Book Review: Is There Such a Thing as an “American” Garden?

Recently I finished reading Great Gardens of America by the English garden writer Tim Richardson. The book has much to commend it, but I would have liked it a lot more if I had skipped the introduction.

great gardens of america

In this book, Richardson describes 25 American gardens that he considers superlative (two are actually Canadian, but let’s not quibble).

Unfortunately, in the introduction the author feels called upon to define the quality that makes a garden “American”. And what is that quality? Well, it is “the embrace of the wilderness ideal”, and “the frontier mentality of making do with what is available and living within nature rather than in opposition to it …”

Tim Richardson. Photograph from Daily Telegraph.


Sweeping generalizations are appealing, but also an easy way to get tripped up. First off, the settling of the North American continent was not done by people who believed in “living with nature rather than in opposition to it.” It was done by people who believed that wilderness should be tamed and subdued with an eye to extracting a maximum of wealth.

Yes, there have always been important voices arguing for preserving the natural heritage, but these have been a distinct minority.

Also, there is little that evokes a wilderness ideal among many of the gardens that Richardson profiles – such as Vizcaya in Florida or Stan Hywett in Indiana.

Filoli: a "wilderness ideal"?
Filoli: a “wilderness ideal”?

And Richardson himself shows how many of these gardens are intended to replicate various European design styles – Vizcaya is modeled after an Italian Renaissance garden, Filoli is an attempt to create an English estate in California, etc.

As long as I’m grousing, I have to mention that Richardson describes Jens Jensen, founder of the Prairie Style of garden design, as “a Dane who settled in Chicago in the 1930s”. Actually, Jensen arrived here in 1884. By the 1930s he was in his 70s and had already had a long and distinguished career in the USA.

Has fact checking become a lost art?

Personally, I don’t think there is anything that defines a quintessentially “American garden”, other than geographic location. American gardens derive from many design traditions originating in several nations. Sometimes those traditions have evolved on our shores and become more or less distinctive.

Pale Purple Coneflower at Lurie Garden
Pale Purple Coneflower at Lurie Garden

It’s interesting to me that the Lurie Garden, which I think reflects Richardson’s “wilderness ideal” more than most, is to a great extent the product of a Dutch designer.

I admit I am overemphasizing the introduction, which is a small part of the book. The garden descriptions that make up the bulk of the book are worth reading. I especially enjoyed the visit to Dan Hinkley’s garden in Seattle, and the history of some of the gardens such as Dumbarton Oaks and Lotusland.

And I loved the photographs by Andrea Jones.

Great Gardens of America has famous gardens and others that are more obscure. Not all are open to the public, but I definitely learned of some that I have added to my bucket list.

Do you believe that you can define what makes a garden American, English, Italian, etc?


60 Comments on “Book Review: Is There Such a Thing as an “American” Garden?”

  1. I agree, it is almost impossible to define what makes a garden “German” for example… the climate varies so much for a start, and we have influences from Italy, Holland and England here. On a regional level it is easier, but as you say “sweeping generalizations” are out of place!

  2. As long as we are fact-checking, Dan Hinkley’s garden is definitely not in Seattle. His garden ‘Windcliff’ is in Indianola, WA. It’s between Kingston and Poulsbo.

    You would take the ferry from Edmonds, WA to Kingston. Edmonds is about 15 miles northwest of Seattle.

    I live northeast of Edmonds and have visited ‘Windcliff’ once and his previous garden, ‘Heronswood” many times.

    Dan Hinkley will open his garden to Northwest Perennial Alliance members a few times this summer as part of their Open Gardens directory. Become a member of NPA and you’ll get the directory as a benefit. You’ll see some marvelous gardens.

    Ramona Hensrude
    Co-Chair – Open Gardens Directory
    Northwest Perennial Alliance

  3. Great post! Have you read the book, Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf? Very interesting about the early beginnings of gardening and agriculture in America. interestingly, it’s written by Wulf, who is from Britain. We heard her speak about her book and her research . Very Interesting. We wrote a blog entry giving a bit more detail about the book, a few posts back. Founding Gardeners was one of our favorite ‘reads’ last year. We really enjoy your blog. We’ll keep reading!

