I have a fun day job – I am a science fiction writer. When I go to science fiction fan gatherings to promote my books, I see the latest in geek culture.
One of the hottest trends right now in science fiction is something known as steampunk. (Think of the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and more recently, books like The Difference Engine.)
Steampunk fashion romanticizes the Victorian age. The books tend to gloss over the low points of the last century and focus on the fun aspects (dirigibles, items made of shiny brass, goggles, explorer’s hats, Egyptology and steam-driven machines).
When I come home from a convention, I put my high-button boots and corsets back into my closet and go sit in my container garden. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve left the Victorian mindset behind. The Victorians practically invented the container garden.
A Perfect Storm
Prior to the 1830’s, there are few examples of large-scale efforts to care for plants in containers. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are the most famous example of an early attempt at container gardens. The ancient Egyptians also maintained shrubs, lotus and other plants in containers. But these were isolated attempts by wealthy and powerful individuals to control their environment. Container gardening on massive effort did not come into effect until the right conditions were met. These conditions did not appear until the Victorian Effort.
In Victorian times, explorers such as Sir Edmund Hillary and Richard Burton and Egyptologists such as Howard Carter documented their discoveries and brought copies of exotic finds – including strange plants back to Europe with them. Many of the house plants that we know today such as ferns and rhododendron are descended from popular Victorian plants brought back from these journeys.
During the Victorian Era, industrialization pulled many people away from the country – and away from nature. Evidence that prosperous city dwellers missed nature is evident in their pursuits. The Victorians walked and boated in the park, pressed flowers and collected potted plants. The plants became a way for people who lived in cities to reconnect with nature.
In the socially-repressed times of the Victorian era, plants represented the goodness of nature. The Industrial nature of society meant that life changed at an alarming rate. During this time Henry David Thoreau stayed in a cabin at Walden Pond and subsequently wrote Walden as a call for citizens to return to a simpler life. Plants represented creation, the beauty of nature, God’s perfection and other appealing ideas in the mind of the Victorian.
For the first time ever, the ability to turn out identical items in a factory allowed Victorians to own larger, well-put-together homes for less money. Because of this, Victorian homes had large windows and at least one bay window that made the home an ideal environment for plants. By windows projected out from a room and were designed to provide the illusion that the room was larger than it really was.
Many Victorian homes also had a room known as a sun porch, solarium, conservatory or sun room. This room differed from a green house in that it was a room on the house with large windows suitable for keeping plants in. The sun porch could be either heated or unheated. Typically, since the room was attached to the home, it was heated.
Today, containers that hold plants under glass are known as terrariums. Most children create a terrarium out of a fish tank or a 2 liter soda bottle for science class in school. But in Victorian times, the pre-cursor to a terrarium, known as a Wardian Case, might have been the centerpiece to a drawing room.
Wardian cases may have looked like a miniature greenhouse, with multiple facets. Or it may have looked like a bell jar that was placed over a potted plant. Tropical plants such as orchids were favorites for planting in a Wardian case. The structure often protected the plant from the pollution of Victorian industrialized cities such as London.
Make Your Container Garden Steamy
If you want to bring a little Steampunk flair to your garden, select the type of plants that the Victorians would have planted. Popular Victorian plants (in addition to the Ferns and rhododendrons listed above) include:
Abutilon pictum (a.k.a. flowering maple)
Once you select your container garden, the next step is to choose an appropriately Victorian pot.
The Victorians preferred that flower pots have an aesthetically pleasing look to them. They were most likely to use hand-made terracotta containers with sculpted ornaments on them, just as the wealthy have used in their gardens for thousands of years.
Steampunk fans prefer anything made of brass, wood and leather as long as it is aesthetically pleasing. You may be able to find brass flower pots in your attic, garage sales or even in a corner of your local hardware store. Brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc, will not rust. This makes it practical for holding wet potting soil.