America’s Landscape Gardening Pioneer

America’s landscape gardening pioneer, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

Andrew Jackson Downing

The English developed a new form of garden design in the early eighteenth century.  They called it ‘modern’, or natural.

This design style included a lawn, trees, curved pathways, water, stone work, and sometimes even beds of flowers.

Eventually America adopted this English garden design, or landscape gardening, especially after 1850 for the middle class home landscape.  Before then it appeared mostly on the estates of the wealthy outside cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

Boston horticulturist and nursery owner Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) published a periodical called Magazine of Horticulture .

In 1840 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “Attention is given to the laying out of gardens, and that small beds of turf are occasionally introduced on which groups of flowers are planted; but, other than this, there has  been no attempt made, that we are aware of, to introduce landscape gardening, even among the many suburban villas, which abound in the vicinity of our large cities.”

Hovey saw few landscapes designed in the English style.

Downing

New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing meanwhile was busy writing his book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening which first appeared in print in 1841, one year later.

Then in 1844 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “A taste for landscape gardening is gradually extending.”

Hovey does not give the interest in landscape gardening exclusively to Downing, but Downing’s work certainly gave America  an opportunity to understand the importance of English garden design.

Downing wrote articles for Hovey’s magazine, so Hovey certainly knew him and his work.

Andrew Jackson Downing would become the most important proponent by mid nineteenth century America for the modern English garden design.

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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.

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