Posts filed under ‘Garden History’

Garden Inspirations: Our Latest Exhibit

Last year, I had the opportunity to design an exhibit in the Ripley Center, “Design for Small Spaces.” Featuring stumpery, fairy gardens, green walls, terrariums and dish gardens, I hoped to inspire visitors with some ideas they could try at home, even in the smallest of spaces. A favorite component of the exhibit was the fairy garden vignette. With this year’s latest installation, I wanted to delve deeper into the world of miniature gardening.

The new exhibit, “Garden Inspirations,” opened Labor Day weekend in the Ripley Center. Images from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens were used to inspire five miniature landscapes.  Selecting images from the Archives was no easy task. I spent hours narrowing down options from the thousands available in that repository to find “the perfect five” to miniaturize. In my search, I was looking for images that not only documented a range of gardens, but ones I also felt confident in transforming. Which images had features I could replicate with small plants and miniature furniture and would do well in low-light conditions? Ultimately, I found five images I not only fell in love with, but met those requirements.


The Rossetti Garden, Fairfield, Conneticut. June 2013. Stacy Bass, photographer. Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection (left). “Garden Inspirations” miniature interpretation (right).


Hicks Garden, Jacksonville, Florida. April 2010. Charles Burlingame, photographer. Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection. 


Fifth Season, Barrington, Illinois. June 2007. Eric W. Craig, photographer. Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection (left). “Garden Inspirations” miniature interpretation (right). 


The Community Garden, Millburn, New Jersey. July 2012. Lisa Gadsen, photographer. Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection. 


The Gardens at Harmony Woods, Mendocino, California. March 2012. Sandy Scott, photographer. Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection. 

I hope you’ll have a chance to visit “Garden Inspirations” and find inspiration in elements in the pictured gardens for your own plantings, as I did in the miniature displays. What colors, textures, scents, or features might you add to your own garden?

Would you like your garden to inspire other gardeners? Add images and a story about your garden to Community of Gardens, a digital home for sharing and preserving stories of gardens and the gardeners who make them grow. Anyone can add their story, which means that an account of your parents’ backyard wedding, your grandmother’s tomatoes, or your neighborhood’s community garden can become a part of the Smithsonian. Visit to get started.

– Alex Thompson, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

September 11, 2016 at 5:10 pm Leave a comment

A Trip Through New England Gardens

My name is Erin Clark and I’m a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Each year Smithsonian Gardens sends staff on professional development trips to gather inspiration for the gardens. Thanks to this travel grant, I was able to tour the gardens of New England. From Connecticut and the hills of Vermont to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the vistas I experienced were vivid and the people I met were warm and welcoming. Many of the gardens I visited in the area showcased the use of plants, something we like to highlight in tours at the National Museum of American History.



I began with a selection of historic gardens in Connecticut. Starting in Hartford, I visited Hill-Stead, a home designed by an architect’s daughter for her wealthy parents in retirement, complete with a sunken garden by Beatrix Farrand. Works by Monet and other artists hang in the house and the hills outside the home used to be a working farm. I toured with Hill-Stead’s head gardener at a time when the roses bloomed in top form.


Landscape Historian Sheila Wertheimer of the Florence Griswold Museum

At The Florence Griswold Museum I spoke with Landscape Historian Sheila Wertheimer who works with volunteers to ensure that the grounds are beautiful and accurate to their original aesthetic. Sheila enlisted the help of an archaeologist to find the original bed locations. Referencing old photographs and paintings by the artists that flocked to this boarding house turned artists’ colony, she recreated a colonial revival garden, complete with roses, yarrow, and delphiniums. The site now hosts an art gallery and a cafe overlooking the Lieutenant River.

PicMonkey Collage- Erin Blog

View of the gardens and barn at The Florence Griswold Museum.

In Massachusetts I visited the campus of Smith College, toured the greenhouse there, and enjoyed the synoptic beds laid out by plant family. Near Massachusetts’ northern border is a place called the Bridge of Flowers where a footbridge stretches across the Deerfield River, adorned in cottage garden flowers and trees reminiscent of Monet’s garden in France.


