Take an adventure into the past: Plant a ‘historic’ garden

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Research, developing and planting a garden to reflect a particular period of time can be a real adventure into the past. Whether you are interested in recreating a landscape from the period when your home was built or another time in history, research should be first. Even incorporating some historical reminders of the past into a modern garden setting to suggest a certain period or style requires some groundwork.

Begin the investigation by finding out as much about the site and surrounding land as possible. Study the deeds and land records for some insight into the past. Primary plant reference materials should concern southern landscapes and the closer to home, the better.

Who has previously lived in the home? What were their occupations? Let’s just say that the original owners were a farming family of moderate means. Their home, a simple cottage, was constructed in 1895. Most likely, their garden would have reflected this lifestyle.

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After a long day of farming, there were probably even more chores to tend to at home. Only a small simple garden would have been practical; large enough to plant a few vegetables, some herbs for seasoning and medicinal purposes, and if there was any extra space, a few flowers for cutting. Perhaps a passalong rose occupied the landscape along with a fruit tree or two.

Photographs are of course invaluable. The collection of Henry C. Norman’s photographs of Natchez allow us see for ourselves what the landscape looked like between the years of 1870 to 1913. Chinaberry trees are evident throughout the city.

The balcony of R.S. Dixon’s store at 110 Main St. was decked with hanging baskets and scores of potted plants.

Journals, diaries, letters and personal documents often contain references to gardens. Antique collections of pressed flowers, landscape plans or lists of plants from local nurseries are extremely important.

Plantsman Thomas Affleck visited Washington in 1842 and wrote that &uot;figs now in perfection, the last certainly the greatest luxury in the fruit line I ever partook of.&uot; He soon settled there and started a nursery where he planted a fig tree orchard. In 1852 he listed 15 fig varieties for sale.

After the date is selected for the period you plan to recreate, examination of plant material available at that particular time must be considered.

A period landscape including the Burford holly before 1900, or pink iris before 1960 would be incorrect for historical plantings suitable for a home built in 1860.

Furthermore, the selected plants should be studied enough to be certain that they were available in this part of the country. Although there has been much literature written containing lists of plants and the coinciding date of introduction, rarely is it mentioned exactly where the introduction occurred. If a certain daffodil was introduced to Charleston, S.C., at a particular time, it may not have been commonly planted in Natchez until some years later.

Other limitations concerning general introduction dates include the fact that not all plants were widely accepted. Like today, the &uot;new&uot; plants of days gone by were many times poor performers in a particular climate or disappointing in other ways.

Trends dictated what plants were popular during each decade. Just because a variety was introduced well before a certain date, it may have gone out of style at that point in time you are aiming to recreate.

Restoring or reproducing historic gardens can be a challenging learning experience. It could also be rewarding monetarily. After all, gardeners travel the globe searching out beautiful gardens.


Traci Maier