  4. Oh, that is quite a funny introduction, since the early settlers pretty much clear cut and, as you said, wanted to tame the wilderness around them. There is so much borrowing with different styles in American gardens, and I don’t really know enough to tell the difference. It’s a lot easier to tell if a garden is, say, a Japanese style garden or an English style cottage garden. The Prairie style garden seems more American to me, but I’m wondering if you could find ‘meadow gardens’ in Europe or elsewhere that would be similar.

    • As you can probably tell, I think it is kind of silly to try and define a “national” gardening style. There are styles specific to a region or period of history, but then they cross borders and get mixed up and changed. Though it does seem that, as you say, the Japanese and Chinese gardens are more clearly defined – but I may be able to say that only because I don’t know that much about them.

  5. Hi Jason, this is the second time in a week I have come across Tim Richardson, he was one half of the for and against article in last weeks Telegraph discussing the proposed London Garden Bridge.Tim Richardson wrote the ‘those against’ article. The Telegraph is one of our respected newspapers and he is a regular contributor, so not good that facts were not checked. Your question is tricky as garden styles evolve in every country but it seems that its historic gardens that represent a style more than anything innovative and new. I would really love to be able to visit some of the gardens in America. One day!

    • I hope you get to visit some American gardens soon! There are historic styles identified with different countries, but as you say they are associated with a specific period of history. Also, in the US garden styles have varied greatly from region to region since the beginning.

    • Julie I did not see the article. I hope they do do the bridge as it will be a lovely addition to London. As to the cost well that is a debate for another place., Great book review. With all the garden books out there I do not think I will bother with this one.

  6. I probably would have skipped the introduction as I tend to focus on the photographs in gardening books and skim the text. But I agree–how can one generalize about what is an American garden? I see so many different styles even within our small community that I couldn’t begin to define one specific style, unless it is that our gardens our individualized. I never thought about the Lurie Garden–one of my favorites–being designed by a Dutch designer; that’s rather ironic, isn’t it?

  7. Sounds like you had an interesting read. I’ve never seen two gardens that look or feel alike, and I like it that way. I’d say an American garden is based upon the individual tending it, and I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to label it. I can certainly look at some of our British blogging friends garden tours, admire their beautifully trimmed boxwoods, and label those gardens English but that’s where my labeling ends. 🙂

  8. An Englishman is defining American gardens? Give me a break! If anyone were to visually define an American garden it would be three meatball shaped shrubs alongside a few cubed evergreens, a pot of petunias, and a square of chemically addicted turf. That’s what I’ve seen the most in all the places I’ve lived. As for Americans who garden, if we are to be defined at all, it would be as individuals who are more committed to doing whatever works for us as opposed to feeling like we had to meet a national standard or replicate what had come before.

  9. Thank you for a very interesting review, Jason. To see the book with your eyes as an American reveals a whole new aspect. When I think of American gardens I think of Ogden-Springer, diSabato-Aust, Oehme and van Sweden and the planting you favour in your garden but is it really possible to say “the American/French/German garden is such and such”? I don’t think so especially as we’re under all sorts of influences and gardens are a result of these and our own personalities…at least that’s how it should be but there are still a lot that just copy and never find their own style.

      • This is way late, but the reference is to Lauren Springer Ogden, who wrote The Undaunted Gardener in the early 1990s about her Colorado garden, one of Timber Press’ most successful and influential books. More recently, she wrote (with her second husband, bulb expert Scott Ogden) The Plant-Driven Garden (or ‘Plant-Centered’? something like that).

        ‘Undaunted’ popularized growing in the “hellstrip” for urban gardeners (ground along the curb between the street and the sidewalk), and the author is a proponent of the jam-packed style generally, with an emphasis on regionally adapted plants. The Ogdens embrace plantaholism, and teach useful lessons in how to make plant collectors’ gardens more cohesive.

