A New Old Fashioned Garden

Old fashioned garden plants might conjure different images to different folks, depending upon one’s age. Old is a relative term. What comes to my mind is something that survives, thrives and spreads. Those passalongs that can be easily divided or seeds saved to be shared, plants that will still be standing when the homestead has crumbled back to compost are the true heirlooms. Anything short lived need not apply. Herbaceous peonies, Paeonia lactiflora, whether pronouned pennies, pay-OH-nies, pee-oh-knees, can be found growing in cow pastures out in the countryside, the only remnants of human activity. Roots dug and shared in the fall, planted with the eye more than an inch but less than three inches deep will flower faithfully for decades, given enough sunlight, often outliving the planter.

Plants with no cultivar names will usually spread by themselves, some by seed scattering mechanisms built in their grand design, some by running roots, some use both methods to ensure their longevity. The oriental poppy, Papaver orientale is a fine example of the last method. Once this plant has established itself, even if you try to dig it up, (why?) you will never get that last bit of root and in time it will reappear. Some people might find the color objectionable, those with sensitivity to orange hues. Do not count me among those. I believe in mixing all the colors together for a splendid miasma, the more, the brighter, the better.

Passalong Iris germanica sometimes come with a warning that these roots have world domination in mind. Let the planter beware, and keep a watchful eye on such things. If only I had listened when my dear departed neighbor Mae, from whence the peonies and poppies came, added some Vinca Major roots in with the iris in the bag. She told me that I would hate the groundcover quickly. She was so right, for now it is completely out of control under the tall pine trees at the eastern property line. But I had a lot of blank earth to cover and thought it could be dug out when no longer needed. Foolish gardener! But the iris remain beloved.

The Fairegarden property is in an older neighborhood in a small southern town. Most of the houses were built around the middle of the twentieth century and are modest in size. Many, including mine, were or still are rentals, with no garden plants to speak of. When we bought our home and began the garden, weeds and brush were cleared by heavy machinery, a backhoe brought in to dig the foundation for the addition. But before that was done, we scouted around the overgrowth for potential jewels. Tiger lilies, Lilium tigrinum, species daylilies Hemerocallis fulva and the surprising red hot poker, Kniphofia caulescens were among the buried treasures. They are common as dirt, but welcome garden denizens now.

Some bulbs showed themselves the following spring as the garden was being planned out. Muscari , possibly neglectum or armeniacum was in abundance, to our delight as well as the delight of other creatures.

This very early daffodil was discovered, among others, growing happily on the property. Diligent research led us to believe that it is Narcissus pseudonarcissus. This particular bulb emerges from the ground with the flower bud showing, blooming a full two weeks earlier than the other daffodils. Underground, the bulb reproduces at an astounding rate without choking itself out, there are plenty of blooms even from well established clumps. We have spread it all over the garden and given many away to friends and family. Recently an article about the early and prolific blooming of N. psuedonarcissus in the tribal lands of Oklahoma has ignited a spark that these daffs might be the same. (Click here to read it.) It was written that the belief is that these daffodils were carried with the Cherokees when they were forced from their land near the Appalachian mountains in Tennessee and elsewhere to designated Indian land in Oklahoma. This march was a horrendous injustice called the Trail Of Tears. We are near to that beautiful mountainous area, and these daffodils are everywhere, including on wooded land where there are no homes. Imagining that these could possibly be the same type of daffodil is thrilling. I was born and raised in Northeast Oklahoma.

In what used to be the front lawn, wild violets proved to be stronger than the gardener bent on defeating them. Seeding everywhere, with roots that break off at the slightest touch, we gave in to their prolific ways. They can stay, in some places anyway. People might wonder why violets, the most lovely of flowers could be described in such a derogatory manner. It is the seeding smack dab in the middle of other plants, choking them out that we find disagreeable. The violets are not good at sharing the space. But they are old fashioned and long lived and make a nice background for the yellow daffodils of spring.

This discussion could go on and on ad nauseum, so we will end with some passalongs that were brought from my previous garden, Nigella damascena and Lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina. The Nigella is a prolific seeder, a biennial here with the little ferny babies showing up in late summer and overwintering to bloom the next spring. We make sure this cycle repeats itself by allowing the dried seed pods to remain until they open to reveal the black shiny seeds. They are cut down as time allows and tossed here, there and yonder, for that blue color reminds us of sea and sky and eyes. The Lamb’s ear was brought as a transplant, but also seeds from still standing flower stalks. Who doesn’t love the velvety silver leaves of this plant?


