The Landscape Guide

Introduction to the History of Garden Design in America (by Tom Turner)

Humanity spread from Africa to colonise the World. The Americas were settled, from Asia, c30,000 BC and re-colonised at various later dates. North America is thought to have had less than a million inhabitants, but no gardens, at the time of  Columbus' 1492 landfall. European immigration grew from that date and by 1776 the Eastern States were strong enough to declare their independence from Britain. Since then, the annual number of immigrants, especially to North America, has remained high, though their origins have varied. The number of states in the union had also grown.  In 1894 America replaced Britain as the world's leading manufacturer and by 1914 it was producing more than the factories of Britain, France and Germany combined. Both World Wars contributed to America's economic supremacy. 

To consider the immigrant frame of mind, let us take a single example. John Muir was born in Dunbar, in 1838. The town is 35 miles from Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, has a good natural harbour and  played a part in the wars between Scotland and England. It is surrounded by the famously rich 'Dunbar red potato soil'. But times were hard and the Muir family decided to emigrate in 1849. Their grandparents came to wave the young family goodbye, knowing it was forever. When the migrants settled in the New World (near Portage, Winconsin), life was no easier than in Scotland but the prospects were better. They felled trees, ploughed land, built a house and survived. Such families never forgot the Old World origins of their culture - but they were attracted to the nature of the New World. John left the family home in his teens, taking with him only the gold sovereign which his grandparents had given him on that dark morning in Scotland. John earned his living in many ways and the details of his life are known to us because of his reputation as a founder of American National Parks. He was largely responsible for Yosemite and Sequoia parks in California

When America came to view itself as a nation instead of only a union, after the Civil War, there was an increased desire to compete with the glories of the Old World. This was one reason for the establishment of American National Parks which were viewed, rightly, as better examples of Wild Nature than anything which could be found in Europe. Since garden designers had spent centuries 'imitating nature', information on the National Parks began to appear in histories of garden design and the professional skill of managing National Parks was claimed as part of 'landscape architecture'. These sections have been left out of the 1928 history of American gardens.

Four phases of European influence on American gardens can be identified:

1. Early American  landowners employed immigrants who had learned their skills in the gardens of the Old World. The houses and gardens they made form an integral part of the European tradition.

2. When America began to train its own gardeners and designers, they learned about European gardens and gardening from books, especially the publications of Humphry Repton and John Claudius Loudon. Given the strength of European influence, it is possible to use the same stylistic classifications as for American and European Gardens (as in the section on American examples of garden styles.

3. When American families became wealthy they booked passages on ocean liners and a European tour became as important to the American rich as a Grand Tour had been for the English during the eighteenth century. Americans  were interested both in ancient gardens and in contemporary trends.

4. European designers influenced the development of the international modern style gardens in America