  10. Jason–I’ve recently ordered this book, so haven’t seen it yet but I think Tim is a good writer with a great deal of historical and practical knowledge and, by and large, I believe the gardens he has chosen to feature are, indeed, the best gardens of America. In Europe, it’s fairly easy to trace the progression of gardens, from Persia to Italy to France to the Netherlands, then, one after the next, strong French and Dutch influences crossing the channel to Britain, with each country’s essential style determined by how gardens changed from one culture to the next. It’s not so simple here, in America, where all these cultures influenced ours. Plus, our size and wide open spaces still make us fundamentally an agrarian country rather than a gardening one, don’t you think? (England is roughly the size of the state of Georgia.) When I get the book, I will be interested to see if I can relate any of the characteristics Tim describes (embrace of the wilderness, living with nature, etc.) to the gardens he features in the following pages, especially in relationship to the cultures they imitate. In my own mind, I think American gardens exhibit more freedom to experiment and embrace individual ideas. Americans, however, are not the driving force of garden style. In some measure at least, Tim does us credit to glance our way on that topic.

    • My sense is that in this introduction Richardson gave in to the temptation to pontificate without really doing his homework. I can believe he knows a great deal about gardens generally, but I would say he doesn’t know enough about American history – including American garden history – to put forward the argument he espouses. At one point he talks about how the origin of the American obsession with lawns derives from the fact that the pioneers had meadows growing right up to their doors! This betrays a lack of familiarity with both lawns and farmyards as they have evolved in this country. The whole thing is unfortunate, because as I say the rest of the book is very worthwhile, but I found the introduction to be highly irritating.

    • Having just got back from the States and read three books by US horticulturists in the last couple of weeks, I decided to google some more. I missed this post when you published it but was really pleased to find it. It’s especially relevant for a English person, like me, about to post about American gardens! And having lived in Australia I’m fascinated by how our cultures–and gardens–have evolved in different ways. I thought your comment was particularly pertinent, Marian, and loved the reading your thoughts, Jason. I might put a quote or two in my post, if that’s OK! Thanks for a fascinating debate.

  11. It’s interesting you ask that question. I see many questions posed by the media (typically) that are, IMHO, silly. “The 10 Best”-whatevers, “Which x is Best?”. It’s usually a judgement call, based on personal opinion (so, therefore, a waste of time to argue). Even if it’s based on a poll (people’s preference), that just means it’s more popular among those people polled, not “better.” I expect these questions are posed to spark a reaction, but for me (science-y person) it makes me NOT click on the link. I prefer clear, honest descriptions that teach you something tangible about it, and if you care to color it with your personal opinion, feel free! I do it all the time. As long as it’s clear that’s what it is. In short (too late!), I appreciate your skepticism. =)

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I always want to write posts about the “Top Ten Joe Pye Weeds for Potpourri” or something like that, but it doesn’t come naturally. Perhaps I am just not an enthusiastic enough type of person. I’m going to work on it, though.

  12. With such tremendously varied topography, climate, soil and influences, I would think it’s night on impossible to define an all-encapsulating definition for an “American” garden. I would say it’s far easier to recognise English, French and Italian styles as they have their own signature features and evoke very different “atmospheres”.

  13. I recently read an essay that had so many big ideas it left me a bit gob smacked. “The Land Aesthetic” by Baird Callicott. It can be found in Companion to A Sand County Almanac. One of the main things that really captured me was that Western civilization has such a -very- short history of pleasure gardening or even appreciating the beauty of a place. So in places like America or Canada, we are only beginning.

    If I were to name an exemplar or prototype of American gardening I would have to go with Central Park in New York or any of the similar urban parks such as Stanley Park in Vancouver. They are interactive, built to last and meant for ordinary people to enjoy some green respite right in the middle of urban environments. The stars are the trees. They are supported by shrubs. Usually (though not always) the herbs are tough perennials. Paths, fountains and play spaces are incoporated into the design to put people into the space allowing them to be more than consumers or passive museum viewers. Those design principles are still widely used — pretty much every city has their own version of public green spaces.

  14. I enjoyed your review of this book and although I haven’t read it I would agree that it MUST be impossible to say there is an American style; the climate is so different from State to State for one thing. If I were to try to think of American style I suppose I would say open to new trends, such as The High Line and the gardens in your own city which seems to me to be exemplary. Gardening for pleasure is only practised by societies that have reached a certain point in civilization, have enough money, time and feel secure enough to create a garden so I would say that the US should be leading the way at the moment. An Italian garden in people’s mind is in fact a Renaissance garden so we’re talking 500 years ago, there isn’t a modern Italian style, there should be but there isn’t. I’m coming to the States later this year and hope to visit some gardens I’ll be looking for some advice.