Me, about to cross the Bridge of Flowers

Bridge of Flowers collage

Bridge of Flowers

Next I drove to Tasha Tudor’s Garden in Marlboro, VT. There the famous children’s book illustrator lived a quiet life in a house built by her son. The Tudor family leads a few tours each year and still keeps the house much as the artist did during her lifetime. An entire field of lupine greeted visitors at the gate. The garden’s crab apples and daffodils had long since bloomed, giving way to the exuberance of summer. Tasha’s grandson, Winslow, proudly showed us the gardens and chickens. Seth Tudor, Tasha’s son, showed us the beams of the house he built by hand and the tiny puppet studio that the family used to entertain neighborhood children.

Erin and Amy Tudor-copy (002)

Amy Tudor (right) and I (left)

Tasha Tudor, born in 1915, had a love of the old way of doing things, and kept goats, churned butter and gardened, all in  late 19th century style dress. There are still notes on the wall with phone numbers, important dates and weather conditions, and sketches of her beloved corgis. A testament to her love of the artistic process, she chose weaving over modern pastimes like watching television and kept two looms that dwarfed the rooms they occupied. Staying there in Vermont among lakes and evergreens, watching the water birds and the sunset, I could understand why Tasha had chosen this place.

Tasha tudor collage

Meeting place for the Tasha Tudor Garden in Marlboro, VT. The cottage garden, with sweeps of lupine and crabapple, is nestled in the forest. Lupine (right) lines a Vermont roadside.

I was off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire the next day, and explored the preserved town of Strawbery Banke (named in the English of the day). It was named for the wild strawberries that grew along the banks, enough to fill the hull of a ship. Several houses and backyard gardens illustrate this site’s 400-year-old history. Erik Wochholz, the Curator of Historic Landscapes at the Strawbery Banke Museum, led me on a tour and we sampled our way through herbs used for brewing and as garnishes. Kids have an opportunity to wander through colonial gardens, explore a WWII-era store, and even do a paleobotany activity examining modern pollen under microscope.

Strawberry Banke Museum

Herb Garden at Strawbery Banke Museum

John Forti, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Director of Horticulture and Education, met with me for my last stop before heading back to D.C. MHS owns a historic estate next to a soccer park, complete with a grotto, a formal garden and several themed gardens. During the last year, wooden structures and arches have been built and educational interpretation for youth has grown. The veggie garden, next to a peaked frame house built by the monks who once ran the site, is the current domain of several heirloom lettuces, tomatoes, and strawberries, as well as a nesting killdeer.

Heading into the city and to the airport, I was left with beautiful memories of the places I had visited on this whirlwind tour. I learned about the importance plants have in providing a sense of place in a garden.  I saw many different ways of interpreting history with labeling, programs and art. Every place has a different focus, a different plant palette, and a set of people who love it, dedicated to its continuance, much like Smithsonian Gardens.

– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist


August 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm Leave a comment

The Language of Flowers

In literature, mythology, love, and everyday life flowers—light as a feather—are weighted with meaning. In the Victorian era entire guides were published dedicated to the “language of flowers” and the idea that a single flower, or a particular arrangement of flowers, could communicate complex emotions and social cues. Of course, these guides were often at odds with each other and were most likely a faddish folly rather than a prescription for concrete communication in everyday life. One could only hope that if a courting couple were signaling each other with posy holders they were referencing the same book. For instance, a white rose symbolizes “I would be single” according to the 1852 book The Language of Flowers, but in The Illustrated Language of Flowers (1856) a white rose signaled “I am worthy of you.” Unless it was wilted, for then it meant “transient impressions.” Confusion sets in when a white rose was worn with a red rose, which symbolized “unity.” If these books were taken at face value, how easy it would be to send mixed messages. What a beginning to a romantic comedy!

Throughout history flowers have symbolically marked weddings and funerals, the change of seasons, state and national pride, and have symbolized love, hope, rebirth, death, and everything in between. The state flower of Hawaii is the yellow ma’o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei). Hibiscus flowers are often given to visitors to Hawaii as a gesture of welcome. Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil) are known as the flor de muertos and used to decorate the graves of loved ones for Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Flowers find their way into our everyday lives through more personal channels. Our Community of Gardens digital archive is a home for these stories of flowers and gardens and their impact on our daily lives. From the unique peony cultivar developed by a flower-loving neighbor to cakes flavored by the vanilla orchid to memories of a childhood spent in shady backyard abundant with colorful azalea bushes, anyone can share their story with the Smithsonian Institution. We are collecting stories of gardens and plants past and present to preserve for future generations.

