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How does your garden grow?

English gardens take root in American soil

Created date

July 23rd, 2013
America's Romance With English Gardens

With the dog days of summer upon us, Americans from coast to coast are struggling to keep their lawns green, their roses healthy, and their vegetable gardens pest-free. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, U.S. households spent $29.1 billion on lawn and garden supplies last year, with the average household spending about $351.

How Americans landscape, the style in which we design the outdoor space around our homes, varies according to climate and regional preferences, but it’s safe to say that the English garden has long reigned as the dominant style of landscaping in the U.S. Colonial Williamsburg is peppered with English gardens, and modern gardeners are still partial to the traditional style, but in the late 1800s, the English garden prevailed as the most sought-after landscape choice for the average American home.

Keeping up with the Joneses

“In the late 1880s, with the rise of the number of newspapers in each city along with national magazines and catalogs they received in the mail, Americans had a type of garden inspired by the media, and not simply by a small group of family and friends who might offer advice on what to plant and how to arrange a garden,” says Thomas J. Mickey, an avid gardener and professor emeritus of communications studies at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass.

In his new book America’s Romance With the English Garden (Ohio University Press), Mickey traces the rise of the English garden in America to the development of inexpensive printing, better transportation and mail delivery, and the American public’s desire to “keep up with the Joneses.”

The power of the catalog

Beautifully illustrated color catalogs like the ones put out by Burpee, Vick Company, and Peter Henderson Company inspired a nation to dig into the soil and plant. Interestingly, while there were many different garden catalogs, the seeds and plants they sold were all nearly identical. Because Victorian culture emphasized standardization, people did not want to stray too far from the status quo. They relished being a part of the group and they planted the same things their neighbors planted.

“At that time, people wanted standardized products. They didn’t want oatmeal, they wanted Quaker Oats. They didn’t want a bar of soap, they wanted Ivory soap. And they wanted a garden like the one they saw on the catalog cover,” says Mickey.

“The catalog was the silent salesman,” he adds. “From the beginning of my research, I started to see how powerful these tools were when it came to marketing a particular kind of garden, which was the recognizable style known as the English garden.”

Elements of an English garden

What is an English garden? It starts with the lawn. Just think of the opening credits of the popular British television series Downton Abbey and that vast expanse of green surrounding the castle estate of the Crawley family. That foundation of the English garden ideal developed strong roots in the U.S. As American developers moved out into the suburbs and countryside in the late 1800s, they built the houses far back from the street and advertised the new homes by reminding buyers that “now you can have a lawn.”

Other elements of the English garden include curved walkways, trees lining the property, three distinct groups of flowering shrubs, and a bed of flowers on the lawn. In many cases, a vegetable garden is also a part of the landscape, typically located behind the house.

The social status of green

The garden quickly became a way for the burgeoning American middle class to elevate its social stature by mimicking the landscapes of the rich and powerful. “They weren’t the very wealthy, but they were seeking some kind of social status,” says Mickey. “Middle-class people wanted a lawn just like the estate owners had in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The garden fulfilled their desires. By having a manicured landscape, their home could be compared to the estate homes they admired.”

While tastes have changed and modern Americans are more interested in distinguishing themselves than gardeners of the Victorian era, the media continues to influence us. “People are always looking for inspiration. In gardening, from as far back as the 1890s, we look to the media to guide us. That’s still true today,” says Mickey. “For example, a few years back, when Martha Stewart printed an article in her magazine about hydrangeas, the very next day nurseries around the country sold out of hydrangea plants. People stormed their garden centers to get this plant. So while today we have many more choices, many more places to get information, we are still quite beholden to the media when it comes to matters of style and taste.”