    • I do have a vague idea of what an Italian Renaissance garden is supposed to look like, but now I don’t feel ignorant for not knowing of any more modern garden styles in Italy. I wonder if there is much regional variation there – how different does a garden in Milan look from one in Palermo? There is some divergence of climate, though not as extreme as found here. From what you have written I gather that Italians are most interested in growing food. Are most ornamental gardens in public parks and great estates?

  15. I certainly don’ t know what makes an American garden American. And I think as an English woman, it would be very impertinent of me to attempt to do so. I don’ t know how much Tim Richardson knows about American gardens but he has written a book about The English New Garden and this is actually very good. I can recommend it.

  16. I agree, a garden is all about it’s geographic location, no matter what sun is required for some plants, and others have to be frozen, so weather dictates what is grown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any two gardens that are the same……each is unique whatever the country. An interesting post!xxx

  17. Did they move Canada when I wasn’t watching? It is still in North AMERICA, right? I know a number of Canadian friends who will not just quibble that they are American, but would go toe to toe with you. Living in the U.S. doesn’t give us exclusive rights to be called American.

  18. People talk about a Pacific Northwest Style, and I can see a certain logic to that because our climate favors certain plants and precludes others. I know many who garden here who push those zonal limits. As sprawling as the Americas are, pinning a style on the whole seems ludicrous to me.

  19. There are two continents which qualify as the Americas, so actually sticking to the US and Canada leaves out more than it includes…
    But anyway; I’m sure some of the historical gardens of North America really put a local touch onto their version, but today I think it’s hard to not be influenced by global styles. Still I wonder how the author would feel about generalizations about the great gardens of Europe.
    I love looking at the history of gardens, and when they’re built few embrace the wilderness, there’s more bulldozing, tree cutting, and grading involved than most naturalists would like.

  20. To be honest I think it is even hard to describe an english garden these days and we don’t have the range of climates and overseas influences you have in the US. You only have to read a small selection of US gardening blogs to know the diversity that is out there. I wonder if Tim actually visited the gardens or whether it is one of those books where the author has done most of the research on a PC!
    As for harping on about the introduction I think you are completely justified as it sets the tone of the book and needs to be right.

    • My impression from reading the book is that he did visit the gardens, though I don’t think he explicitly says so. In several instances he has quotes from the owners or designers. Thank you for validating my focus on the introduction. It kind of got under my skin.

  21. Very interesting post and I agree entirely with you. From what you say of it, I would think the introduction has more to do with the European notion of what North American gardens should be like than what they are like. As pointed out, the continent is far too large to have a specific style. We do have some gardens though that merge seamlessly with the natural environment, something I have never seen in Europe.

  22. The one characteristic that defines Americans is our diversity, with ethnicities from all over the world coming together to contribute to our American heritage. The same is true of our gardens; there is no one style. Just as our land and peoples are diverse, so are our gardens. But all are American!

    Nevertheless, this does look like a pleasing book.

  23. Oh my gosh, your post really has my garden brain percolating . I understand completely what you are pointing out about the introduction. Since he is British and has written more about British gardens, one might excuse him for not really understanding the American garden, however if you are going to produce a big gorgeous garden book, you need to get it right. One might fault his editors more than him for not understanding the American garden. He may have his own opinion, but a good editor might have found fault or pointed out the American point of view. I imagine that British readers have similar criticisms when American writers try to encompass the British garden with sweeping generalities. In my humble opinion, I think it might be more accurate to describe THE BRITISH GARDEN, where you can see the trends in landscape design and garden styles over a very long history. America does not have its own long garden tradition in the same way, and borrows on design from Europe, Japan, Asia and so many other influences. I think it can be said that as time goes on, trends can start to be traced as we are developing a garden tradition of our own. I think a fascinating book would be to observe back yard gardens over the century because that is where the major design ideas filtrate. I am in need of coffee, but your post has definitely wakened some garden thoughts this morning!

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