The New Victorians
Atlock Farm in Somerset, New Jersey, is just an hour's drive from Manhattan, but the distance might better be measured in centuries. Here, on the gently sprawling pastureland of an old dairy farm, Ken Selody, a garden designer and old-school nurseryman (“I grow what I sell”), offers unusual annuals, perennials, succulents, tropicals, and topiaries for sale or rent. On this crisp November day, his intimate patchwork of greenhouses and gardens is splendid with the colors of late autumn. The historical antecedent for Selody's greenhouses is the glass-and-iron Crystal Palace, a giant prefabricated confection of a conservatory designed by the architect/designer Joseph Paxton and first erected in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the World's Fair of its day). While Selody's airy plastic tunnels are more modest in their outward appearance, the view inside triggers the same amazement and delight in me that the Victorians must have felt at the sight of all those alien plants newly available for up-close inspection. One greenhouse is filled with twirly, swirly tillandsia, bromeliads that hang like ornaments or cascade down wire frames, gathering nutrients from the air; by rights, their provenance should be Whoville rather than Latin America.
“There is no better place to be than a greenhouse in February,” says Selody. “You kick the snow off your boots and walk into the tropics. With all the moisture, even the air is buoyant.” A coleus I'm mesmerized by was first brought to Britain from the rain forests of Java in the 19th century by professional plant hunters—botanist-adventurers who plundered the remotest reaches of the British Empire to feed a growing market for tropical plants back home. The influx of unfamiliar species sparked a vogue, mostly among the newly affluent, for bedding out masses of tender, brightly colored exotics. Blessed with a climate unusually mild for such a high latitude, the English could enjoy the showy displays from early spring to the first frost.
Selody's hundred or so coleus varieties include shade-loving 19th-century heirlooms as well as sun-tolerant 21st-century cultivars, with wildly different leaf shapes and clear, deeply saturated pigments. “As a designer, I'm more interested in the effect of foliage than anything else,” Selody says. “There is a natural progression gardeners go through that culminates in the unconditional love of plants even when they're not in bloom. A plant's inner beauty is in the foliage.”
We come upon some of the topiary that Selody is known for, a perfect expression of his simultaneously rigorous and relaxed style. Each coleus “standard”—that is, a single stem with a ball on top—is a revelation. Unlike a topiary of myrtle, bay, ivy, or box, the ball in this case is feathery, really more like plumage. “Some plants lend themselves to certain shapes more than others,” Selody says. “Experience teaches what works and what doesn't.” His approach is similarly broadminded when it comes to container plantings, particularly the urns so beloved by the Victorians. “Almost anything looks good in an urn,” he says, offering as an example one in which the soil is covered by ground-hugging echeveria, spiky succulents tinged with purple, out of which rise the bare knobby stems of a vastly larger succulent, a kalanchoe with a canopy of fuzzy gray-green leaves on top. The fact that you can see through the arrangement is important to Selody: “I like its modernity, even in an old-fashioned cast-iron urn.”
While Selody's individual style is instantly recognizable, his is hardly the only garden where the legacy of the Victorians is in evidence right now. More urns, spilling over with interlacing annuals, punctuate a half-acre surrounded by a plain picket fence in rural northwestern Connecticut. This is the private garden of Peter Wooster, an interior designer by profession, who divided his time between commercial and residential design projects in Manhattan and the country before forsaking the city entirely. Twenty-three years in the making, this garden has, in the last decade, become a collaboration with gardener Rob Girard, who's assumed an even larger role in its perpetual evolution since Wooster suffered a stroke four years ago.
At the center of the meticulously edged garden is a showstopping Victorian Circle, which gets a fresh injection of colorful annuals every year. This sort of design element satisfied the Victorian desire for geometric layout—a mark of classical refinement in the eyes of an expanding and predominantly urban middle class only just discovering the pleasures of a second home, the leisure time to garden, and an ever broadening idea of what it was possible to grow.
Although visitors often liken Wooster's garden to a museum—there looks to be one of everything in his expansive collection of plants, which extends inside the house to the fancy-leaf begonias and other houseplants displayed all around—nothing seems out of place. Exotics like banana, castor bean, and jungly foliage all thrive in this temperate-zone garden, continents away from where they originated. They're a reminder that hardiness ratings are simply rules of thumb that apply to a wide geographical area. Recognizing microclimates and plotting plants properly have allowed Wooster to “push the zone” as effectively as collectors of tropicals did 150 years ago.
Like Wooster, 27-year-old farmer Annie Novak has a keen understanding of what it means to test the boundaries of nature, though her immediate environs are far less bucolic: an industrial block in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, which fronts the East River. You have to climb up three stories to get to the 6,000 square feet that comprise Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, now in its second year. In that short time, the aerie has become integral to community residents whose longing for connection to the land is something any Victorian urbanite would have recognized. Locals shop at Eagle Street's Sunday market and patronize neighborhood restaurants that feature the farm's produce on their menus. Some are members of Novak's team of volunteers. “To tell you the truth,” she says proudly, “I'm growing more farmers than vegetables.”
