New love for pretty, old-fashioned Grandmother’s Gardens

Published 5:19 pm Friday, May 1, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
By Dean Fosdick
AP Writer
Even before the coronavirus crisis sparked renewed interest in vegetable gardens and victory gardens, there’s been a movement toward more traditional gardening aesthetics.
For example, there are what’s known as Grandmother’s Gardens. These old-fashioned, naturalistic flowerbeds rich in color have much to recommend them in contemporary settings too, said Leonard Perry, horticulture professor emeritus with the University of “Often appearing haphazard or growing at random, these gardens actually were designed as paintings with an eye for composition using color, shape and texture,” he said.
Grandmother’s Gardens are the dated offshoots of American cottage gardens, which contain a diversity of plants, including vegetables and flowers for cutting.
Re-creating them means designing landscapes rich in hardy perennials, annuals and Native American plants, Perry said. And with their abundance of old-fashioned flowers, Grandmother’s Gardens are not the easiest sites to manage. It takes thought to plant the right combinations of historic flowers, and effort to start heirloom plants from seed.
These gardens also call for more maintenance.
“With so many more distractions and choices for our time than our grandmothers had, most gardeners now strive for simpler gardens,” Perry said. “(But) as gardeners add more flowers back into beds for pollinators, or combine flowers with edible herbs and vegetables, they are beginning to recreate gardens with a few traits similar to what their grandmothers may have grown.”
And with today’s coronavirus lockdowns, many people are looking to spend more time on garden projects.
Grandmother’s Gardens, with their more relaxed aesthetics, were popular landscape fixtures from the end of the Civil War until the early 1920s.
“They differed from gardens abroad, such as English gardens, in that they were most often the work of one person, usually a woman, instead of a team of gardeners, usually men,” Perry said.
Many of the old standards like nasturtiums, English primroses, bachelor’s buttons, sweet peas, gladiolus, hollyhocks, lilacs, foxgloves and columbines —flowers many of us remember from childhood —had become as unfashionable as typewriters, videotapes or fur wardrobes. But every fashion provokes a reaction, which leads to new movements that rediscover traditional materials, and that includes plants, said Scott Kunst, founder and former owner of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Slowly but surely, gardeners turned away from the brightly colored exotic annuals of the Victorian era in favor of flowers that had a long history in Western gardens, especially perennials such as peonies and iris, self-sowing annuals such as larkspur and poppies, and bulbs that would return and multiply year after year such as daffodils and snowdrops,” Kunst said. They were planted in artlessly informal mixes that harkened back to the humble days of England’s “cottages,” the homes of poor rural folk, and America’s colonial days, Kunst said in an email.
“Grandmother’s Gardens also emphasized an appreciation for plants as plants, not just blobs of color, and as offering gardeners a connection with the real world, which I think is an important part of gardening for many of us today,” Kunst said.
“Hardscaping and backyard kitchens do little to connect us with nature, but working with plants does, which is something I learned from my grandmother,” he said.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox