Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Seedsmen of Lower Manhattan

The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Map of Lower Manhattan 1902

It’s hard to imagine today that the urban streets of Lower Manhattan might once have had a connection with horticulture.  But in the 19th and early 20th centuries the streets off Broadway were home to a network of highly successful seed merchants and companies offering services connected with domestic and commercial cultivation.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Seed and Nursery Catalog Collection preserves thousands of colourful illustrated seed catalogues from companies across the United States, revealing which crops and flowers were popular in the past, and the locations where companies were based.  Many merchants, justifiably proud of their warehouse buildings and growing fields, described and illustrated them in their promotional literature.

In Manhattan, Burnett Brothers and Weeber & Don, both seed merchants and growers, were based in Chambers Street.  In nearby Barclay Street were J.M. Thorburn & Co founded in 1802, and Stumpp & Walter who specialised in flower and vegetable seed (and beautiful catalogues).  Dey Street was home to William Elliot & Sons Seedsmen and the retail premises of Peter Henderson and Co was in Cortlandt Street.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but gives some indication of the concentration of horticultural businesses in this area of the city.  All these companies sold seeds for domestic use and supplied wholesale grains and vegetable seeds to farmers.  Most sold grass seed for lawns and sports uses, garden tools, machinery, fertilisers and pesticides.

Henderson’s catalogues give some idea of the size of this particular business.  The illustrations below from 1905 show the five storey retail premises in Cortlandt Street plus the seed processing, packing and storage warehouses in Jersey City.  Also shown are acres of greenhouses in Arlington Avenue in Jersey City, then a centre for market gardening.

Peter Henderson wrote articles about gardening for magazines and published his first book explaining how to run a market gardening business Gardening for Profit in 1866.  Gardening for Pleasure (1875) was aimed at the amateur gardener and explains how to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Henderson’s catalogues represented a significant part of the company’s marketing strategy, with 750,000 printed every January in the 1880s.

The company remained in family hands until the mid 1940s, but failed to move with the times.  An article in Life Magazine described employees in the Cortlandt Street store using the same scales to weigh out seeds that had been used in the 19th century, and ladies filling flower seed packets ‘using little ivory measuring spoons of different sizes for different-sized seeds.’  Henderson merged with Stumpp & Walter in 1951, but by 1953 this company had closed.

William Elliott’s catalogue of 1897 reveals an advertisement for Hitchings & Co, suppliers of glasshouses and heating systems for these structures – another contributor to the local horticultural industry.  In the late 19th century Hitchings & Co was based in Mercer Street.  The New York Botanical Garden records that this company was established in 1844, beginning as a specialist in the manufacture of ventilation and heating systems for greenhouses, and that it began making greenhouse structures in 1888.

These vividly coloured catalogues must have been an inspiration to gardeners when they were published and remain full of interest today, showing the scale and importance of the horticultural industry and the contribution it made to New York.

This image shows the Peter Henderson Co’s retail premises in Manhattan (centre) and the seed packing premises in Jersey City. From Everything for the Garden 1905. Peter Henderson & Co.

Everything for the Garden Peter Henderson & Co 1916.  Showing acres of glasshouses and cultivation fields in New Jersey supplying the business with seeds, bulbs, tubers, etc.

Everything for the Garden 1910

Everything for the Garden 1910

Everything for the Garden 1916

Everything for the Garden 1916

Everything for the Garden 1916

Stumpp & Walter, Spring 1912

Stumpp & Walter, Spring 1912

Peter Henderson Stumpp & Walter Co Fall catalogue 1951 shortly after the companies merged.

Peter Henderson Stumpp & Walter Co Fall catalogue 1951 announcement of the merger of the two companies.

