Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Home Gardening

By Lee Somerville, Foreword by Arnold R. Alanen

Paperback: $24.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-475-3

200 pages, 135 color and b/w photos and illus., 8 x 9"; E-book now available


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As Wisconsin's population moved from farmsteads into villages, towns, and cities, the state saw a growing interest in gardening as a leisure activity and source of civic pride. In "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens," Lee Somerville introduces readers to the region's ornamental gardens of the 19th and early 20th centuries, showcasing the "vernacular" gardens created by landscaping enthusiasts for their own use and pleasure.

The Wisconsin State Horticultural Society, established during the mid-19th century, was the primary source of advice for home gardeners. Through carefully selected excerpts from WSHS articles, Somerville shares the excitement of these gardeners as they traded cultivation and design knowledge and explored the possibilities of their avocation. Women were frequent presenters at the WSHS annual meetings, and their voices resonate. Their writings, and those of their male colleagues, are a remarkable legacy we can draw on today - learning how Wisconsinites past created and enjoyed their gardens helps us appreciate our own. Filled with period and contemporary images, recommended plant lists, and garden layouts, "Vintage Wisconsin Gardens" will interest those curious about the history of the state's cultural landscape and inspire readers to restore or reconstruct period gardens.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department:

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.

Author Q&A
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.

2012 National Indie Excellence Awards
Winner in the Gardening Category

2011 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards
Finalist in the Home & Gardening Category

2011 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
Winner in the Cover-Paperback Design Category
Finalist in the Midwest Regional Interest-Text Category

2011 USA National Best Book Awards
Finalist in the Home: Gardening Category

2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards
Bronze in the Home & Garden Category

Author Interview
Larry Meiller interviewed Lee Somerville on Wisconsin Public Radio. This interview originally aired on November 9, 2011.

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.