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How To Create The Vintage Look In Your Garden

Published on August 20th 2020
A pink peony
When it comes to interiors and fashion, vintage is often seen as a marker of quality as well as a style statement, but there's also something to be said for the comfort gleaned from objects belonging to eras gone by. Beyond filling your home and wardrobe with nostalgic second-hand finds, there's a way to (literally) keep the past alive - by growing the plants that thrived in our grandparent's gardens.
My grandmother lived in a small town in the heart of the Midwest, and she had a long garden border filled with perennials and annuals. It was a classic, vintage garden, full to the brim and tended with love. Peonies, Iris, Phlox and other flowers bloomed in turn and added beauty to the outside and inside of her house as she picked them for bouquets.
To create a garden that would make any green-fingered grandparents proud — pick old-fashioned plants that match the soil and light conditions in your garden. Scour thrift stores for unusual containers or use what you have - old patterned crockery and tin tubs will add warmth and charm. To plant a vintage garden with staying power, start with perennials that bloom across the seasons. Then, punctuate your vintage garden with showy annuals that will look as good in a vase as they do in the border.
Add some old world magic to your garden with these 10 easy-care plants.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

A close up of a Columbine flower
The old-fashioned columbine your grandparents probably grew is a North American native that grows 2 feet tall with maplelike leaves. Its blooms are red and yellow, bell-shaped and droop downward. It likes shade more than sun and is one of the first perennials to bloom in summer.
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in Talcott Mountain State Park

Canadian Columbine

Aquilegia canadensis

Peony (Paeonia)

A close up of Myrtle Gentry peony
Yes, they only bloom for two weeks or so. Yes, a June storm will shred the massive, blowsy blooms. So what? No vintage garden is complete without peonies. When they are in bloom, it’s showstopping. Plant them in a sunny spot and they will last a century.
There are thousands of varieties and cultivars, but my favorite is the old-fashioned, fragrant Myrtle Gentry. As they are flowerless for much of the summer, choose a peony with attractive foliage that will be a backdrop to other plants.

Iris (Iris)

A close up of a purple iris
Like Peonies, Iris have a relatively short blooming season but some varieties rebloom, and you can choose several cultivars for longer bloom times. Whether you have one Iris or a garden filled with them, their swordlike foliage adds texture and interest.

Lilies (Lilium) and Daylilies (Hemerocallis)

A close up of a trumpet lily
Though not related, their flowers add the same summery, trumpet-shaped drama to the garden. Hardy lilies grow well in cold climates and come in a variety of heights from under a foot to 5 feet tall. You can plant bulbs anytime the soil can be worked. Daylilies are tough (that’s why you see so many in the medians at shopping centers), but they do need regular deadheading to remove the spent blooms.
Favorite varieties: Mona Lisa Lily and the vintage daylily Hyperion. Vintage Daylilies will likely be yellow, gold or orange.

Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

A close up of phlox in front of a bird bath
Tall Phlox grows 3 feet or more tall and comes in a pallet ranging from bright salmon to subtle white. The traditional phlox will paint your borders magenta in late July and August. ‘David’ is a popular variety with white blooms and mildew resistance. Phlox does tend to get mildew at the bottom, so plant an attractive, shorter annual in front of it.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)

A close up of a Black-eyed Susan
Peter Stenzel
The bright yellow of Black-eyed Susan petals looks divine bathed in the bright days of late summer. There are many species and cultivars of Rudbeckia and all of them like full sun and well-drained soil. Some will self-sow, popping up all over the garden, which can be beautiful or . . . not. Remove spent blooms if you want your black-eyed Susans to stay put.

Nasturiums (Tropaeolum majus)

Nasturtiums at Monet's Garden
While perennial blooms come and go, annual flowers will color your vintage garden all season long. Two favorites your grandmother may have grown are Nasturtiums and Cosmos.
Nasturtiums are native to South America, and were introduced as garden plants to the United States in the early 19th century. The variety Empress of India has been around since your great-great-granny and still looks just as stunning when planted today. These are easy to start from seed and they don’t like too much fertilizer, so put them in the poorest soil in your garden.


A close up of cosmos
Cosmos are native to Mexico, western North America and parts of South America. Their ferny foliage and open flowers add an airy beauty to the garden. Both Nasturtiums and Cosmos are easy to start from seed, making them an affordable way to add color to the garden.

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

A close up of hollyhock
I couldn’t write about vintage gardens without mentioning Hollyhocks. Before indoor plumbing, Hollyhocks in the garden indicated the location of the outhouse! Hollyhocks are technically biennials (meaning they will die after two seasons) but they self-seed so much they are perennial for many gardeners. Tall, with showy flowers, they’re an old-fashioned favorite.
Photos: © Mary Schier

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