The most widely read gardening columnist of the 20th century, American horticulturist Louisa Yeomans King (1863–1948) brought gardening to the masses. Once an elite pastime of the wealthy, gardening spread through the American suburbs during the 1920s like wild violets. Addressing this new crop of gardeners, King's books and articles offered scholarly and practical gardening advice for small-plot homeowners.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Louisa Yeomans King was born Louisa Boyd Yeomans on October 17, 1863, in Washington, New Jersey. The daughter of Rev. Alfred Yeomans and his wife, Elizabeth Yeomans, King grew up with four siblings and received a private education with an emphasis on reading, religion, and music. On June 28, 1890, she married a wealthy Chicago native named Francis King, whom she had met through friends.
After the marriage, the Kings settled in the western Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, where they had three children: Elizabeth, Henry, and Frances. King's mother-in-law lived in a home with an extensive garden in Lake Forest, Illinois. The more time King spent there, the more interested she became in the flowers and plants that grew there. The garden was Victorian-inspired, with ornate embellishments. King's mother-in-law grew some 200 herbs on the premises and had a substantial library of horticulture publications, which she freely loaned to her daughter-in-law.
Several years into the marriage, Francis King became ill and in 1902, he moved to a sanitarium in Alma, Michigan. While the nature of his illness was never disclosed, it was suspected to be alcoholism because the sanitarium was known for treating that condition. King followed her husband to Alma and brought the children. After Francis's recovery, the family remained in Alma, and he eventually became mayor. In 1908, Francis King served as a Michigan delegate to the Republican National Convention and won election to the state senate in 1913. Next, he turned his attention to business matters and became president of the Alma Truck Co., which would become a leading U.S. manufacturer of trucks in the newly emerging mass-transit industry.
Francis King's financial success allowed his wife the means to create her own lavish garden. The Kings purchased a two-acre lot in Alma and built a Tudor-style home on one side to allow room for an extensive garden on the other. King read about the art of garden design and hired an English horticulturist to draw up plans. By 1907, the garden was quickly developing. She also hired a gardener, Frank Ackney, to maintain the grounds. The garden was constructed around a center pool with brick walks and had four main sections, each divided into smaller flower beds and accented with hedges, garden gates, wooden fencing, and a gazebo. The garden was in a constant state of redesign, however, as King learned more about the craft. She became obsessed with the idea of having blooms in her garden year-round. She toured other people's gardens to learn more about flowering plants and shrubs.
King found inspiration in the work of European garden writers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. An Irish garden journalist, Robinson touted a more contemporary and “wild” cottage-type garden over the highly ordered Victorian gardens that prevailed at the time. Jekyll, a British horticulturist and watercolorist, was the most noted garden architect of her era. She designed more than 400 gardens in her lifetime and was credited with pioneering the idea of flower borders. King corresponded with the two gardeners and developed a lasting friendship with Jekyll.
Eventually, King attained her goal of having blooms nearly year-round. The Alma garden began throwing off color almost as soon as the snow came off the ground, with the bulbs of the scilla herbs erupting in their vivid blues, followed by the crocuses of early spring. Next came the tulips and lilacs, followed by the Shasta daisies and roses of summer. Another signature feature of King's garden were the massive blooms. She did not just have splotches of color—she had thousands of blooms materializing at the same time. King also wove foxglove, larkspur, and delphinium into the mix and traveled extensively to learn about new varieties.
King's estate was known as “Orchard House,” and her garden quickly became a town showpiece. In addition to being featured in flower festivals, King also offered tours of the grounds with accompanying lectures. Clara Ford, the wife of car industrialist Henry Ford, attended one of King's lectures, and the two became friends; Clara grew specialty roses. As King worked to create her masterpiece garden, it became clear to those she consulted with that she had a knack for the vocation. They persuaded her to start writing, and in 1910, she published her first piece in The Garden, a publication of the British Royal Horticultural Society. Over the next two decades, King contributed articles to Country Life, House & Garden, the Saturday Evening Post, and The Spur. From 1922 to 1925, she wrote a regular garden column for House Beautiful. Garden enthusiasts looked forward to King's pre-spring articles, in which she reviewed and critiqued the upcoming season's seed catalogs along with the offerings from major mail-order nurseries.
King's correspondence with notable British and U.S. gardeners gave her the idea to organize garden clubs as a means of banding women together. In 1912, she helped found the Garden Club of Michigan and in 1913 the Garden Club of America (GCA). In 1914, King co-founded the Women's National Agricultural & Horticultural Association, which later became known as the Woman's National Farm & Garden Association (WNFGA). King served as the WNFGA's first president. On one level, the garden clubs were social, but during meetings members enjoyed presentations on seasonable topics like plant varieties, fertilizers, fungi, bees, and soil quality. They also took group excursions to visit noteworthy gardens.
