Old Time Gardens
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE was a restful charm and dignity surrounding the garden of olden times that is lacking in the formal ones of to-day. This effect was gained partly from the prim box borders and the straight, central path, and partly from the stateliness of the old-fashioned flowers. Gardens formed a distinctive feature in the colonists' home grounds, from the time of their landing on unknown soil. At first they were very small, and consisted mostly of wild flowers and plants that had been brought from their homes in England and Holland. The early settlers brought with them to this new land a deep love for floriculture, and the earliest garden plots filled with flowering plants, though rude in construction, saved the house mother many a heart-ache, reminding her as they did of the beautiful gardens in the motherland left behind.
We find in the earliest records of the new settlers allusions to flowers, and Reverend Francis Higginson speaks of the wild flowers which he saw blossoming near the shore. He considered them of enough importance to record in his diary on June 24, 1629, writing "that wild flowers of yellow coloring resembling Gilliflowers were seen near the shore as they sighted land, and that as they came closer they saw many of these flowers scattered here and there, some of the plots being from nine to ten feet in size."
Four of the men who went ashore on the twenty-seventh of that month found on the headlands of Cape Cod single wild roses. Later on he tells again of the number of plants found growing, giving their names. These facts have enabled people in later years to locate the same flowers growing near the same places as when they were first discovered.
Governor Bradford also considered the flowers of importance, and in his historical account of the Colonies of New England, he tells us that "here grow many fine flowers, among them the fair lily and the fragrant rose."
On Governors Island in Boston Harbor 'Pere rich vineyards and orchards, as well as many varieties of flowers. Governor Winthrop, inserting a clause in the grant, said that vineyards and orchards should be planted here; that this was complied with is shown from the fact that the rent in 1634 was paid with a hogshead of wine.
Following the growth of colonist gardens, we find that John Josslyn arrived in Boston four years later, in 1638, and that soon after his arrival he visited his brother's plantation in Black Point, Maine. He made a careful list of plants that he found here, each one of which he carefully described and sent in part to England, and it is interesting to note that in those days, the colonists in the spring gathered hepaticas, bloodroot, and numerous other wild flowers.
His description of the pitcher plant is graphic : "Hollow leaved lavender is a plant that grows in the marshes, overgrown with moss, with one straight stalk about the bigness of an oat straw. It is better than a cubic high, and upon the top is found one single fantastic flower. The leaves grow close to the root in shape like a tankard, hollow, tight, and always full of water." The whole plant, so he says, comes into perfection about the middle of August, and has leaves and stalks as red as blood, while the flower is yellow.
Mr. Josslyn also speaks of the fact that shrubs and flowers brought from England and Holland by the Puritans as early as 1626 were the nucleus of old-fashioned gardens, and that woadwaxen, now a pest covering acres of ground and showing during the time of blossoming a brilliant yellow, was kept in pots by Governor Endicott, while the oxeye daisy and whiteweed were grown on Governor Endicott's Danvers farm.
He also tells us of the gardens with "their pleasant, familiar flowers, lavender, hollyhocks, and satin." "We call this herbe in Norfolke sattin," says Gerard, "and among our women, it is called honestie and gillyflowers, which meant pinks as well, and dear English roses and eglantine."
The evolution of the garden commenced at this time, and from then until fifty years ago the old-fashioned garden was in vogue. There was much sameness to this kind of garden; each one had its central path of varying width, generally with a box border on either side, while inside were sweet-smelling flowers, such as mignonette, heliotrope, and sweet alyssum. Vine-covered arbors were the central feature, and at the end of the walk stood a summer-house of simple proportions, sometimes so covered with trailing vines as to be almost unseen.
It was here on summer afternoons that our grandmothers loved to come for a social cup of tea, knitting while breathing in the sweet-scented air, permeated with the fragrance of single and double peonies, phlox, roses, and bushes of syringa. Tall hollyhocks swayed in the breeze, holding their stately cups stiff and upright, and there were tiger lilies, as well as the dielytra, with its row of hanging pink and white blossoms, from which the children made boats, rabbits, and other fantastic figures.
