Gardening Goes Back to the Future

Hollyhocks, one of Mary Ann Newcomer’s favorite heirloom flowers, still work in¬† gardens today.

I had the chance to see my garden-writing colleague  and Western gardening friend, Mary Ann Newcomer, last night at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She flew in from Idaho to present a fascinating look at heirloom gardens and why they still work today.

If you missed her presentation, you might want to drop by her Gardens of the Wild Wild West blog to join the conversation and learn a few new tricks for gardening in a challenging climate.

Mary Ann’s talk centered around her research and travels looking at homestead gardens like those Willa Cather wrote about in her novel My Antonia. The beautiful images that illustrated her presentation took us all on a journey to Willa’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Neb.

We also got to see the lovely heirloom garden at the Tinsley House, part of the Living History Farm at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont. She says this is the best example of an 1870s heirloom garden she’s seen.

Even though gardeners in those days didn’t have the luxury of drip irrigation systems, they were able to grow fragrant flowers, vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. Some of the sustainable gardening techniques that are gaining popularity now were standard practice then.

People grew their gardens with passalong plants from family and friends, they planted reseeding annuals and native local plants, used organic gardening methods, grew green roofs, and tended little lawn.

Some of the flowering stalwarts of the garden included iris, ‘Harrison’s Yellow’ roses, large white peonies, poppies, hollyhocks, bouncing bet, cosmos, sweetpeas, sunflowers, lilacs, tiger lilies, and old-fashioned petunias.

Gardeners can connect to the past by planting these heirloom flowers in their modern gardens. Mary Ann recommends a few places to purchase them including Select Seeds, Old House Gardens, and Seed Savers Exchange.


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