I love this topic and wish to thank my friend Joseph of Greensparrow Garden for inviting me to join in. Links to the other participants will be added as they become available below. We barely scratched the surface here, but there is a point that needs to be made. All of the heirlooms, those plants that are easy peasy, can be divided or seed true to the parent can be had for pennies, or even for free if you know a gardener who grows them. Anyone can have a beautiful garden full of gorgeous plants for little to no cost. All it takes is a vision, some land, and hard work. To a gardener, it is not considered work, but an enjoyable pastime for any age.

Fabulous But Forgotten by Joseph

What’s Old Is New Again (Maybe) Parma Violets by Matt

Everything Old Is New Again by Ryan


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35 Responses to A New Old Fashioned Garden

  1. Donna says:

    Frances, this is one of my favorite topics as well. I gladly would take passalongs from someone’s cherished garden…I like to look for old fashioned plants and plant them…and even when they become somewhat invasive it is hard to move them out…sometimes I even scatter the seeds…just incredible pictures…thx for brightening my cold snowy day!!

    Thanks Donna, I am glad to hear you like the old garden stalwarts, too. Sometimes garden magazines want us to jump on the latest trends, get the newest named varieties that are no different than last years newest thing. The heirloom plants that come true from seed or are easily divided to share with others are irreplaceable. πŸ™‚

  2. Liisa says:

    Beautiful photographs, Frances. I couldn’t imagine a garden without peonies, lilacs, daffodils and iris. There is something to be said for these faithful heirlooms. I have visions for a group of peonies in shades of rich cream, buttery yellow, and white. Ah, Frances, you have made me lust for spring! πŸ™‚ I look forward to reading the posts from others who participate.

    Hi Liisa, thanks. There was a nice lilac photo to be added here, but I decided to stick with perennials rather than shrubs and bushes. We are just on the southern edge of being able to grow lilacs here and so appreciate their fragrance and beauty. Your peony selection sounds elegant. The yellow is one that causes lust in my heart! πŸ™‚

  3. Old fashioned plants are great – I have red hot poker, loads of lupins, delphiniums, plus each year I put a couple of packets of annuals in – nigella area favourite – they just make the garden look so happy

    Hi Henry, thanks for adding to the conversation. I would love to be able to grow lupines and delphs, we are just too warm for them here. We did have them in our Pennsylvania garden, they were glorious! At least we have the Nigella. That blue is hard to beat and they are so easy. Happy garden, what a nice thought! πŸ™‚

  4. gardeningasylum says:

    For all the effort that goes into scouring the catalogs and nurseries for the new and different, your post makes me realize that most of my garden is made up of dear passalongs from gardening friends, some no longer living. These plants are most special of all, I think.

    Hi Cyndy, that is exactly it! I don’t begrudge the nurseries for trying to make a buck, but a beautiful garden can be had for next to nothing. It is the passalongs that are easy to grow in your area that will do well for you anyhow, many good garden denizens among them. πŸ™‚

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Seeing all of this color makes my heart go pitty patter. I keep telling myself it won’t be long now. Those tiger lilies are the most beautiful. I would love to get them going in my garden.

    Thanks Lisa. Looking at photos taken during the growing season does make our hearts flutter as well. The tigers would look lovely in your space. I think they can still be had in the bulb catalogs that ship lilies in spring.

  6. Nice selection of passalong plants Frances. I would like to grow Nigella damascena, but have never tried. Got seed?

    Thanks Helen. I was the lucky recipient of a piece of nearly everything growing in my neighbor’s garden when we moved here. She was more than generous and the plants are even more treasured since she is gone. I have no seed at present, but can save you some this summer. You will have to remind me, though! πŸ™‚

  7. Barbara H. says:

    This post tugs at my heart a little, reminding me of plants I had to leave behind when I moved across the country. Many of those were passalongs or plants my Danish grandmother had planted. Hopefully the current owner is appreciating and nurturing them. The few I was able to bring are still with me here and I’m having amazing luck at rooting prunings from the two roses just by sticking them in the dirt close by! I like to think it’s the spirit of the original owner of this property, who loved plants and birds, helping me out.

    Oh Barbara, your story tugs at my heart as well. I am so glad to hear you have a few things surviving from your grandmother. It does sound as though the original owner is helping, by being a good steward to the soil. We have taken plants with us when we move, some live, some do not. The plants have memories attached. πŸ™‚

  8. Our house and plant nursery building were the gardener’s cottage and carriage house for an estate. In late January 1984, after we moved in, the property was carpeted with thousands of common snowdrops, probably tens of thousands. We had so many that I assumed they were, in fact, common and didn’t truly appreciate them for many years. Now I think often about the estate gardener who lived in my house.

