LAURENCE SOMBKE Special to the Times Union
Section: AT HOME,  Page: H1

Date: Sunday, May 23, 1999

Victorian gardeners were in love with flowers. They adored big, showy plants with oversize leaves like caladium and canna. They blanketed their gardens with colorful blooms like pansies and geraniums. They filled the air with fragrance from old roses. The Victorian era (approximately 1850 to 1920) was one of excess and exuberance.

Victorian homes were more elaborate and ornamental than their colonial predecessors. Brocade and tapestry filled the interiors, and plants mirrored this taste.

The most enduring horticultural legacy of the Victorian gardener is the massive and elaborate beds of annuals that pop up every year in public gardens. When you see the massed beds of tulips followed by brightly colored annuals in Albany's Washington Park, you are seeing a Victorian garden.

Walk in the rose garden at Union College or the rose garden on the grounds of the state Capitol, and you are strolling in a Victorian garden. A fountain surrounded by a ring of red geraniums and white petunias, like the one at the White House, is a Victorian garden. Women in the garden

The Victorian era, named after the popular and family-oriented queen of England, brought women into the garden for the first time. Yes, Iroquois women ran the gardens along the Mohawk and early American women tended crops along the frontier, but those utilitarian gardens served to feed the families.

Now that America was prosperous, upper-middle-class and middle-class women took to their gardens as a hobby and brought their tastes and interests out into the open. Gardening became a healthy, outdoor family thing to do. Even the children were involved.

Landscapes around American homes changed during the Victorian era. The yard around Colonial and Federal homes was used for work, hog butchering, carriages, livestock tending and grain thrashing. Ornamental gardens would never survive such conditions.

Victorian homes were surrounded by flowering trees and shrubs, some planted around the foundation. Beds of colorful flowers became a part of the landscape, and rose gardens were added.

A most charming and restrained Victorian public garden in the Capital Region is at Bleecker Park, at Madison Avenue and Eagle Street in downtown Albany. This tiny pocket park is bordered by ornamental cast-iron fencing. A few trees are planted around the edges. Tulips surround the centerpiece, Albany's first fountain, dedicated in 1863. Two other circular gardens feature a shrub surrounded by tulips. Swaths of color

Bedding-out was one of the most significant innovations of Victorian gardening. That is the practice of growing tender, frost-prone annuals under glass in greenhouses so they could be transplanted to beds in late spring or early summer.

Single-species beds were the earliest and by far the most common, a practice that continues today.

Permanent rectangular or slightly curved beds would be dug in the fall and planted with tulips. After the tulips faded, they would be replaced with geraniums in white, pink or red, one color in each bed.

An adjacent bed would be planted with another color geranium or white alyssum; white, purple or red verbena; or blue lobelia, adding color in huge splashes.

Ribbon beds embellished single-species beds by adding multiple strips of different colored flowers, usually divided by leafy plants like caladium or coleus.

Carpet beds were the epitome of bedding-out. Like a tapestry or a Persian rug, carpet beds artfully wove together ribbons of colorful plants in geometric patters.

Many of these carpet beds and fine examples of bedding-out exist today.

The Great Lakes garden at Niagara Falls in New York and the Clock garden at Niagara Falls, Ontario, are carpet beds gone wild.

Perhaps one of the finest examples of a Victorian bedding garden can be found at Mohonk Mountain House, the deeply Victorian resort in New Paltz in the Hudson Valley.

Circular gardens were a variation on bedding gardens, featuring concentric circles of plants that used the height of the plants. They were almost always graded, with a high point in the middle dotted by a fountain or single accent plant.

The center of a circular garden would be the tallest plants, perhaps castor bean, surrounded by cannas, caladiums, centaurea, then coleus. Other plants that would be used in circular gardens include amaranthus, larkspur, poppy, peony, iris and pansy. Sweet scent of roses

Roses were very important in Victorian gardens. In fact, gardeners liked roses so much they began to build separate gardens called roseries or rosariums.

Most were so-called old roses, which existed before the introduction of hybrid tea roses in 1867. These old roses had been grown in different parts of the world for centuries and most were sweetly scented with the rich, luxuriant flowers so many gardeners crave today.

The gallica or French rose was quite popular, as was the centifolia and the damask. Soon Bourbon roses were developed, then hybrid tea roses.

Ornamentation was critical for a successful Victorian garden. Wooden benches with decorative cast-iron supports and edges, tables and even settees in the garden allowed people to entertain their neighbors or rest during a garden walk.

Cast-iron vases and planting pots, bird baths, figurines, gargoyles, sculpture and fountains soon found their way out into the garden.

But the greatest garden ornament of all, and one that was required of every well-to-do family, was a greenhouse of ornate cast iron and glass. The greenhouse was always utilitarian, for propagating bedding plants, but it was often attached to the house. It was used as a parlor for entertaining, filled with ferns and orange trees in winter.

Victorian greenhouses, especially those built by the firm of Lord and Burnham, are found on home sites today throughout the Northeast, including behind the commandant's home at the Watervliet Arsenal.

Toward the end of the Victorian era, gardeners began to tire of formal garden themes. Newly popular were ``wild gardens'' of trees, shrubs and flowers and the new idea coming out of England, the border garden, based on the works of Gertrude Jekyll.

But bedding-out and garden ornaments are still popular, especially in public gardens. The Victorian love of nostalgia and fragrance is making a comeback. The Victorian love of gardens is probably the best thing they left us.