Gardens tell stories of gardeners, eras

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Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers,where I can walk undisturb’d.

- Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”

There’s a certain promise to a garden - any garden. The flowers that bloom in the spring breathe promises of sunshine and the summer yet to come. But the bee balm, black-eyed Susans and hollyhocks of an old-fashioned garden - “grandmother’s garden” - can carry with them an aura all their own, tied to memory, community and connection in ways that modern hybrids simply don’t have.

“Gardens, like fashions, feed on what’s going on in politics and culture,” said Cindy Brown, the Smithsonian Gardens’ manager of education and collections. “The flowers haven’t changed, but how we perceive them often has.”

Today’s mass-produced plants available in garden centers and big-box stores can be easier to grow and may even bloom more often than their older cousins. But lovers of old-fashioned gardens insist that history can have use and beauty and, sometimes, considerably more scent than many modern hybrids.

The plants’ names themselves also add to the ambience, conjuring up images of a bygone era. Who wouldn’t want to walk down a garden path surrounded by a profusion of sweet william or Canterbury bells? Why not pick a bunch of gillyflowers instead of Dianthus caryophyllus? Who wants to talk about the development of her viola tricolor when she can trade secrets about how to coddle heartsease? After all, your grandmother probably did.

Of course, not everyone had the same grandmother. If your grandmother was gardening in the 1950s and 1960s, she likely would have been using hybrid plants, chemical fertilizers and varieties marketed as “space-age seeds.”

Go back a few more decades, however, and you’re likely to find a few of those older varieties creeping in. Gardeners in the 1930s were fond of petunias and geraniums and often passed their plants’ seeds and cuttings to friends and family.

“Before industrialized agriculture, people saved their seeds and passed them along,” says Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, whose Silver Spring garden contains hollyhocks grown from seeds from her own grandmother’s garden in Indiana. “They’re not hybrids, meaning that they come back true and can last for several generations.”

An avid old-fashioned gardener herself, Ms. Jentz sponsors a seed exchange every January - zinnias and marigolds have been especially popular in recent years.

So have other old-fashioned plants such as cleome, or spider flower, and cosmos. Marigolds are popular for vegetable gardeners, who often edge their beds with them to repel insects. Nasturtiums are making something of a comeback, used in flower beds, window boxes and hanging baskets. The flowers and leaves are edible and sometimes can be found at farmers markets.

“If you mix perennials and annuals, you can have color all summer long,” Ms. Jentz said.

The fact is, though, that not only does the old-fashioned garden tell you a lot about your grandmother, it also can offer a glimpse into the time in which she lived.

“In the 1940s and 1950s, do-it-yourself projects were popular as people moved out into the suburbs,” Ms. Brown said. “People didn’t have front porches anymore, so that informal visiting was replaced by more formal invitations, to backyard barbecues and such, and that’s where you would have your garden.”

Going back to your grandmother’s grandmother will uncover a truly old-fashioned garden.

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