    Oh, be still my heart! To think of those snowdrops, something I have never seen in person, nearly brings a tear to my eye, Carolyn! How lucky for you, and what a delightful story about your house and nursery. πŸ™‚

  9. commonweeder says:

    I have a number of beautiful passalong plants, and I have gotten rid of a few passalongs. One plant that was on our property when we arrived was a daffodil that Kathy Purdy identified as Van Sion. Another blogger said it was the ugliest daffodil in the world, but I love it.

    Hi Pat, thanks for joining in. I have that ugly daffodil, too! It was here, along with several others not mentioned in this post, when we bought the property. I can’t bear to remove it, it tries to be pretty, but just can’t make it happen. The petals stick together in a horrible blob. HA

  10. Layanee says:

    Passalongs are the bones of my garden and always bring to mind the hand of the gardener who passed them to me.

    Hi Layanee, that is good to hear. Hear hear for passalongs and those who do the passing! πŸ™‚

  11. gail says:

    Dear Frances, Your post makes me sigh! What lovely flowers and the memories attached to them are sweet~Mae always sounds so kind and generous~The perfect garden and neighbor! Interesting info on the Cherokee Indians and N. psuedonarcissus… Your muscari photo with the bee is delightful and it has jump started my brain–>DUH! I have the perfect spot for grape hyacinth to go nuts, I mean spread nicely! xxoogail

    Dear Gail, thanks. Mae was a character! She and her husband and their beautiful garden were the reason we chose this house to buy. I wanted gardening neighbors. It was great while their health was good, gardening all day every day, with morning coffee shared on their back porch, sharing plants back and forth. Grape hyacinths would be perfect for your garden! πŸ™‚

  12. A lovely post to read and enjoy the photographs. Not quite in the passalong category, but about 20 years ago my sister enjoyed dried flower arranging and persuaded me to sow some teasels in the garden (they are bienniel) and even today they are still growing from seed even though I wage war on them each year. The seeds seem to be able to stay dormant for years.

    Thanks for adding that! I love teasel and have tried to scatter some gathered seed from the roadside to get it going. It sounds like there is hope for germination yet! πŸ™‚

  13. My Kids Mom says:

    Another of those posts that requires me to pull out my Gardening Notebook and write down plant names!

    I’m going to regret the vinca? Too bad- it has been helpful. The variegated one is the one that is taking over- the regular one has kept itself in check for years. It seems so shallow rooted that I always assumed I could rip it out if it got into areas where I didn’t want it.

    Hi Jill, thanks for stopping by with that notebook! We had several notebooks here as well. I use them all the time for reference. It is the large leaf vinca major that has gotten out of control here. We did have the variegated one already growing here but it seems to have disappeared. I do have the little vinca minor and love it, but keep an eye out. I think neglecting them is the worst mistake if you don’t want them covering ground, something they do very well! πŸ™‚

  14. Old Fashioned means enduring to me. Love them!

    Hi Meredehuit, thanks, I agree. The old fashioned are those plants they can hang around through serious neglect and surprise a new homeowner with blooms. That is a good reason to wait before planting a garden when you purchase an older home. There might be all kinds of goodies already there! πŸ™‚

  15. Janet says:

    I must say that Peony at the top is so lush, I love it! The daylily you pictured goes by a common name of Ditch Lily….not very nice for such a great plant. Love the combo of the Nigella and the Lamb’s Ear…soft and fluffy.

    Hi Janet, thanks. The flowers on those herbaceous peonies are wonderful and bring back many memories of my childhood as well. I love the old ditch lily, but have many many named varieties of daylilies, lots from my neighbor, Mae too. I love them all! The Nigella and Lamb’s Ear is a match made in heaven! πŸ™‚

  16. You post reminded me of my grandma, who used to call her peonies “pee-nies.” There is a simple elegance to the old-fashioned plants, and I like the idea of someone, far removed in time from me, looking at the same flower on which I gaze.

    Hi MMD, thanks for reminding me of that pronunciation. It seems every place we have lived, it was said differently. My neighbor Mae called them Pee-OH-knees. You idea is a good one. I like thinking of the person who first planted these things, why they were chosen, did someone give them? Gardening is simply wonderful, any way you look at it. πŸ™‚

  17. Ryan Miller says:


    I’m really glad you could participate with Joseph and me on this. Matt Mattus also has his post up and it’s fascinating. You both have taken quite a different approach to this theme than I did and I’ve learned a lot already. I can’t wait to see what Joseph posts and what your readers share.

