Recreate Your Grandmother’s Garden

Old-fashioned gardens were sprawling collections of flowers, vines, and herbs that grew large and in abundance. Imagine such a welcoming space in your own garden.

Old photograph

"The old-fashioned garden! What a host of memories come sweeping back. Who of us does not instantly see the dear old place where we joyfully tripped after our grandmother as she pottered about ... What a riot of color wherever we looked." —Northrup King Catalog, 1915

Illustration courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Library

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It may surprise us to know as we race through the 21st century that folks way back in the Victorian era were longing for a simpler time. They, too, felt the rush of technology. For them it was the train and telegraph, a bit later the telephone and automobile that threatened to destroy the quiet of their rural and small-town lives. As well, they were reacting to the stiff styles of carpet bedding and ribbon bedding, with annuals all lined up in a row or laid out in geometric patterns.

We first hear these refrains in the 1880s, and they are repeated for decades.  As late as 1939, magazines and catalogs were lamenting the fast pace and calling for old-fashioned, or grandmother’s gardens. And what did they mean by “old-fashioned” or “grandmother’s” gardens?

As one early writer noted, the term “old-fashioned garden” was an elastic one, but was characterized by a large variety of plants blooming at different seasons and in such abundance that no one was afraid to pluck them. Floriferous, fragrant, loosely arranged, rather than in a set design, these gardens of perennials and annuals were similar to the English cottage garden. The plants were chosen for durability and sentiment and often obtained by swapping with friends. Pioneer gentlewomen, who had much work to do, wanted plants which rewarded a maximum amount of flowers with a minimum amount of care. All agreed that profusion and informality were hallmarks.       

In one catalog, Peter Henderson painted this charming picture:

"It is June and there is an abundance of roses; sweet brier, too, and moss roses. Pansies lift their bright faces from borders of sweet alyssum, dusty miller, marvel-of-Peru, coleus, forget-me-nots, and mignonette. Iris, lemon lilies and ribbon grasses nod in the soft breezes. Peonies, red, white and pink sway gracefully above their rich green leaves.

A little later the garden lilies, amaryllis, tuberoses, and other sweet-smelling things, hollyhocks, foxgloves, sweet peas, gladiolus, lady slippers and gay poppies will make the garden a riot of beauty.

Then later flowers; nasturtiums climbing the fence to peep at the road; dainty cosmos, sturdy zinnias, crimson woolflowers, asters, white, pink, lavender and purple, followed by everlasting flowers, chrysanthemums and autumn foliage. The apple tree, the tall lilacs, the rose bushes, the vegetables are all there …"

Would we not all love a garden like that? A garden of beauty and utility to enjoy all season.

Old-Time Collections

Nursery and seed catalogs often included collections of plants for those who had lost the plants of grandmothers’ gardens. The “Forget-me-not Collection” (Peter Henderson & Co., New York, NY), “Flowers of the Old-Time Garden” (Vick’s Garden & Floral Guide, Rochester, N.Y.), “Old-Fashioned Garden Collection” (New England Nursery, Bedford, Mass.), “Grandmother’s Collection” (Northrup King, Minneapolis, MN.), “Ye Old-Time Garden” (Ulrich’s, Rochester, N.Y.), “The Hardy Collection” ( Peter Henderson & Co. , New York, NY., and finally “Old Homestead Collection” (New England Nursery, Bedford Mass.) . 

Many of the old articles used lovely common names for flowers, “pretty-by-night” for balsam, “valley lilies” for lily of the valley, “marvel-of-Peru” for Mirabilis jalapa or four o’clocks, “flags” or “flower de luce” for iris. Clematis virginiana was called “Virgin’s Bower.”

Some of the names are ones we hear no longer. For example, red celosias were called “crimson woolflowers”; Lilium candidum was known as “annunciation lily” because it was often included in paintings of the Annunciation of Mary. “Heartsease” was the viola tricolor; “piny” was a peony. Primroses (Primula veris), the yellow spring flowers, were called “cowslips,” perhaps because they were often found in fields where cattle had been! Most unusual of all, “Peter’s Wreath” was a reference to any of the spireas.

Many of the favored flowers are still with us today. For example, Vick’s Ye Old-Homestead Collection offered 12 plants for $1.25. Included were hollyhocks, anemone, perennial phlox, hardy garden pink, German iris, (Flower de luce), hardy chrysanthemum, Platycodon grandiflorum (balloon flower), Oriental poppy, aquilegia (columbine), daylily, foxglove, and Phlox sublata (moss pink).  Hendersons’ had many of the same plants in its Forget-me-not Collection, but added delphinium, forget-me-nots, Canterbury bells, stokesia, coreopsis, aster and pyrethrum.

