Before you begin planning your Victorian landscaping project, it helps to understand the period. The reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, was a time of contrasts. A rigid social class system divided society. The upper and middle classes lived by a set of strict social rules that governed almost every aspect of life.
The same period was also a time of explosive growth and exploration. Science and Art were undergoing radical changes. The Industrial Revolution was altering the way people lived, and the very fabric of society. And Victorians approached this contrast not with fear, but with a sense of fun, humor, and whimsy unparalleled in modern society. We can see these same contrasts in Victorian landscaping.
Victorian gardens are highly structured, neat and tidy, and favor well-demarcated spaces. At the same time, experimental and exotic plants abound. This style emphasizes opulence and elegance, and makes great use of ornaments. And there is plenty of room for whimsy. This contrast is what makes the Victorian landscaping style so attractive. And, if you’re willing to put in the work, you, too, can have a Victorian style garden.
Let’s take a look at some of the features of Victorian landscaping that you can reproduce in your own garden space.
2. Highly Structured, Divided Spaces
The Victorian garden, like Victorian society, was planned and structured to the smallest detail. Shapes, colors, plant types, and ornamentation — nothing is left to chance. Victorians liked to divide their gardens into garden “rooms.” Each garden room might have a separate theme. Some themes include medicinal plants, herb gardens, plants from different regions, plant types, and color-coded flowers. Victorians used hedge features to divide rooms and frame ornaments. Hedge mazes were also popular.
Depending on the amount of space you have for your garden, you can create garden rooms in different ways. You could divide an outdoor garden using temporary or permanent paths. Another option is to use steps and walls to create levels. Also, consider using outdoor furniture like tables or shelving units to create divisions and sections.
2. Neat and Tidy
A typical English garden is overgrown and wild. Not so the Victorian garden. One of the downsides of a Victorian style garden is that it needs constant care and attention to detail. Not a hair, or a blade of grass, out of place — just like an upper-class lady. Victorian gardeners spent a lot of time on their gardens. Many were members of the new middle class, and had more free time on their hands. Others were people of leisure. Others were keen amateur botanists. If you want to keep up the typical Victorian look, you may have to spend a lot of time snipping and trimming, to make your garden look “just so.”
If you don’t have loads of time to devote to grooming your garden, you might think about drought-resistant plants. Though not typical of Victorian gardens, drought-resistant landscaping would have appealed to Victorians in a couple of ways. First, many drought-resistant plants, like cacti and succulents, are neat and tidy by nature. Many do not require constant work. In addition, Victorians loved exotic and experimental plants. They enjoyed the challenge of making non-native plants grow and bloom. Drought resistant plants would be one easy way to bring Victorian tidiness — and exotic flair — to your garden, without all the work.
3. Paths and Walkways
Victorian gardens were a place of calm and refuge. Walkways turn a garden from something to look at into something to do. In addition to dividing the garden into rooms, walkways are a way of curating the features of your garden. Planning a route through the rooms gives order and structure. Victorian gardens often favored well-kept gravel paths. But you could use paving stones, tiles, wooden planks, or anything else that strikes your fancy. If your garden will be restricted to indoor spaces, think about arranging plants in different rooms according to species, color, type, or theme.
4. Trellises, Arbors, Pergolas, Gazebos
Trellises, arbors, pergolas and gazebos were popular features in Victorian gardens. They give structure, add to theme, and increase beauty. Trellises are wall pieces that support climbing vines. Typically a trellis is a wooden lattice attached to a wall or the side of a house. Arbors are free-standing arches that support climbing plants. They can also divide a garden into sections. A gazebo is a freestanding “room” with a roof and a floor. It gives shade, and a place to sit, gaze, and contemplate the garden. A pergola combines the features of the other types of structures, and may have a trellis on one or more sides, to support climbing plants. It can look similar to a gazebo, but often does not have a complete roof. The term can also apply to a structure over a walkway that supports climbing plants and shades the path.
If you have the room, adding one of these structures, and covering it with climbing vines and plants, is a dramatic way to add a Victorian flavor to your garden.
5. Opulence and Luxury
Controlled elegance. Opulence with restraint. This is a hallmark of Victorian landscaping. Think tall, elegant pots bursting with exotic flowers. Think hanging baskets spilling over with cascading succulents, ferns or vines. Structure, control and tidiness do not mean boring. Rather, restraint and control can help to show off the elegance and beauty of your plants. If you want to add a Victorian touch to your garden, think about hanging baskets, ferns and other cascading plants, and tall, elegant planters.
Egyptian themes were all the rage during Victorian times. Not only had Napoleon’s recent invasion of Egypt shown Britain an exotic new world, it also kicked off an “Egyptomania” that would affect fashion and home decor for decades to come. The opulence of Egyptian gold and the exotic themes appealed to many people at this time. Consider adding Egyptian motifs to your planters and garden embellishments for a true period feel.
6. Experimental Plants
Science was growing out in all directions during Victorian times. Charles Darwin’s discoveries, and the idea of natural selection had amateur plant and animal breeders madly experimenting with new varieties of plants. Hundreds of new species and hybrid species of plants came into existence, many at the hands of keen amateur gardeners. Victorian gardeners loved exotic plants, as well as the challenges of keeping non-native species healthy and growing. People were garden obsessed. Collecting, documenting, and growing new species was a national craze.
Another way to add a Victorian flourish to your garden is to include some specially selected unusual plants. Try cultivating something that doesn’t naturally grow in your area. Or something that stands out for its unique appearance. Or try your hand at creating your own hybrid variety of flower or vegetable.
Check out these links:
- Three Ways to Make a New Plant: Hybridizing at Home
- Plant Breeding as a Hobby
- Create a Rose Hybrid with Cross Pollenation
Don’t forget, the Victorians loved to have fun. One of the ways they had fun with their gardens was by picking out interesting and whimsical garden ornaments. Today’s gardeners have no shortage of embellishments to choose from. From garden gnomes to statues both serious and humorous, to bird baths, fountains and other water features and more. The choices seem endless.
In Victorian times, some popular embellishments included stone and cast iron urns, statues, and fountains. Use your ornaments as a way to show off your creativity, inventiveness, and style.
Creating the perfect Victorian style garden takes planning, effort, time, space, and money. But even if your resources are limited, you can still put together a garden with a Victorian flair. Just keep in mind the principles that make up the Victorian ideal: restraint, neatness, experimentation, elegance, and whimsy. Even if your garden isn’t one hundred percent authentic, you may well create something that would have made a Victorian gardener proud.
Here are a few links to help you get started:
- Victorian Plants: How to Make a Victorian Garden
- Elements of a Victorian Garden
- 6 Tips for Creating a Victorian Garden
- Elements of the Victorian Garden: Lawns, Shrubs, and Trees
- Some famous Victorian Gardens
- Create the Perfect Victorian Garden
Featured image CC by CC 2.0, by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Wikimedia Commons