Today we celebrate the avid gardener who transformed the gardens at what was once the largest private residence in the United States.
We'll also learn about the man who created many new citruses through hybridizing.
We’ll hear some January advice from a Dig For Victory brochure from WWII.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a fun fiction book set on an English estate called Winterfold.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the story of the man behind the Wagner Tree.
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January 8, 1828
On this day, Eliza Ridgely married her fifth cousin and son of a Maryland Governor, John Carnan Ridgely.
The couple lived on the Hampton Plantation built by John's great-uncle Charles Ridgely III in 1790. After construction, it was the largest private residence in the United States.
Eliza was the third mistress of Hampton and an avid gardener.
During the decades following their marriage, Eliza and John had five children, and Eliza spent a great deal of time improving Hampton’s gardens and landscape.
In 1859, the horticulturist Henry Winthrop Sargent wrote that “[Hampton] expresses more grandeur than any other place in America.” He was not a fan of that grandeur - Henry preferred a more natural garden landscape.
Hampton’s garden landscape history dates back to the late 1780s when Captain Charles Ridgely acquired an Irish-born gardener and indentured servant named Daniel Healy. Daniel oversaw the Great Terrace’s creation with its winding path and the 80x50-foot parterres that make up Hampton’s Falling Gardens.
Eliza left her mark on the gardens at Hampton by doing something completely different. She fell in love with the Victorian garden trend of “carpet bedding,” which leveraged plant colors to create designs - like diamonds or circles. Other plants just provided contrasting colors.
In his book, The Garden Triumphant, David Stuart said,
“In the early Victorian bedding system, plant individualities were of no importance, each individual [plant] merely yielding the color of its flowers to the general show… The obsession with ‘show’ with plants merely as a ‘blaze of colors’ was all.”
Regarded as an accomplished gardener and horticulturist, Eliza had grand garden dreams. She installed extensive gardens, and her love for carpet bedding would have been a radical departure from gardening etiquette of the time. Because, before this trend, it was considered poor taste to plant a plant next to another one of the same color and variety. That was a big no-no.
In fact, in 1839, Henry Winthrop Sargent issued another dig at Eliza’s formal gardens when he said, they"quite disturb one's ideas of republican America.” He was definitely not a fan.
Over 4,000 acres surrounded Hampton House, and Eliza had more than enough room to develop impressive greenhouses, which along with the lavish gardens, were tended by slaves. And many people who tour Hampton today are surprised to learn that. They were not aware that slavery existed as far north as Maryland.
During their marriage, Eliza and John loved to travel, and on their journeys through Europe and Asia, Eliza collected exotic trees and plants for her Hampton gardens. Eliza’s love of citrus trees led to creating an orangery to help her citrus collection survive the harsh Baltimore winters.
Eliza Ridgely added specimen trees to Hampton’s formal landscape. Today a Lebanon Cedar stands on the mansion’s south lawn of the Great Terrace. And Ridgely family history says that Eliza brought the exotic tree to Hampton as a little seedling in a shoebox from the Middle East.
Eliza also selected the white and pink Saucer Magnolias that bloom in the spring and the magnificent fan-leafed ginkgo at the corner of the house. But, the oldest trees on the property are catalpas that predate the home.
And although they are quite common now, Eliza brought urns to Hampton. Made of Italian marble, Eliza’s fashionable urns surrounded the mansion. Now during Eliza’s lifetime, the urns would have been called “vases,” and they were meant to add classical beauty to the garden.
In 1854, American Farmer Magazine wrote that Eliza’s gardens expressed “more grandeur than anything in America.” The magazine also admired her irrigation system, saying that,
“a reservoir at the mansion… radiates to different sections of the garden where hydrants are placed, and by a hose, the entire garden can be watered at pleasure.
Last summer, when all other places in the neighborhood were dry and barren, the flower garden at Hampton presented a gorgeous array of bloom… Petunias, Verbenas, Geraniums, and other summer flowering plants, looked as though they lacked no moisture there.”
With the end of slavery after the Civil War, the Hampton estate fell into decline as the family struggled to maintain it.
