through the garden came with a place to sit for a spell. The addition of seats and benches made the garden and yard inviting. Benches made of wood could be tucked into the backyard flowerbed for resting after pulling weeds. Stone benches continued to be popular, but urns and other embellishments added to the overall theme of opulence. A seat that offered a grand view of the entire garden and landscape was a must. Cast iron tables and chairs set in the backyard presented an opportunity for dining alfresco.
An interesting thing happened to me as I researched the information for this article: while I think I aspire to have an English garden, it turns out that I’ve actually designed a modern Victorian garden. Perhaps I’ll have to start wearing a bustle and serving tea on the lawn!