Nineteenth Century America’s Swept Yard

Nineteenth century America’s swept yard

As I walked around the extensive Atlanta History Center grounds a few weeks ago, I came across a farm-house from the mid 1800s.  Barns for various animals surrounded the structure.

The house had a wooden fence along part of its perimeter, probably to keep the animals from roaming too close to the house.

The house was called the Tallie Smith House, a rural home preserved from the mid-nineteenth century. A variety of activities such as spinning, weaving, and preparing food would have taken place on its large front porch. [below]

The Tallie Smith House on the propraty of the Atlanta History Center.

The Tallie Smith House at the Atlanta History Center

Then I noticed that there was no front lawn, but rather a swept area of soil outside the front door, along the front, and on each side of the house as well.

Information on a near-by post said, “No garden form is more strongly tied to the South in the 1800s than the rural, grass-free swept yard.”  The swept yard was, it said, probably African in origin. [below]

Swept yard at the Tallie Smith Hosue

Swept yard at the Tallie Smith House at the Atlanta History Center

The fact that no lawn surrounded the house caught my attention. This landscape represented a certain time period in American garden history.

The word ‘yard’ has had a series of meanings for the landscape over the centuries. Here it includes the area that surrounds the front of a nineteenth century rural house.









Lawn Became Essential Landscape Feature

Lawn Became Essential Landscape Feature

Beginning in 1859, and for the next twenty-nine years,  Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan published a magazine called Gardener’s Monthly

In the first pages of each issue he provided advice on taking care of the lawn, thus reinforcing its importance in the home landscape for the reader.

He considered the lawn an essential feature for the home landscape, no matter what size.

Built in 1904 the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Massachusetts now forms part of the house and garden list of the Trustees of Reservations

Lawn surrounds the red brick house, giving the landscape that English garden look from the end of the nineteenth century.  [below]


The back garden at the Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Meehan wrote in the magazine’s 1860 issue: “The rarest flowers-the choicest fruits-the nicest arrangement of all things on the most scientific principles, are lost to us, if they are not crowned by a perfect lawn.  To the lawn we bow; and as a subject of horticulture, offer to the lawn our strongest allegiance.”

In February 1869 Meehan wrote in his magazine that the lawn meant more to Americans than to the English: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us. Our heats render the grass particularly refreshing.”

It is little wonder that the pursuit of the perfect lawn, the signature feature of the English garden, has a long history for the American homeowner.

Nineteenth century nurserymen like Meehan considered the lawn essential in the landscape.

Tree and Lawn at the Bradley Estate

Tree and Lawn at the front of the Bradley Estate

Problems with the English Lawn in America

Problems with the English lawn in America.

Time to think about the lawn.

We need to figure out how to help it survive. We need to mow it. Then we need to trim the edge of it as well. They are the chores that we hope will keep the lawn looking perfect.

The lawn remains a reminder of America’s love of the English garden.

English writer and landscape gardener William Robinson, referred to as the father of the English flower garden, wrote in 1870, “The lawn is the heart of the true English Garden.”

Yet Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premiere nineteenth century landscape gardener, knew that Americans could not cultivate a lawn like the English.

In the new book Flora Illustrata landscape architect Judith Major writes, “Downing admitted in The Horticulturist that the hot, sunny American summer does not favor the type of fine lawns that thrive under British conditions, yet writers on landscape architecture continued to promote the lawn.”

During the nineteenth century garden writers, who were sometimes also seed company or nursery owners as well, sought to sell grass seed. The lawn became the essential planting in the home landscape.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August, 1878, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment.”

On that same page and above his words appeared this illustration of a house with its required well trimmed front lawn. [Below]

Lawn and House in VIL Monthly 1878, August

Lawn and House in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1878, August

Thus he encouraged the lawn both in his words and his magazine illustration.

Here is another Vick black line drawing from his seed catalog of 1880. [below] Notice again the central role the lawn plays.

Vick's Floral Guide 1880

Vick’s Floral Guide 1880

So it was no surprise that Downing had a difficult battle trying to convince Americans that a lawn like the English cultivate was not possible on American soil.

To this day, however, we have not stopped in our quest for that perfect lawn.
















Public Garden Reflects Early 20th Century Formal Design

Public garden reflects early 20th century formal design.

Sometimes a treasure close to home receives only a fraction of the attention it deserves.

That’s the case with the public garden at the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass. This garden is so close that I cannot figure out why it took me so long to pay a visit.

Its formal look dates to 1902 when Boston architect Charles Platt built both the house and the garden.

That first decade of the twentieth century was a time for renewed interest in the formal look of the garden. Garden designers were moving away from the more natural look that had dominated the garden for many decades both in England and in America.

Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, Mass.

