Surprising Garden Design Choices from 1930



As I mentioned in this post about hedges, there’s an unusual amount of them in my New Deal town, and they’re associated with our launch in 1937.  So if we care about preserving our history, are we stuck with hedges? I’m not a fan, so I was thrilled to discover a gardening book from 1930 offering two design choices for American gardens in that era:  either formal (the style that uses hedges) or naturalistic, my style of choice.  Here’s a local blog post I wrote about the two options, slightly modified from the original on Greenbelt Live.  

Hedges in Old Greenbelt’s hedges are mainly privet or euonymus, and were installed in the early days before fences were allowed.  (That happened in the ’50s after the homes became owner-occupied and and pets were first permitted.)  I’m told by one historian that hedges were used to demarcate the land each resident was responsible for maintaining – to mark borders.  But here’s what we know about hedges in the gardening world.

Formal hedges aren’t used much these days, for lots of really good reasons:

– They’re high-maintenance, requiring frequent sheering that’s generally done with power equipment.  To avoid the use of power equipment, residents or the people they hire have to be highly skilled in hand-pruning. For that reason and because power tools are faster, they’re preferred in any event.

– They’re monocultures of a single species, which means they offer no biodiversity and they’re more susceptible to the spread of pests and disease affecting large numbers of plants.

– Privet and euonymus, the dominant hedge plants in Greenbelt, are neither native nor well adapted to our region.  The euonymus in particular is pest-prone.

– Almost all our hedges were planted too close to the sidewalk, so pruning is required at frequent intervals. Otherwise, the hedges become safety hazards.

1930gardenguide– They’re formal, using straight lines that emphasize property lines.

– Hedges are difficult to impossible to keep uniform – they die, they grow differently with different amounts of sun, etc).  So the design intent of perfect geometry is often thwarted.

– When used as the dominant landscape feature, hedges do little to capture stormwater or provide for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife.

In other words, they’re so 1937, the year that Greenbelt opened its doors. They hark back to the bad old days of American gardening before we understood anything about the environmental consequences of our gardening plants and practices. Or so I thought, until coming upon this cute little book published in 1930 – the relevant era.  In it I found this:

The two principal styles of landscape development usually employed here [in the U.S.] are the naturalistic and formal.  The naturalistic style is the more simple of the two and seems to be best adapted for the  American garden lover.  This style permits the free use of flowering shrubs and perennial plants, as well as annuals, and permits the incorporation of the rock garden and the vegetable garden.  The formal style, which is usually built along geometrical lines, demands absolute balance and symmetry and must accompany a house that is built along these lines.

Naturalistic gardening is now much preferred over formal styles and has become virtually the only kind recommended.  Its advantages include:

– A mix of plants, as suggested above, means more biodiversity and filtering of stormwater (because garden plants typically have deeper roots than turfgrass).

– With no need for “absolute balance and symmetry,” there’s less maintenance required.

– Curved lines and lush borders with a variety of plants soften the straight lines of our homes and result in gardens that most people consider more beautiful than gardens with geometric perfection. (Indeed, gardens design today is all about copying and improving upon what happens in nature.)

– With a variety of plants, gardens can be interesting all year long, with blooms for about 10 months of the year in our region.

The need for privacy. Originally, Greenbelt used low hedges and lawns in both the front and back yards, creating a total openness that’s unique among planned communities.  The fact that it hasn’t been replicated may be due to our natural desire for enclosure and privacy from the world, so again it was great to see the 1930 Garden Guide make the case for privacy itself and planting mixed borders to achieve it.

The Outdoor Living Room Area is an important one because here many a pleasant afternoon or evening may be spent in comfort with a good book, in practicing golf or some other form of outdoor recreation.  As it is necessary to have privacy in order to enjoy this area to the utmost, it should be enclosed with a border of shrubs or a vine-covered lattice, and a delightful effect is obtained by bordering the shrubs with a planting of perennial flowers. Shade trees are also desirable here, and a delightful effect is obtained by bordering the shrubs with a planting of perennial flowers.

hedge green giant2

Who knew that such attractive, eco-friendly garden design was popular that long ago! (More evidence that the ’60s weren’t as world-changing as we thought.)

In contrast, tall hedges, now allowed by our co-op rules, go beyond privacy to walling off the neighborhood and diminishing our cherished sense of openness. We’ll probably see more and more of them, since the rules allow very little man-made screening.

But back to naturalism, my preferred style of gardening.  Screening done in a naturalistic style looks like these examples:


In Old Greenbelt, screening with shrubs, grasses, and a Japanese maple.

Another back yard using a mix of species to achieve privacy.  View from the sidewalk.

 Screening along a front yard in Rockville, MD.

Mixed-shrub plants provide privacy from next-door neighbor in Takoma Park.

Screening with a mix of shrubs in Maryland (that’s my former garden in the upper right).


  1. I, for one, would be sad to see formal, clipped hedges and specimen plants disappear from our design vocabulary. When juxtaposed with naturalistic plantings, they produce a heightened effect that neither style alone can achieve. Just take a look at the work of designers like Tom Stuart-Smith and Ulf Nordfjell. I would also argue that gardens are more effective when their layout has an underlying geometry, even when that isn’t immediately apparent.

  2. Thanks for this post! I love naturalistic mixed plantings as screens. I am attempting a mixed hedgerow on my own property perimeter (heavy on the edibles) of apple trees, serviceberry, flowers, herbs, nanking cherry, aronia, and hazelnut. We shall see how it works once it fills in.