Here are some of our favorite flower stories from Community of Gardens—all have a story to tell about the meaning of flowers in our personal histories and culture at large:

Light purple iris in a garden bed

The beautiful “ditch” irises passed down through a family in this Community of Gardens story. The original irises were found on the author’s great-grandparents’ land growing in a swampy area and were transplanted from generation to generation, from garden to garden.

Old photo of a grafted Christmas cactus in a pot

The holidays are just around the corner when the Christmas cactus blooms! At one time Rose Villa Nursery in New Orleans was the largest supplier of grafted Christmas cactus. Read, and listen, to one family’s story of their nursery business and their famous Christmas cactus. 

Close-up of light pin 'Pier Bugnet' rose

The ‘Pier Bugnet’ rose is particularly suited to growing in the cold northern climate of Fairbanks, Alaska. When the rose was in danger of being lost, the Fairbanks Garden Club banded together to save this beautiful flower for their town. Read the full story here.

Do you have a personal story of flowers to share with our archive? We welcome stories about:

  • The development of a particular flower cultivar.
  • Flowers rescued and replanted from family homesteads or lost or destroyed gardens.
  • Family florist businesses or flower farms.
  • Edible flowers. Share your best recipe for squash blossoms with us!
  • Did you grow up in a different country? Is there a flower that reminds you of home, or a flower from your culture you have incorporated into your life in the United States?
  • Flower gardens of all shapes and sizes.
  • What flowers mean to you in your life.

Get started by visiting the Community of Gardens website and clicking on “Share a Story” or emailing us at

 -Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

August 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm Leave a comment

Dad’s Garden

Don’t forget, tomorrow is Father’s Day! Father’s Day means letting dad know you love him, handmade cards, and family get-togethers. Special occasions are the perfect opportunity to learn more about your family history. Is your pops passionate about perennials or peppers?  This weekend, trying to get dad gabbing about his garden. Does he remember the first plant he successfully grew? Who taught him how to garden? What’s his favorite thing to grow? Does he have any tips for young gardeners just starting out? Any old photos of his backyard or garden you’ve never seen before? A secret recipe for the perfect compost soup?

In honor of Father’s Day, here are a few of our favorite dad stories from the Community of Gardens digital archive. Community of Gardens is a platform for collecting stories of American gardeners and gardens for future generations. Become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your dads’s story—or any garden story—today:

Francesco Pietanza holding squash from his garden.

Francesco Pietanza holding up a prize squash grown in his Brooklyn, New York garden, circa 1950s or 1960s.

  • This sweeping story has it all: A young Italian immigrant arrives in Ellis Island in 1948 in search of his younger brother, settles in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, grows a family, and grows beautiful gardens rooted in his Italian heritage, bursting with fresh figs, tomatoes, and garlic. Read the full story here.


Harry Sr. holding his tomato harvest in his home garden.

Paul’s grandfather Harry Sr. with his prized tomatoes in his Colonial Beach, Virginia garden, 1960s.

  • This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes. Paul shared his family’s garden history with Community of Gardens, beginning with his great-grandfather immigrating to America in 1881. His grandfather Harry Sr., above, grew tomatoes, and today Paul maintains a large garden that he tends with his children.
George Napientek outside cleaning up tree damage after a storm on his homestead

George Napientek (on the right) cleaning up tree damage after a storm on his homestead, November 1946.

  • George and Olivia Napientek raised their children on this family homestead in Franklin, Wisconsin surrounded by bountiful vegetable and flower gardens. George taught all of his children to work on the farm at a young age. With hard work comes delicious rewards; according to his children (who shared this story), “apples for applesauce and pie came from Pa’s orchard.” I’m sure that pie was delicious with a tall glass of milk from the dairy cows! Read the full story here.

Honor a dad in your life by sharing his garden story with the Smithsonian. Share here or email us at Help us grow our archive!

