Digging into the Archive of American Gardens

Image from the Archive of American Gardens

I’m not sure I totally grasp the content of the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Gardens but here’s what I gather so far, from a talk I heard on the subject and digging into their website. A big honking collection of garden photos was donated to the Smithsonian by the Garden Club of America in 1992.  The club had started the archive back in ’87, and since the transfer, they’re still adding to the collection by photographing and documenting contemporary gardens.  The collection includes gardens across North America and Europe, both private and public, and many by famous designers.

Image from the Archive of American Gardens

What’s in it, so far

  • Representations of over 7,500 gardens throughout the United States.  The design styles represented range from large Italianate estates to herb and rose gardens, cottage and patio gardens, and urban parks.
  • Nearly 3,500 hand-colored glass lantern slides dating from the 1920s and 1930s
  • About 37,000 35mm slides of gardens that date from colonial times to the present.
  • Examples of gardens by landscape architects like Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand, Lawrence Halprin, Hare & Hare, Umberto Innocenti, Gertrude Jekyll, Jens Jensen, Warren Manning, the Olmsted Brothers, Charles Platt, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Fletcher Steele.
  • Photos, plans, and files documenting the work of landscape architects Thomas Warren Sears, Perry Wheeler, and Robert M. Fletcher; author, publisher, and horticulturist Dr. J. Horace McFarland; the Lewis and Valentine Nursery of Long Island, New York; Katharine Lane Weems’s Massachusetts estate, “The Chimneys”; historic postcard views collected by Richard Marchand; and the Smithsonian Gardens own gardens, artifacts and activities.
Image from the Archive of American Gardens


How to Access?  Over 24,000 digitized images from the Arhives are publicly available in the Smithsonian’s online catalog. The records are also published in the Smithsonian’s Collection Search center. communityofgardens

Tell YOUR Garden Story! A new section of the Archive is a collection of garden stories that they’re calling A Community of Gardens, is an experiment in participatory digital collecting.  Not part of the Archives but similar in its quest to gather and preserve stories of America’s gardening heritage.  I heard story-collectors David Quick and Kate Fox talk about it at Rooting DC this month, saying they were using grant funds from the DC Humanities Council to hire interviewers to collect people’s garden stories. (Here’s a transcript of an interview about an urban garden with bees, with the audio link embedded.  Sorry to see, no photos – yet.!)  They’ve interviewed 34 people so far, all food gardeners, some in community gardens, some gardening in their own yards.  Community of Gardens is in its beta phase, so a work in progress.

The project will also include high-quality images, videos and stories from gardeners across the country. The stories they’re looking for might cover: why you garden, what drew you to it, personal stories of all types. From the FAQs:  What makes a good story? A good garden story could be anything! Do you have memories of a garden grown by your mother or father? Grandmother or grandfather? How has a garden helped bring your family or community closer together? Is there a garden feature, plant, or flower that brings back vivid memories? A good story tells us about the gardens and green spaces that matter to YOU. Stories can be told with images, audio, and videos, too.

  • What is your first memory of a being in a garden?
  • What have gardens taught you about yourself, your family, community, or the natural world?
  • Why did you decide to create a garden? What makes it special?
  • What was the first plant or vegetable you ever grew? Why did you choose to grow it?
  • Why do you think gardens are important to the neighborhood where you live?
  • Are you a member of a community garden? What is your community garden’s history, and what role does it play in your community?
  • Do you have a favorite public garden? What makes it your favorite?
Image from the Archive of American Gardens


  1. There is nothing more fascinating than old garden photos. Gardens are such ephemeral things, rarely outlasting their makers, so the photo documentation is a priceless record of our gardening heritage. I read that many of the garden slides were moldering away in one woman’s basement for decades, until someone recognized what a treasure they were and they eventually ended up at the Smithsonian, where we can all view them. A close call — and lucky for us! Thanks for the write-up about such an important resource.

  2. Thank you for your interest in the Archives of American Gardens! The archives documents over 7,500 gardens and landscapes. AAG strives to preserve and highlight a meaningful compendium of significant aspects of gardening in the United States for the benefit of researchers and the public today and in the future.

    Over 24,000 digitized images from the Archives of American Gardens are publicly available in the Smithsonian’s online catalog. Here is a link to all the available Archives of American Gardens images in the Collections Search Center: AAG Images

    Community of Gardens is an experiment in participatory, digital collecting. Though it is not part of the Archives of American Gardens, it is related in its quest to seek out and preserve stories of America’s gardening heritage. We are excited to see how the project grows over the next year.

    The project David Quick spoke about is a separate project. The DC Gardeners Oral History Project is run by the Neighborhood Farm Initiative and was funded by the DC Humanities Council. Though we collaborated on the Rooting DC workshop, the two projects are not affiliated. Here is more information about NFI’s incredible project: DC Gardeners Oral History Project

  3. Thanks for linking to this! I’m sure I’ll get lost for hours in these pictures trying to come up with ideas I can adapt in my own garden.

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