Bad garden design in America


James van Sweden told Monty Don that ‘Americans just don’t get gardening. Americans don’t go outside. They are frightened of it. Frightened of bugs and wildlife. Frightened of the heat and the cold. They don’t want the work of a garden. Maintenance companies come in and cut and fertilise the grass. That’s it.’ (Around the world in 80 gardens, 2008 p.244) He sounds like a grumpy old man, and seems to have forgotten about California and the Pacific North West, but there are some significant points to be made about gardening in the United States:

  • when it is not too hot and too humid to work in a garden, it is often far too cold
  • though called ‘yards’ much of of the green space around houses is not fenced or otherwise enclosed, partly because a fence would be considered an unfriendly gesture
  • American’s move house more often than Europeans – and pay a higher percentage of the house price to the realtor (leaving less money for the garden)
  • American houses are larger than European houses – so why go out when indoors is so comfortable?
  • Americans have shorter vacations and tend to work longer hours
  • Food is cheaper in the US
  • the American landscape architecture profession continues to regard garden design as an inferior activity

Please correct me if I am wrong – or add other explanations. I am not saying bad garden design is an exclusively US phenomenon, but they do seem rather good at it! The above illustation is from our eBook The Principles of Garden Design. We are of course aware that America has many great public gardens to visit and has long enjoyed a leadership role in world landscape architecture.

10 thoughts on “Bad garden design in America

  1. Christine

    My intuition tells me that examples of bad garden design are to be found in all places, not just America. (Perhaps their examples are more striking because to some extent they attempt to copy good garden design in Europe.)

    Are there perhaps more gardeners tending to the gardens in America?

    The idea of no fences enclosing front-yards I suspect is peculiar to an idealised vision of suburbia. [ and ].

    I am sure there is more to be discussed and learnt from focusing on the creation of suburbia and its implications.

    The American dream is that of the ‘self-made man’ (typified in this generation by Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Ooooooh yesssss! – and we sometimes have some excellent examples of really bad garden design at the Chelsea Flower Show. I don’t think enough attention is given to bad design – too much focus is on good design (forgive the cliches!) and one can learn from both (quite apart from the fact that one man’s meat is another man’s poison).
    After he ‘saved Holywood’ this week (ie by stopping the construction of some luxury houses behind the famous sign) Arnold Schwarzenegger made the good quip that the sign would continue to extend a welcome to ‘dreamers, artists and Austrian bodybuilders’.
    Very interesting about the no-fence idea coming from the Levittowners.
    I often wonder what would happen to the classic American sub-division if the country changed from being rich to being poor. I hope it never happens but history has seen it happen to most civilizations.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    Irish Americans make up about 12% of the population and it may be that what is happening in their native land points to what may happen in many US suburbs, as it is alreay happening in Detroit: The first city of mass production has become the first city of post-production. In Ireland they have an estimated 300,000 Ghost houses and many people think they will have to be demolished. I would like to see at least one of them buried in soil and scheduled as a Future Ancient Monument. Re the US, it is possible that the example in the above post could become what was known in the Middle Ages as a ‘toft and croft’, with the residents living off a home-grown pottage of beans, peas, leaks, onions and garlic flavoured with herbs.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I visited Wharram Percy, last year, on a beautiful spring morning. It lies in a small valley with a wood and a stream at the bottom of the hill and is located on a long-distance walk called the Wolds Way. It would be a comfort to know that some of those terrible American ‘subdivisions’ have such a peaceful future awaiting them. Historically, a great many areas have become depopulated, like the region around Angkor Wat where only the Buddhist-Hindu temple survived, lost in the jungle. The temple towers of Angkor Wat have a passing resemblence to the Temple of Capitalism. Lower Manhattan could look really wonderful with trees on the streets and rooftops and with climbers entwining the facades. The subways would fill with salt water when the pumps were turned off and many of the skyscrapers might topple. An alternative fate, quite possible if the sea level rose again as it did after the last glacial maximum (ie about 100m) would be even more spectacular – for a while.

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    The manorial system was the post-tribal equivalent of today’s local authorities and when it was rendered obsolete by the formation of new administrative systems (including a court system) the former bosses made off with the assets – much as Russia’s present oligarchs did when the communist system collapsed.

  6. classicalrepublican

    I really enjoy how we must reduce everything – including superfluous opinions of how plants and paths should be arranged – to nationality. Yes America is easy to bash, but really, enough with the generalisations.I might as well reduce the British to bad teeth and imperialism and show a picture to prove it.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    The point is about bad design, not about America. I could, and will, look out for an equally bad example of bad design in Britain.
    But with regard to imperialism, please don’t forget opne of the most ambitious imerialist projects of modern times: the conquest of the Midwest and West of America.


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