Book Review: Is There Such a Thing as an “American” Garden?
Recently I finished reading Great Gardens of America by the English garden writer Tim Richardson. The book has much to commend it, but I would have liked it a lot more if I had skipped the introduction.
In this book, Richardson describes 25 American gardens that he considers superlative (two are actually Canadian, but let’s not quibble).
Unfortunately, in the introduction the author feels called upon to define the quality that makes a garden “American”. And what is that quality? Well, it is “the embrace of the wilderness ideal”, and “the frontier mentality of making do with what is available and living within nature rather than in opposition to it …”
Sweeping generalizations are appealing, but also an easy way to get tripped up. First off, the settling of the North American continent was not done by people who believed in “living with nature rather than in opposition to it.” It was done by people who believed that wilderness should be tamed and subdued with an eye to extracting a maximum of wealth.
Yes, there have always been important voices arguing for preserving the natural heritage, but these have been a distinct minority.
Also, there is little that evokes a wilderness ideal among many of the gardens that Richardson profiles – such as Vizcaya in Florida or Stan Hywett in Indiana.
And Richardson himself shows how many of these gardens are intended to replicate various European design styles – Vizcaya is modeled after an Italian Renaissance garden, Filoli is an attempt to create an English estate in California, etc.
As long as I’m grousing, I have to mention that Richardson describes Jens Jensen, founder of the Prairie Style of garden design, as “a Dane who settled in Chicago in the 1930s”. Actually, Jensen arrived here in 1884. By the 1930s he was in his 70s and had already had a long and distinguished career in the USA.
Has fact checking become a lost art?
Personally, I don’t think there is anything that defines a quintessentially “American garden”, other than geographic location. American gardens derive from many design traditions originating in several nations. Sometimes those traditions have evolved on our shores and become more or less distinctive.
It’s interesting to me that the Lurie Garden, which I think reflects Richardson’s “wilderness ideal” more than most, is to a great extent the product of a Dutch designer.
I admit I am overemphasizing the introduction, which is a small part of the book. The garden descriptions that make up the bulk of the book are worth reading. I especially enjoyed the visit to Dan Hinkley’s garden in Seattle, and the history of some of the gardens such as Dumbarton Oaks and Lotusland.
And I loved the photographs by Andrea Jones.
Great Gardens of America has famous gardens and others that are more obscure. Not all are open to the public, but I definitely learned of some that I have added to my bucket list.
Do you believe that you can define what makes a garden American, English, Italian, etc?