- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: June 2004

Victorian Gardening

physickestategarden2Today, ladies, the topic of discussion is “How to Create A Victorian Garden.”

Note I say ladies, because the gentlemen of the house have other duties like organizing hunting parties and, as every proper Victorian knows, it is the responsibility of the lady of the house to tend to the beauty of nature’s bounty.

I recently toured the Emlen Physick Estate’s newly restored front garden with the estate’s chief gardener, Hope Gaines. We talked about the Victorians and their ideas regarding gardening. Like all things Victorian, gardening comes with a definite set of rules.

An estate garden, according to Ms. Gaines, must be at least 150 feet wide and be 80 feet in distance from the road. But, If you think you might like to have your very own Victorian garden, as I do, fear not – the rules aren’t that oppressive and you don’t have to have a lawn the size of the Physick Estate. The only thing you really need is to be neat and well organized.

Oh dear. That could be a problem for me. I have always been more of a cottage gardener – meaning I am not neat, nor am I organized. I plant things willy-nilly. And that reminds me, I think the weeds I pulled last month are still lying there on the ground. This would never do in a proper Victorian garden.

Gardening is, after all, the one avenue of manual labor where it is acceptable for a lady to, dare I say, break a sweat. Of course, heavy work – like shoveling and digging must still be left to the servants.

Now, before we go any further, we must discuss the proper attire for a gardening lady. An old frock, one which does not restrict movement, is most advisable. Large brimmed hats and gloves are a must. Also, when the weather warms up, a bathing costume is perfectly acceptable –obviously this would be a costume where all vital parts are covered, otherwise, well – you might only imagine the talk and scandal.

physickestategardenRule Number One: “A good pattern” makes for a well tended garden, Ms. Gaines told me as we walked about. Although a bit windy, it is a beautifully sunny day. Ms Gaines is appropriately dressed in a garden tea party frock similar to one probably worn by Mrs. Frances Ralston, Dr. Physick’s widowed mother, and the person responsible for the front garden back in 1895.

E. Edward Shaw, a landscape historian, helped bring the front garden back to its original design by using an old 1895 photo taken from Mrs. Ralston’s second floor bedroom window.

An example of a good pattern, Ms. Gaines points out, is the arborvitae at the entrance of the front garden. The formal hedge-like trees have been planted in triangular patterns. Why arborvitae? Because, according to Restoring America’s Gardens, published in 1888, “no garden in city or country was considered quite complete without a protecting hedge, and the popular shrubs for this purpose were the cedar, arborvitae, wild orange, euonymus, box and cassine.” All of which are still as popular and plentiful in local nurseries today.

physickestategarden3Rule Number Two: Pick a focal point by embellishing a structure, and making sure it is neat, well organized and harmonious. Nice as those arborvitae are, the eye keeps going back to the very large oval in the center of the garden.

The oval, or carpet bed as it is properly called at the Physick Estate, follows all of the rules. There are four concentric circles with a mature oak behind the carpet bed near the center. In the center caladium, followed by a circle of pansies. A circle of pink, red, and white tulips, many of which are heirloom plants, surrounds the pansies. The outer circle is comprised of hostas. That all changed, however, with the summer planting. Geraniums and Elephant Ear replaced the tulips and pansies. The original garden probably had begonias, but geraniums are a little tougher and more likely to flourish, according to Gaines. The pansies have been cut back to the ground, in the hope that they will come back when fall brings back cooler temperatures.

picketfenceRule Number Three: High privacy fences or hedges are taboo and considered “stupid, unchristian and un-neighborly, according to Frank J. Scott, a garden writer of the day. The Victorians wanted people to see their fine, pristine lawn, large trees (generally spruce, oak, beech evergreens, and maple) and front garden, giving passersby a “pleasing and uninterrupted view.” A picket or wrought iron fence, however, is acceptable, and in fact, recommended. (to keep out animals and boisterous children) Which brings us to another subject – paths.

physickestategardenpathRule Number Four: All paths must lead somewhere, preferably to the front entrance and to the back gardens. The Victorians did not approve of paths leading to nowhere (That is exactly what my garden paths do, by the way– they lead to nowhere and I end up trampling through the lawn, which is not at all pristine).

At the Physick Estate, for instance, the brick walk which leads visitors to the formal entrance to the Physick Estate, is filled with Iris, white and yellow tulips, narcissus and candytuft in springtime. Now that the hot weather has taken the blush of those blooms off, the tulips and narcissus will be cut back and the candytuft, which is an evergreen, will be left to takeover the pathway.

