The Landscape Guide



[Editor's Note. Chapter 18 was commissioned from Frank Waugh, in 1928, as the final chapter of Gothein's  History of Garden Art. It is of interest as a continuation of Gothein's story and as a picture of how American garden designers saw themselves in 1928. Readers seeking a concise overview of American garden design in the twentieth century can go to the section on American gardens, seen from 2001 .]

European influence on American Landscape Architecture and Colonial Gardens

In studying the progress of garden art and landscape archiecture in America, especially whenever any comparison with Europe is implied, one fundamental difference should always be taken into account. By comparison with Europe, America has never had a large number of great private garden estates. A certain number were indeed created, but many of them have already been abandoned, and none has ever had a permanent leadership or influence. At most they represent a transitory phase of American culture. On the other hand the American taste in small home grounds represents something permanent, general and significant; and this may be said to be a natural corollary of the earliest traditions.

Civilisation in America began, as it were, full-fledged. The early colonists came direct from the settled civilisations of Europe, particularly from England. Many of them were persons of education and refinement; some were men of substance. Under such circumstances one might expect that evidences of culture, including the making of gardens in America, would be shown very early, and that some of the slow and painful stages of progress as witnessed in the Old World might be altogether elided. This is in fact what happened. Other circumstances contributed to the popularity of gardening in America. Every colony was compelled under threat of imminent starvation to gain an immediate living from the soil. Practical gardening and simple agriculture began at once and in great earnestness. The American colonists were forced to strain every nerve, not alone to make a living, but to make homes and gardens. These they conceived inevitably in English terms—a house surrounded by a garden, and in the garden always plants both for food and for delight. There were flowers for colour and for perfume.

Even the first-comers brought seeds and cuttings and with these began at once the experiment of growing the English favourites: apples, plums, cherries; beetroots, turnips and carrots; catnip, marjoram and thyme; gillyflowers, poppies and roses. While some of these failed, others happily succeeded. Then there were the native plants of the New World, which were not to be neglected. Here were fruits and shrubs and gay flowers ready to be pressed into cultivation. Their enlistment moved more slowly than one might have expected, but it went on. There is to be considered the further fact that the first colonies were planted in regions of propitious soil and climate. Gardening came easily.

The first American colonists were practically all English. They came from a country of gardens. They had been bred in the tradition of gardens and some of them were skilled in garden practice. And the great preponderance of English blood and of English culture, so marked  in the beginning, has continued to rule American life even to the present day, in no realm —not excepting even literature and common law—more strongly than in gardening. In later years America received large levies of immigrants from other nations, notably from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, and quite recently from Italy, Greece and their neighbours. These immigrants, especially the Germans and the Scandinavians, contributed substantially to some departments of American thought and culture—to education, science and technology, for example—but not appreciably to gardening. To conclude in a sentence this very brief account of foreign influence in American landscape architecture, it may be noted that French contributions have been nil: only two French settlements survived on the continent, a small one at New Orleans and a larger, more prolific and more permanent one in Quebec in Canada. Neither has affected American culture, least of all American gardening.

In quite recent times (the 1920s), however, a certain amount of Latin influence, mainly Italian, has been manifest. This has flowed in through two openings. First has been the stream of wealthy (and largely parvenu) Americans who have traveled and lived abroad. They have found Paris a place convenient for the spending of money by persons of limited imagination. If they have returned to America at all, they have returned measurably Europeanised and in a temper to imitate the customs of France and Italy, even in the making of gardens. Since the Latin garden forms offered special opportunities for extravagance, it was natural that some of them should adopt this way of showing their wealth.

But the old garden forms, especially the Renaissance gardens of Italy, have strong attractions for more cultured minds also. Thus it happened, in the second place, that Americans of refinement began to be moved by Italian garden traditions. Here entered the new profession of landscape architecture, with a group of ambitious young men eager to learn all that Europe had to teach. The architecture and gardening of the Italian villas were studied intensively, sympathetically, and with some regard to their acclimatisation in America. These two groups—persons of wealth and persons of education—both helped to introduce French and Italian ideas, especially the latter, into American landscape architecture. Later an attempt will be made to estimate more exactly the results of this impact.

Before this topic is dismissed mention should be made of the truly remarkable cultural unity of the North American people. Though they are derived from many races and nationalities, there is an astonishing uniformity of speech, thought and feeling. There are of course appreciable differences of dialect, but not more over the whole continent than may be found in two adjoining counties in England or than can be discovered between the German spoken in Hanover and that of Bavaria. The newspapers, inordinately read, are highly standardised, printing the same news and the same “ features “ from Maine to California and from Texas to Canada. Everybody on the continent sees precisely the same “ movies.” Everybody listens at the same instant by means of the universal radio to the same lectures, the same songs, the same ball games. Schools are graded exactly alike from the kindergarten through to the college. Every article of daily use is “nationally advertised” and continentally sold. One buys precisely the same toothpaste, collars, canned foods or cigarettes in Montreal, New Orleans, San Francisco and Boston.

These conditions obviously affect every phase of life in America deeply, distinguishing it from Europe, with its multitudinous races and tongues. The strong national tendencies extend even to gardening. Nationally known brands of oranges, apples and bananas are eaten everywhere. Strawberries, onions, celery, early potatoes, peaches and watermelons are shipped in heavy carloads across the continent. And the nurseryman who introduces a new rose or a new philadelphus advertises it impartially to Canada, California and Virginia. Every book on landscape architecture is written for sale over the whole breadth of the land.