    Hi Ryan, I am so glad to see you, welcome! Thanks to you fellows for allowing me to join in on this posting. The topic is dear to my heart, and dear to many others it seems. The old fashioned plants do deserve a look by the younger gardeners who might not be familiar with them. I love that we all looked at the topic so differently. πŸ™‚

  18. Rose says:

    Thank you for championing these “old-fashioned” plants, Frances! Such flowers bring back so many memories to me, and I think that is part of their charm. I think of my grandmother tending her flowers, which must have been a respite from all the hard work she had to do on the farm. When I see ditch lilies or irises growing in a field, I think, too, of the farmstead that must have been there at one time. It’s comforting to know that at least part of the garden can indeed be a legacy.

    Hi Rose, thanks for joining in here. Our foremothers worked very hard just to tend the home and hearth. I can see how gardening would be such a blessing for them. My grandmothers both had flower gardens. I loved looking at them hand in hand as a child. Those are lasting memories that we can pass along with the plants themselves. πŸ™‚

  19. Good Morning Frances! I am looking out on a icy and cold landscape. Your extraordinary, stunning, stellar post is a tonic! It is just beautiful!! I was also very moved by your text . . . especially mentioning the Trail of Tears. I confess to having never thought of Native Americans taking along flowers from their homes. Your photographs are luscious and breathtaking. Brava!!

    Thank you, Carol, for those kind words. Being raised in Oklahoma, I had heard the story of the Trail Of Tears many times, but like you, never thought about them bringing beloved flowers. These daffodils are so special with that early bloom, I can understand choosing them to take along, and bulbs would travel well. I will enjoy them this spring with a renewed reverence.

  20. Frances,
    Lovely as always! What a treat to see your thoughts and images on this topic!

    Hi Joseph, thanks! I am delighted to be able to participate with you fellas! πŸ™‚

  21. A wonderful post Frances. I love it when I get seeds or plants from friends, or can pass them on in my turn. I love my garden plants to have stories to tell, and many of these tough and “common” or “easy” plants are also beautiful and well-adapted to the conditions. I would always prefer that to having to nurse some elaborately hybridised prima donna that lacks the wildlife appeal or robustness of its wilder cousins. Also a great reminder to find out what you already have when you inherit a new plot rather than ripping everything out “razed earth” style.

    Hi Janet, thanks for dropping in to the chat. There is a very good reason to wait a growing season before beginning a new garden in an older neighborhood, there could be hidden jewels in amongst the weeds. These old plants have passed the test of time and should be touted for their high worth. I get fed up with the constant search for something new that is hardly different and not better than the unnamed variety.

  22. Lona says:

    A wonderful topic. I love the so called Old Fashioned flowers. They are making a come back because gardeners know they are so reliable. I would love to do pass-a-longs if there were any gardeners near me. I think it would be such fun. I have enjoyed looking at your photos today and all of the beautiful blooms.I do not have the Red Hot Poker and may have to invest in one. They are so unusual and pretty. Well unusual maybe in my area. Have a wonderful week.

    Hi Lona, thanks for joining in. Reliable is certainly a good trait in a garden plant! HA I had never seen the red hot pokers growing before moving here. The big clump of spiky evergreen foliage was a complete surprise when it bloomed. I recognized the flower from books and catalogs. It grows in many gardens in my area, must have been passed around to friends and relatives. Most all of these plants can be found in many gardens here, and some in the woods where there has never been a home, like the daffodils. I always wondered how they got there. You too have a wonderful week and good luck with those pokers! πŸ™‚

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  24. alistair says:

    So glad I read your post today. Just finished preparing a post where I found myself almost apologising for the fact that I was writing about what may be seen as an old fashioned plant. Really silly isnt it, I love all plants, perennial,annual,shrubs, trees, evergreens, I wake in the middle of the night with gardening on my mind. I am not a grower of vegetables, fed up apologising about that as well. Your passalongs are fantastic, keep showing them, as for Nigella (love in a mist) first packet of flower seeds we had ever bought way back in 1970.

    Hi Alistair, thanks for reading. Old fashioned shouldn’t be a derogatory term for plants. What it really means is long lasting and easy to grow. I am with you on being obsessed about gardening, what better thing to think about? The Nigella are wonderful, one of our firsts as well. πŸ™‚

  25. lizdee says:

    I really enjoy all your plants, since they are some of my favorite as well. Peonies are for me the ultimate old-time plant that should be planted more. My grandma has some, but I hardly see them elsewhere. The bloom is gorgeous!