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator 


June 18, 2016 at 8:51 am Leave a comment

Preserving Our Garden Heritage One Pixel at a Time

What better way to celebrate National Garden Month in April than to spend some time enjoying historic garden images from the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection!  Thanks to a Smithsonian preservation grant, thousands of images from this collection at the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) were digitized recently and are now available online through the Smithsonian’s Research Information System (SIRIS).  These images–produced by McFarland’s publishing firm which specialized in printing horticultural publications–are just some of the treasures found in AAG which is administered by Smithsonian Gardens and tasked with collecting historic and contemporary garden documentation as a means of preserving our garden heritage.

Very much a renaissance man, J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,was a publisher, author, lecturer, horticulturist and authority on roses.  As the first President of the American Civic Association—a position he held for 20 years—McFarland also advocated for effective civic planning and improvements throughout the U.S. during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) when living and community conditions called out for significant reforms.

McFarland looking over the gardens at his home.

A newly digitized photograph from the J. Horace McFarland Collection showing McFarland looking over the gardens at his home, Breeze Hill, in Harrisburg, Penn. 1942. (PA083039)

McFarland’s printing company, Mount Pleasant Press, published many of the seed and nursery trade catalogs in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.  The J. Horace McFarland Company Collection at AAG includes over 3,000 of the firm’s images, many of which were published in books, catalogs, newspapers, and journals.

The images document an extensive variety of gardens across the U.S. dating from the 1900s to the 1960s, everything from popular parks to small flower patches planted behind crowded urban row houses.  Thanks to the broad range of private and public gardens photographed by the firm, the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection provides glimpses into historic trends and events of the times including World War II’s victory gardens and post-war neighborhood development.  Images that show people working in or enjoying these gardens are especially captivating.  In many cases the photographs are the only evidence left of certain gardens and public spaces.


A World War II-era victory garden at Breeze Hill in 1944. The gardens at Breeze Hill were often employed to stage photographs used by McFarland’s firm, Mount Pleasant Press. (PA083362)

This digitization project was timely since the photographs—which had been pasted onto brittle cardboard mounts –are fragile and subject to continued deterioration.  Rather than scanning the thousands of photographs on a flatbed scanner—both a time-consuming and potentially damaging procedure—each was photographed with a Phase One digital camera under controlled lighting conditions.  High resolution digital images are now readily available for research use and the need to handle the originals has been significantly reduced.  We hope you get a chance to search the McFarland Company Collection online and enjoy the garden history that it documents.

– Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist, Archives of American Gardens

April 8, 2016 at 9:00 am 2 comments

The Great American Lawn

March is a month of green: St. Patrick’s Day decorations, green buds appearing on the trees, and a new hint of green reappearing on our lawns. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard opens March 18th at the Elmhurst History Museum in Illinois. Let’s take a look back at American lawns through the years and our changing attitudes towards the green beneath our feet.

Street of houses with lawns

A long line of American lawns stretching from east to west. Elm Avenue, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1946. J. Horace McFarland Collection, Archives of American Gardens.


In his 1989 article “Why Mow?” Michael Pollan describes the American landscape as a carpet of green stretching in an unbroken line from the East Coast to the deserts of New Mexico to the most arid regions of Southern California. “Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television,” he writes, “the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not.” Lawns are arguably the most prevalent garden feature in the United States.

The popularity of lawns in the United States is an influence from the English school of landscape design. Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the first landscape designers in America, expounded on the virtues of the lawn in his 1841 book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. According to Downing, “the close proximity of fences to the house gives the whole place a confined and mean character . . . A wide spread lawn, on the contrary, where no boundaries are conspicuous, conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”
English lawn

An unidentified English estate lawn, ca. 1930s. Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Lawns were expensive to maintain in the nineteenth century. Before lawn mowers only the wealthiest landowners could afford to hire a full-time gardener to trim the lawns by scythe and pull weeds. A verdant lawn was a symbol of wealth and stature, but the development of the cylindrical lawn mower in the 1880s put a tidy lawn within the reach of the middle class. The forty-hour work week and the increase in home ownership in the mid-twentieth century turned lawn care into the hobby (or curse, depending on who you ask) that it is today.
Commercial illustration from the Burpee Collection

