The Landscape Guide

Mid-west American Garden Design

Jens Jensen and the use of native plants

While exceptions are being made, and a few special localities more critically defined than the general picture of American conditions, a word should be said of the great central plains region, known at home as “the Middle West.” It might be known as the upper Mississippi valley except for the fact that it includes Chicago, and all the region lying about Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, which waters of course belong to the St Lawrence and not to the “ Father of Waters.” This Middle West is a vast empire of fertile level land, now highly farmed with staple crops, especially cereals, and is also a large producer of meat, especially beef and pork. Several large cities and many of moderate size have grown up. The region is wealthy, and the people are strongly devoted to education and to all forms of culture, including horticulture and  gardens. Especially are they given to the making of comfortable homes and gardens, so that here we have the fundamental conditions for the development of architecture, gardening and landscape architecture. Rather unfortunately, perhaps, no indigenous architecture has emerged. Homes are mainly built of wood in forms common to the states farther east. In quite recent times the California bungalow type has appeared in considerable numbers. Brick and stucco have also begun to take the place of wood for buildings of the better class. A few public buildings of merit have been designed, e.g. the state capitols at Lincoln and St. Paul.

In the field of Mid-Western landscape architecture there is much promise, with, as yet, somewhat meagre realisation. The native flora of the Midwest is varied and exceedingly beautiful. This statement holds true whether we regard the open, grassy plains approaching the Rocky Mountains or the more roiling prairies of Illinois and Indiana, where the grassy meadowlands are richly interspersed with woodland. Throughout the whole region the watercourses are generally marked with ribbons of tree and shrub growth. Along these borders one finds wild apples, plums, hawthorns, dogwoods, redbuds and dozens of other strikingly beautiful species. Thus the natural topography and the native flora are full of grateful suggestion to the landscape architect.

A few able men have been quick to seize upon these opportunities. Mr. Jens Jensen, landscape architect in Chicago, may perhaps be specially mentioned, without forgetting others. Jens Jensen has been an uncompromising advocate of the native landscape and the native plant materials, and insistent upon the duty of developing here a native style of Midwest gardening. Many others, also, moved by a love for the vast level plains, have sought to preserve the spirit of that landscape in their park lands and in their home gardens. A “prairie style” of landscape architecture is indeed sometimes discussed. While this is still incompletely formed and by no means widely accepted, some of the principles which govern such a garden form may already be observed. For example, the very level character of the topography makes the straight horizon line especially conspicuous, and suggests that it be adopted in the design. The whole composition, architecture and planting, may be given a general horizontality, with just enough of vertical lines to supply needed contrast. The use of native plants is strongly recommended. The use of wind-breaks supplies a very practical desideratum, since the plains are swept by strong winds for considerable periods both winter and summer.

Shade is more in demand here than in the eastern states, and accordingly more deciduous trees are planted. The proportion of deciduous plantings is increased because in the middle states fewer evergreen species can be grown with full success. As lawn grasses are hard to maintain, especially in the drier zone westward, lawn areas are made smaller and are less emphasised in the design. The obvious need for shelters, like the English garden-houses and the German gartenlaube, has not yet been met. All conditions so strongly invite the populations of these middle states to more and better gardening that every lover of this gentle art may confidently look forward to great advances in the near future.