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The Kitchen Gardener
Gardens stay evergreen in archive

Saturday, September 22, 2001

There is a timeless quality about garden photographs. Layered through each picture is a story, a tale woven by clever gardeners, inspired in their own way to create gardens that are both beautiful and functional.

Among the images in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens is a photo showing how Phipps' cactus roo looked in 1903. (Smithsonian Institution Photo)

Looking at these photos, you know they shared the dirty fingernails, overloaded wheelbarrows and passion we feel for our gardens.

The Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens is a fascinating collection of these photographs dating back to the turn of the century. Accessible via the Web at www.siris.si.edu, it's a great resource for any gardener.

The collection started in 1992 with a donation of 30,000 images from the Garden Club of America. The club's members, mostly women, had photographed both public and private gardens. These pictures not only chronicle the history of American gardens but also give a glimpse into the lives of the people in the photographs.

Joyce Connolly, a museum specialist for the archive, organizes the collection and makes it available to gardeners and researchers. She believes these photographs provide a sense of continuity for gardeners.

"Things do change, and if you don't hang on to them, document them, you really lose. It's important to know where we were and where we are now," she says.

The people who come to the archive are as diverse as the plantings in the photographs -- writers, students, researchers. People interested in their own gardens and large estates want to see what it looked like. Landscape architects visit to glean ideas.

The archive has grown to an estimated 80,000 images, with 20,000 available to view online. Connolly recommends gardeners use the photos for design inspiration. Be careful, though. Once you sit down and start poking around the site, you might not notice the hours passing.

On www.siris.si.edu, click on the search button under Archives & Manuscripts. Use the scroll-down menu to select Archive of American Gardens and type in the word you want to search.

Search for "garden benches" and the site brings up 118 hits. Search "trellis" and view 47. Scroll through page after page of rose gardens or just gardens in Pennsylvania.

The archives also comprise smaller collections. The collection of J. Horrace McFarland contains 5,000 photos. McFarland's Harrisburg-based company did artwork for seed catalogs, and his collection contains some of the most interesting photographs I saw.

The pictures of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens show us the local landmark in a different time. Phipps historian Charlotte Cohen looked carefully at a 1903 photo of the cactus room.

"That's the original planting. It was built in 1901. That room has been redesigned at least twice," she said.

Cohen had never seen the picture before but is hoping to add it to her collection. She opened a large cabinet filled with boxes of slides. One shelf was dedicated to hardcover notebooks filled with memorabilia. She pages though brightly colored postcards from days gone by.

"This is our heritage," she said.

Phipps, the fourth-oldest conservatory in the country and the fifth largest, holds a special place in Cohen's heart. She is a docent and volunteer there and has been the historian for more than a decade.

Another photo from the Web site, a 1930 hand-tinted shot, shows a Phipps gardener surrounded by pots of hyacinth and crocus. He was setting up for a show, Cohen said.

"This is what Phipps used to be. This was their method of displaying flowers."

Cohen said the old photos provide an important link to gardens past.

"There were people who cared enough to save [the photos] so everyone else could see what was here. I want my grandchildren to be able to see what it used to be like," she said.

The Smithsonian is interested in donations of garden photos. They are especially interested in gardens that are not documented anywhere and in images that are unique and unpublished.

Among those whose work could be recognized are the unknown landscape architects who worked in Pittsburgh for much of their careers. Their work could be preserved in old photos.

"The most important aspect of saving these images is the fact that gardens are subject to change, loss and destruction," Cohen said. "These images are sometimes the only evidence left of a once-beautiful garden that has since disappeared."

Many of the photos in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens can be seen only in person, by appointment only.

For a brochure or information, write: AAG, A and I Building, Room 2282, Washington, DC 20560-0420. Or call 202-633-7376.


The Backyard Gardener appears periodically throughout the year. To read earlier columns and other garden features, visit PG Online Gardening at http://www.post-gazette.com/garden/. Oster can be reached by e-mail at doster@post-gazette.com or by phone at 412-263-1484.

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