The History of Winter Gardens

Winter gardens trace their roots back to the Victorian period when municipalities began building large conservatories for the enjoyment of their citizens, and eventually the phrase winter garden took off from there. Once these municipalities paved the way for large conservatories the upper crust of society began building their own private structures one larger than the previous to out do their neighbors. Once the wealthy homeowner showed that winter gardens could be applied to residential applications the techniques were taken to smaller homes. The small residential gardener would use structures like overhangs and tree branches to protect fragile plants from winter weather. The original conservatories were built as the convention centers of their day, they were the site of concerts and dances. The largest cities of the day built these conservatories. In Washington D.C. the United States Botanic Garden was the home to plants from around the world. In Chicago the city built The Garfield Park Conservatory in 1906-1907, the conservatory was the largest publicly held conservatory under one roof. In 1919 Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania built a conservatory that still houses an astounding 4.5 acres or glass.

After WWI these large conservatories fell out of favor due to the high costs of maintaining and heating. Due to the advances in heating technologies these conservatories saw a resurgence in the late 20th century. Some of the grand conservatories mentioned before have even been retrofitted and reopened.

Although I wish I had space for a winter garden on to itself it’s easier to have a few plants in the garden that can shine in the winter. For Public and Botanical gardens that can budget a large conservatory outdoor winter gardens or a winter border allow their patrons to get a similar enjoyment from the winter. The newest generation of winter gardens are growing in popularity as winters become more tempered and plants from warmer climates can be used. In 1979 the first of its kind winter garden was established at The University of Cambridge’s Botanical Garden.

Once the conservation mentality found in homes during WWII subsided interest in ornamental plants increased. During this post war period the way homeowners used their gardens evolved. During the war gardens where for supporting ones family with vegetables crops, but post-war people began growing more flowers. With produce being the main goal of growing a garden before the focus tended to shed light on the summer months, even when people started growing flowers after the war the trend of thinking about the garden continued to focus on the summer. With the increase interest in gardening magazines and books, winter gardening began to receive more exposure and the trend began to grow. Those plants that found prominence in the 19th century conservatories finally began to take their home in second half of 20th century home gardens. Winter gardens like any other trend eventually became stagnant by the 1970’s winter gardens typically consisted of evergreens and heather. While evergreens and heather can be beautiful only utilizing to areas of the plant landscape will limit the creativity of a winter garden. The two plants are very static during winter months and a garden utilizing them alone has turned static summer gardens into static winter gardens. Luckily we have evolved out of the days of strictly evergreens and heather and today’s gardener utilizes winter flowering bulbs, perennials, and uses shrubs for their winter interest. Today’s winter gardens evolve through the seasons as points of interest can rotate throughout a garden and plants have more than one period of interest to bring to the table.

In gardens in the front of the house techniques can be enjoyed at close ranges, and the scent from the plants cab be appreciated. Using the house as a way to protect plants from winter winds and larger snow fall can allow delicate plants to survive harsh conditions. This gardener is certainly happy that he no longer has to wait for spring to enjoy gardening.

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