    Hi Lizdee, thanks. Peonies are simply lush. All of my herbaceous peonies came as passalongs, that makes them even more prized. Perhaps you came get some roots from your grandma, if you have a spot for them? πŸ™‚

  26. Scott says:

    This grouping of posts is great! I’m a big fan of the “old standbys” as it were. Plants that have been around for so long have proven their value in versatility and durability. It doesn’t hurt that many of them still have more of their natural beauty and aren’t the outrageously oversized and complicated hybrids that are more in vogue these days.

    Hi Scott, thanks. I am glad you are weighing in here. The older varieties and species are easy to grow and tough survivors in neglected gardens. They deserve to be more widely used, instead of the newer and better so calleds.

  27. Fun photos and inspiring post, Frances. You’ve included the rainbow, I think! Happy Winter to you… I’ll just stop over for my inspiration!

    Hi Shady, thanks. There are colors of every hue mentioned, thanks for the delightful analogy! πŸ™‚

  28. You had me feeling so old as I scrolled down through your pretty images of old fashioned plants. I have received every plant you have shown either from my mother-in-law or my 93 year old neighbor. Even red hot poker was offered but declined. But you are right in that these plants are easy to grow with little help from the gardener. That is what made them stand the test of time.

    Hi Donna, thanks for joining in. I am relatively sure that you are quite young, no matter that you have all of these steadfast plants. The poker can be tricky to use in a well planned landscape. Mine have ended up with other tall spiky things. The finches adore the seed heads of the pokers and pick them clean each year, but the clump gives many divisions. The test of time, yes to that, for plants and for people! πŸ™‚

  29. Bridget says:

    Just found your blog. Love it, especially your photographs. I’ll be back.

    Hi Brigette, thanks and welcome. I hope to see you again soon! πŸ™‚

  30. This is a great post, Frances. Thought provoking, inspirational. I love your tag line: Not work but an enjoyable pastime, not just for any age but for the ages! Especially when you are gardening with plants that live and proliferate for almost ever.

    Must get me some of that nigella right away.

    Thanks for the thoughts. . .

    Hi Hands, thanks for those kind words. These are the plants to grow for anyone who loves flowers and gardens. They are easy and very forgiving of inexperienced beginners or old hands like me who don’t want to fuss a lot with them. πŸ™‚

  31. Rosie says:

    Frances, your beautiful photographs should be on the cover of a magazine – especially the peony and the papaver. This posting is informative. Ididn’t know muscari is considered an old-fashioned plant.

    Hi Rosie, thanks, you are much too kind. Some flowers are very photogenic, those two you name are among them. These types of muscari are thick as grass blades here, and just as common. They are very long lived, even after the home has crumbled back to the earth. You can see them, and the daffodils in cow pastures here, evidence of human activity long ago. πŸ™‚

  32. Marguerite says:

    Frances, what a fantastic post. I recognized peonies, daylilies and violets as plants we have discovered at our new home. My mother has always tended to garden with such plants as she doesn’t believe in going to nurseries and paying for plants. thinks it’s a waste of money! although she has no problem accepting plants as gifts. so I guess it’s okay to waste someone else’s money πŸ˜‰

    Hi Marguerite thanks. That is terrific that those plants came with your new home! Your mother sounds like a very wise woman. That is the way my family was, during the depression and WW11, there was no money for plants, but gardeners are a generous lot. My neighbor said, what you give away, you get back triple! What a nice thought. πŸ™‚

  33. Lythrum says:

    I wish that I had some found gems in my garden, but we live in a new subdivision that used to be a cotton field. The only flower of any kind that has grown by itself is a trumpet vine that grows in a tree on the back treeline. You’re lucky. πŸ™‚

    Hi Lythrum, thanks for visiting. The trumpet vine is beloved by hummingbirds, right? We are lucky, in so many ways. πŸ™‚

  34. TufaGirl says:

    I would love to live in a land where peonies grew wild on old farmsteads. There are crinums, daffodils, a plenty — but alas, not the same as peonies…

    Hi Tufagirl, thanks for visiting. I once read that peonies are the best plant for gravesites, as they will last as long as a granite headstone. That is a very nice attribute. Crinums and daffodils are pretty too. but peonies are special flowers. πŸ™‚

  35. Cindy, MCOK says:

    So many lovelies … sigh …

    Thanks Cindy. I am sighing at the thought of the old fashioned flowers as winter drags on. Thank goodness for the photo archives! πŸ™‚

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