I don’t want to sound like a tour guide but before we leave the entrance area, there are two Yews standing opposite the tennis courts. In England these evergreens may be as old as 2,000 years. The two standing near the tennis courts are estimated at 100 to 150 years, which means they were planted around the time that the Physick Estate was built in 1879.

The Yew is considered sacred by various religions and, according Gaines’ research, certain yew objects such as drinking cups, are still regarded as having a certain spiritual potency.


The Emlen Physick Estate

I don’t know about you (no pun intended), but I can’t get over how much thinking went into a Victorian garden. I’m more apt to walk into the local nursery and buy whatever I see, plant it, stand back and pray. I don’t know if Mrs. Ralston planted the Yews or not, but I can imagine her pouring over catalogs, looking out her bedroom window, and sketching her design plan, which is still in evidence 100-plus years later.

(Mental note to myself: Must do away with willy-nilly planting frenzies in the hopes my garden will still be around 100 years from now.)

downingdesignNow, you might be wondering why all the rules. Well, I’ll tell you. Another garden writer of the day – namely one Andrew Jackson Downing – felt we Americans were “bereft of tamed nature” and suffered from “that lowest species of idolatry. The love of money.” Gardening was thought to be a “morality lesson” which would root us and “cure the American’s drinking problem…” Well, you know ladies what they say about the best-laid plans….

I don’t know about morality lessons or curing America’s drinking problem; but I do know the Victorians have a good thing going with the carpet bed idea (see side bar)

Well, I think you have enough to get you started. And me? Sadly, the wind took my flour path willy-nilly and before I took proper notice, my oval turned into a zigzag. But you know what? It looks good anyway and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the real morality lesson – Mother Nature can make even the most inept gardener come off looking inspired because as John Keats once said;

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.

Carpet Bedding

Remember that large oval or circle filled with flowers planted in a circular pattern? The carpet bed remains one of the easiest and most eye-catching ways to accentuate a front lawn.

Since my visit to the Physick Estate, I am now infused with neat and well-organized thoughts on how to create your very own carpet bed, which I will share with you before they slip away and I regress.

To get started:

  • Measure off the area designated as your carpet bed.
  • Draw your pattern ahead of time on paper.
  • Till the bed, then, using a hose, mark your pattern.
  • Sprinkle flour along the hose so that you still have a pattern to guide you when you’re ready to plant.
  • Step away – once the flour is down – and take a look. Make whatever necessary adjustments you deem fit and start planting.
  • Remember to be bold and bright with your color schemes. For example plant blues next to yellows and purples next to oranges.
  • A look on the internet – if you’re not so lucky as to have a Hope Gaines nearby –should give you enough in the way of tips – just key in “Victorian gardening” and begin your search. One gardening design site suggested picking from among the following: Canna lilies, coleus, geraniums, red salvia, and cockscomb to insure a colorful planting. For the outer edging try trailing lobelia or alyssum.
  • Keep it simple. For example: bright yellow Canna lilies in the center; cockscomb or red geraniums at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock (really simple would be to follow the Physick Estate example and just make three or four complete circles of four different plant or flower groupings). Coleus or candytuft (yellow) for ground cover and a lacy trailing lobelia in sapphire for edging around the circle. The number of plants will be determined by the size of the circle and your local nursery can help there – just bring your design plan with dimensions. Don’t forget the Victorian mantra coined by Dane Wells, former owner of the Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast, “more is never enough.”

On Assignment: Cape May Stage Mangling

Day One

I’m sooo excited!


My assignment for is to go back-stage with Cape May Stage. I’m going to be the acting assistant stage manager for their new production– “Park Your Car…”  somewhere…lets see… “Park Your Car in Your Backyard”? …no.

No, I got it! “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard”!  And I’m going to meet the playwright!  I’m sure this is going to finally be the beginning of my career in show biz (that’s what we insiders call it). I can see it all now.. lights…  neon signs… on-camera interviews… adoring fans!  I see…

Oh…I see Michael Carleton – the Boss, the Director. He seems to be saying something. Why must people bother me when I’m thinking?  Oh… He wants to get to work. Oh, OK….

He wants to know if I have a watch.

“Well of course I have a watch,” I say.

“Where is it?” Michael asks.

“It’s at home, of course.”

Why is he looking at me like that?