A little while later, Eliza died at the age of 64. She was buried in the family cemetery on the estate.
Today the Hampton estate is a National Historic Site. And if you go to visit it someday, it's worth noting that the plants today are different. Many of the plants that are on the property need to be deer-resistant.
The famous portrait of the long-necked Eliza Ridgely standing beside her harp was painted by Thomas Sully - it hangs today in the National Gallery of Art.
January 8, 1892
Today is the birthday of the agricultural botanist and plant wizard Walter Tennyson Swingle.
Walter was a very popular botanist during his lifetime. Walter introduced the Date Palm to California, and he created many new citruses through hybridizing.
In 1897, Walter made the first man-made cross of a Bowen Grapefruit and a Dancy Tangerine in Eustis, Florida.
In 1909, Walter created the Limequat, a cross between the Key Lime and the Kumquat. That same year, Walter created the Citrangequat, a trigeneric citrus hybrid of a Citrange and a Kumquat.
Walter developed the Citrange, a combination of the Sweet Orange and the trifoliate orange, as he was attempting to breed an orange tree that could withstand colder weather.
Walter was born in Pennsylvania. He knew all about cold weather. His family quickly moved to Kansas, where Walter was home-schooled and ultimately educated at Kansas State Agricultural College. In short order, Walter began working for the government at the United States Bureau of Plant Industry in the Department of Agriculture. And the USDA immediately put him to work, sending him to nearly every country in the world.
Walter brought Egyptian Cotton to Arizona and Acala Cotton to California.
However, Walter's most significant accomplishment was the introduction of the Date Palm to America. The Date Palm was something swingle discovered during a visit to Algeria. And this is how we know how clever Walter was - he was indeed intelligent and observant because he noticed that Algeria’s climate and soil mirrored that of California.
In fact, Walter was optimistic about the Date Palm's chances in California right from the get-go, writing:
“No heat is too great and no air too dry for this remarkable plant, which is actually favored by a rainless climate and by hot desert winds.
The Date Palm can withstand great alkali quantities in the soil- more than any other useful plant…
It is probably the only profitable crop that can succeed permanently.’
Now when the Date Palm arrived in California, the Coachella Valley was identified as the perfect spot to grow them. By 1920, over a hundred thousand pounds of Dates were grown in California.
Thanks to Walter Swingle, Dates are one of California's main exports. Today, the total value of the Date crop is approaching $100 million every single year.
January is a time when you should be thinking and planning, ordering your seed potatoes, vegetable seeds, fertilizers, and so on, and making sure that your tools are in good order and that you are ready to begin gardening in real earnest next month, or as soon as local conditions will let you.
— Ministry of Agriculture, “Dig For Victory” Pamphlet, January 1945
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2015, and this is a best-selling fiction book.
I bought this book a few years ago when I saw the beautiful alliums on the cover - I love alliums - and along with many of my fiction favorites, the cover is incredibly appealing to gardeners.
A Place for Us is,
“an engrossing novel about a woman who, on the eve of her eightieth birthday, decides to reveal a secret that may destroy her perfect family.”
Kirkus Reviews wrote:
"From an English estate called Winterfold, Martha Winter sends out invitations for her 80th birthday party with a puzzling statement:
'There will be an important announcement. We ask that you please be there.'
Only her husband, David, a well-known cartoonist, knows what this announcement might be.
The Winters have been fixtures in their Somerset village for 45 years, raising their three children, Florence, Bill, and Daisy.
Told from the perspectives of various family members as they receive Martha's invitations, it's clear this family's story is full of unanswered questions.”
This book is 448 pages of a heartwarming, true-to-life family saga - the perfect book to blissfully carry you away this winter.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
January 8, 2000
Today is the anniversary of the death of a leading botanist in the study of ferns, Warren “Herb” Wagner, Jr.
Herb was the founder of modern systematics for plants and animals. Biologists still use "Wagner trees” to classify plants and animals based on presumed phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary history - DNA hard at work!
Herb Wagner once said,
"Deer in the winter are nature's closest thing to actual zombies.
They chew everything in their path."
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