Since 1991 the historic preservation group called Trustees of Reservations has owned the property, with its historic house and garden. The goal of the Trustees, founded by Boston conservationist Charles Eliot in the late nineteenth century, is to preserve the history of exceptional Massachusetts’ houses and gardens for future generations. Here TOR has done a marvelous job of preserving Platt’s formal garden.

A lawn surrounds the house, but behind the house you see the formal garden.   The garden includes four parterres, each enclosed by a highly pruned boxwood hedge two feet tall. Inside the parterres many perennials provide color throughout the summer and into the fall.

Platt promoted the Italian design for the American garden. In the Bradley garden Platt also designed a red brick lattice wall in the Italianate style. The wall, about four feet high, surrounds the entire garden with its lawn, walkways, and flowerbeds. The wall, with its open spaces, provides an effect of filtered light into the garden.

trustees of reservationsThis year happens to be the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the Trustees of Reservations. Thus during the next few months there will be special events at TOR’s 114 special historical places and tracks of land owned by TOR.

















Public Garden Reveals Formal Design’s Bare Bones

Public garden reveals formal design’s bare bones.

Recently my wife and I traveled to Spokane where I gave a talk on my book. Our hosts, the Inland Empire Gardeners, gave us a tour of the city of Spokane.

The only place I was really interested in visiting, and the only thing I knew about Spokane, was the formal Duncan Garden at Manito Park.

To my surprise the Park’s Duncan Garden was the first place we visited. You could see the bare bones of the formal garden that attracts so many visitors. [below] It seemed like the beds were just waiting for the day when their plants would arrive.

Manito Park, Spokane

Manito Park, Spokane

There is something magical about a formal garden. It certainly speaks to the artistic skill of the designer to create such forms of color and structure with plants, stone, and soil.

In August of 1881 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1881) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Although the artificial or geometric style of gardening has passed away, a trace of it is still to be seen in some of the best grounds, where a small space is devoted to flowerbeds made in exact patterns, either cut in the grass or bordered with some low edging plants, with gravel walks between.”

In England that formal design took a back seat in the early 1700s to open the door to a new kind of garden design, called the natural or picturesque. Gardeners wanted a more natural look to the garden.

It would not be long, however, before the English would return to a more formal look in the garden. You can see it below in the Penshurst Place garden in Kent. [below]

Penshurst Place in Tonbridge

Penshurst Place in Tonbridge

The Manito Park formal garden dates to 1904, a time when there was a resurgence of interest in the formal design for the landsape both in England and in America.

Spokane today reflects that tradition in this famous park called Manito and its Duncan Garden with its carpet beds, which were empty when I took the photo above, but soon will be filled with color.  Then people will once again come to visit and enjoy this special garden.

I am grateful to the wonderful people we met in Spokane, especially the members of the Inland Empire Gardeners, who were so kind to make sure we visited Manito Park.

Thanks to Pat Schilling Photography for this photo [below] of what the Duncan Garden will look like in the summer. Amazing beautiful color in this formal design will await the visitor.

Spokane's Duncan Garden [Courtesy of Pat Schilling]

Spokane’s Duncan Garden [Courtesy of Pat Schilling]

New Video Highlights England’s Capability Brown

New video highlights England’s Capability Brown.

In eighteenth century England Capability Brown, royal gardener at Hampton Court, gardener to the King,

C Brown [courtesy of the http blog, austenonly]

Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) [courtesy of the blog,]

designed over 200 properties in the new landscape style, distinguished by its extensive lawn and natural look.

Many consider Brown among the three most important landscape gardeners in eighteenth century England. The other two are William Kent and Humphry Repton.

Brown designed Highclere Castle’s grounds that you may have seen each week on “Downton Abbey.”  The Castle became the home of Lord and Lady Grantham and their fictional family.

This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

To celebrate his birth, an organization has developed in England to make this year Capability Brown’s year.They sponsor lectures, garden tours and other events.

The group has also produced a five-minute video called Capability on Camera. [below]

This is a wonderful way to tell Capability’s story.

I hope you enjoy the video.


Brown rose from a simple gardener to a robust self-promoter who convinced many aristocrats that the modern landscape style, including vistas and a park look in the landscape, would define the new English Garden.

If you would like to learn more about the year-long Lancelot Capability Brown events, check out the group’s website at

Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower

Victorian middle class wanted the lawn mower.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the lawn has assumed an important role in the English garden.

Lancelot Capability Brown, the English gardener to the King in the mid 1700s, created many a lawn on the properties that he was contracted to design in the new modern landscape style.

Since the garden of the wealthy had a team of gardeners to cut the grass, the lawn mower did not appear until mid nineteenth century.

The lawn mower came about because the middle class homeowner couldn’t afford the staff of gardeners.  He wanted an easier way to cut the grass.

Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 writes, “Not until gardening became the leisure occupation of many new middle-class town dwellers did the mechanization of mowers begin.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

The lawn mower in England appeared in 1830, and in America a few years later, 1850. Here is an ad for the Buckeye Lawn Mower from Springfield, Massachusetts that appeared in garden catalogs in the 1890s. [above]

With a mower the middle class could enjoy a lawn just like the wealthy, upper class had been doing for decades.

A lawn thus reflected social class. With a lawn the middle class could identify with the more wealthy estate owner, because now they both had a lawn to maintain.



Downing Admired Chatsworth

During the mid nineteenth century Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premier nineteenth century landscape gardener, admired the garden at Chatsworth, the work of head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

In 1850 Downing visited England’s Chatsworth, begun in 1617. He later wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire, has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world.”

You know since you need inspiration for a garden or landscape, you sometimes borrow ideas from other gardens you have visited. In one sense it is a high form of admiration.

Downing, like any gardener, found a certain enjoyment in visiting such grand gardens as Chatsworth. They inspired his writing about the kind of home ladnscape America needed at that time, a fashion quite similar to the English garden, though adapted for the American home.

He describes the landscape of Chatsworth in detail, including  the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the estate.

You can still see the Chatsworth lawn in the photo here.  [below] It is a lawn that Capability Brown installed during the eighteenth century, bestowing upon it even more historical importance.

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth

Downing, a New York nurseryman who wrote several books and edited the magazine The Horticulturist,  admired the English garden style.  He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, who had published a garden magazine and many books.  Loudon’s magazine also included articles written by Downing.  Loudon was probably the most influential English garden writer in the first half of the nineteenth century.

What style does your garden represent?  Who is your inspiration for your garden?

Downing admired Joseph Paxton’s English garden at Chatsworth.

Victorian Vase Appeared in 1888 Lawn Mower Ad

During the late nineteenth century Victorian period in America, the vase played an important role in the garden. The container had to be large and positioned on a stand so people would be able to see it.

Its plants included tropicals such as banana or canna. People also loved such plants because they were exotic.

Recently, while paging through the Parker and Wood seed catalog of 1888, I came across an advertisement for a lawn mower. Here is the illustration in the ad.  [below]

The Parker and Wood Seed Company became the New England Agents for Blair Manufacturing in Springfield, Mass. which made lawn mowers.

Parker & Wood Catalog 1881 "Seeds and Agricultural Impletments"

Parker & Wood Catalog 1888 [Courtesy of Mass Hort]

In the vase notice the large leaves on what is probably a tropical plant.

You can’t miss them.

Of course, the military figure cutting the grass also caught my attention. Why is he wearing what appears to be some sort of military uniform?

But it is the lawn mower that the ad intended to sell. The ad detailed the features of the lawn mower: “will cut narrow borders and will perfectly cut low terraces. Runs perfectly silent; easily operated.”

This was a time when suburban homes took pride in an English lawn.  A machine to keep the lawn trim certainly found an audience among the gardeners who read this catalog.

Such advertising became national since people around the country wanted a lawn mover. In 1906 Truman A. DeWeese wrote The Principles of Practical Publicity, an early volume on the success of advertising. He said, “”The manufacturer now creates a demand for the goods through advertising.”

The ad in its own quiet way also sold Victorian values, like the showy garden vase.


1890s Lawn Seed Ad Linked to Public Garden

By the 1890s modern advertising sought to motivate the buyer by an emotional appeal.

Recently I spent an afternoon examining nineteenth century seed catalogs at the library of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

A grass seed ad in a catalog from 1889 caught my attention.

The Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston used the Public Garden which borders the Boston Common as an illustration to sell its grass seed. Created in 1837, the Public Garden was the first public botanical garden in America. From the begnning decorative and flowery, it featured meandering pathways for strolling. Today its famous duck boats bring tourists to its lagoon in the summer.

Both the Public Garden and the Boston Common, begun in 1634, extend for several city blocks.  Recently I drove by at night to see their Christmas lights. Quite impressive.

an ad for grass seed in Park & Wood Catalog 1889

An ad for grass seed in this 1889 Park & Wood Catalog featured Boston’s Public Garden.

By late  nineteenth century the lawn had become an important part of the home landscape.

This advertising told the reader that if the grass seed was good enough for Boston’s Public Garden, it certainly would be fine in your home landscape as well.

An appeal in this case to sell something by associating it with something or someone that people treasure is what we still do today in marketing, advertising, and public relations.

By the late nineteenth century advertising meant not simply giving information about a product, but motivating a buyer to choose a particular product.  In this ad the Company referred to its particular variety of grass seed  called ‘Boston Lawn Seed.’  You can see the product name in the lower right corner of the ad. [above]

Connecting the grass seed with this established public green space was an example of that kind of modern advertising.

By linking the lawn seed to the Public Garden, for people across the country this nineteenth century ad also sold the importance of the lawn in the landscape.