The Landscape Guide

Virginian Garden Design in America

The first North Americans to accumulate serious wealth were the English tobacco planters of Virginia. They inherited 'estates', built Georgian mansions and drew their ideas on garden design from the same source: early eighteenth century England. Westover Garden, forty miles from Richmond on the James River, is one of  the best-known examples. 

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The house was designed in 1730 and Bannister Fletcher suggests that the style may have come from a pattern-book of  the type published by Batty Langley. The 'box garden', west of the house, is in the Enclosed Style and does not have an axial arrangement with the house. If it ever did, as Newton remarks, is 'very hard to tell'. This style had its origins in renaissance Italy and was popular in England during the seventeenth century and the first part of the eighteenth century.

America's First and Third Presidents were keen gardeners and approached their gardens as they did the American Constitution: they tried to learn as much as possible from the Old World but to create something new and more practical. The First President, George Washington, owned a book by Batty Langley and it may be that Langley's New Principles of Gardening (1728) also inspired Jefferson's garden. Its plan is more Augustan than Serpentine. When tobacco proved to be an unsuccessful crop, George Washington turned to English books on agriculture. His layout of the estate, in the 1770s and 1780s, is only slightly influenced by the work of Brown. The Third President, Thomas Jefferson, had toured European gardens and was a skilled architect with a great interest in gardening. The layout shows the influence of Brown but Jefferson's strongest interest was in growing fruit and flowers.

The wind blew strongest from England, but baroque garden design also had some influence in America and 'it seems to be universally acknowledged in books about eighteenth century American gardens, unless they are all relying on one source, that the Philadelphans alone espoused gardening in the formal, European style' (Ann Leighton American gardens in the eighteenth century, 1976, p 376). Yet this influence appears to have traveled via England from France to America.