The Landscape Guide

American Home Grounds: Front Yards and Back Yards

Quite obviously it is the American social ideal that each family should have an independent home; that this home should consist of a detached house in a plot of ground; and that this plot of ground should be suitably planted with trees, shrubs, flowers and grass. [Editor's note: this area is usually called a yard - a word which has the same etymology as garden]. This was the ideal from the days of the first settlements, and it is even now hardly obscured by the fact that increasing percentages of the population are going over to live in flats and hotels without back yards. Such makeshifts are still regarded as temporary and as tolerable only under compulsion of circumstances. In the extensive literature of American landscape gardening a strikingly large proportion of attention is given to the discussion of the problems of home-grounds and the design and planting of back yards. The subject, furthermore, has been presented nearly always from the standpoint of the small home yard (cottage garden), it being felt apparently that practically all the home yards in the land were reducible to this one type.

At the outset, and for many years thereafter, the majority of home gardens were enclosed yards. There were first rough stockades; but soon the neat fence of sawn wooden pickets became the recognised mode. This style of making yards  persisted for many years. Wood being plentiful and woodworking a universal industry, much ingenuity was shown in making elaborate picket fences. Posts were elaborately turned, sawn or built up of wood, and surmounted by turned or carved capitals, often of quite artistic design. The pickets themselves were shaped and spaced in various ways to gain effects pleasing to the eye; and the fences were nearly always neatly painted, white being the traditional color. Naturally, also, the swinging gates in these  white picket fences received special attention, sometimes being real works of art.

The early American colonial gardens enclosed by these white picket fences were very simple. Nearly always they were made up of fruit-trees, kitchen vegetables and medicinal herbs, interspersed with flowering plants. Next the house and in the front yard, flowers and ornamental shrubs were grown. The lilac was an early favourite, as were roses, sweetbriers, hollyhocks, lemon lilies, and “ flags “ (iris). These front yards were narrow, seldom more than six to ten feet wide, though the larger houses were sometimes set farther back.

Roughly speaking, the modern American taste for a wide set-back did not develop till after the Civil War (1865). Primarily these enclosures were made for protection against live stock running at large. As soon as pioneer conditions began to wane this necessity disappeared, and after a time the picket fences also disappeared. For although they were retained for a time on custom, there presently arose the counter style of having front yards all open to the street—a style which has ruled ever since, Correlated with this change was the movement of the dwelling-houses back farther from the street. The front yards thus became considerably larger at the same time that they became more open.

These front yards now began to be regarded as a major feature of the home grounds. They were large, open, democratic, and if they could be so dressed up as to be a bit showy, that quality was also in character. At the same time the English and German habit of living much in the garden was lost—indeed, seems never to have survived in America—and the demand for privacy, either in the front yard or in any other part of the garden, diminished, or vanished altogether. Indeed, American landscape architects and laymen of taste have long lamented this lack of privacy in home gardens.

The best of these front yards, as treated by Downing and his disciples (1850 to the present time), have one or two large shade trees, possibly more. In the northern states elms and maples were preferred; in the southern states, live oaks and magnolias; though many other species were used here and there. It also became the custom, less praise- worthy, to plant one or two showy exotic “ornamental” trees on the front lawn. Copper beech, weeping birch and Camperdown elm were old favourites: in recent times blue spruce has outdistanced all competitors. Fine shrubs, often as single specimens, sometimes in beds or groups, were also employed (Fig, 661). 

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Of these lilacs were common and pleasing. Spiræas, syringas (philadeiphus), weigelas, and deutzias were also used. In later times Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora became very popular—perhaps even too common. In extensive grounds rhododendrons, azaleas and kalmias made their appearance. On small places of the poorer sort flower-beds were often cut into the front lawn and filled with geraniums, zinnias, coleus, cannas or what not. The canon demanded always some clipped grass in this front-yard area. With the house well set back from the street and published so blankly to the world, and especially with the concomitant custom of using high foundations, it became very desirable to develop the planting of shrubs and vines immediately against the dwelling and its porches. These “foundation plantings” have come to be quite the style—a recognised necessity of the present mode. They soften the break between house and lawn, cover bare foundations and greatly ameliorate the bareness of a design otherwise somewhat meagre. (See Fig. 662).

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During the middle period (1850—90) there was a strong movements powerfully influenced by the teachings of Andrew Jackson Downing, towards the so-called natural style of landscape gardening, accompanied by some prejudice against the formal style. This preference showed itself most clearly in the park design of the time, but also in the design of the larger home grounds. Walks and drives were curved, sometimes without good reason, while trees and shrubs were scattered in asymmetrical groups. Where the land surface was altered, pains were taken to secure roiling and blending conformations. Although at first odd and exotic trees and shrubs were introduced into these " natural “ plantings, even by Andrew Jackson Downing himself, they latterly were largely excluded on the theory that only indigenous species were proper to the natural style.

Towards the close of this period, and towards the end of Frederick Law Olmsted’s time (1890—1910), there were built a number of new country estates showing the emergence of other influences, largely European. They were built, of course, for wealthy families; and as these persons had travelled much in Europe they were naturally hospitable to French and Italian ideas. Some of the smaller French and Italian works were openly copied; but more generally there were enclosed parks and formal gardens in the Latin manner, Much of this work was tentative, some of it ill adapted to American conditions, some of it vulgar and bad. Yet the net result has been excellent, especially in that it has broken down old prejudices and established a catholicity of taste highly advantageous to modern landscape architecture.

Having rid itself of prejudices and preconceptions, the American garden-loving public has quite recently made substantial progress toward a better domestic garden art. Privacy is again considered a desirable quality. Simplicity, snugness and intimacy are sought. And with an increased tendency to live in the garden, a new mode of design has been clearly developed. This is a genuinely native style of domestic design, although it bears a strong resemblance to the type of design used on small home grounds in England and Germany, where people of similar tastes have met the same needs in much the same way. In these modern home gardens the front yard is made small, severe, and simple. Clear separation is made between this public area and the service area and the private grounds—for now the desirability of strictly private gardens is generally recognised. All areas are kept small, not merely for the sake of economy, but also for the sake of intimacy. And since these areas are small, since they are necessarily rectangular, and since they are closely tied to the dwelling-house, quite the simplest thing is to give them formal treat ment. This formality, however, is not elaborate, A single simple axis, suggested rather than defined, and terminated by such unpretentious figures as a bird-bath or a garden bench, gives the popular measure of formality. (See Figs. 664 and 665.)

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Clipped trees or shrubs are not much used, and statuary of any sort is rare indeed. Enclosures are rarely made by masonry walls ; they are usually formed by hedges, by vines on lattice screens, or by masses of informal plantings. Climbing vines on porches and on brick walls are popular. Flowers are grown in “ old-fashioned gardens,” simply formal, and in borders, or in reserve gardens. (See Fig. 663,)
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