On a deeper level, King prompted the clubs to be more than social tools. She believed gardening had a democratizing effect and saw gardening as a way to bring together women from different backgrounds, economic statuses, and regions. She also believed that garden clubs could help women better their lot. The WNFGA, for example, offered scholarships to women seeking degrees in agriculture or botany. The GCA published booklets on how to stage a flower show to help clubs generate interest. During World War I, King brought together the GCA and the WNFGA to found the Woman's Land Army, which dispatched 15,000 females to plow fields, drive tractors, and plant and harvest crops across the United States. With so many men away at war, there was a labor shortage, and crops began to rot. For her efforts to mobilize women and help fortify U.S. food production during the war, King was awarded a bronze medal from the National War Garden Commission. The Woman's Land Army was also active during World War II.
In 1915, King published The Well-Considered Garden under the byline “Mrs. Francis King,” the pen name she used for the remainder of her life. Jekyll wrote the preface to the 290-page gardening manual, which offered detailed chapters on color harmony, companion crops, and the value of “trial” gardens and small spring-flower borders. Orchard House was featured prominently in the book. In the chapter on color, King noted her displeasure for the Victorian garden trait of tight color patterns. She preferred solid masses of complementary colors instead of a mottled blending. As such, she also preferred plants with solid-color blooms and no variegation. King admonished seed companies for selling mixed-color packets. “I have to confess,” she wrote in The Well-Considered Garden, “to a faint prejudice against stripes, flakes, or eyes in phloxes, principally because, as a rule, the best effects in color groupings are obtained by the use of flowers of clear, solid tones—otherwise one cannot count upon the result of one's planning.”
The Well-Considered Garden was aimed at the wealthier, estate gardener. King urged readers to acquire copies of the Répertoire de Couleurs from the Chrysanthemum Society of France, believing it to be the premier guide to definitive flower color. The book included a chapter on hiring and maintaining a good relationship with the gardener. King also discussed the benefit of having a landscape architect develop the initial design. In this way, she helped usher in a new era of professional landscapers. In addition, The Well-Considered Garden was packed with photos and illustrations featuring gardens across the United States, as well as descriptions of local gardening clubs.
King's husband died in 1927 and she was forced to sell Orchard House. The estate was purchased by the Ladies of the Modern Maccabees, who turned it into a nursing home and attempted to maintain the grounds. After the home closed in the late 1960s, Orchard House was used as an administration building by the Alma Public Schools. Later, it was purchased by a funeral home, which bulldozed the house and gardens to make way for a parking lot. In this way, King's preeminent garden was lost to history.
As for King, she traveled to Europe after her husband's death and returned to the United States to campaign for Herbert Hoover in 1928. She soon discovered South Hartford, New York, and purchased a home there, then set about developing a new—and smaller—garden. She dubbed this new estate “Kingstree.” In her latter years, King continued writing gardening articles for newspapers and magazines. Her work gained in popularity as the “City Beautiful Movement” spread through urban populations in the early 20th century. In 1943, she served as a garden adviser to the mail-order giant Montgomery Ward, which published a “Planning Your Planting” series authored by King.
After World War II, King pushed the idea of an international horticulture society, believing that it would bring nations together as a vehicle for peace and understanding. She died on January 16, 1948, in at her daughter's home in Massachusetts, and her ashes were dispersed at the Kingstree garden. In 1952, King's contributions to the American landscape were honored at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., with the dedication of the Louisa King Dogwood Garden overlooking the Anacostia River.
Birnbaum, Charles A., and Robin Karson, editors, Pioneers of American Landscape Design, McGraw-Hill, 2000.
King, Mrs. Francis, The Little Garden, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921.
King, Mrs. Francis, The Well-Considered Garden, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915.
Seale, William, The Garden Club of America: 100 Years of a Growing Legacy, Smithsonian Books, 2012.
American Horticulturist, October 1991, Virginia Lopez Begg, “Mrs. Francis King, ‘Dean of American Gardening.’”
House & Garden, March 1940, Louise S.B. Saunders, “Of Gardeners and Garden Clubs.”
Clarke Historical Library website, https://www.cmich.edu/library/ (December 6, 2016), Emma Currie, “Mrs. Louisa Yeoman King: ‘The Fairy Godmother of Gardening’ Alma, Michigan 1863–1948.”❑