In some of the old-time gardens, the small, thorny Scotch roses intermingled with the red and white roses of York and Lancaster. Little wonder that the perfume of their blooms was wafted through the air, although they were hidden among the taller roses, and there was no visible trace of their presence.
One walked along the broad sidewalks of the old-time cities, expecting to find at every turn a garden of flowers. Not even a glimpse did they obtain, for the gardens of those days were not in view, but hidden away behind high board fences which have now in many cases been changed for iron ones, thus giving to the public glimpses of the central arbor and the long line of path with brilliant bloom on either side.
One reason that the gardens in the olden days were hidden from view was that the houses, more especially the Salem ones, were built close to the sidewalk, and there was no chance for flowers in front or at either side.
Most of the noted old gardens have long since become things of the past, but a few are still left to give hints of the many that long ago were the pride of New England housewives. The estate of the late Captain Joseph Peabody at Danvers, Massachusetts, was at one time famed for its old-fashioned garden. This lay to the right of the avenue of trees that formed the driveway to the house. These trees were planted in 1816 by Joseph Augustus Peabody, the elder son of the owner. The garden proper was hidden from view, as one passed up the driveway, but lay at the front of the house. In its center was a large tulip tree, which still stands, said to be one of the oldest and largest in the country. One of the unique features of the grounds, and one that has existed since the days of Captain Peabody's occupancy, is a small summer-house, showing lattice work and graceful arches. Its top is dome-shaped, surmounted by a gilded pineapple.
There is, however, another historic summer-house on this estate. It was formerly on the Elias Hasket Derby property, and was built about 1790. This was purchased by the present owner of the estate, who had it moved to her grounds, a distance of four miles, without a crack in the plaster. It was built by Samuel McIntyre, and is decorated with the pilaster and festoons that are characteristic of his workmanship. Four urns and a farmer whetting his scythe adorn the top. Originally a companion piece was at the other end, representing a milkmaid with her pail. This latter figure was long ago sold by the former owner and placed with a spindle in its hand on the Sutton Mills at Andover, Massachusetts, where it stood for many years until destroyed by fire. The house itself contains a tool room on the lower floor, while at the head of the staircase is a large room, sixteen feet square, containing eight windows and four cupboards. It is hung with Japanese lanterns, and the closets are filled with wonderful old china. Its setting of flowers is most appropriate.
At Oak Knoll in Danvers is still left the garden that the poet Whittier so much loved. It stands at the side of the house, bordering the avenue that leads from the entrance gate. The paths have box borders, and inside is a wealth of bloom, the central feature being a fountain which was a gift from Whittier to the mistress of the home. It was here he loved to come during the warm summer afternoons to pace up and down, doubtless thinking over and shaping many of his most noted poems. The garden has been carefully tended, and it shows today the same flowers that were in their prime during his life.
Another fine example of a box-bordered, old-time garden is seen at Newburyport, Massachusetts, on the estate of Mrs. Charles Perry. Here the colonial house stands back from the main road, with a long stretch of lawn at the front.. Passing out of the door at the rear, one comes upon a court-yard with moss-grown flagging that leads directly to the garden itself, fragrant with the incense of old-time blooms.
At Indian Hill, the summer home of the late Major Benjamin Perley Poore at West Newbury, much care has been given to the gardens to keep the flowers as they were in the olden days. A feature of this estate, in addition to the gardens, is a shapely grove of trees at the rear of the mansion, that took first prize years ago as being the finest and best-shaped specimens in the county. Many of these trees were named for the major's friends, and they bear names well known to New Englanders.
More than a century ago, when Salem was the trade center of the world, her gardens were renowned. These gardens were at the rear of the dwellings, and it was here that the host and his guests came for their after-dinner smoke, surrounded by the flowers that they loved.
The first improvements in garden culture were made by one George Heussler, who, according to Captain Jonathan P. Felt, came to America in 178o, bringing with him a diploma given him by his former employers. Previous to this period he had served an apprenticeship in the gardens of several German princes, as well as in that of the king of Holland, and was, in consequence, well qualified for the work. The first experience he had in America in gardening was at the home of John Tracy in Newburyport, where he worked faithfully for several years. Ten years afterwards he came to Salem to take charge of the farm and garden of Elias Hasket Derby, Senior, at Danvers, and later worked in other gardens in the city of Salem, where he lived until his death in 1817.
