Peter Henderson: A Leader in Ornamental Gardening

By Christine Wiltanger

Peter Henderson ImageThis year Jersey City joins the rest of the country in observing June as Perennial Gardening month by honoring one of our own. When 21 year old Peter Henderson stepped off the boat in 1843, he had three coins in his pocket and two Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh medals to his name. At the time of his death 47 years later, he would be considered the leading horticulturist of his day and the founding father of the seed industry in America, with one writer comparing him to Andrew Carnegie. His influence on American market and ornamental gardening as a leisure time pursuit was immense.

After his arrival in America, Henderson worked in greenhouses in Long Island, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh before saving enough money to start his own business. With $500 he rented 10 acres in Jersey City Heights in 1847, becoming a market gardener. As his son Flower ImageAlfred writes in the 1890 memoir Peter Henderson: Gardener—Author—Merchant, when Henderson “…found the taste for ornamental gardening in- creasing, he began to add to his green- house market, which eventually superseded the market garden….” In 1851, Henderson was hired by Cornelius Van Vorst to landscape the newly creat- ed Van Vorst Park. He would later be hired by John B. Coles to land- scape Hamilton Park as well.

A prolific writer, Henderson contributed to many of the gardening periodicals of his day, and in 1866 he wrote Gardening for Profit. Widely credited as being the first American book on market gardening, it went through several editions and sold over 100,000 copies. As his business grew, he moved his green- houses to a larger hillside site in what was then the town of South Bergen. New Jersey City University stands there today. Three of his books,Gardening for Profit , Gardening for Pleasure, and Garden and Farm Topics, are still available in print and copies of all can be found online.

Girl Reading imagePeter Henderson & Co. opened in Cordlandt Street, New York in 1871. With their slogan, “Everything for the Gardener," the firm flourished, selling vegetables to roses to lawn mowers. At a time when most seeds were imported from Europe, Henderson offered seeds specially bred to grow in American soil, which he deve- loped in his Jersey City greenhouses. Peter Henderson died from pneumonia in his home on Arlington Avenue on January 17, 1890. After his death his family received hundreds of condolence letters from private gardeners around the country. His son Alfred wrote, “…and the burden of their messages nearly always was, ‘I lost my best friend.’” Henderson seeds are still a favorite among heirloom gardening enthusiasts today.

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