Lee Somerville is a landscape historian and master gardener. Originally from Liverpool, England, her home for the past 35 years has been northeastern Wisconsin. Between 1985 and 2001, Somerville was a volunteer at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay, where she helped develop garden and landscape plans and organized volunteers to maintain those gardens. She recently received her master's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The research she completed for her thesis on 19th century Wisconsin garden history served as the basis for this book.
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens?"
Lee Somerville: I wanted to share what I'd learned about early Wisconsin gardens and the people who created them. I had spent an engrossing couple of years gathering together all the information I could find about Wisconsin garden history for an academic program, and it seemed a shame not to make this available to a wider audience.
WHS Press: What were some surprising or interesting things you’ve learned about Wisconsin's 19th and early 20th century vernacular gardens?
LS: Before I began this project, I had assumed that early gardens consisted of a limited variety of plant material, and I was astonished by the wide selection of trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables that were routinely advertised by regional seed companies and nurseries. Then, as now, customers were tempted by promises of spectacular color and beauty in annuals and perennials that would transform their gardens, though many gardeners, by choice or necessity, gathered their plants from the wild.
I was surprised to find that early gardeners had the exact same concerns that we have today. They read the available garden literature, worried about pests, soil composition, weeds, and weather concerns, and shared hints, plants, and produce with like-minded enthusiasts. Like us, they were receptive to changing garden fashion, although ethnic tradition certainly influenced individual design and plant choices. The archival photographs in the book clearly illustrate the wide range of plant material and arrangement popular in Wisconsin's early gardens, including vigorous vines, hardy rose bushes, spring bulbs, colorful annual carpet beds, rockeries, foundation shrubs, and much more...
WHS Press: How was writing "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens" a personal experience?
LS: It became personal as I was reading the diaries and writings of early settlers. I moved to Wisconsin from England as an adult, and strongly identified with the trials and frustrations voiced by these immigrants as they gradually adapted their gardening traditions to this unfamiliar and sometimes harsh terrain and climate. Their stories inspired me to dig deeper into the primary and secondary literature about American garden history in general, and Wisconsin settlement history in particular.
Researching and writing this book combined two of my favorite hobbies – gardening and archival research. Putting the two together, however, proved to be a daunting task. Happily, my frustration was offset by the enjoyment I got from meeting so many people from around the state – gardeners, museum directors and volunteers, nursery owners, landscape architects, and historians – who have become my friends and who have been so supportive of this project.
WHS Press: How is this book different from other books about gardening and landscape architecture?
LS: For one thing it's about people as much as gardens – ordinary people and their own gardens, rather than extensive, architecturally-designed landscapes. It's not an encyclopedia of historic plants, nor is it a comprehensive guide to Wisconsin historic sites. It is simply a history of vintage Wisconsin gardens, seen through the eyes of settlers, members of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society, early photographers, including Andreas Dahl and Charles Van Schaick, and the personal recollections of state residents.
WHS Press: Wisconsin has many museums and historic houses that feature heirloom gardens. Where are your favorite places to visit?
LS: There are so many lovely historic gardens and parks in Wisconsin, and one day I'll visit them all – maybe that will be my next project. I don't want to leave any out, but here are a few of my favorites:
I love visiting Old World Wisconsin where ethnic garden traditions are so clearly demonstrated in the choices of heirloom vegetables and flowers that abound in each garden. Likewise on a smaller scale, Heritage Hill State Historical Park offers a glimpse of mid-nineteenth century garden practices. The Villa Louis grounds in Prairie du Chien contain many of the elements of their original Victorian design, while the Yawkey House in Wausau, the Kneeland-Walker House in Wauwatosa, the Schlegelmilch House in Eau Claire, and the Hixon House in La Crosse all have historic gardens with documented histories. Most are maintained by Master Gardeners, and all are well-worth a visit. I also love to wander around the Allen Garden on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and Sisson's Peony Gardens in Rosendale where several varieties of heirloom peonies are on display.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers will take away from "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens?"
LS: I hope readers will become as excited as I did about the joys of heirloom gardening. Seeds and plants are easily available these days, from sources such as Heritage Farms in Mukwanago, Jung Seeds in Randolph, and Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. The old varieties of flowers may be smaller and less-perfect than their modern counterparts, but their fragrance more than satisfies, while the taste of heirloom vegetables and fruits, grown in your own garden is incomparable.
I also hope that this book provides a useful outline for Wisconsin landscape architects and gardeners, whether they work at historic sites or in their own gardens, to use as a foundation for further individual research.