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Nature always has been a source of joy and a respite from the world, and gardens are an opportunity to create that serenity in our own back yards. Much like fashion, garden styles come and go. But whether you embrace the pretty and functional potager, or French kitchen garden or the abundance and uninhibited joy of a cottage garden, gardens connect us through the generations.
While contemporary garden design can be thought-provoking and daring, garden plans with an old-fashioned aesthetic provide a bridge to an earlier period. “Nostalgic garden design elements provide a sense of continuity,” says landscape designer Kat Aul Cervoni, founder of Staghorn NYC and The Cultivation by Kat. “They offer a feeling of timelessness, tradition, and community.”
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence to a more relaxed and naturalistic approach to garden design, with pollinator-friendly meadow gardens and gardens of abundance that support ecological biodiversity trending. Designers agree that these are simply reflections of what our great-grandparents already knew: Take care of nature, and it will take care of us.
As garden design continues to evolve, here's what experts wish would make a comeback—plus, how to incorporate these nostalgic design ideas into your own garden.
Big, Dramatic Blooms
The big, bold flowers your great-grandmother grew belong in your garden. “Classics such as dahlias, peonies and bearded irises and flowering shrubs such as hydrangeas add incredible beauty and romance to the garden,” says Cervoni.
With modern breeding, many of these old-fashioned plants are now less fussy to grow, with improved hardiness, longer bloom periods and better disease resistance.
Neat and tidy has its place, but sometimes a garden benefits from a more relaxed approach. “Give old-fashioned annuals such as cosmos, salvia, verbena, snapdragons and phlox a chance to seed in,” says Jim Sutton, associate director of display design at Longwood Gardens. “Too often, gardeners introduce two inches of mulch a year, preventing these nostalgic beauties from weaving their way into the landscape.”
Let these old favorites reseed, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the charming effect they create.
Embrace the natural shape of shrubs instead of hacking them into submission because they’ve gotten too large for the space.
“Most definitely, I’d like to see gardeners stop pruning shrubs into meatball shapes to control their size,” says Sutton. “If you prune shrubs, prune to remove older growth and maintain the plant’s shape. The different textures and shapes add interest to your landscape.”
Move over, mulch; low-growing plants are a more attractive and eco-friendly approach. “Use natural ground covers in place of landscape fabric or high-maintenance lawns,” says Sutton. “Oftentimes, a gardener’s intent on making a garden weed-free creates a different eyesore when the landscape fabric inevitably becomes exposed.”
Instead, choose low-growing native ground covers that will crowd out weeds, prevent soil erosion, and support pollinators and wildlife.
Roses—especially the fluffy, cupped cabbage roses from yesteryear—have gotten a bad reputation as being fussy and difficult to grow. But that’s no longer true.
“Many new hybrids are reliable and disease-resistant, and they look like the old, lush garden roses that were popular a century or more ago,” says Stephen Scanniello, curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Garden and rosarian at the Helen S. Kaman Rose Garden at Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Breeders have created modern day roses with the look of a heritage rose.”
Fragrance adds another layer of enjoyment to any garden. Of course, roses should be in every vintage-inspired garden, but don’t overlook other nostalgic beauties such as lilacs, which have an intoxicating scent.
Another favorite your great-grandparents grew are gorgeous peonies, which are some of the longest-living perennials in the garden. “Even though peonies only bloom for a short time in the spring, they leave a lasting impression,” says Sutton. “And once established, they are one of the longest-lived perennials.”
A Touch of Formality
“I love the symmetry of traditional English or Scottish gardens,” says Cervoni. “The grandiosity of those types of gardens, and the maximalist approach is so appealing.”
While you may not want to tackle the upkeep of a tightly clipped topiary or a boxwood maze, you can recreate the feel with small touches: Plant shrubs that maintain their symmetrical forms without trimming, such as round shrubs, or flank your front door with topiaries or upright evergreens such as junipers.
Climbing and rambling roses, which look amazing tumbling over stone walls or scrambling up a trellis, are a stunning addition to any garden, says Scanniello. Plant other climbers, too, such as clematis, that can intermingle and sprawl together with roses to create a magical atmosphere.
Annuals that are easy to grow from seed, such as sweet peas, morning glories, and scarlet runner bean, also add vintage charm to your garden.
Of course, climbing plants need a structure to climb, and Cervoni loves the look of traditional obelisks and metalwork furniture with a vintage European or Art Deco vibe.
Café and bistro furniture echoing that nostalgic feel also adds an ageless feel to garden settings and makes it seem as if the garden has been there forever.
Cutting gardens are surging in popularity because gardeners realize how much joy there is in bringing freshly cut flowers from your own garden into your home.
Flowers such as cosmos, vibrant zinnias, and other old-fashioned charmers such as oriental poppies make for fantastic cutting flowers, says Sutton.
Even a large container can provide space to grow a few blooms to snip and bring inside, expanding your enjoyment of your garden to the indoors.
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