  3. I love these examples, Susan. Unfortunately, here in Los Angeles, many clients want to pretend that there is no one else around them. So stupidly tall hedges prevail. And I really hate & loathe Ficus & Eugenia. I do promote & occasionally have succeeded in planting mixed shrub/short tree screens.

    Of course, there is then the total opposite, clients who want everything over 6 ft tall clear cut so they have a 360 degree view.

  4. Ha, I just think it’s funny that most people say that they want an open-floor plan in any home they want these days but insist upon hedges that are over 6ft tall for privacy reasons. What I love about 30’s home is that they still have private spaces indoors, for a reading nook or whatever. But I confess, I have some intense hedges in front of my entire house – I would love to update with a variety of species but don’t because they do make a great burglar deterrent in my modest opinion. Anyone willing to jump over those will be scratched up and miserable that they are welcome to help themselves to what they find in my house, and since we don’t even have a flatscreen and the granite’s pretty heavy, there’s not much else!

  5. I totally disagree with this article. As a designer, to me the choice of formal vs. naturalistic style depends entirely on the larger landscape setting and architecture, and on what is “appropriate” in any given situation. Hedges give structure where there often is none but the choice of material is an entirely different subject.

  6. I really enjoyed this article. I am planning to put a privet hedge on my property one day and though I will be taking advantage of privet’s reaction against pruning, my aspiration is to have a thick, bushy and natural looking hedge instead of a rigid, square shape. This article was thoroughly enjoyable.

  7. I wonder if you like walls in your house? Or do you sit on the toilet in full (or in the case of “naturalized” screening, partial) view of the kitchen?
    As a designer I can say that the hedge is an essential element of many styles of gardens and a useful treatment when privacy, structure, or design demand a wall be in place.
    I often see “naturalized” screening be a messy, space gobbling, ineffective way of screening and often results in overplanted and unhealthy plants. Best to rip the whole mess out and choose a suitable plant for hedging. Preferably one that has a reasonable growth rate, doesn’t need pruning more than a couple of times a year and will grow happily in the given conditions. There are many from which to choose.
    Generally I don’t care for these articles that serve to eliminate one kind of feature, style or plant from the repertoire because of some silly bias. If a hedge is the right thing for a particular garden, its the right thing.
    Oh, and, hedges are still as relevant to today’s designs as ever.

    • I’m all about tangents, and this one brought back fond memories of our makeshift facilities in transitioning to a house-less farm in Delaware, a pop-up outhouse clad only in white canvas. The silhouettes in the morning sun were priceless.

  8. Think Midwest, think elderly. Think limited income. Formal is lovely for those who have either the income to have a gardener or, perhaps, for the spry. I wish as a person who is often consulted ( regardless of my lack of formal credentials), that professionals would consider showing and/or showcasing more often landscapes that do not require huge investments in physical labor or money. That means knowing what a mature plant looks like and what it’s basic requirements are AND what their clients are capable of maintaining. Informal is a good thing.

  9. Hedges will not be disappearing anytime soon. Landowners, especially those with significant financial means have been putting up “fences” since day one. Hedgerows, Cloister-Gardens, any wealthy suburb. Part of the challenge with any landscape which becomes a determining factor is how much maintenance you are either willing to perform or can afford to pay others.
    As a designer, working on public and private space they are extremely useful. I would suggest to others to avoid privet and other invasives.
    (At the NY Botanical Gardens there are hedges of Myrica pennsylvanica, that work very effectively.)
    I recommend a book originally from 1929 – American Plants for American Gardens – one of the fist books promoting the use of plant ecology and native plants in residential gardening and landscaping. (It even discusses hedges!). The text was republished by U. of Georgia Press in 1996. It was written by Edith Roberts a professor at Vassar, and Elsa Rehmann a landscape architect. Darrel Morrison, FASLA and professor emeritus at Georgia wrote the introduction.

  10. My sister company, a local landscape company in Tallahassee, Fl just re-landscaped a state building, right next to our state capital. There was very old landscaping around the building, but one thing the designer liked was the Wintergreen Boxwood hedges framing all the entrance sidewalks. The building Dept. Heads agreed and new formal boxwood hedges were installed along all sidewalks. The rest of the building was a more “Naturalistic gardening” complete with Camellias, Hydrangeas, Drift Roses (Please try these dwarf roses, tons of flowers!) Wax Ligustrum, and Podocarpus. The building looks great and received many compliments after completion. So dont knock those hedges!! They are still alive in the south!


  11. I know what you mean by hedges that don’t grow evenly or look terrible due to disease and age. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to quote a homeowner on what it might cost to have a hedge removed and replaced. But that’s just it- always replaced. People still want hedges.

    I say this because I too, enjoy the more naturalistic style that you also prefer. I live in central MN, and I enjoy feeling like I’m adding back to the wild landscape with everything I do on my property as I’m surrounded by agriculture otherwise.

    Hedges can actually offer some amount of benefit to wildlife. My mother in law has a Rosa rugosa hedge on purpose that she keeps maintained, to feed deer. Junipers can make decent hedges and overwintering birds rely on them for their oily fruit and for cover. Some birds even love nesting in hedges.

    I love the look of a carefully maintained hedge of dark green with pops of bright red and chartreuse of Japanese maples that you see in Japanese gardens. That’s one of my favorite “looks” I guess.

    I think you have the right idea in your opinion overall and I love your taste. 🙂


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