In addition, Dreer’s recommended that all borders should have clumps of spring flowering bulbs, interspersed among the perennials. They named scillas, snowdrops, chionodoxas, crocus, narcissus, cottage garden tulips, Spanish iris as possibilities. Here and there throughout the border they suggested annuals for color: marigolds, zinnias, antirrhinums, gaillardias, etc.

A few of the flowers that were popular in these early gardens are rarely seen today. For example, mignonette (Reseda odorata), a deliciously scented annual, was grown by many Victorians, though it made no great show. Like a lot of other old-fashioned plants, it first arrived as an herb. Its name, reseda, means “calm” and refers to its use as a sedative in Egypt. In France it was nicknamed “little darling” (mignonette) and was a favorite of Napoleon’s wife Josephine. Climbing fumitory (Adluma fungosa), an herbaceous biennial native from Minnesota to Maine, is now on the “threatened” plant list and is difficult to find.

 “Bouncing Bet” or soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) was once essential to the washerwoman, for the lathery liquid made from boiling the leaves. It has a pretty pink flower in late summer. However, because of its rapid growing habit (it’s invasive), it has lost favor among gardeners today. Also very rarely grown now, feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) has been known as a medicine since medieval times. As its name suggests, it was generally used to treat headaches and fevers. Its habit of seeding everywhere is probably the reason today’s gardeners don’t plant it.

Besides the flowers, there were listings of old-fashioned herbs for kitchen and medicinal gardens. These included wormwood (Artemisia absintheum), southernwood (Artemisis abromatum), hyssop (Hyssop officinalis), rue, (Ruta graveolens), and sorrel (Rumex crispus), as well as mints and lavender.

Others offered hardy vines — wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle (Loniceria japonica) and jasmine or annual ones — morning glory (Ipomoea) or moon flower (Calonyction). Every porch, fence, and clothesline pole was decorated with colorful climbers.

Writers recommended flowering shrubs, like the cascading bridal wreath (Spirea prunifolia), Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum), snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) with its pure white berries, mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius) and, of course the fragrant spring bloomer, the lilac.

Early 20th Century Design

Articles and seed catalogs offered plans for achieving the old-fashioned garden, in case gardeners had lost confidence in their skill. The New England Nursery ran a photo in 1901 of “Hardy perennials planted and arranged by us. We make a feature of designing old-fashioned gardens and will offer plans and suggestions for the same to any of our correspondents.”

Dreer’s Nursery of Philadelphia advertised design help as well. So intent were they on providing assistance, they created a 20-page separate booklet, entitled Dreer’s Old-Fashioned Hardy Plants (1916). The booklet contained alphabetical lists of plants and seeds, including color, height, flowering time, and sun or shade requirements. Hundreds of plants were listed, costing 15 to 50 cents; seeds were 15 to 50 cents for 1/4 oz. Dreer’s encouraged customers to select their own plants. However, for those who couldn’t decide, the company had five collections with planting diagrams for sun or shade.

Plants were important, of course. But equally significant were the gardens’ designs and uses. In a piece in Better Homes and Gardens titled “Quaint Beauty in Old-Time Gardens,” published in 1929, the writer said that “the old-time garden meant, first of all, privacy and seclusion and restful quiet: a place where one might enter in, shut the gate, and forget the world outside.”

She recommended a hollyhock lane or aisle of roses to border the walks. As well there should be sheltered seats, quiet nooks. It was a “place for the children to play, [with] secluded nooks in which elders might read and lovers might hide; a retreat for birds to nest and sing in, free from the ravages of wayfaring cats.” Picket fences, brick walls, and hedges might enclose it; bird baths and sun-dials might add to its beauty. All was to be assembled in a casual way, encouraging enjoyment, not admiration.

All in the Family

Grandmother’s old-fashioned garden is as appropriate today as it was a hundred years ago. And the style has charm around any home—modern or vintage. Grandmother recognized those plants that could flower with little cash and add fragrance, color and grace to our gardens. 

If we have plants from our own grandmothers, all the better. For as they bloom, we will remember the people and the time while we enjoy the blossoms. Many folks here in Minnesota have peonies and roses that came over “on the boat” when their ancestors came from Europe. In my own yard, I have a line of daylilies sent to me years ago by my great aunt. Mary lived in Mississippi; I live in the cold Midwest. Our gardening conditions could not be farther apart!

One November a cardboard box arrived at my house. Inside were eight different cultivars of daylilies (looking much wilted), loosely wrapped in wet newspaper and plastic wrap. November is very late to garden in Minnesota, but I heeled them in, hoping for the best. Come spring, each one turned green and came to life. For the past 20 years, they have grown and bloomed and reminded me of a sweet childhood among relatives who loved gardens.