A “green-roof” garden is tricky, Novak says, first of all because of the requisite soilless growing medium, which is lightweight and efficient at retaining water but too shallow for many vegetables. “What plants really want is soil that's alive,” Novak adds. Unable to raise the range of produce that supported the domestic economy in the Victorian era, when an ordinary kitchen garden might contain 40 different vegetables, Novak oversees a more tightly curated list of crops that includes organic tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, hot peppers, eggplant, lettuces, arugula, kale, chard, radishes, and herbs. This season, the buyers of shares in Eagle Street's CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group will provide literal seed money for the forthcoming growing season; in return, they'll receive regular allotments of the freshest produce imaginable.
During my visit, an Eagle Street bee grazes among the calendula, then heads in an unwavering line back to the hive. This farm may be firmly rooted in its immediate neighborhood, but its bees are not. “When you take a frame out of the hive,” Novak says, “you can tell where the bees are getting pollen.” Examining the honeycomb within the frame, she says, is like looking at a map. “Once I pulled one out and it was all red. The bees had gone over to the maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, several miles away, and gotten into the dumpster.” Steampunk bees.
Redrawing the lines between urban and rural was, of course, a major preoccupation of the Victorian age. The map of the Great Western Railway published in Cassell's Weekly Dispatch Atlas in 1863 shows lines branching out like so many capillaries from major cities into formerly isolated parts of the countryside. Along with increased leisure time, this railway system allowed urban dwellers aching for the scent of sod and the sight of things growing to make excursions, often to places of great beauty.
Only the most fortunate among them would have been able to build a retreat on the scale of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, spread out over three moist, shadowy acres overlooking Puget Sound in Washington State. Here, curator Richie Steffen oversees a collection of 240 or so native and nonnative ferns. “There is something about ferns,” he says. “They are so intricate. Their feathery, soft look adds a unique texture to any garden.” And, as any pteridologist will tell you, it's just a slippery, gametophyte-covered slope from a crush on ferns, the plant most associated with the Victorians, to an obsession with stumperies.
These artfully arranged tangles of uprooted tree stumps call to mind nothing so much as the gothic fantasies of Tim Burton. Being very dense, stumps take a long time to rot, and in the meantime, their deeply fissured bark provides the perfect habitat for ferns, mosses, lichen, and small woodland creatures. A period conceit, perhaps, but the Victorians knew how effective the enveloping semiwilderness could be in shutting out life's static. The Pacific Northwest, with its forests of western red cedar, Douglas fir, and Western hemlock, is a treasure trove of stumps—logging drove the economy here through the 1970s—and of woodland places in which to site them.
Almost three years ago, Steffen and fellow board members of the Hardy Fern Foundation, based at the Rhododendron Species Foundation & Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington, created a stumpery by upcycling nine dump trucks full of old stumps destined for the wood chipper. Encompassing half an acre, it is one of the largest stumperies now in existence. Catch it at the right time of day—or by moonlight—and it projects a primeval quality that is both striking and vaguely disquieting.
One of the thousand ferns that colonize the same garden is the soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum var. Bevis). “It's one of the most graceful and delicate of the old Victorian cultivars,” Steffen explains. “And it's available, thanks to tissue culture.” Unlike most ferns, Bevis doesn't reproduce by spores, and it doesn't divide readily, either; that's why individual specimens have up to now been costly and difficult to come by. But these days, laboratory micropropagation yields a bumper crop of brand-new little plants. “This can happen with lots of different species,” says Steffen. “Totally obscure but really great plants are finally within reach of the gardening public.”
What's more, you don't need a half-wild acre in which to grow them. In fact, all you need is a terrarium. This type of plant-filled microcosm, studied by generations of third-graders, was once called a Wardian case, after its inventor, Nathaniel Ward. A London doctor and ardent amateur naturalist, he deplored the toll pollution took on his garden; in 1829, he accidentally discovered that a common fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) thrived in the humid environment of a sealed glass bottle. He began experimenting in earnest. His Wardian cases, ideal for keeping delicate plants alive on long sea voyages, were instantly adopted by plant hunters; at last they could transport tropical species, including ferns, with a high enough rate of success to make plant hunting profitable and plant collecting viable.
The darling of the DIY crowd, terrariums are everywhere right now, from the crafty website Etsy.com to New York's Museum of Modern Art, where a plant-filled installation created by artist and landscape designer Paula Hayes is on view through February 28, 2011. And just 26 blocks north, at the American Museum of Natural History, you'll find Hazel Davies, manager of living exhibits, who will soon be reprising a popular frog exhibition in one of the museum's galleries. In the workshop where she assembles living tableaux to satisfy the abiding urge to bring the outdoors inside and the faraway nearer, Davies has created a spectacular terrarium expressly for GARDEN DESIGN.
Housed in a 38-gallon pet store aquarium, the terrarium is an entire ecosystem in miniature. A brief survey of its leafy hillocks and mossy ravines reveals dwarf umbrella trees native to Taiwan, Kentia palms from the Solomon Islands, maidenhair ferns (New Zealand), rubber plants (north-east India, southern Indonesia), and bromeliads (South America). That flash of sapphire? That's a blue poison frog from Surinam. Peering into this lush landscape, you begin to grasp what it was to live in an era when our understanding of the natural world and access to far-flung parts of it were expanding by leaps and bounds. And our sense of wonder at it all is as powerful as ever.