Book review: "America's Romance with the English Garden"

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 skills.

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.