Selected Plants for Grandmother's Old-Fashioned Garden

Many, many plants qualify as old-fashioned. (See the Baker Creek Seed Catalog for suggestions). The list I’ve devised includes annuals and perennials, providing color and interest throughout the season.

Narcissus, Daffodil: Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, daffodils were grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden as well as those of Colonial Williamsburg. They were very popular with the Victorians as an early spring perennial.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis): Used as a medicinal herb in medieval times, lily of the valley has a heavenly fragrance. Victorians used to pot up a few for the house to better enjoy the scent. Lily of the valley will last for years and spread steadily.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis): Native to Asia, bleeding hearts began to appear in cottage gardens in the mid-19th century and became immediately popular. Gardeners were intrigued with their charming form, strings of deep pink hearts on a chain above lacy foliage and delighted that they appeared in early spring.

Iris: One of the oldest plants in cultivation, the iris was found blooming on Minoan walls in 2000 B.C. Through the centuries it has been used as a dye, as medicine, as a perfume, and as an infusion for brewing. Its swordlike leaves were even used for thatching roofs and caning chairs.

Foxglove (Digitalis): A native British plant, perennial foxglove was long valued and used as a medicinal plant and grown in cottage gardens. Later it became the source for the drug digitalin, prescribed for heart troubles. The bell-shaped flowers bloom in June in a long, one-sided cluster.

Canterbury bells (Campanula medium): A stunning biennial, Canterbury bells have been cultivated for centuries in France, Italy and England. They were brought to America by the early settlers. In May and June, bell-shaped flowers form loose, spikelike clusters.

Roses (Rosa): What can grandmother’s garden be without roses? Since antiquity roses have been highly valued. Their petals have been used for fragrance, for cure-alls, for beauty. Their hips have been made into vitamin-C-loaded teas and jams. The Romans considered no banquet complete without rose petals strewn around the room. Tudors used rose water as cosmetic, put bags of petals on their eyelids to bring sleep, and made salves of the flowers. Victorians loved ramblers and climbers and made decorative, fragrant hedges of shrub roses. Today there are many old roses available. In addition there are modern shrub roses which have some of the best characteristics of the antiques.

Delphinium (Delphinium elatum): Named “delphinium” because the bud of the flower was thought to look like a dolphin (delphinus is Latin for dolphin); this perennial makes a dramatic focal point in the garden. Because of its height, it is best grown against a fence or wall, or staked to protect it from the wind.

Larkspur (Consolida ambigua) is often called the annual delphinium. It was well known in early American gardens and beloved for its finely cut leaves and clusters of flowers.

Daylilies (Hemerocallis): An ancient plant, Hemerocallis was grown in Asia and Greece where it was served in soups and meat dishes. Its cheerful orange and yellow face found a happy home all across North America and no wonder. It is easy to grow and easy to divide and share. The lemon lily (H. lilio-asphodelus) is an intensely fragrant and beautiful flower. Many daylilies begin blooming in mid-summer.

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): Rocketing to the sky, hollyhocks embody the essence of grandmother’s garden and have been grown in America since the colonists arrived. The large flowers, which bloom July to September crowd to the top of a tall, stout plant stem. Also called “outhouse plant,” hollyhocks were planted next to the outhouse so that genteel visitors wouldn’t have to ask where the building was situated. A spectacular self-seeding biennial once established, the flowers bloom July to September.

Lily (Lilium): Tall, elegant, often fragrant, some of the lilies have been grown for centuries. The Madonna lily, (Lilium candidum) is probably the oldest recorded of all. It was certainly grown as far back as the 10th century and produces scented, pure white flowers. L. martagon, the martagon or Turk’s cap lily has been cultivated at least since the 1500s. Both lilies bloom mid-summer.

Phlox (Phlox drummondii — annual), (Phlox paniculata — perennial): Both annual and perennial phlox are North American natives and were popular in Victorian gardens. They are bright and showy plants. The annual grows 6 to 12 inches in height; the perennial can be 4 feet tall. P.paniculata has clusters of large, scented flowers on stems up to 4 feet tall. Blooming in July and August, the flowers provide color in the mid to late summer.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus): This annual is incredibly easy to grow and  provides long bloom at summer’s end and through until frost. The color range is from red to pale yellow, with heads that can grow to 18 inches across. The sunflower is native to Central America and was domesticated in present day Mexico by at least 2600 B.C. Besides being beautiful, the flower is food for the birds as well as people.


Susan Davis Price is a freelance garden writer and lecturer. Her books include Growing Home, Stories of Ethnic Gardening; Minnesota Gardens, an Illustrated History; and Northern Treasure. Susan’s own cottage garden is loved but not always tidy.