The first owners probably put in a few shrubs and perennials when the house was built, and added more as the years passed. Some plants died and were replaced. Others got too big and were yanked. New owners brought in plants they liked, and things continued to change.
Over time, one ends up with a 21st-century garden surrounding a 19th-century house. That garden may be attractive and enjoyable, but a garden with 19th-century plants might be more harmonious. Creating it can be a fascinating project for a gardener.
For advice I contacted Ginny Bishop and Barbara Luke, docents at the Tate House Museum in Portland, who help maintain the gardens at the house, built in 1755.
The gardens were re-created using information from an architectural dig and from historical records, which revealed details about the Tate family.
Mary Tate was an herbalist, so naturally there are herb gardens, and the dig revealed terraces, leading down to the Fore River. The Tates owned farmland in nearby Westbrook, which likely kept them in vegetables, so it’s not surprising that the vegetable garden at their home in Portland was small.
In redeveloping the gardens, planners also relied on information about 18th-century Virginia gardens, for which there are many detailed records. Since Virginia is so much warmer than Maine, though, the Tate House gardeners substituted hardier plants. They left out quince, for instance, because the quince of that time couldn’t have survived Maine winters. Also they planted a hedge of germander instead of boxwood, because boxwoods capable of withstanding Maine winters had not yet been developed.
“The gardens of this time were very formal and specific,” Luke said. Thus, the Tate House herb gardens are divided into beds, with sweet herbs, savory herbs and plants to create dyes in separate beds. The museum has eglantine roses and rosa blanda, because they are what would have been available to the Tates.
There are no foundation plantings, because that garden design style was developed in the 20th century to disguise the concrete foundations of new houses with shrubs and perennials. But apple and pear trees grow along the edge of the property.
The Tate House grounds are not 100 percent historically accurate. For instance, today, the house has a lawn, which would not, could not, have existed in 1755 (lawns are a Victorian addition to garden design). But the museum planted a lawn regardless in order to keep the grounds (and visitors’ shoes) tidy, so mud doesn’t get tracked into the Tate home.
The walkways, now brick, likely were made of flint originally, because flint was used as ballast in ships coming from England, so was easy to obtain. But today, flint would also track into the house with the many visitors to the museum and could damage the floors. Where the lawn now stands may have also been flint, providing a spot for wagons and horses.
Of course, most houses are not museums – yours isn’t – so you have more leeway to create a garden that suits the era your house was built, yet still works for you today. If you’re interested in doing so, the first step is to learn what’s in the garden now, advises landscape architect Lucinda Brockway, owner of Past Designs, a landscape design and preservation company in Kennebunk. She suggests you spend a year looking at what grows in your garden, recognizing that some plants may not bloom because they are old and tired or crowded out by other plants.
During that year, search for any photos of the house from the time it was built (not so easy if your home is from 1755, of course). Even if you can’t identify the plants in the pictures, you can at least tell where things were planted. And remember, older homes would not have had foundation planting.
“One of the biggest mistakes is having a little historic Cape, a small house on a small lot, with a lot of evergreen shrubs in front of it, which have grown tall and entirely hide the house,” Brockway said.
The next thing to evaluate, Brockway said, is how much you actually like to garden. If you want things to look good without much work, plant some bullies – bee balm, rudbeckia, peonies and hosta – and let them go. “It will look very period appropriate, and it’s hard to kill them,” she said. “Bullies” – this really is a gardening term – are perennial plants recognized by gardeners as sturdy and hardy but are more easily managed than invasives or other aggressive plants. If, on the other hand, you like to garden, plant older roses, snakeroot and others that require more care.
For most homeowners, it’s more important to capture the feel of the period when the home was built than to replicate a period garden precisely, Brockway stressed. Bishop and Luke from the Tate House agreed, noting that the Tate House garden features old-fashioned phlox, which gets decimated each year by powdery mildew. Homeowners are better off planting newer, more resistant varieties, they said.
Brockway also advised people to visit house museums to study their gardens, such as Longfellow House in Portland, Hamilton House in South Berwick and Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
One of the most interesting websites I found while researching this column is that of Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, Vermont. The site describes typical gardens of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and lists plants introduced in each of those centuries. Click on “gardening resources” to find the list. The nursery sells most of those plants.
Old House Gardens is one of my wife Nancy’s and my favorite bulb catalogs, and it sells heritage bulbs. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at monticello.org also has lists of historic plants, including some for sale. And selectseeds.com and prairiemoon.com are more good resources for heritage seeds and plants.
This gardening season may be winding down, but if you’d like to bring your garden into better harmony with your home, from the perspective of time, consider spending your winter doing a bit of plant research. Not a bad way to spend the long, cold days ahead.