Gardening with Historic Ornamentals

For a beautiful, low-maintenance landscape, give gardening with historic ornamentals a try! Find tips for everything from planning a cottage garden to finding plants suited to a variety of climates and locations in the garden.

| Summer 2018

  • garden
    The lush, loose structure of a traditional English cottage garden makes an appealing border to a path.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/andrewmroland
  • lillies
    Oriental and Asiatic lilies — in all their staggering array of colors and scents — can be interplanted nearly anywhere in a 19th-century garden.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Tatiana Belova
  • gladiolus
    Hybrid gladiolus bloom in nearly any color, and are especially striking when planted in large groups to accentuate their bold, upright growth habit.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/pixelunikat
  • fence
    A rustic quiggly fence adds interest and structure to a garden.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/allegro60
  • virginia-creeper
    American native plants, such as Virginia creeper, can be quite as beautiful as cultivated European species.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/GoneWithTheWind
  • laurel
    Native mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) bears masses of cup-shaped flowers in late spring and early summer.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/eqroy
  • window
    Emulate an “old-fashioned” 19th-century garden with cheerful, low-maintenance cosmos in sunny areas.
    Photo by Getty Images/chinaface
  • climbing-roses
    Hybrid climbing roses can be trained over arbors and trellises to make perfumed archways throughout a garden.
    Photo by Getty Images/brytta
  • cottage-garden
    Cottage gardens come into their own in summer, when plant growth is at its greenest and blossoms dance on every stem.
    Photo by Getty Images/tugmistress
  • cottage
    Choose flowers that will be low-maintenance once established to form the bulk of your cottage garden.
    Photo by Getty Images/oversnap
  • bee balm
    Plant bee balm (Monarda didyma) to support local pollinators.
    Photo by Getty Images/bkkm
  • columbine-flower
    Columbines thrive in a wide variety of locations in the garden, and come in an array of colors and blossom shapes.
    Photo by Getty Images/EdwardSnow
  • hosta
    Hostas add a tropical touch to shade gardens, and many have large, scented flowers that open in summer.
    Photo by Getty Images/Katie Flenker

  • garden
  • lillies
  • gladiolus
  • fence
  • virginia-creeper
  • laurel
  • window
  • climbing-roses
  • cottage-garden
  • cottage
  • bee balm
  • columbine-flower
  • hosta

In 1970, we moved to a 100-acre farm on a remote peninsula in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, with two horses, two cows, miscellaneous chickens, cats, and a dog. After we rebuilt the barn, plowed and planted the fields, restored the fences, and established vegetable and fruit gardens, I turned my attention to the previous owner’s garden of historic ornamentals — herbs, flowers, and shrubs— which I’d inherited with the property. Purple and white lilacs shaded a carpet of Pulmonaria officinalis, and an impressive clump of tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) flourished nearby. A few mock oranges and daffodils were also struggling to survive. Few of the daffodils managed to bloom, but those that did had tight clusters of intensely fragrant, double-white blossoms.

A rosebush sprawled in front of the house, and when its many-petaled, blush-pink flowers opened, I discovered old rose essence for the first time. I knew virtually nothing about old roses then, but I later learned this rosebush was a ‘Banshee,’ or ‘Loyalist Rose,’ common at colonial sites all over the Northeast.

A large colony of yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) with swordlike leaves and classic fleurs-de-lis blossoms kept watch by the back door. This small collection of ornamental plants opened up a new world to me, with pronounced scents, a variety of forms, and charmingly quirky habits.

I thought heirloom plants were unspoiled by human intervention, but I’ve come to understand that curious gardeners have been tinkering with nature for centuries. What constitutes an heirloom ornamental is open to interpretation — they do represent valued possessions at different periods in history, but they’re as varied as the truly antique 16th-century double-flowered dame’s rocket, the 1950s ‘Ma Perkins’ rose, and the even more recent iris and gladiolus hybrids. If one of the greatest pleasures of gardening is sharing, how great a pleasure it is to share this rich world of inherited plants. They’re easy, tolerant, robust, and enduring, perfect for creating low-maintenance landscapes in harmony with their surrounding environments.



What Are Heirloom Plants?

Heirloom ornamental plants are plants introduced to American gardens from 1600 to 1950, plus those considered “antique” even if introduced more recently, such as irises. Heirloom ornamentals are divided into ancient types, known as early as classical times, and middle-aged types, hybrids developed around the end of the 19th century on.

Strictly speaking, hybrids are the result of cross-fertilized species, but horticulturalists use the term to describe any cross-fertilization between variant parents, including cultivar crosses. A cultivar is any cultivated plant variation significant enough to name. Many heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning they breed true, but our definition allows for a variety of hybrids with similar sturdy growth habits.






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