How I Discovered This World-Famous Gardener

Mrs. Francis King Gardener Extraordinaire

Mrs. Francis King (1863-1948) sitting at her desk. Photo courtesy of the Schlesinger Library https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library

Mrs. Francis King (1863 – 1948) was one of the most prominent gardeners of the early twentieth century. She counted among her friends and correspondents some of the most influential gardeners in history, including Gertrude Jekyll, Charles Sprague Sargent, William Robinson, Fletcher Steele, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Martha Brookes Hutcheson. That’s like texting with Monty Don and Martha Stewart in today’s world.

I first learned about Mrs. Francis King (a.k.a. Louisa Yoemans King) when I was researching the Detroit Garden Center. The Detroit Garden Center is a garden club in Detroit, Michigan established in 1932. I learned that it was an offshoot of the Garden Club of Michigan. A garden club established by Mrs. Francis King. Imagine my surprise when I learned she lived in Alma, Michigan. A town less than 120 miles from where I live.

Mrs. Francis King became a master of color harmonies. She wrote 9 books, numerous gardening articles and a series on gardening called “The Little Garden Series”.  Her writing appeared in House and Garden, Country Life and The Garden magazine and she had a regular column in House Beautiful (1922-1925). Her first book, The Well-Considered Garden, was published in 1915 and describes how to create successful color harmonies and plant combinations in the flower garden. The preface for The Well-Considered Garden was written by Gertrude Jekyll. 

“Many are those who love their gardens, many who know their plants, many who understand their best ways of culture. All these qualities or accomplishments are necessary, but besides and above them all is the will and determination to be the best possible — “to garden finely” — as Bacon puts it. Such a desire is often felt, but from lack of experience it cannot be brought into effect. What is needed for the doing of the best gardening is something of an artist’s training, or at any rate the possession of such a degree of aptitude — the God-given artist’s gift — as with due training may make an artist; for gardening , in its best expression, may well rank as one of the fine arts. But without the many years of labor needed for any hope of success in architecture, sculpture, or painting, there are certain simple rules, whose observance, carried out in horticulture, will make all the difference between a garden that is utterly commonplace and one that is full of beauty and absorbing interest…”

                        — Gertrude Jekyll preface The Well-Considered Garden

Orchard House in Alma Michigan dated 1926. Photo courtesy of the Archive of American Gardens.
Postcard dated 1938 titled “Alma, Mich Residence of Francis King”

The first thing I wanted to know is what happened to her house and garden. I went to Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library. They have an archive containing photographs, articles, and books by Mrs. Francis King. This is where I learned that Orchard House was a large Tudor house fashioned after her first home near Chicago. It was built in 1904 for a cost of $30,000. 

In 1927, Mrs. King’s husband died and she was forced to sell her home.  Orchard House was sold to the local Maccabees as a home for elderly ladies. They hired Mrs. King’s original gardener, Frank Ankney, but as is often the case when a gardener leaves, it fell into a derelict state.

The Maccabees home closed in the late 1960s and the house stood vacant until 1971 when it was used by the Alma public schools. It was sold again in 1980 and became the Dewey Funeral Home.  It is still the Dewey Funeral Home to this day, but sadly, the garden was paved over to make a parking lot.

We took a road trip to see if any of the original gardens were visible. The house is still-recognizable. Although the garden is no longer there, it is easy to imagine how the flower borders were laid out when you reference archival images. I’ve included some of the photographs from our visit below so you can see what the property looks like today.

Photo of the Dewey Funeral Home in Alma, Michigan the former home of Mrs. Francis King.
Photograph of Orchard House in 1926 Alma, Michigan. Photo courtesy of the Archive of American Gardens.

I’d love to buy this property and build a garden in the spirit of Mrs. Francis King. Finding the old varieties of plants she referenced in her books would be difficult, but the garden can use new varieties.

If Mrs. Francis King was alive today, I’m certain she would update her garden with new varieties and new color combinations. A garden is ever-changing. Nature never stands still.

Photo of the former home of Mrs. Francis King taken at what is believed to be the property’s edge.
Orchard House – the former home of Mrs. Francis King. This image shows the remnants of the central garden pond as it looks today.
Image showing what was the front of Orchard House
Image showing the side of Orchard House as it looks today.
Image is taken from A Garden Notebook showing a brick platform built at Orchard House in Alma, Michigan.

The photograph above is taken from Mrs. Francis King’s book, The Garden Notebook.  The photograph shows an area of the garden where chairs were placed in the shade. The chairs began to wear away the turf so she decided to add a little brick sitting area.

“Why not, said I, take the note from the small brick sill which marked the ending of the gravel walk and the beginning of the grass — why not lay a little platform of brick below the chairs? … The line was carefully marked — the flat side of the open fan next to the garden, the curve outside towards the lawn, the brick laid in herring-bone in sand; at once the tree shadows found a lovely background for themselves in the warm tones of the brick, and then a little decorative planting suggested itself.”

                                                                              — Mrs. Francis King

Here is a PDF file (click on the link below) with “Then vs. Now” images of Orchard House. These are my favorite kind of historical images

Orchard-House-Then-and-Now

I hope you enjoyed learning about Mrs. Francis King. I’d love to hear about your gardening heroes.

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