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How to Design a Victorian Garden

Andrea helps people design their homes and gardens. She likes to use Western Astrology and the Chinese Zodiac to help build templates.

Victorian gardens are about showmanship. They're less about connecting with nature and more about what designers can do to impress people.

Victorian gardens are about showmanship. They're less about connecting with nature and more about what designers can do to impress people.

Designing a Victorian Garden

The Victorian Era was a game changer for gardens. People had more tools, so they could do fancier things outside. A variety of exotic plants were added into gardens as well as the addition of glass greenhouses.

The Victorian Era lasted from June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901. During Queen Victoria's reign, there were significant zeitgeist changes in science, politics, religion, technology, and in the arts. The world, not just the United Kingdom, went through significant change. It was easier than ever to travel.

The Mid-Victorian Era (1850-1870) is known as Britain's Golden Years. Historians point to it as a time of increased industrialization, economic growth, and peace at home and abroad.

Several changes during the Victorian period led to a rise in gardening's popularity:

  • Leisure time became more prevalent, especially in the middle and upper classes.
  • People for the first time could get Saturdays off. That's right, people used to only get one day off of work.
  • Due to technological advances and more free time, gardens were no longer limited to kings and queens.
  • Gardens were no longer seen as simply a kitchen necessity but as spaces for aesthetic beauty and enrichment.
  • The lawnmower was invented. This changed the game for landscaping.
  • There was increased horticultural knowledge.
  • Ferns exploded into popularity as hunters searched the world twice over for rare plants.

Features of Victorian Gardens

  • Seasonal plants are placed in geometrical patterns.
  • The paths are made of terra cotta tiles.
  • Vines drape over doors, windows, and arches.
  • Gardening was about show and presentation and not as much about connecting with nature. You wanted your garden to be eye-catching.
  • Croquet lawns were perfect for garden parties.
  • Victorian gardens would incorporate so many colors that it would be blinding to most people's eyes.

Finding Inspiration During the Victorian Era

People would learn about how to design Victorian gardens from garden periodicals and lady magazines. Trends were shared and etiquette was preached. The publications had drawings and engravings in black and white.

Near the end of the Victorian period, people would send postcards that were colored by hand. The postcards showed off carpet bedding designs.

An example of a Victorian garden that still exists today is Biddulph Grange Garden in England. It is a snapshot of what a Victorian garden would look like in the late 1860s. Biddulph looks as if it was frozen in time.

Victorian gardens are about mastering the landscape. The first step is to have a good handle on the lawn. You want it manicured, level, and a healthy green hue.

Victorian gardens are about mastering the landscape. The first step is to have a good handle on the lawn. You want it manicured, level, and a healthy green hue.

The Lawn

Ideally, if you are wanting to create your own Victorian garden you will want a lush, grassy yard. It will take consistent fertilizing, removing of weeds, and mowing during the growing season. The Victorians were the first to grow grass as an art form. They were the ones who decided grass should be neatly manicured, and they had the tools to do it on a level that hadn't been done.

The lawn is considered the outdoor extension of a house. Parties in Victorian times were often held there. It was also a place for a tea gathering, to catch up on the latest gossip, or to play yard games like croquet.

The first step to a Victorian garden is leveling out your space, mowing it down, and trimming everything. You want the space to be clear before you start adding in complicated designs.

Mowing your yard prevents nuisances, like unwanted pests deciding to live in your yard, like snakes and rats. Mowing regularly also prevents the growth and spread of weeds.

Some grass can be left tall, for instance, prairie grass is considered rare and is meant to stay tall. You may want to try building a herbaceous border with tall grass if you're creating a Victorian garden. That way you can preserve the grass and still get an effect that fits the 19th century.

Carpet bedding was a popular way to design flowers in the Victorian Era. Color was everything. You wanted your flowers to be bright and eye-catching.

Carpet bedding was a popular way to design flowers in the Victorian Era. Color was everything. You wanted your flowers to be bright and eye-catching.

Flowerbeds

Victorian gardens favor flowerbeds. You want to plant the flowers in neat, symmetrical, and precise geometric shapes. Plant the flowers in raised beds to keep them organized. Squares were popular shapes during the 19th century.

Carpet bedding is when you plant flowers of the same height in the same space. The outline of a design is filled with the same species of flowers. It could also be flowers of similar color, variety, or height.

An example of carpet bedding, would be a diamond shape of only yellow tulips. During the Victorian Era, there were patterns of carpet bedding designs in gardening magazines. The designs were like painting by numbers, coloring book pages, or strategy guides.