Companies advertised various lawn products that purported to be time savers for homeowners. Here, a man kicks up his feet and enjoys his yard. In actuality many homeowners bemoaned the amount of time–and money–they had to spend on their yard to keep it trim and green. Undated commercial illustration from the 1950s or 1960s, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 In certain parts of the country, lawns that were covered in a dusting of snow a month ago will soon be in need of a good mowing. Many homeowners in the 1950s would have rejoiced to have a healthy lawn in the middle of winter. A plethora of products and chemicals to combat pests and keep lawns healthy year-round flooded the market after the second World War. Much of technology was a direct result of wartime scientific advancement. Advertisements such as those by W. Atlee Burpee & Company peddled every product under the sun to the postwar consumer, from grass seed to DDT to sprayers and lawn mowers.
Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements

Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements, circa 1950-1960. W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Garden magazines published a backlash of editorials in the 1950s and 1960s bemoaning the “keeping up with the Joneses” race to have the perfect suburban lawn. There are even reports of some homeowners being so fed up with lawn maintenance they ripped out their grass and replaced it with green cement. (Of course, the introduction of AstroTurf in the mid 1960s would give irate gardeners another option.)
The Archives of American Gardens includes a photographic examples of almost every type of American lawn imaginable—from bowling greens to sweeping estate lawns to small suburban lots—including a retired lawn!
-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator. A version of this post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog

March 15, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Little Seeds, Big Stories.

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens is a digital archive of stories about gardens and gardening in the U.S.—anyone can add their story to this Smithsonian collection!

Archives can be intimidating. The first time I truly spent any time with an archive was graduate school, researching Gilded Age costume balls in New York City as part of an internship. Flipping through the folders of hundred-year-old photographs inspired both a sense of awe and terror. I was so conscientious, never laying a finger on a photograph, turning the photos just the way I had been told to by the nice (but firm) archivist, and making sure not one thing was out of place when I returned the boxes. Having the opportunity to be so close to history, and the physical trail of documents, photographs, and objects that comes along with it, was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

It can be hard to see how archives connect to our everyday lives, or even to see how our very own stories and lives could be important enough to be included in a museum. The Smithsonian Institution is home to amazing and Important (with a capital “I”) treasures, such as a letter from Galileo and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. But also hidden in these archives and collections vaults are small gems, such as a promotional flower seed box from the mid 1800s to family photo albums.

Our family histories—and our gardens—can seem like just the tiniest, most ephemeral seeds in the vast forest of history, but our memories of “everyday” history have the power tell big stories. A story of grandma’s Victory Garden during World War II and her recipe for sweet canned peaches is also a tale of perseverance and making-do during a time of adversity. Memories of backyard barbecues and Tiki parties on the patio in the 1950s speak of a time of newfound prosperity for the middle class in the postwar years. Your story of the tiny herb garden and cucumbers growing on the balcony of your city apartment? Someday, it could show future historians how individuals contributed to the greening of America’s cities in the early 21st century.

October is American Archives Month, and the theme for 2015 is the “Power of Collaboration.” Our Community of Gardens digital archive depends wholly on collaboration to exist—we are collecting your stories and memories about gardens and gardening! Anyone can submit a memory, story, photograph, or video about a garden in America. You can help us preserve garden history and become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your story with us on the website.

Collage of Family Stories on Community of Gardens

Garden—and family—history comes alive on Community of Gardens.

Here are a few of our favorite family stories submitted by the public from the Community of Gardens digital archive. From left to right:

  1. Four Generations of Gardeners. This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes:
  2. Grandmother’s Garden. A granddaughter shares her memories of her grandmother’s love of roses and gardening:
  3. Camy and Larry’s Backyard Wedding. Recollections of a 1970’s hippie backyard wedding in a woodland setting, with Super 8mm footage. Check out those vintage dresses!

What is your family’s garden story? Get inspired by Archives Month and interview a family member about their garden memories or share your own. It’s a great excuse to dig into those family photos and videos and start asking questions! Share your story this month, or any month of the year.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens Educator

October 22, 2015 at 7:00 am 1 comment

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