“There’s no way to recreate the past,” says Robert Bell, whose eponymous landscape architecture practice is based in Washington, DC, Southampton, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. “But you can reinterpret historic gardens by researching what was there while also considering the practicalities of today.”
Just as houses have historical architectural styles, gardens also reflect the aesthetics, trends and demands of their time. However, these can differ greatly from today’s aesthetics, trends and requirements, emphasizes Bell.
“Gardens used to have to be functional: there were outbuildings, car washes, fountains, coal chutes, landfills – most were eliminated as technology replaced them with indoor toilets, washers and dryers, etc. There used to be depots that became garages. And in the early gardens, plants were usually grown less for beauty than for use. The Gardens of the East Coast in the 17th Centuryth For example, in the 19th century herbs, fruit and vegetables were produced, not perennial borders.”
Today’s garden design has to deal with new types of challenges. Bell mentions in the past unknown pests, blights that attack and destroy old plant varieties, and the spread of deer in many parts of the United States.
“And in much of the country, flooding is becoming a problem and old drainpipes are no longer sufficient. Too small for today’s big storms, they need to be upgraded.”
Then there are the modern functional elements that have replaced the outbuildings and washways of the past: outdoor kitchens, fire pits, driveways, grassy play areas, patios, and seating for conversation.
“You can fit modern things into a historical landscape,” says Bell. “One way to start with this is to take an existing historical element and incorporate it into the site. For example, if the house is made of brick, build the fire pit out of brick and make brick the backbone of the outdoor kitchen. You’ll probably still have a stainless steel grill, but it doesn’t have to contend with everything around it.”
When it comes to historic garden design, there are two types, says Bell. “Formal or natural. A formal garden is more difficult to maintain; Stay away from symmetrical gardens.”
He points out that Victorian gardens were designed around ever-changing bedding plants, brightly colored annuals that were replaced every few weeks.
“It’s not a look we love today, not to mention how much work it takes to dig everything out of a bed and keep putting something different in it. You want to design a landscape that works without requiring too much maintenance.”
To choose plants for a new garden around an old house, he suggests a walk in the neighborhood.
“Look for plants that are well established and thriving. Pick a few you like and start small when creating a historic garden.”
He recommends using new, improved cultivars of old plants, like a recently developed boxwood that’s resistant to the rot that has decimated so much of this beloved shrub. The venerable American chestnut, once the backbone of the East American forest, was decimated by a fungal attack but is now enjoying a resurgence as a result of genetic manipulations.
“It’s always good to use classic plants like New Dawn roses that are hardy and will grow anywhere. When a plant has grown a long time and in many places, there is usually a good reason.”
In historic-style gardens, Bell advises against trendy, newer plants like the popular Stella D’Oro daylily or knockout roses. “The colors are too bright, they don’t blend well with more traditional plants.”
Look beyond flowers to a plant’s other attributes, he adds. “Think of the berries, the bark, the color of the foliage, and all the other things that make plants interesting and beautiful. And remember, if you like something, grow it. Gardening is for your pleasure. There’s no wrong way to do it.”