Annual plants were popular in carpet beds. As pollution increased in London, it became harder to keep plants alive. Only the hardiest flora would survive, so perennial plants were some of the more challenging ones to sustain. Annuals were better to plant and then re-plant the next year.

Herbaceous borders were another style popularized during the Victorian period. To recreate the style, gardeners add lower plants along the edge and continue to add taller plants to the side. The tallest plants grow in the back. Flowers are seen and appreciated for their idiosyncratic ways. Mixing colors, textures, and heights adds dimension to the border. Bright colors and showy items are considered desirable pieces.

Advances in science during the 19th century resulted in a multitude of new flowers and new cultivars. New rose varieties were sought after by gardeners.

Why were roses so popular? The Victorian Era was idyllic. People spent their leisure time daydreaming. Roses were considered romantic and whimsical. Red, pink, and white roses were the big sellers. Rose color indicated someone's level of interest. White for purity, burgundy for adoration, pink for growing feelings, and red for passion. Some of the most popular rose varieties were:

  • The red Countess of Oxford, introduced in 1869
  • The crimson Empereur du Maroc, 1858
  • White Gloire Lyonaisse, 1885
  • Pink Lady Stuart, 1851

Climbing roses decorated arches. Royals had private rose gardens. Essentially, everyone wanted them. The more roses, the better. The flowers were practically considered love spells.

Dahlias were also popular. Their vibrant colors were desirable as well as their showy petals. There were hundreds of varieties during Victoria's reign. The ones that survived into the present include:

  • White Aster, 1879
  • Orange red Kaiser Wilhelm, 1881
  • Union Jack, 1882
  • Tommy Keith, 1892
  • Pink Stolz von Berlin, 1884
  • Nellie Broomhead, 1897

Popular Victorian flower varieties include: acacia, asters, azaleas, begonia, camellia, carnations, cherry crocuses, clematis, daffodils, dahlias, daisies, forget-me-nots, geraniums, hollyhocks, honeysuckle, hyacinths, irises, lavender, lilies, lily-of-the-valley, marigolds, moonflowers, morning glory, nasturtium, periwinkle, petunias, roses, snapdragons, sweet peas, tulips, verbena, violets, wisteria, and zinnias.

Victorians were obsessed with ferns. Plant hunters would search the world twice over for the most rare specimens. This led to some ferns almost going extinct.

Victorians were obsessed with ferns. Plant hunters would search the world twice over for the most rare specimens. This led to some ferns almost going extinct.

Vines

Climbing vines are your friends. They help create shaded areas for rest. They make a trellis or pergola look more romantic. Clemantis, wisteria, or trumpet vine easily climb over structures. Victorians would have vines climb over boring fences, to hide tree stumps, or mask imperfect items in a yard.

Grapes were a popular food, so people would grow these in their yards. Vines can also work as a habitat for birds, bees, and other fauna.

Shrubs

Shrubbery was planted around foundation for a sense of color. The more ostentatious the shrub, the better. Shrubs were gathered from all over the world and placed in Victorian gardens.

Popular shrubs included: Boston fern, boxwood, bridalwreath, clove bush, cotoneasters, forsythia, fuchsias, hydrangeas, holly, jasmine, maidenhair palm, majesty palm, mock orange, parlor palm, peonies, quince, spirea, vibernums, and winter berries.

Flowering shrubs were often used as a way to make fences or borders more attractive.

Ferns were insanely popular. Expeditions took place all around the world to find new varieties of ferns. Several fern species became endangered. (The Victorian practices were too indulgent at times, and there were far less conservation rules than there are today.)

  • The Victorian Era was the quintessential time for the plant hunter.
  • Plant hunting can be just as toxic to nature as animal hunting. Whole ecosystems can be destroyed, invasive plants that are imported will do harm to natural landscapes, and it puts plants at risk of extinction.
  • Wealthy plant collectors were dazzled by plant hunters, especially when they brought back rare finds.
  • Plant hunters David Douglas and Robert Fortune were major players. Fortune brought the golden larch and Japanese maple from the Far East. Douglas brought over conifers from North America. The Douglas fir is named after him.

The Monkey Puzzle was one of the most popular trees to plant. It was popularized in the 1840s. Fruit trees were also in abundance including: apple, pear, lemon, peach, plum, and avocado trees.

