At this time of year, as the garden tumbles into autumn colors in preparation for its winter sleep, it’s difficult to not search out garden photos — whether of my own garden, the gardens of other bloggers, or especially gardens of the past.
It’s in those old photos, the kind that give a peek into a moment in time, that the questions start to swirl. What plants did they select and why? Where was the best spot to view the garden? What were the scents and aromas? The sounds? Who tended the beds? What tools did they use?
Enter The Victorian Garden (Shire Publications), a fact-filled and image-rich book by Caroline Ikin. Beautifully crafted, the book not only offers a clear explanation of Victorian garden style and history, it also celebrates the Victorian gardeners and their innovations — accomplished through Ikin’s skill at bringing readers along as she steps through the garden gate.
Recently, I had the chance to ask Caroline Ikin about her book, the Victorians, and life in her own garden.
NGDM: I first have to begin with congratulations on such a well-researched book that is full of stunning photos and illustrations. In fact, I was tempted to rip out a few and frame them. How difficult was it to compile and organize the wealth of information?
CI: The structure of the book fell into place fairly quickly as it seemed natural to deal first with the social context of gardening, then to look in detail at the various garden styles adopted and created by the Victorians. The social upheaval and innovation of the era revolutionized gardens and horticulture and I wanted to show how closely gardens reflected these social changes. As for the illustrations, I was very fortunate to be able to delve into the extensive archive at The Garden Museum in London, which has collections of historic photographs, seed catalogues, botanical drawings, illustrations from gardening journals and advertisements – a real treasure trove of visual information to accompany the text.
NGDM: In the book, you devoted one chapter to each individual Victorian garden style: Gardenesque, Italianate, Wild Garden, Historic Revival, Arts and Crafts. To which style are you most attracted and why?
CI: I’ve always been drawn to the excess and exuberance of the Victorian Italianate garden with its parterres filled with thousands of bedding plants, meticulously planned and positioned, deliberately ostentatious, relaying a message of wealth and class. The way Italian gardens are adopted and reinterpreted by the Victorians is also so typical of the self-possession of the era: borrowing a historical style and embellishing it to suit their tastes and culture. The Victorian version of the Italian garden is, in fact, a mixture of historical styles from French, Dutch, Italian and Tudor garden traditions, “improved” by the use of hybridised bedding plants, to create something quintessentially Victorian.
NGDM: One of the cornerstones of the Victorian garden was the use of glass, specifically glass houses and conservatories. In the States, many of our botanical gardens often have a glass house as its centerpiece, and each time I enter one, I can’t help but feel as if I’m entering another time, another place, another climate. What do you experience when you see or enter a glass house?
CI: Glasshouses are one of the marvels of Victorian engineering achievement and the fact that many have survived – some with their original plantings – gives them that quality of stepping into the past. I always wonder how all those visitors to Paxton’s Crystal Palace must have felt as they gazed up into the glittering vaults – were they more impressed by the architecture, or the exhibits within? Some of my favourite glasshouses are ferneries, created to display collections of new and unusual species from abroad at the height of the Victorian fern craze, often including pools and rockwork as a natural setting for the plants.
NGDM: Why do you think there is still a strong interest in Victorian gardens? Is it sentimental romanticism, a longing for once was? Or is it something else?
CI: The Victorians were unpopular for such a long time, with a shocking number of buildings demolished and artworks overlooked, but the tide has turned and there is now a new appreciation of the achievements of the Victorian era. The rediscovery and restoration of important Victorian gardens such as Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire and the Italian Garden at Regent’s Park in London has refocused public interest, and the increasing number of Victorian kitchen gardens being brought back into cultivation allows us to appreciate the hard work, innovation, expertise and pride in perfection of the Victorian gardener – qualities valued by gardeners today.
NGDM: As I read your book, it occurred to me that many of our present-day garden practices, such as mass bedding plants and even the lawn mower, could be directly linked to the Victorian era. Is there anything else that the average home gardener can attribute to Victorian gardeners?
CI: Just about everything: fertilizer, pesticides, hosepipes, garden magazines and books, glasshouses, hybridised plants, mail order seeds, horticultural shows, lawns, public parks. The practice of amateur gardening was itself a product of the Victorian era, as was the rise of women gardeners, and the plant hunters were bringing back shiploads of new species from abroad, many of which are garden favourites today. Traditional gardening practices, passed down through the generations, were explained by Victorian scientific advancements and improved by Victorian technology.
NGDM: To truly make a garden “Victorian,” what are the three essentials that the average home gardener should do or include?
CI: The Victorians were great fans of collecting, so a display of ferns, orchids, specimen trees or rhododendrons would be fitting. A rock garden was also a popular feature in early Victorian gardens, some actually imitating mountain scenery by incorporating scale versions of the Matterhorn or the Khyber Pass. To emulate the fashionable Victorian suburban garden you would need to feature a neatly-mown lawn with island beds filled with ribbons of contrasting colours of hybridised bedding plants, all immaculately presented.
NGDM: You’ve focused a lot of your research and work on the Victorian time period. What is it about that moment in history that attracts you? Do you sometimes think you were born in the wrong time or wish you could have lived then?
CI: I’ve just finished writing another book called The Victorian Gardener, exploring the history of the profession from apprenticeships and training to wages and working conditions – there’s just so much to say about the Victorians. I’m drawn to the art, literature, and gardens of the period as they reflect the tremendous social changes caused by advancements in industry, population movement, female emancipation, scientific enquiry, discovery, and invention. To the Victorians, anything was possible. For me, I think the class structure and social conventions would prove too limiting. Even the pioneering female gardeners at Kew left the profession after a few years to marry, as they were forced by convention to choose between a career and a family.
NGDM: Since this is a gardening blog, I have to ask: How does your garden grow? Do you follow any Victorian methods and/or designs?
CI: My garden is almost entirely devoted to fruit and vegetables but, unlike the Victorian kitchen gardeners, I’m unable to harvest produce and flowers all year round and my rows of lettuces rarely look as neat as those in nineteenth century photographs. My husband is the Head Gardener at Nymans in West Sussex, so I leave the horticulture to him, although I do like to do a bit of weeding.