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Burnett Brothers, seedsmen 1918

Burnett Brothers, seedsmen 1918

Weeber & Don, seed merchants and growers 1919

Weeber & Don, seed merchants and growers 1919 – showing detail of the company’s building on Chambers Street, New York

Thorburn’s century: J. M. Thorburn & Co one hundredth annual catalogue 1901

Thorburn’s century: J. M. Thorburn & Co one hundredth annual catalogue 1901

MacNiff Horticultural Company Seed Annual 1921

Further reading:

NJCU Peter Henderson

Biodiversity Heritage Library Seed Catalogs

Smithsonian Libraries Biographies for Seedsmen

Smithsonian Libraries Seed Catalogs

The Appeal of Ivy

If December is the season to celebrate evergreens like ivy, there can surely have been no greater enthusiast for this plant than Shirley Hibberd, author of The Ivy A Monograph published in 1872.

In this illustrated book, each page bordered with ivy, Hibberd discusses historical uses and associations, as well as botanical observations, notes on cultivation and a comprehensive summary of the numerous varieties then available.  Many of these ivies were grown in his garden in Stoke Newington.  Hibberd saw this garden as a place to experiment rather than purely a model for the public to follow, and actively discouraged visitors.

James Shirley Hibberd (1825 – 1890) was a highly successful writer about gardening in the Victorian period.  He did much to popularise amateur gardening through his books, and as editor of garden magazines, where he shared his own experience of planning a garden, growing vegetables and bee-keeping.  Based for much of his life in Victorian London suburbs such as Islington, Hackney and Tottenham, his advice was directed at inhabitants of these new houses, keen to cultivate their new gardens.

It’s probably fair to say that ivy might not be at the top of everyone’s list of favourite plants today.  However, there are good reasons to cultivate this plant, including for harvest at this time of year for seasonal decorations.  Ivy is great for wildlife, providing nesting sites for birds, and nectar from the late season flowers gives a boost to bees and other insects in November, when other flowers have finished.  The berries are consumed by birds through the winter.  The evergreen foliage is always fresh which is especially welcome during the winter months.  It is also very easy to grow.

On the minus side, ivy’s association with ruins and graveyards can give it a rather gloomy feel and some find it dull.  Then there is its habit.  Once established, some varieties of this vigorous plant can overwhelm a wall, fence or an entire building in a couple of seasons, unless kept in check.  Its adventitious roots originating from the stem of the plant are adapted to support the plant as it reaches for the light, but these can work their way into gaps in masonry and woodwork, eventually damaging them.

As the ivy’s champion, Hibberd sees the plant as a protector of buildings:

To the Ivy we are without doubt indebted for the preservation of many a stately pile that would erst have become dust without it.  Thus it may be regarded as the vegetable keeper of historical records, for although it may thrust rude hands amongst them, as when it sends its roots deep into the wall of a tower or keep, it affords a protecting shield against wind, rain and snow; its matted felt of stems and its imbricated leaves constituting a truly waterproof protection, adding to the warmth and ensuring the perfect dryness of the protected structure.

For use in the garden, Hibberd discusses training ivy against walls, to edge borders and suggests plunging pots of ivy into empty flower beds to provide winter interest.  He has various ideas for training the plants in tree and shrub forms, and as standards or pyramids in containers.

Although at first glance this book might not appear to be bursting with relevance to the modern garden, Hibberd’s ideas for trained ivy plants could prove to be very useful additions to a container garden.  In a future post I hope to expand on this further.  In the meantime, here are some illustrations and engravings from the book, which show the variety and beauty of this plant.

Shirley Hibberd

The Ivy A Monograph by Shirley Hibberd


William Robinson and the fruit gardens of Paris

Apple blossom on trees trained as a Belgian Fence, Capel Manor, Enfield

Of the practices which we may with advantage, and which indeed we must, adopt from the French, those of fruit-culture command our first attention, because good fruit-culture combines the beautiful with the useful in a very high degree.  William Robinson

As an advocate of naturalistic planting, William Robinson’s admiration of the trained fruit trees he saw in France might come as a surprise.  But in Parks and Gardens of Paris (1878, published by Macmillan) as well as reviewing public parks Robinson devotes eight chapters to French methods of cultivation and training of fruit trees.  He visits and evaluates the work of various growers, including the school of horticulture at Versailles, the school of fruit-culture in the Bois de Vincennes and nurserymen such as M Jamin of Bourg-la-Reine.

