The English tradition has been very influential in the way we design and garden in the South. The English know how to garden!
However, the earliest of our gardens in America were borrowed from the “old style” and grid pattern. This influence developed from Egyptian, Roman, Islamic, Spanish and Italian roots and later became widely known as the “French” landscape style. They were formally arranged with a walking system defining the grid. The open spaces were the garden plots. The main promenade was right in front of the main entrance. This central aisle was generally wider than the central hall while physically and visually extending the house into the garden.
Examples of this type of garden can be seen at Bacon Castle near Surrey, Virginia, and in Rachel’s Garden at The Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee. Yet these are examples of gardens for people with means. Ordinary citizens had simpler gardens, usually in a rectangular space with walkways and raised beds in between. These gardens were not as likely to be integrated into the house. A good example is the Tully Smith House at the Atlanta History Center in Georgia.
This type of garden changed dramatically in the early 18th century in England when the “natural style” of gardens became popular. These gardens were created with the natural topography in mind with walks tending to follow the curves and contours of the land. The streams were dammed to form “natural” looking lakes and the straight lines of the old gardens were replaced. This style was made popular by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in England and heavily influenced the layout of Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. George Washington’s Mount Vernon ultimately reflected this same style. The William Paca Garden in Annapolis, Maryland is a good example of an “old style” and naturalistic movement apparent in the same garden.
The first book to embrace this type of “English” garden was “The American Gardener’s Calendar” by Bernard M’Mahon. Andrew Jackson Downing later published “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” the entire book being devoted to the natural style. Jackson included numerous plant lists to support this quaint style of gardening. Many garden authorities credit Jackson for our modern garden designs which include a largely public front space with a more private rear garden and utility spaces. This same concept of naturalistic groupings of trees and shrubs and roads and paths that followed the contours of a site was used to design and develop many cemeteries. These were often used as parks for Sunday outings where families enjoyed visiting the graves of loved ones.
Frederick Lawn Olmsted was inspired by this movement and developed neighborhoods such as Central Park in New York City. The naturalistic style of gardening was popularized by Gertrude Jekyll. Through her books and garden designs, she has inspired a whole generation of gardeners with her manipulation and use of color in the garden. Its combination of heights, textures, colors and repetitions communicated a strong design message. The gardens of Reynolda House, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are a prime example of Gertrude Jekyll’s style.
Many of today’s suburban landscapes, perennial borders, public parks and eclectic cottage gardens owe much of their origins to this influence of English design.
Greg Grant is the Smith County Horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is the author of “Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening”, “Heirloom Gardening in the South” and “The Rose Rustlers”. You can read his blog “Greg’s Ramblings” on arborgate.com, his “In Greg’s Garden” in every issue of Texas Gardener magazine (tex asgardener.com) or follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens”. More information on science-based lawns and gardening from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is available at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-hor ticulture.tamu.edu.