Elements of the Victorian Garden: Lawn, Shrubs and Trees

If you accept the Victorian metaphor of the landscape as a series of distinct outdoor rooms, with the hardscaping forming the “walls”, “floors”, and “doorways,” of these rooms, then it’s easy to visualize the next step in the building process– ornamenting the room with  “furniture” (trees and shrubs) and “carpets” (lawns). Before you place a single plant though, you need to understand the Victorian concept of the lawn, which is very different from our own.

We live today in an age in which the lawn has emerged as the premiere feature of many gardens. In many places in fact, the lawn has become the garden: in the United States, we spend more on lawns and lawn care than any other aspect of our landscape.  Although the Victorians were equally concerned about the appearance of their lawns, their efforts in creating them were directed to an entirely different end. A good lawn was required not as an ornament in itself, but to provide a verdant canvas upon which to show off the principal decorations of the garden — the trees, shrubs and flowers that were the true heart of the garden. The fact that the lawn also made a perfect surface for entertainment was a happy bonus.

Placement of the lawn was a fairly easy proposition: like a fine rug, it was simply laid down to adorn the empty spaces between major structural elements of the landscape.  Placement of the “furniture” however– the trees, shrubs and flowers of the garden was a much more complicated proposition, and Victorian gardening books go to great lengths in describing the proper ways to “ornament the lawn.”

To understand how the Victorians placed plants in their gardens, its important to realize that once again there has been a complete sea change as to how we view our landscapes. These days, more often than not we choose plants for exceeding utilitarian purposes: a large conifer to block and unpleasant view, shrubs to hide an ugly foundation; a large tree to shade a hot terrace. Utilitarianism above all. Even the most purely ornamental portions of the landscape, like perennial borders, often function purely as a means to an end. While Victorian gardeners were certainly concerned with these practicalities too, by and large Victorian gardens were much more decorative than we are accustomed to today. Part of the reason for this was because trees, shrubs and flowers were often chosen not to fulfill a purpose, but as objects of art. The idea of plants as specimens, to be noticed and admired, was very much the mindset of the times. Interesting foliage color or leaf shape, unusual habit, or pure novelty were all considered ample justifications for inclusion in the landscape.

Notice how in this period illustration, shrubs are placed individually in the lawn as objects of art, very different from our modern conception of how we locate shrubbery in the landscape.

Notice how in this period illustration, shrubs are placed individually in the lawn as objects of art and admiration, very different from our modern conception of how we locate shrubbery in the landscape.

Remember that the 19th century was a time of tremendous change in the garden: beginning in the 1840’s, huge advances in hybridization combined with numerous collecting expeditions to all corners of the globe resulted in an incredible influx of new plants into the Victorian garden. Even the more modest landscapes gardens soon began to bulge with exotic introductions. The zest for novelty, though, had a distinctive downside: many gardeners succumbed to a tendency to try to cram their gardens with as many specimens as possible, and shortly after the Civil War, warnings against such excess became common for Victorian gardening guides.  Trees, shrubs and flower beds should not simply be randomly placed in the lawn, they warned. Artful composition was required, as revealed in these three tips from Long’s, Ornamental Gardening For Americans, 1896:

Ornamenting the Lawn
1) Let it be noted at the outset, that the partly open feature of a landscape is most essential, if we would have beautiful gardens. The open area affords a field for viewing the garden-beauty, a space for admitting cool breezes and sunshine; a play ground for shadow, and then, most important of all, that degree of general repose and breath, without which no garden can be satisfactory. The open lawn spaces, these “playgrounds for shadow” are one of the most distinctive features of the Victorian landscape. Unencumbered by plantings, they were clearly designed to enhance the experience of the garden with views across the property to the vistas beyond.

2) In employing trees and shrubs for ornament, such a selection should be aimed at ensuring the greatest possible degree of beauty and interest attainable. The right idea in the garden is to bring together such kinds of trees and shrubs as possess contrasting qualities. Beautiful effects spring from combining differently tinted species and varieties of the same genus: for instance: the light and dark Spruces, Pines, and others, may be contrasted with one another, and so on with different kinds indefinitely. In general, these groupings were designed with the largest material or most visually massive material towards the center, with lighter and lower material towards the edges. The chief idea was to effectively pair and contrast plants with complementary colors, textures and shapes.  Rather than a straight line of a single species, natural looking plantings of mixed shrubs were the preferred method for creating boundaries in the ornamental areas of the garden.

3) In the matter of general style and location of groups, it is obvious, as we consider the importance of retaining certain open stretches of lawn, that as a rule the masses must, in all small spaces, be set along the margins of the grass plat, keeping the center open. In all fair sized places, the boundary masses may jut inwards to a considerable distance here and there, and some isolated clumps be introduced for creating minor vistas. It is the special merit of the grouping system that it tends to give an enlarged idea of the size of the place. Grounds with the boundaries shut off by masses, and those arranged with irregular outlines, will look larger than they would if the boundary lines were plainly in sight.

For more on Victorian Gardens, check out my book: From a Victorian Garden



Elements of the Victorian Garden: Lawn, Shrubs and Trees — 3 Comments

  1. Very informative and illuminating essay. However, I do wonder whether the advice in Long’s 1896 book might be more Arts & Crafts than Victorian in it’s philosophy. In their garden design, the Victorians loved symmetry and geometry. It was Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson in the late 1800s and early 1900s who pioneered the idea of mixed plantings of shrubs in informal groupings as is recommended in the second quote you reference. Unless Long was completely out-of-date and out-of-fashion, by 1896 the trend was to reject Victorian planting ideals.

  2. Yes and no. Victorian planting, while at times geometric, was never symmetrical, at least in an overall sense – the closest analogy I can make is to architecture, in the way that Queen Anne utilized classical elements and motifs in a completely non classical way. The Jekyll/Robinson movement, while strong in England, didn’t really gain traction here till well after the turn of the century; or conversely, you could argue that the pair was merely formalizing a cottage arrangement that had never truly died out on either continent… You do make an excellent point however: what is truly Victorian vs. early Arts and Crafts? Obviously, much overlap.

  3. Good, this is my 30th visit to your web logs! We are a group of volunteers and starting a new community garden. Thanks for the great info!

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