A Garden for the Historic Home

By: Daphne Howland
 Photos by: Lucinda Brockway
This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 Landmarks Observer. We are re-publishing it now in anticipation of the Landmarks Lecture by Lucinda Brockway,
History in your own Backyard, on October 25 from 6-7pm. Click here for details. 


Research and a little thought will go far
when landscaping your historic property.

 As long as people have built houses in North America, they have also planted gardens. Some plantings are decorative, some are designed to supply cooks with vegetables and herbs. And all were subject to the limits of climate and fashion.

While many people who own historic homes in the Portland area take great care to restore many aspects of their property, from paint color to moldings or other details, they’re often at a loss when it comes to details just outside the house. Yet thinking of your garden as an extension of the historic house is a key way to approach it, says Patrick Chasse, a landscape architect with a specialty in historic landscapes, the reconstruction of natural plant communities, as well as in design of new gardens.

 “If the owner appreciates the aesthetic and historical significance of their period home and they want to enhance the spirit of that house, I always recommend some sort of period concept for the landscape that frames it,” Chasse says. “It's doesn't have to be a slavish reproduction of a garden of that exact period, but it should replicate the basic concepts of how home and garden related and were used in the historic period. When one goes into a beautiful Victorian house, for example, if one finds a space-age kitchen, it is jarring.”

One of the most jarring departures for Victorian houses, notes Chasse, are foundation plantings. Unlike the thick bushes and other plantings of today, 19th century homes had “beautiful foundations foundations designed to go all the way to the ground,” he says. “There were ornamental foundation plantings, but spare, and it’s the anachronism that offends me the most. In terms of a setting for a house, I think it’s most appropriate to stay within the concept and the scale” of the time.

Homeowners have a few ways of finding out what kinds of ornamental and practical gardens might suit their property, through research, old photos, and looking around the neighborhood if it is a historic district. The Library of Congress is a good place to start, says Lucinda Brockway, who runs Past Designs, an historic landscape preservation and garden design firm in Kennebunk, Maine. A section on the Library of Congress website called American Memory includes photographs of various homes and gardens that is searchable by decade.

“So there are images of some of these features and, rather than an interpretation, they’re the ‘real McCoy’ and can help you out from the perspective of figuring out what you would like,” Brockway says.

 Local research can go far, too, and you may even be able to find images of your very property. That can help you figure out some elements of your yard that are actually remnants of the historic garden of its time.

“If it’s a historic property and you want to be as authentic as possible, then the first thing to do is do some research,” says Tanya Seredin, a landscape designer and principal at Mohr & Seredin Landscape Architects Inc. in Portland. “Look for old photographs, old maps. And then maybe step back. If your house is a historic property and it’s in a neighborhood with a lot of other historic properties – maybe it’s in the city’s historic district – look around the neighborhood and see what kinds of things are done in the neighborhood. Look at fences, lawns, trees. You can then start trying to put something together that would work with the neighborhood, work with your house and work with your needs.”

Developing a plan

As you discover what kinds of flowers, plants, and trees might be right for your gardens, develop a plan, possibly with the help of a professional, depending on your skill level, time, and other resources.

 Brockway suggests thinking in terms of “foundation, framework and frosting.” The foundation includes long-standing elements like old oak and maple trees, remnants of stonework including walls and paths, and others that are almost akin to an archaeological site. The framework includes elements like fences and less-enduring trees and bushes that carve out space in the landscaping. And the frosting includes flowers and other plants that give the garden character and color.

 “Sometimes just re-exposing a walkway can bring back a lot of flavor to the landscape,” Brockway says. “If there are pieces that you want to put in or put back again…. then getting those basic elements in like walkways and fences” can help your decision-making. Designing the flower gardens is easier and there are places that specialize in period seeds and bulbs, she says.

Still, most likely, the process will take patience, says Theresa Mattor, author of the book “Designing the Maine Landscape” as well as several articles on landscape design, including historic landscapes.

“[S]trive for a balance between historic significance, current demands, and a realistic understanding of how your site will be used and maintained in the future,” she wrote in an article, “Recognizing our Heritage: Applying Federal Guidelines to Historic Landscapes in Maine,” published a few years ago.

Practical considerations

Before you launch into designing a garden for your historic home, think about how much work you want to put into it on an ongoing basis and how you would like to use your outdoor space. And of course, your options will also be limited to the conditions in your garden, from shade and sun patterns to soil types and conditions.

One thing to keep in mind is that in some eras past, exotic plants were often popular, but not necessarily conducive or ideal for New England. In centuries past, people would travel to Asia, for example, bringing back plants that were more at home in more temperate climates. In fact, our current tendency to consider native plant species is more of a modern concept, says Seredin.

“Unless it’s a really important landscape and the plant itself was an important plant, there are appropriate design plants that are native,” she says. “You can find things that are more native or less invasive to substitute for some of the more exotic things. You can definitely design a landscape for a historic house using primary native plant materials and have the aesthetics and feel of a historic landscape.”

In fact, though, many plants from a historic home’s time are inappropriate today, says Chasse, “from invasive plants, to toxic plants, to plants that are no longer available and can't be sourced.”

“Many modern hybrids have been developed for desirable characteristics, like disease resistance, drought resistance, and longer blooming sequence, and those characteristics can be advantageous,” he says. “The new colors, however, are often not anything like the historic palette and won't be visually authentic—even when they are the same type of flower or plant.” In his work on historic properties, Chasse says he often relies on heirloom seed banks, or the historic study collections housed in various botanical gardens and historic gardens around the world.

“When a plant was introduced into the gardens of a period, that can often be confirmed by period seed catalogs or gardening articles,” he says, echoing Seredin’s suggestions. “Being sure they were used in a specific garden requires documentation in lists, letters, plans or articles concerning the garden. Since accurate color photography is relatively modern, we can't rely on color photos for much help other than in late 20th Century.”

Also think in terms of how you might want to use your garden. Is it purely decorative? Do you want flowers blooming in certain areas or certain times of year? Would you like to provide shade at certain times of day or certain times of year? Do you want an area where you can sit in the sun and read? Or entertain guests? Are you interested in growing vegetables or herbs for your kitchen? There may also be ways, through various plantings, to help protect your foundation and control water intrusion into your home. One thing to keep in mind, says Seredin, is that a landscaping project can be more forgiving than a house renovation project, because it’s easier to change your mind, even after you’ve planted something.

 It could be that a strict interpretation doesn’t suit your needs, so consider a certain amount of compromise, based on how you’ll use your property, says Chasse.

“Think through whether a period landscape could or would be the best way to complete your home,” he says. “Big trees and too much shade are often an obstacle to more complex period gardening, so an abstracted version of what might have been there may be the only practical way forward. Focus on structure of the house and complementary structure of the garden before you get out the nursery catalogs. The delicious plant opportunities are the icing on your cake.”

In fact, says Brockway, figuring out how you want to use your gardens is as essential as your property’s historic considerations. “There are plenty of ways to soften the impact of contemporary living if you want to,” she says. “A patio for instance can be foiled a bit by a hedge or fence,” she says. “Think in terms of the scale of furniture or use wicker or wrought iron instead of plastic furniture.”

Or, she says, why not use something completely opposite: admit this is the modern part of your garden and use a very contemporary design for the patio or grill areas against it, as you might find in Europe. “I feel that your back yard and your landscape is who you are,” Brockway says. “It needs to be comfortable for you and has to be as reflective of your tastes. It’s you who wants to be out there all the time, not the owner that lived here in 1878.”