From the records we glean that on October 21, 1796, Mr. Heussler gave notice that he had choice fruit trees for sale at Mr. Derby's farm, while a newspaper of that date informs us that the latter gentleman had recently imported valuable trees from India and Africa and that he had "an extensive nursery of useful plants in the neighborhood of his rich garden." His son, E. Hersey Derby, had a garden of great dimensions at his estate in South Salem, or, as it was then called, South Fields. This was in 1802, and for a long time the fame of this rare and beautiful garden was retained.
Both of the Derby gardens were worthy of attention, and it is said by those in authority that in the Derby greenhouse the first night-blooming cereus blossomed. This was in 1790, and the flower was the true cereus grande flora, not the flat-leaved cactus kind that is now cultivated under that name. It was largely the influence of the beautiful Derby gardens that gave to Salem its impetus for fine garden culture.
Who knows how many romances have been enacted in the old-fashioned gardens of long ago ! They were fascinating places for lovers to wander and in their vine-clad summer-houses many a love-tale was told. The sight of an old-time garden recalls today the early owners, and in imagination one can hear the swish of silken skirts as the mistress of the home saunters down the central path to take tea with friends in her beloved arbor. There were warm friendships among neighbors in those days, and the summer season was marked by a daily interchange of visits ; and so the old-time garden is fraught with memories of bygone festivities and perchance of gossip.
After the close of commerce, the Derby Street houses, formerly occupied by the old merchants, gradually became deserted, and new houses were sought in different parts of the town, farther removed from shipping interests. Chestnut Street was the location of many of these new homes, and here the beautiful old-fashioned gardens were shown at their best. These were usually inclosed, and were reached by a side door, opening directly into a veritable wealth of bloom.
Among the extensive gardens cultivated here was a smaller one containing a greenhouse. This was owned by John Fiske Allen. Mr. Allen was an ardent lover of flowers, and was always interested in adding some new and rare specimen to his collection. From Caleb Ropes in Philadelphia he purchased seed of the Victoria Regia, the water lily of the Amazon. These plants blossomed for the second time in our country on July 28, 1833, the grounds being thronged with visitors during the time of their blossoming. This fact was called to the attention of William Sharp, who had illustrations made for a book on the subject. The following year an extension was made to the greenhouse, and more seed was planted, which had come from England, and, in addition, orchids and other plants were grown.
The Humphrey Devereux house stands almost directly across the street from the Allen house. This garden, under the care of the next owner, Captain Charles Hoffman, became famous, for here the first camellias and azaleas in this country were planted. One of the former plants is still seen in a greenhouse in Salem. Captain Hoff-man had a well-trained gardener, named Wilson, whose care gave this garden a distinctive name in the city. This garden is now the property of Dr. James E. Simpson, and it shows like no other the direct influence of olden times. There is the same vine-clad arbor for the central figure, and the plants which are grown behind box borders are the same that grew in our grandmothers' time. This scheme has been carefully carried out by the mistress of the house, who is passionately fond of the old-time blossoms.
In the garden of the Cabot house on Essex Street, the first owner of the house imported tulips from Holland, and, during the time of their blossoming, threw open the garden to friends. The later owners improved the garden by adding rare specimens of peonies and other plants, and have kept the same effects, adding to the gardens' beauty each year.
While the old-fashioned garden has gone into decline, yet the modern-day enthusiast has brought into his formal gardens the flowers of yesterday. The artistic possibilities of these have appealed so strongly to the flower lover that they have been restored to their own once more. The box border is practically a thing of the past, having been replaced by flower borders of mignonette and sweet alyssum, which afford a fine setting for the beds. Like pictures seem these old-fashioned gardens, framed with thoughts of days long gone by, and one unconsciously sighs for those days that are gone, taking with them the sweet odor of the flowers that grew in our grand-mothers' time.