A look back at “Vintage Wisconsin Gardens”
I could barely open the massive door to the Queen Anne-style Victorian Kneeland Walker house in Wauwatosa. I was on my way in to meet Lee Somerville, master gardener and author of Vintage Wisconsin Gardens. This Wisconsin Historical Society Press publication is not only an informative look into the changes in landscaping and gardening in Wisconsin, but also a beautiful collection of botanical prints and engaging historical photographs.
Recently, Somerville signed copies of her book and exchanged gardening tips with amateur and master gardeners alike. Vintage Wisconsin Gardens developed from Somerville’s graduate school thesis on 19th Century Wisconsin garden history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Originally from Liverpool, England, Somerville came to Wisconsin in 1976 and eventually became a volunteer at the Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay. She now lives in Sturgeon Bay and recently began spending her winters in San Diego as a volunteer for the floral society.
Somerville’s book offers tips on adding historical elements to your garden. It also presents context to changes in landscaping and gardening in the state of Wisconsin though the late-19th and early-20th Centuries. Somerville discusses the emerging field of landscape architecture, which in the late-1800s put great emphasis on utilizing natural space. I was thrilled to learn about Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park as well as America’s first suburban community.
Somerville explores the early gardens of the new settlers. In the book, she says, “The result of increased immigration and settlement led to a change in the Wisconsin landscape, as farmland was carved from the wilderness.”
Somerville found that settlers in the 1840s were more interested in creating gardens that focused on practicality rather than aesthetics. This meant more fruit trees and vegetables than floral gardens. According to her research, many new settlers took at least 10 years to structurally improve their homes and eventually planned and built more elaborate gardens.
Somerville also looks at the emergence of dairy farming after a group from New York moved to Madison in the 1860s. That’s when all the good stuff started, as far as I’m concerned (cheese!).
A prominent part of the book looks inside the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society. To become a member of the WSHS in 1869, you’d have to fork over $1 per year or $5 for a lifetime membership. The society held annual meetings in Madison and published reports and journals based on shared ideas and information. Membership of the WSHS grew from 35 people in 1869 to nearly 3,000 in 1928.
The society observed trends. In the book, Somerville says, “Specific rules addressed the careful placement of trees, shrubs and flower beds to create an ornamental front yard that would enhance the view from the street and provide a picture for those inside the house.” This idea of the garden as a way to frame the house changed as families began to enjoy their garden as an outdoor living space and even a way to express individuality.
I felt ashamed while reading the passage later in the book on vegetable gardens and how they were rarely discussed during the early WSHS meetings because Anglo-Americans tended to eat less vegetables than European settlers. Somerville references James William Miller, who in the book says, “Germans new to this country were astonished at the quantity of meat eaten by Americans, which was rounded out primarily with wheat bread and cornbread, rather than vegetables and fruit.” Vegetable gardens were not very popular until food shortages during the Great Depression sprung them into the discussion.
Somerville concludes her research with the idea that there is not necessarily a “typical” Wisconsin garden.
“A vernacular garden, by definition, is unique,” she writes. “It adapts and changes as a result of a combination of factors such as family and community traditions, neighborhood expectations, economic feasibility, availability of horticultural literature, or simply personal interests and preferences.”
Despite variations, Somerville offers a complete list of suggested plants and questions to consider when creating your own Wisconsin vintage garden. This Wisconsin Historical Society Press publication is a delightful resource for a gardener of any skill level or for a curious Wisconsin citizen interested in taking a look into the past.
“Vintage Wisconsin Gardens” is available for purchase on the WHS website.