“You want me to time the acts? Hmmm.” Good idea, I guess. But how?

Thank the stars. One of them – the stars – Tom McCarthy – hands me a watch. Great!

“Do you know your watch says that it’s 6:30?” I say to him.

He gently turns the watch around so that it miraculously reads 12 capemaystagetomandgraceo’clock. Great! OK I’m all ready.

They – the other star, Grace Gonglewski and Tom start reading from Act One, Scene One. Then it got real quiet…

When I looked up they all – Michael, Grace and Tom – were looking at me.

“What?” I ask.

“What was the time?” asks Grace.

“What time?”

“What time is it?”

“Oh. It’s 12:17.” Man! These people are obsessed with the time.

“By the way, when’s lunch?”

“We just started,” says Michael.

“Hold on here. I have to eat. I’m a little hypoglycemic. So I’ll be back later. Here’s your watch. You know what? I’m not sure I’ll make it back in time for whatever ‘s next.  So just start without me. It’s OK. I’ll see ya tomorrow. What time? 11? Sure. Wait…. you know what? I can’t make it tomorrow. But I’ll see ya Thursday for sure.”

Day Two – I mean Three, cause I skipped two, but really it’s my Day Two

Geez. Even though I wasn’t there, they already have a little mini-stage set and everything, with four chairs pushed together to make a sofa- a piano bench for a coffee table– a large comfy chair – a table where the kitchen would be. It’s just like being a kid and using your mother’s old stuff to play “pretend.” Michael says that today we’ll be “capemaystagesusan2blocking” out the set and while we’re blocking out the set, there’s a lot of talk about “sound cues.”

Now I told Michael that I think he had it a bit wrong. “Stop. Stop a minute Michael,” I said, “Here’s how I’d make it.” He’s so nice. He gently led me to my seat and handed me a piece a paper and told me to take a little rest and make a list of all the props that are needed. Wasn’t that thoughtful?

capemaystageaftersusansdireYou can’t imagine all the props one little play needs. Hearing aids, towels, white shirts, blackboards, cupcakes with orange icing. Whew! I’m glad I don’t have to look for all that stuff…

Wow! Look at the time!

“Michael? I have to go now. My dog needs her teeth cleaned and I’m sorry but I can’t miss that appointment.  But I have a lot more ideas about how you make the play really good. Do you think the playwright would mind if we ah… rewrote a few things?  Don’t worry. I see you look puzzled. We’ll talk. I gotta run. See ya tomorrow.”

My Day Three – Absolutely the best day!

Cora, a big, furry Ccapemaystagestarhow mix and the third star of “Park Your Car…” joined us today. Grace is going to try going “off the book” for Scenes One and Two. My job is to feed her the lines if she forgets them.

This is the best job ever!  I may have to give up my “day job.”

Of course, in order to feed her the lines, I have to look at the script – like the whole time. I mean I can’t look away – not even to play with the dog.

I have no idea how Grace could learn all those lines that quickly. I’m having a little trouble knowing if she’s having a dramatic pause or if she’s waiting for me to give her a line – so, I think I’ll just jump in with a line ….

Jumping in doesn’t seem to be working very well. Grace can’t quite get my timing. So Michael asked me if I could take Cora out capemaystagestarcorafor a little walk. That’s so sweet of him to think of the dog while he’s busy directing Grace.

“Come on, Cora.”

I kind of like the play. It reminds me of Cape May. But it takes place in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I think it makes more sense to be in Cape May. I’m going to suggest that we change the setting to Cape May. I’m sure the playwright won’t mind. It would only be just for the performances here. Of course, that means they’ll have to change their accents and all the New England references. I can do a rewrite for them and bring it to rehearsal tomorrow. Michael will love it!

Day Four – I don’t know what happened.

I went to the theater but no one was there. Someone must have gotten sick and they cancelled rehearsals. I left Michael a long message, stressing how the re-write I did was very important to rehearse and how Cora’s role should probably be played by a cat or a parakeet instead of a dog.

He hasn’t called back.

Day Five – Gosh. Still no word from Michael.

I went back again to the theater and still no one was around. I feel so sorry for them. I can’t really spend any more time stage managing if I can’t get through to them. I don’t know what they’ll do without me… The show goes on in a week!cmapemaystageplay

When I meet the author, Israel Horovitz, I’ll have a little heart to heart with him about my ideas and suggestions to make the play so much better. And if it’s not a raving success, then Mr. Horovitz will know how they all missed a really good chance.

