Have you ever wondered where our country's landscape style
came from? For those of us who aren't history buffs, we probably haven't given
it much thought. But it's actually quite an interesting tale that is worth
knowing about, especially if you're an avid gardener.
I've just finished reading "America's Romance with the
English Garden" by Thomas J. Mickey
(Ohio University Press, 271 pages, $26.95) and have gained a whole new
understanding and appreciation for how our garden style came about.
In a nutshell, Mickey tells the fascinating tale of how the
English garden was idealized in 19th-century nursery and seed catalogs. The
publishers would show Americans -- particularly members of the middle-class --
the garden style they should aspire to and which types of plants were an
absolute must to accomplish that goal.
As Mickey writes, "The goal of this book is to lead
readers to an understanding of how the advertising and marketing of seeds and
plants in nineteenth-century America encouraged a particular view of the
garden. Styles of gardening such as the Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and French
fashions were familiar but were not the image that company owners fostered in
their thousands of catalogs and countless advertisements. That image was,
instead, the English garden style."
Mickey researched this topic during his yearlong fellowship
at the Smithsonian Institution. I was envious that he had the opportunity to
read through numerous 19th-century garden catalogs; wouldn't that have been
great fun? He also pored over historical books, journals, magazines and
articles provided by prestigious educational and horticultural institutions.
He relates the information he gleaned from this research in
great detail, providing the reader with a glimpse of how our country -- and
indeed the seed and nursery industry -- got its horticultural start.
As you would expect, the gardening that early Americans
engaged in was solely for survival: the crops they grew were primarily used for
culinary and medicinal purposes. During the colonial period, Americans were
unfamiliar with growing plants in this new land and with gardening in general.
British horticultural books were the only references available
and Americans relied upon professional British gardeners who emigrated from
Great Britain to make a living based on their horticultural knowledge and
By the 1800s, the nursery and seed companies played an
important role in helping Americans learn how to grow a garden, which included
both edible crops and ornamentals.
It was fascinating to read how the advent of the railroads
and the U.S. Postal Service facilitated the delivery of seed catalogs and their
products, and how inventions made it easier for them to produce literature filled
with illustrations of those products within landscape settings.
So, what then is an English garden? During the 19th century,
styles and tastes evolved quite a bit. Landscapes went from a more natural
style (the "picturesque"), to the more formal with straight lines and
symmetry to showcase plantings (the "gardenesque"), and then into the
Victorian era where "carpet beds" of colorful annuals were planted
within lawns. That was soon followed by an emphasis on adding perennial borders
to the garden.
As Mickey writes about the English garden, "Its landscape includes a lawn, carefully sited
trees and shrubs, individual garden beds with native and exotic plants, and
perhaps, out back, a vegetable or kitchen garden. The lawn and the use of
exotic plants are relics of the English garden style we have loved for the past
two hundred years."
In Mickey's conclusion, he makes the argument that the
English garden style is not a sustainable style of landscape. He suggests that
lawns should perhaps be eliminated what
with the amount of water and resources required to maintain them. And he
wonders aloud if we should instead content ourselves with growing more native
plants that thrive within our climate zones instead of having exotic plants
shipped to each region at great cost, especially in terms of impact on the environment.
Whether you agree with his conclusion or not, the author has
done an admirable job of shedding light on this country's horticultural history
and how it has impacted the landscapes that surround us.
Copyright 2013, Susan Mulvihill. All rights reserved.