In his introduction to the book Robinson discusses ways in which English growers could improve the quantity and quality of their crops by following the the French example.  He mentions winter pears, of which France sends ‘many thousands of pounds’ worth annually’ which should be wall trained rather than planted in the open, and cordon training for apples, to save space in the domestic garden.  Robinson is also enthusiastic about the French Paradise stock, which keeps fruit trees grafted onto it small enough to respond well to training (unlike the crab stock that was widely used in England at the time) and because of the Paradise stock’s hardiness enabling trees that favour warmer climates to be grown on cold, wet soils, like those in England.

But the most important improvement that should be made, he argues, concerns the education of English gardeners.  In his forthright style, Robinson complains that in the British Isles the training of fruit trees is ‘not taught at all, or only in the most imperfect manner.’  He observes of the French,

‘Many of the illustrations in this book show the mastery they possess over each detail of training  the branches of every kind of tree being conducted in any way by the trainer might desire, and with the greatest of ease.’

Pear Triomphe de Jodoigne, in Palmette form; 10 years old, 15 feet long, 8.5 feet high. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Winged Pyramid, Beurre Hardy; 10 years old, 13 feet high, 6.5 feet wide; average crop, 400 Pears. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Peach-tree with 20 vertical branches (Candleabrum form) in full bearing; variety Chevreuse tardive; 10 years of age, 33 feet long, 10 feet high; average crop, 400 Peaches of the first quality and size. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Crossed and Self-Supporting Espalier Pear-trees at Saulsaie.

Pear-tree trained as a Palmette Verrier. On trellis ten feet high, supports of T iron, horizontal lines slender galvanised wire (No. 12), wires united in strong ring at base to secure rigidity in end supports.

Pendulous Training of Wall Pear-tree.

View of Espalier Pear-trees and lines of Apples trained as Cordons in garden at Brunoy.

The Peach trained as an Oblique Cordon.

Pear-tree trained in U form for very high walls.

The Spiral Cordon against walls

The Pear trained as an Oblique Cordon. This form is best suited for the wall-culture of choice Winter Pears where it is desired to obtain a quick return. (Note the two end plants complete the pattern by means of grafts to the original plant which have been carefully trained.)

William Robinson (1838 – 1935) was a gardener, and a prolific author on horticulture. His best known books, The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883) contained his ideas for a new approach to planting gardens using plants to imitate nature instead of formal bedding schemes, which were so popular in Victorian gardens.  He also worked as a journalist for The Times and The Gardener’s Chronicle and following the success of The Wild Garden launched his own magazine, The Garden in 1871.  He put his theories about naturalistic planting into practice at his garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex, (which became derelict after his death, but is now restored and managed as a hotel).

In Parks and Gardens of Paris Robinson also discusses ideas for growing trained fruit trees in unexpected places.  As well as the Parisian front garden (illustrated below), he visits fruit trees that have been grown as fences along a French railway embankment.

Of the various waste spaces where good fruit might be grown the most conspicuous are the railway-embankments.  Here we have a space quite unused, and on which for hundreds of miles fruit-trees may be planted, that will after a few years yield profit, and continue to do so for a long time with but little attention.

Robinson observes the planting of pear trees along the Chemin de fer de l’Est.

A cheap fence of galvanised wire runs on each side of the line, and on this Pear-trees are trained so that their branches cross each other; and, though only in their fourth year, they are at the top of the fence.

In time, the trees trained in this way (sometimes called a Belgian fence) become self-supporting.  Robinson notes that both apple and pear trees were commonly grown in this way along the railway lines in Belgium.  Maybe it’s time to revive this lovely idea?

Parks and Gardens of Paris

William Robinson