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The Formal Garden vs. the More Natural Look

Perhaps you like the well trimmed look in the garden. Shrubs must be a certain look, the lawn cut a particular way, perennials cut back after they bloom, and trees trimmed to control their growth.  The trimming in the landscape reached its highest point in the 17th century  at Versailles where the French trimmed shrubs and trees to make the most outstanding formal gardens

But not everyone liked the well trimmed look.

Giving nature a chance was the theme of the new English naturalistic approach to the landscape garden in the early 18th century. That view, of course, did not require the  extreme pruning of shrubs and trees.

In the collection of essays and poems in the book Genius of the Place,which discusses the English landscape garden from 1620-1820,   Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an early advocate of the more naturalistic view of the landscape, also prefered a less formal look. He wrote in 1712: “We see the Marks of the Scissors upon every Plant and Bush. I do not know whether I am singular in my Opinion, but, for my own part, I would rather look upon a Tree in all its Luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a Mathematical Figure.”

And so the English landscape view moved away from the more formal, trimmed look to a more picturesque view where the visitor to the garden saw nature, like extensive lawns, and spotted trees, perhaps a lake or fountain, but not a heavily trimmed array of plants.

That view also became important in America in the 19th century, when the estates on the Hudson River, outside New York, cultivated the same look.   A local nurseryman named Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)  designed some of the properties. Downing, who would become the most famous early American landscape designer, admitted his inspiration came from the modern or picturesque English view.  He wrote: “As the modern style owes its origin mainly to the English, so it has also been developed and carried to its greatest perfection in the British Islands.”

Today you may like the well trimmed look in the landscape, but a more natural view where the plants are allowed to grow as they will, with a minimum of attention, is still a desirable view, and can often create a pleasing garden. And it’s alright for you to landscape that way


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