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New Book Traces the History of the American Garden

I just finished the new garden book American Eden by garden designer and historian Wade Graham.

Graham traces the history of the garden in America from Jefferson’s Monticello to New York’s High Line Park that just opened.  The writing flows easily as you move through decades and then centuries to mark important garden moments.

Throughout the book Graham uses the English definition of garden that includes the landscape.

What I liked about the book is that Graham creates a context for the narrative through the personalities we meet.  He introduces the reader to many gardeners, besides of course landscape designers and architects, who formed the American garden aesthetic.  For example novelist Edith Wharton, the high priestess of the Gilded Age, contributed a return to the more formal garden,specifically in an Italian style. Her contemporary, landscape architect Charles Platt  agreed that garden design ought to have that formal look, rejecting, much like England’s garden writer William Robinson and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, the elaborate Victorian flower beds.

Several pages highlight Martha Stewart  because of her skill at making the garden the new status symbol, epecially on Long Island where new money enabled elaborate, formal landscapes and where one neighbor’s garden competes with the next.

Graham does not forget the revered father of the American park Frederick Law Olmsted.  He writes: “If Jefferson’s garden was created in the service of enlightenment and Downing’s in the service of domesticity, Olmsted and Vaux’s was created in the service of therapy.”  Olmsted saw nature, his park, as the way for the urban dweller to feel refreshed and renewed.  Reasons that still motivate a gardener.

After discussion of the lawn’s threat to the environment, Graham admits the continued importance of the lawn for the American garden, because it is stubbornly and deeply lodged in the American psyche.  Through all the centuries of the American garden the lawn has been the one enduring feature.

The book ends with a summary of its thesis: gardens are “expressions of self, and self-image, signals meant to be seen and understood.”  People make gardens both  to enjoy them and to show off to others who they are.

With an appropropriate nod to new horticultural movements, which sometimes focus on agriculture like local food, Graham writes that the mind-set today is “pro-urban and pro-nature—in sum, pro garden.” I like that expression, “pro-garden”.

You see in this book how different forms of the garden emerged in America.  If anything, the garden keeps evolving in what we still call the natural versus the formal look, and sometimes a mix of the two.

Without question this book will help you see your garden in a new way.


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