Is Amateurism The American Style?


Img_1722_2One of my very favorite gardening books is written by an art historian, Grandmother’s Garden: The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915 by May Brawley Hill.  It’s well worth buying just for the fascinating early photographs of American gardens. 

Hill’s subject is a garden style that emerged around the American Centennial of 1875, when Americans suddenly looked backwards, with interest, at the early history of the country and began valuing 18th century houses and furniture and what remained of the gardens.

People began to seek inspiration in the old-fashioned gardens of their grandmothers.  An extremely floriferous garden style, inspired by cottagey plants like phlox and hollyhocks and humble materials like picket fences, became the rage among the humble and well-educated bohemians alike.

And this happened before Gertrude Jekyll began promoting cottage-garden flowers and William Robinson natives across the Atlantic.  Here’s what struck me, looking at the book this week.  Hill writes…

Certainly American gardeners were not isolated from English and European gardening ideas, but we emphatically have a national gardening tradition as well as regional ones, seen best in personal, individually made and maintained gardeners like grandmother’s.

Of course, the Garden Rant manifesto says we prefer "real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens."  We thought we were iconoclasts.  Apparently, we’re traditionalists.


  1. What an interesting post! I was not familiar with that book. Two I like is “An Woman’s Hardy Garden” which I inherited. It was written about the turn of the century. Also, Celia Thaxter’s Island garden which was re-printed a few years back. We love old fashioned flowers: hollyhocks,larkspur, sweet peas. It is a lot of fun.

  2. This puts me in mind of an Eddie Izzard skit on the way Americans view “history.”

    “We have restored this house to the way it looked 50 YEARS AGO!”

    “Surely not! No one was ALIVE then!”

  3. Another book worth looking at is Old Time Gardens by Alice Morse Earle (c1901). The second chapter on Front Dooryards is especially enjoyable to read.

  4. Interested in just what ‘American style’ is? Read Claire Sawyer’s The Authentic Garden (Timber Press 2007). Long story short, it involves:

    Capturing the sense of place.
    Deriving beauty from function.
    Using humble materials.
    Marrying the inside to the outside.
    Involving the visitor.

    Thought-provoking and well-illustrated.

  5. When I recently watched the HBO series “John Adams”, I noticed throughout that the Adams family was depicted on their farm, kitchen gardening and doing the work of food production. Abigail Adams’ management of the farm and children is what allowed him to pursue lawyering and politics. The scenes with women are often in face-shading hats, weeding or planting, surrounded by herbs and flowers.

    We very much enjoyed the series for its content, but the historic interiors, gardens, and costuming gave it even more depth. Abigail Adams on her knees scrubbing the floor with a brick and disinfectant to ward off the plague. It was hard to listen to the Adams daughter telling her mother she had decided to die of breast cancer (having already had one breast removed with no anesthesia), when I was trying to look at the garden at the same time.

  6. Immigrants heading for the new world did bring plants and seeds with them and most common folks created cottage gardens – ornamentals even having medicinal purposes.

    Gertrude Jekylls cottage garden were as much a “cottage garden” as Marie Antoinette was a milkmaid.

    Calling the Early and even the contempeary Amercian Gardening style for “Amateurism” seems a bit condescending to me. Very few read books by garden designers and Garden Architects then or now. Grandmas garden was just that – Grandmas gardens. Was she an Amateur? Yes – but did that make her garden less valuable or bring her less joy? I don’t think so. Modern day taste judges are far too harsh – and I find it better to encourage people growing whatever they want – instead of growing what the latest garden magazine tells people to grow – if they want to be trendy this year.

  7. If I could just walk through my grandparents’ garden one more time as they examined and fussed over each and every plant. At least for them, the natural harmony of color and form came from within.

  8. Amateurs? Most of us gardeners are, I suppose.
    Aren’t professional gardeners called farmers, designers, landscapers, horticulturists, etc?

    The whole idea that we can do our own thing around our homes is part of the priviledge of living outside of communities with rules about what color you are allowed to paint your house and which shrubs you are allowed to have.

    Self-expression is part and parcel of our idealized garden. Though, I’ll confess that my late summer garden rarely measures up to my early spring visualization.

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