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America’s Early 20th Century Native Plant Movement

[left: Wilhelm Miller’s book appeared in 1915, and gave a new direction in garden design by more focus on native plants.] 

In 1901 Chicago landscape architect Wilhelm Miller (1869–1938)  wrote a book called What England Can Teach Us about Gardening. He considered the English garden  the model for the American garden.

The same message appeared throughout the nineteenth century in the catalogs of American seed companies and nurseries, their  books, and their magazines.

By 1915 Miller had changed his mind and wrote another book with the title  The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening to tell us so.  According to the Library of American Landscape History, it was ”the first book to address the question of a truly American style of landscape design.”

Miller, with landscape architects Jens Jensen and O.C. Simonds, initiated the American Prairie Spirit movement in garden design.  The book’s theme centered  on using native plants, like  grasses and wildflowers, in the landscape, and moving away from exotics.  That was an important moment for the American garden because the  landscape it encouraged did not include the basic elements of the English design that had been important in 19th century America.

Miller’s book formed an early expression of American garden design that was independent of the English garden view.  A similar view of the importance of native plants was also happening in England, especially through the work of horticulturalist William Robinson.

In 1977 America Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden started their landscape architecture partnership and gave us a more recent definition of the new American garden. Their garden work stands today in many cities, including Washington,DC.  Mass plantings of ornamental grasses and low maintenance plants form the backbone of their design principles.

Recently an article in  The American Gardener magazine showcased nurseryman Neil Diboll as the “Prophet of the Prairie”.  Diboll’s work  centers on teaching the beauty and sustainability of prairie plants.

From the beginning of the twentieth century American gardening moved away from the dependence on the English garden style, which had dominated the look of the American landscape in the nineteenth century.  The  door opened to  less reliance on exotic plants and more focus on native plants.

That door is again open.

Today there is renewed interest in the use of native plants, and a return to a more natural landscape.

Miller was a pioneer in proposing an American definition of landscape design.


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