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Gardening traditions: Historic gardens continue to influence modern designs

Historic gardens combined beauty and necessity. Ashley Miller/Daily

MIDDLETOWN – Sari Carp, of Woodstock, discovered an interest in historic gardening when she lived abroad. But her interest in history began when she was a little girl. It wasn’t until later in life that she combined the two, discovering her newfound interest in the history behind historical gardens and the stories they each told. 

“I’m not sure there was a particular ”aha” moment, to be honest,” Carp said. “It probably was through seeing gardens of different cultures and periods, though. And also because I’m interested in food and international cuisine, which of course is based on what was grown historically in various areas.”

History suggests that the concept of ornamental gardening began over 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. As styles spread and changed over the centuries, gardening became an artistic expression of beauty through nature, a display of taste or style, while providing an expression of an individual’s status or national pride. 

“As you stroll through Virginia’s many historic gardens you notice one thing. They served a purpose,” Carp said. “When early Virginia gardeners crossed the oceans to start their new lives here in the colonies, they brought with them the benefits of European gardening. Their hope was to re-create their cozy English or German gardens in the New World. What they didn’t realize were the obstacles they would encounter as they tried to make their garden home away from home.”

When early settlers arrived in the American colonies during the 15th century, they brought with them not only the comforts of home but intricate garden designs, tools, seeds and various plant species.

Lovage is a popular herb with dark green leaves and yellow flowers. The leaves and seeds are used for flavoring stews, soups and salads. Lovage was commonly added to teas in the 14th century. Ashley Miller/Daily

“Colonial Virginia kitchen gardens, like those we can see today in Williamsburg, strongly resembled their English counterparts,” Carp said. “They were laid out in neat rows, typically in raised beds and were surrounded by fencing to keep out hungry animals like deer and rabbits, or neighbors and Native Americans.”

Gardens included gooseberries, lovage, baptisia, bee balm, rosemary, mint, sage and yarrow.

While it was rare, Carp said some gardens housed flowers that were considered to have medicinal purposes, but for the most part, she said only wealthy individuals had ornamental plants or flowers in their gardens.

“Early gardeners encountered obstacles they didn’t have back home,” Carp said. “As we know, Virginia soil can be quite challenging. As are our summers and winters. Gardeners encountered the freezing of their favorite plants during the winter months and the wilting or bolting during our hot and humid summers.”

Carp said during her research she discovered that a small group of Virginia gardeners decided to plant and try to grow Mediterranean plants, especially grapes, because “they thought they would thrive in our hot climate.”

Bee balm, a popular perennial flowering plant, attracts bees and other pollinators. Ashley Miller/Daily

“The issue with that was Mediterranean summers are very dry, not humid like we see here in Virginia,” she said. “So their plan ultimately failed because the grapes simply couldn’t survive the humidity.”

Carp said it took over a century for gardeners to understand the importance and benefits of native plants.

“Garden enthusiasts like Thomas Jefferson began to understand the importance of native plants,” Carp said. “So instead of continuously importing European plants, Jefferson began cultivating locally.”

It was during the 18th century that Virginia gardens began to change as the rise of the great plantation homes began, like Monticello in Charlottesville and Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown.

“Capability Brown in particular, who designed the idea not to have a garden in a perfect square or rectangular but to have a more open natural look was brought to America by traveling intellectuals like Washington and Jefferson,” she said. “His style emphasized a wilderness look, with sweeping vistas and calculated asymmetry.”  

Early settlers learned to develop their gardens suitable to their needs. Popular fruits and vegetables included berries, potatoes, peppers and beans brought over from Europe in the early 15th century. Ashley Miller/Daily

The 19th century taught Americans how to home garden more than any other century. Carp said by the mid- to late 1800s, garden designs were beginning to vary, often mimicking the architectural styles seen in American homes.

“Gardens that accompanied a gothic-style home typically had plants that mimicked the structure of the home,” she said. “You would see plants that were dark shades with varying textures.”

In the South, gardens continued to follow a more traditional rule than their northern counterparts.

“During the 19th century a shift occurred and Victorian gardeners throughout the country began incorporating more dramatic, exotic plants and weren’t afraid to mix cultural influences.”

Carp said the 20th century was dominated by the lawns, “arguably one of the worst environmental disasters gardens have seen to date.”

Toward the end of the 20th century into the 21st century, a more promising movement has begun to occur with the rise of edible landscaping and the emphasis on native plants, pollinators and lawn replacement.

“I think people are interested in historic gardens because of the stories they share,” Carp said. “I know for me the story behind bee balm and the Boston Tea Party was an early indicator of my shared interests in both history and historic gardens. For many, the stories behind each plant or flower invite an interest in how gardening has changed over the centuries. And for many garden enthusiasts, that’s simply enough.”

Carp will give a lecture on creating a personal historic garden  on Wednesday at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum at James Madison University. For more information, visit www.jmu.edu/arboretum/events/adultprograms.shtml

Carp and Sustainability Matters, of which she is a co-founder, will discuss the 1760 White House and the 19th-century brick farmhouse, highlighting the buildings’ role in the valley’s history, as well as historic Virginia garden design, crops of early European settlers, food storage techniques, and the importance of saving seeds on  Aug. 11 at White House Farm Foundation in Luray.

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