Editor’s Note: We’re happy to report that “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” by Israel Horovitz opens June 2 running through June 26, show-time at 8 PM and that the curtain is expected to go up as usual despite our reporter’s best efforts to the contrary. Cape May Stage is located at Lafayette and Bank Streets. Tickets can be obtained by calling the theater at 609-884-1341 or going to the website at

Secret Gardens of Cape May: Among the Stopping Points

secretgardenheader3Sshhh! I just came back from the Secret Garden Tour. Of course I can’t tell you physickestategarden4anything because, duh, it’s a secret. But listen, I’ve been trying to learn a thing or two about Victorian gardening from the Emlen Physick Estate (1879) gardener Hope Gaines. She told me about how the Victorians loved creating stopping points in the garden.

So, you’re wondering, what does the Secret Garden Tour have to do with stopping points. Well, that’s just it. I noticed that each garden had either a stopping point or a private sitting garden, or both.

So I decided to go out on my own and look at some of the gardens of Cape May. It’ll be our little secret – don’t tell anyone.

Now about those stopping points…

The Victorians used interior victoriangazingballdecorating schemes in an outdoor setting. For example statuary or “whimsy” was a common addition to the Victorian garden. Gazebos, (like the one at the Physick Estate) sundials, gazing balls, cherubic and fairy sculptures, fountains – anything that would stop your progress through the garden and make you pause. These stopping points, according to the Victorians, “purified your soul” by making you pause and look at the gifts of Eden.

The Victorian age was also a time of great exploration. Botanists were bringing in exotic plants from all over the world and the Victorians were game for trying them out in their gardens. Begonias, canna lilies and coleus were all new to England and to America in the 1800s.

Because the Victorians were not only flush with money from the industrial revolution but also flush with new knowledge stemming from these explorations abroad, they were anxious to show off their newfound horticultural discoveries.

I discovered that many of Cape May’s innkeepers have created stopping pointssecretgarden1 in their own gardens. Oh no. I can’t tell you that. We have cleverly blurred the names of the B&Bs to protect the secrecy of the gardens. So, guests who stay at secretgarden1, for example, will be happy to discover that the Bed & Breakfast has a private sitting garden with a small herb section. The large urn (which looks like a baby bathtub) was salvaged from a Philadelphia theater. A nice sense of place is established as soon as the visitor walks through the latticed archway. A red-bricked path leads the guest into a living room-like setting of white wrought-iron furniture. The setting invites the visitor to come in, sit down and relax and maybe have a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.

secretgarden2 Similarly, thesecretgarden2, provides guests with a plain wooden settee so they can sit and enjoy the simple perennial garden. What makes this garden special is the small fishpond with the little frog sitting on the edge looking, along with the visitor, at the bubbling waters. Shade plants and a young magnolia tree line the slate path to complete a picture-perfect sense of serenity.

At thesecretgarden3,all sorts of Victorian-style gardening ideas can be found beginning with the front entrance. Victorians loved urns, especially big urns. The Victorians would have loved the two white urns; each filled with an Alberta Spruce, which decorate the steps leading up to the wide wrap-around-front porch. The Alberta Spruce will eventually outgrow the urns and will have to be replanted but the two seem happy enough right now.

Around the back of the house, hidden from the generally public, is a lovely secretgarden3English-style garden filled with annuals, perennials, and ornamental grasses. A small Harry Lauder Walking Stick tree or “Contorted Hazelnut” is at the front of these gardens. The stems and leaves naturally twist and turn as they grow. This very unusual tree was named after a Vaudeville comedian who used a wild-looking bent gnarly cane.

Aside from the beautiful plantings, among them a flaming Dwarf Japanese Maple, is a quiet garden room set on a red-bricked circular path with Adirondack chairs.

In each instance, a sense of the isecretgardencatbenchndoor is brought outdoors either by creating a living room setting or by using a single visual tool like a fountain. In one of the gardens at secretgarden4, for example, a large cast iron tiered fountain is used as the centerpiece for a carpet bed (a circular path of flowers). The B&B also makes use of large urns and a pretty bench supported by two concrete cats that serve well as stopping points.

Now don’t tell anyone – but that’s the secret to gardening – be creative. Think of it like this. Your garden is your stage setting and you are the director. A stage with just the actors (flowers and plants) is kind of sparse without some props, backdrops and furniture to create a scene so your actors shine when the spotlight comes on.