Restoring a Perennial Garden

Many people buy older homes with the intention of restoring them to their original architectural style. Victorian houses, Arts-and-Crafts-style bungalows, shingle-style cottages, colonial farmhouses, and brownstone row houses frequently receive massive investments of time, effort, and energy from new owners. Once the architectural restoration is done, however, the gardens often need the same care that went into the house, in order to complete the picture. Just as houses reflect their period in time, so can the gardens that surround them.

Restoring a garden to fit a period house can be frustrating because locating information on what the garden looked like in the past or what types of plants might have been grown there is seldom easy. Some good places to start looking are local libraries, historical societies, and title companies, which often maintain large collections of old photographs of the area. Although there may not be a picture of that particular house way back when, it’s possible to get a feel for what the gardens of the period were like by carefully scrutinizing old photographs. Don’t overlook the opportunity to talk with elderly neighbors; they may have vivid recollections of what the surrounding gardens once looked like.

Garden books of the era will give a good idea of what plants were available and fashionable. Plant societies such as the American Rhododendron Society, the American Rose Society, and other specialist garden groups can help determine when specific species or hybrids were introduced into trade. For example, the restorer of the gardens of a 1904 shingle-style summer cottage in California chose the sweetheart rose Cecile Brunner to clamber over a rose arch because it was introduced in 1881 and would have been available for the original garden. Bellflowers (Campanula) were added because they, too, would have been available: C. lactiflora, C. glomerata, and C. persicifolia were all in European gardens in medieval times. They probably arrived with the colonists and had almost certainly made their way to California by 1904. A huge clump of Gladwin iris (Iris foetidissima) that was already established in the garden was retained because it, too, was found in English gardens more than two hundred years ago, and so would certainly have been around in 1904. By determining what plants were available when the house was built, it’s possible to plan a lovely and highly authentic period garden.

Even if the garden appears to be an overgrown jungle or a hopeless muddle, it is worth waiting a full year before going overboard with the pruning shears and before digging up plants without knowing exactly what they are. Old and irreplaceable plants may lurk there, unrecognized or hidden from view. Spring may reveal daffodils or lilies in vast numbers or in varieties no longer listed in the catalogs. The apparently dead stem that winds up over an arbor could well be an antique rose. That leafless tree might turn out to be one of the heritage apple trees now lost to gardeners by the hybridization of varieties with greater commercial appeal. Nor do dormant perennials reveal themselves until the soil warms up.

Few books deal exclusively with the restoration of period gardens, but plenty have been written on specific architectural styles. These may have chapters relevant to gardens and appropriate landscape styles. Even if no landscape information is given, photographs in books of period architecture can often suggest ideas for creating a garden that is in keeping with the period and architectural style of the house.