Fencing

Iron fences and iron gates were all the rage during the Victorian Era. Fencing helps frame the yard or separate out certain spaces. A trellis or arbor was often placed at the gate to add intrigue before people entered the garden.

Iron was fashionable because it's a malleable material that is also corrosion-resistant.

Picket fences were considered rustic. These were often covered with vines or roses to hide them.

Water lilies in ponds became popular during the Victorian Era.

Water lilies in ponds became popular during the Victorian Era.

Yard Decorations

Victorians liked to be extra. They didn't care for the "less is more" philosophy. Lace was added around plant pots, ornaments were rearranged daily, and mysterious objects were a plus.

Some of the most common items in Victorian gardens included:

  • Birdbaths
  • Sundials
  • Obelisks
  • Statues
  • Fountains
  • Gazing balls
  • Lanterns
  • Urns

Mini Greenhouses

Glass bell jars and cloches were turned into mini greenhouses. Window boxes were filled with flowers and vines. The flora in the boxes was meant to spill over the edge.

Gas Lamps

Gas lamp style lamposts were common during the Victorian Era. They're made from aluminium. They tend to have a black and gold finish.

Water Lilies

Water lilies were added to ponds and other water bodies. In 1849, a private grower succeeded in cultivating the first giant water lily bloom in England. The grower presented it to Queen Victoria.

Water lilies are generally annuals. They can grow to an impressive size.

Seating

Benches were hidden in the backyard to give people a place to sit and enjoy views of the garden. Benches were generally made of either wood or stone. Cast iron tables and chairs were set in the backyard as a place to enjoy outdoor dining.

Stone Ornaments

Ornaments added finesse to the garden. Popular items were: birdbaths, sundials, statues, urns, busts, or stone faces on walls. The pieces were meant to add wonder. If recreating a Victorian garden today, people should feel like the statues are watching them, the birdbaths are calling birds to visit other worlds, and the stone faces might talk.

Modern cast stone ornaments can be found today. Adding stone pieces can easily help transform a garden into a Victorian daydream. Consider adding: a statue of a goddess, sculptures of children playing together, or columns.

Stone pieces can make for focal points in a garden. They look nice in areas where you have seats and a pond.

Victorian conservatories and greenhouses used narrow glass panels. These spaces would store exotic plants, citrus fruits, and sensitive shrubs.

Victorian conservatories and greenhouses used narrow glass panels. These spaces would store exotic plants, citrus fruits, and sensitive shrubs.

Garden Structures

Glass opened up new structures for the garden, including greenhouses and conservatories.

Greenhouses

If you're collecting ferns all around the world then you need a place to store them. In the 19th century, there was a name for the addiction of collecting ferns: Pteridomania or Fern Fever.

Glasshouses and ferneries were built to protect the tender greens and other exotic plants, like pineapples. Victorian engineers used wrought iron to design large glasshouses for botanical gardens.

  • Glasshouses have steep roofs.
  • The steep roof pitch is to get maximum light into the structure.
  • The high roof pitch was also to give room for trees and tall plants.
  • Victorian greenhouses used narrower glass panels than what is commonly used today.

Furnace chimneys were usually built a long way from the garden. Victorians wanted to prevent soot from getting into their garden and ruining their plants and ornaments.

Nurseries were not popular during the Victorian period. Amateur botanists would rely on greenhouses to breed plants, store cuttings, and store temperature sensitive plants.

Conservatories

A Victorian conservatory has three to five sides and a high pitched roof. It has decorated ridges. These conservatories are sometimes referred to as Victorian sun-rooms.

They often have Gothic windows and doors. Even today, the conservatories are often used to cultivate citrus fruits and tropical plants.

Aviary

A large enclosure for birds. Aviaries allow birds a large living space where they can fly. They're sometimes called flight cages. They often contain plants and shrubberies.

The first large aviary was created in 1880 at the Rotterdam Zoo. In the Victorian period, Aviaries were built simultaneously with Rothschild houses.

Wrought Iron Features

Wrought iron was used for arches. Victorians loved to put roses on them and honeysuckles, vines, and other climbers. Arches add structure, height, and shade into the garden.

Gazebos

Gazebos also became popular during the 19th century. Rose gardens were often planted around gazebos. A stop at a gazebo would then be fragrant and all the more romantic. Tea was often served at gazebos.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrea Lawrence

Comments

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 20, 2021:

Thank you for sharing the interesting facts about Victorian gardens. I enjoyed learning about plants and history at the same time.

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