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Gardens tell stories of gardeners, eras

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.

In the years after the Civil War, seed companies, nurseries and horticultural professions grew apace with the American economy. Together, they were looking to produce a new kind of garden, quintessentially American, that would express the nation's emerging sense of self, wrote May Brawley Hill in "Grandmother's Garden: The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915." The result was a combination of plants, including hardy perennials, self-sown annuals and native varieties.

Actually, there were two traditions in gardening during this period, the Smithsonian's Ms. Brown notes.

Stroll around the Enid Haupt Garden outside the Smithsonian Castle, and you'll see an eloquent example of that first trend: carefully edged parterre beds filled with a variety of colorful blooms.

"They used masses of tightly packed and intricate patterns of hybrids and exotics," Ms. Brown said. "It was a way to show off all their plants."

Tropical plants were popular, Ms. Brown noted, as those fortunate Americans who were able to take a grand tour in Europe liked to bring back some proof that they had gone. And in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the newly wealthy had money to spare.

Aficionados of the second trend, called cottage gardening after the English model, looked instead for an explosion of color and a variation in form and texture in a way that crowded everything together in painterly profusion, leaving little room for weeds.

"It's a casual, informal style," Ms. Jentz said.

There was a certain nostalgia, even then, Ms. Brown said, as Americans began to reimagine what the gardens of their forefathers had been like.

"You would have seen monkshood and antique roses, as well as edible flowers and herbs," she said.

Your grandmother's grandmothers also loved working in, painting and photographing their gardens. The American impressionists often painted gardens - Childe Hassam painted the poet Celia Laighton Thaxter's New Hampshire garden scores of times, and the artist Julian Weir regularly added floral accents to his landscapes - a process he called "hollyhocking."

Women especially, Miss Hill writes, saw in gardening a kind of liberation, in which they could bury their hands in viable activity and actually produce something.

Informality was the watchword by the time of the Arts and Crafts movement of the turn of the last century, when gardens were expected to fit both the architecture of a particular home and the lifestyle of a particular family. Gardeners sought to combine the useful with the ornamental and frequently featured native plants.

But the wild profusion and brilliant blaze of color can come at a price that today's granddaughters and grandsons are less willing to pay: time.

The fact is, all that informality takes a lot of energy, and deadheading blooms, collecting seeds and dealing with a garden after a short blooming season can take more time and effort than many of today's gardeners have.

"It's a rare person nowadays who's a garden hobbyist," said David Martin, assistant general manager at Johnson's Florist and Garden Center in Tenleytown. "They don't want a garden; they want a landscape."

Mr. Martin also points to other drawbacks associated with heirloom or older plant varieties, including disease, lack of drought resistance and a tendency to droop after just a few days.

"A lot of people now are asking for the wave petunia," he said. "It's got a cascading head and is drought-resistant."

Today's gardeners, particularly those in the Greater Washington area, want blooms all season long, with plants that look heathy and maintain their form even after the season has passed. Commercially cultivated species such as native mallow have been redefined to work in a modern garden.

"People come in and want it all done in one weekend," Mr. Martin said. "Gone are the days when people went to nurseries every weekend. People are buying based on what they are seeing blooming at the time."

And they are not as interested in indigenous species as some would have you think.

"Talk about native plants is a relative term," Mr. Martin said. "A lot of people consider them weeds. They want a better variety in terms of look."

There are drawbacks associated with some of the newer varieties, though. The popular wave petunias, for example, have a limited color range and no scent. And if you try to save their seeds, you're likely to end up with something that doesn't even remotely resemble what you thought you planted.

Still, there are ways to enjoy the aesthetic of an old-fashioned garden with some of the comforts associated with a modern one.

  • Consider the soil. Few flowers can bloom in poor soil, so you'll need to work in compost and mulch around plants to help preserve moisture and deter weeds.
  • Know where the sun will shine - and where it won't. Ms Jentz noted that many new gardeners don't realize how much sun their garden actually gets because they are away at work for much of the day. Keep in mind that many annuals require full sun, although some, including snapdragons, can grow in partial shade.
  • Use new varieties of old plants. There's nothing more old-fashioned than, say, a blue hydrangea, but your grandmother's plants probably were quick to fade and hard to maintain. Now, hydrangeas are hardier and don't demand much work, which is why you'll see them on practically every corner this time of year.
  • Layer your plants. Vary bloom time to ensure that your garden will be blooming all season long.
  • Pay attention to texture, color and shape. Your grandmother's grandmother crowded colors and played around with texture, even if the color palette was the same.
  • Don't make everything the same height. The rhythm of an old-fashioned garden had much to do with the juxtaposition of taller plants with medium-size varieties and ground cover.
  • Pay attention to the border. Grandmother's garden often was bounded by a box hedge, an edging of marigolds or even a white picket fence. (There's nothing that says "old-fashioned" quite like a white picket fence, complete with peonies peaking through the slats.)
  • Don't forget the structures. Along with fencing, arbors, trellises, water features and even statuary might be found in your grandmother's garden.
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