The Story of American Gardening
Since Colonial times the English garden has provided the model for American gardening. If you visit Colonial Williamsburg today, you see the Governor’s Mansion, laid out in the formal English style of the late seventeenth century.
In the nineteenth century the seed and nursery business in this country sent out hundreds of mail order catalogs to middle class Americans. In both the essays and the images in the catalog the English garden frequently served as the inspiration.
For example, in the 1870s James Vick, owner of the James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, NY, told his readers how important it was to include carpet bedding on the lawn, which was an arrangement of short plants, like coleus or alternanthera, laid out like a pattern in a carpet.
The planting demanded many plants, usually annuals, and had to be kept well trimmed throughout the season. Carpet bedding had been a garden practice in Victorian England since the 1850s.
The lawn, of course, became the most important expression of the English garden. The lawn appeared over and over again in images from the seed and nursery catalogs, signifying how important it was to the gardener.
Later in the nineteenth century perennial borders, encouraged by English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, became popular in America. Also, William Robinson’s Wild Garden book, which rejected the formality of carpet bedding, would also find wide acceptance by American gardeners, with its emphasis on wild flowers, native plants, and in general plants that demand less maintenance in the garden.
So for two centuries the English garden, in its variety of meaning, has influenced American gardening.
Here I will include ongoing research for my book America’s Romance with the English Garden [Ohio University Press]. We will talk about how nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs influenced American gardening, how through their words and illustrations we became seduced by the English garden model.
This blog is also an opportunity for you to share how your garden today reflects the English garden tradition.
What makes your garden an English garden?