Praise for "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens"
Shelley Ryan, host of "The Wisconsin Gardener" on Wisconsin Public Television, and heirloom gardening enthusiast
"'Vintage Wisconsin Gardens' is the perfect primer for any gardener or homeowner wishing to re-create a late-19th- or early-20th-century garden. It is filled with delightful details, anecdotes, historical photos, and a really useful list of plants. How I wish it existed when I was trying to create a garden for my 125-year-old home. It would have made my job a lot easier! 'Vintage Wisconsin Gardens' is also just fun reading for gardeners, historians, and anyone interested in Wisconsin's horticultural past."
Susan Mahr, Master Gardener Program Coordinator, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"An engaging look at how home gardens and landscapes changed as Wisconsin became more settled and developed from the 1800s to early 1900s. Gardeners will enjoy reading about how our 'modern' ideas of the use of home grounds came to be — and may be intrigued by the mention of certain plants that are 'new' again today. Anyone who is involved with historic gardens will appreciate the story of this evolution, as well as the practical considerations Lee Somerville presents for creating or maintaining a vintage garden."
Melinda Myers, author and nationally syndicated TV and radio gardening expert
"'Vintage Wisconsin Gardens' provides a comprehensive look into Wisconsin gardening from a home gardener's perspective. The photos, notes from the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society meetings, and Lee's insights provide gardeners with a look at the past and practical tips for re-creating period gardens. As gardeners, we can gain insight into current trends, popular plants, and gardening styles when we take a moment to look to our past. And Lee Somerville helps us do just that."
Carly Rubach, ThirdCoast Digest
"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 at the past."
This review by Raeona Jordan appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of "Door County Magazine."
It's planting day at the Door County Master Gardener's Youth Garden, a bright morning in early summer, and some 100 children are flying about like milkweed. In the course of a few hours, and with the help of a squad of parents, teachers and Master Gardener volunteers, the third grade students from local elementary schools are involved in an annual flurry of hands-on activity designed to introduce them to some basic, and early, gardening techniques.
In the midst of this merry melee, Lee Somerville, co-chair of the Youth Graden project, hears shouts like, "This is so cool!" as the children tuck a squash seed into the dirt or cheer on their contestants in the Worm Race. The Youth Gardens was extablisher in 2008 as a class project by Somerville and her fellow apprentice Master Gardeners and is located on the grounds of the Peninsular Agricultural Research Station in Sturgeon Bay. But as much as she enjoys helping to nurture these young green thumbs of the future, Somerville also is uniquely qualified to reflect on the gardens of our past. She is the author of "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens," which documents the development of ornamental gardens in the state from the mid-19th century to 1930. Laden with archival photographs, illustrations and full-color plates, it will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in October.
The book grew out of Somerville's involvement at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay where she served as a volunteer gardner and interpreter for 15 years, eventually becoming garden coordinator for the 50-acre museum. It was an effort with built-in frustration. "So much goes into assuring that places like Heritage Hill are authentic representations of early Wisconsin life," Somerville noted. "But there didn't seem to be any resource that could tell us how to create gardens that would be equally authentic. There wer horticulture publications dating back to the mid-1800s, and books, as well, of course. But everything appeared to focus on the east coast and their 'high style' of the time. There didn't seem to be any background information on early gardening in Wisconsin, or even a way to find out."
And so Somerville began a quest, one that led to entering graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. In the course of studies that earned her a master's degree in landscape architecture, Somerville unearthed the archives of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society (WSHS), a time-capsule trove of annual reports and journals spanning more than 50 years. Here at last were details - year by year and article by article - that not only thoroughly traced the story of early garden efforts in the state, but provided a glimpse of companion societal changes as well.
The WSHS records show, for instance, how horticulture impacted the evolving roles of women. Initially denied membership in the WSHS, women gradually were accepted to the organization. Eventually, their participation led not only to ideas for better gardening, but provided a broader platform: through the give-and-take of programs at WSHS annual meetings, as well as articles in the journals, they raised increasingly confident voices on a range of issues, from suffrage to civic improvement programs.
This thoroughly cultivated field of research became the basis for Somerville's master's thesis. Then, re-worked to be more of a reader-friendly manual, it was accepted for publication. Adding to the richly detailed text sources that Somerville located was a collection of photographs by Norwegian immigrant Andreas Larsen Dahl. Traveling about Dane County in the 1860s and '70s. Dahl took hundreds of photos of immigrant families posed proudly outside their home. Each photo brims with timely details - showing not just garden styles through a decade, but also freeze-framing for posterity trends in fashion, architecture and even furniture.
Somerville's interest in gardening was probably inescapable. Born in England near Liverpool, she admits "I probably have gardening in my genes," though it wasn't something she devoted much time to until she was an adult and living in the United States. When she arrived in Green Bay some 35 years ago, it was a jolt to say the least. Somerville recalls being "horrified" by Northeast Wisconsin's harsh climate, wondering, "How can anything grow here?" But, like the 19th century immigrants she details in her book, Somerville adapted.
A resident of Sturgeon Bay since 2006, she keeps her green thumb flexed with activities like the Youth Garden. She also oversees the Heritage Garden at the Historical Village at Crossroads at Big Creek, established ten years ago by the Sturgeon Bay Home and Garden Club. Volunteers from that organization and the Master Gardeners are engaged in taking the garden back in time with heirloom vegetables and flowers.
Somerville finds pleasure in gardening, to be sure. "I enjoy the physical exercise, the challenge of growing things. And it takes your mind off your problems, it's a great relaxer."
But an even greater passion is playing sleuth, delving into the stacks, researching projects like "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens."
"Even more than a garden, to be immersed in an archive like the State Historical Society or some other wonderful library - really, that's my idea of heaven," said Somerville.
This review by Carly Rubach appeared in "ThirdCoast Digest" on November 1, 2011.
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
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 through 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 chaged as families began to enjoy their garden as an outdoof living space and even a way to express individuality.
I felt ashamed while reading the passage later in the book 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 suffested 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.