Gardens change with the times Trend: Many factors have shaped gardening tastes over the years. In the earliest American gardens, flowers were considered frivolous.


It is interesting to consider the various gardening ideals that have influenced home gardens during our nation's history.

For instance, what makes for good taste in one era is often the next generation's social faux pas. Nowhere is this more evident than in gardening, where the fashions of one era cannot simply be pushed to the back of a closet or sent to Goodwill. Instead, they are endlessly on display in the most public manner imaginable.

The cultural image of what a landscape ought to be has been shaped by factors as diverse as the introduction of wire fencing in the 19th century and women's roles in Victorian culture to the free-roaming wild pigs of Colonial days.

The earliest American gardens were primarily for food and medicinal plants, because survival was the foremost concern.

Flowers and other forms of ornament were incidental and often considered vain and frivolous. Fences were as rough and ready as the raw landscape, and served not to enclose lawns or fields, but to keep out roving livestock.

These gardens were always close to the house, literally in the dooryard. They are the ancestors of today's popular cottage gardens: a crowded collection of useful, fragrant and culinary plants arranged with little structure except that they be close at hand when needed.

Form and reason

A hundred or so years later, however, the formal Williamsburg look of boxwood parterres enclosed by brick walls or whitewashed picket fences was all the rage. These were gardens that reflected the rational thought, civilization and status consciousness of the times.

Well-trimmed hedges and borders of boxwood, holly and yew became status symbols, a way to boast that one had the money to employ gardeners for these labor-intensive constructions.

Horticultural luxuries such as tulips were imported from abroad along with more exotic plants like sago palms and oranges (for which early conservatories, called orangeries, were built).

In the 1700s, fruit trees often were incorporated into otherwise formal designs for their handsome foliage as well as fruit, as they had been in medieval gardens.

Figs, cherries and lady apples were popular along with the ornamental crape myrtle and mock orange. Grapevines graced arbors next to recently imported Chinese wisteria. Wild day lilies were appropriated from the roadside.

Herbs, too, still played an important part in most home gardens, because the housewife was often the physician for her family. Clipped borders of lavender, rue and wormwood frequently framed these kitchen gardens.

In the 19th century, an age of conspicuous consumption swiftly overwhelmed the age of reason, and an emphasis on gardens strictly for pleasure evolved.

During this time, an emphatic split took place between gardens for utility and gardens for show. This division also reflected the split between women's cultural spheres, between a prim and proper public image and unglamorous private drudgery.

Victorian gentility required that only the public facade of a family of means should be seen. The mundane and messy, such as orchards and vegetable gardens, would thereafter be banished from view as much as possible.

A rose is a rose

Every landscape of any pretensions made certain to have at least a bed especially for roses, if not an entire rose garden.

Varieties increased rapidly with the introduction of new plant material from Asia and Europe, and ambitious breeding programs were undertaken by private nurseries in France and Great Britain.

Many people also used the wire and wrought-iron fencing made available by the factories of the Industrial Revolution. With these fences, people marked their territory, usurping previously open meadowland for private lawn space and large pleasure gardens.

The mid- and late-19th century was also the heyday of "bedding out" of annual flowers. Grand designs were conceived, with thousands of plants and hundreds of varieties laid out like vast Oriental carpets, accented by colored gravels.

For this sort of gardening, a greenhouse was indispensable, because plants were customarily replanted twice or even three or four times over the course of the season as they came in and out of bloom. Much of our traditional "city park" planting is a survival of this extravagant style.

Toward the end of the 19th century, with the coming of the Edwardian era, herbaceous plants -- perennials -- once again gained popular acceptance in suburban and estate gardens. Bedding out designs were replaced by the new fashion of long, perennial borders (still maintained by a small army of gardeners, however), rookeries and theme gardens.

Perennial borders held center stage for nearly 50 years, during which many of our favorite shrubs and flowers were discovered and developed. At the same time, little discretion in plant selection was practiced, and some widely planted imports have now become some of our worst agricultural pests, such as kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora roses.

With World War II the use of hired garden labor ceased almost entirely outside of very large estates. Many of the grand gardens were turned instead into subdivisions. With the subdivisions came the 20th-century cult of the lawn.

Lawns had been the darling of 19th-century gentry, who cultivated sweeping acres of them. However, it was not until affordable, 20th-century machinery, chemicals and watering systems emerged that the average homeowner could reasonably aspire to a velvety lawn as well.

By the 1950s, the landscape of most homes seemed close to being a vast monoculture of turf grasses. A handful of evergreen and flowering shrubs and deciduous trees completed the landscaping of most houses.

Perennial plants had developed a reputation for being too slow to establish and too much work to maintain. Annual flowers and bedding plants were back in the limelight, although their number was greatly reduced, from the hundreds of varieties in the mid-19th century to mere dozens in the 20th.

New designs

By the 1950s and '60s, in Europe and on the American West Coast especially, a group of designers began to draw together elements of the past and the best of the new to form a new garden aesthetic.

Designers such as Lanning Roper, Thomas Church, Jens Jensen and Kurt Bluemel brought perennials back to favor, along with ornamental grasses and a new use of improved native plant materials sympathetic to the local environment. Exotic was out, native was in. Landscapes for show became landscapes for living.

Native plants and hardy imports, along with increased use of ground covers and hardscape, are now common characteristics of the "New American Garden," as is an awakened consciousness of our responsibility to the environment. Today, low maintenance is also a favorite theme of homeowners and designers, as people find they have less time to devote to groundskeeping.

Now there are "meadow" or "wildflower" plantings that provide seasonal color and wildlife interest with a minimum of fuss. Woodland gardens also are popular for the same reasons, though both types take effort and expense to establish properly.

Enclosure is another important trend in late-20th-century gardens, especially in town settings, either by vegetation, or walls. Gardens have become not only status symbols, but a refuge from the encroachments of dehumanizing civilization.

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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