Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

The American Garden

America's Romance with the English Garden
Thomas J. Mickey.
Ohio University Press. 2013. 272 pp.
ISBN 9780821420355.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! "The English style of garden," Thomas J. Mickey informs his reader, "began in its modern form after the reign of King Henry VIII, in the sixteenth century." It is difficult to understand to exactly what "its modern form" could refer. Certainly, the gardens of the time would have seemed monumental show-pieces to all but the wealthiest of Americans during any time in our history, and, as Mickey's America's Romance with the English Garden makes clear, more middle-class is more modern.

The advent of the lawn would seem all to the point. And lawns there were, in plenty, English civil society at long last stable enough (or so it seemed) for the nobility to live outside of walled castles on extensive plots of ground.

Prior to Henry, most gardens were within the walls of castles or monasteries. There were medicinal gardens, kitchen gardens and pleasure gardens. The pleasure gardens were the forerunners of the flower beds around our homes, or would have been if non-medicinal flowers had played more than a tiny role. They were more turfed orchards, actually, almost certainly featuring a central fountain or statue. Shrubs along the walls were generally used to soften the effect of being within an enclosure.

Some 70 or 80 years later, Shakespeare would have his characters discuss the overthrow of Richard II in gardening terms that bear on these matters:

Gardener.Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ'd, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.

Servant. Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disorder'd and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

There were no apricots in England in Richard's time (or in Henry's, for that matter) and many fewer flowers than Shakespeare's more expansive age allowed. The details of the playwright's garden—as all of his historical detail—belong to the world in which he himself moved. But, even then, most gardens remained in "pales," or enclosures, turfed, having only room for spreading allegory, little for lawn. The growing freeman class had only kitchen gardens, meant for neither pleasure nor protection, and such gardens have been "modern" since ancient times.

Once England built an insuperable navy, and was the preeminent commercial power in the world, late in the 17th century, the minor nobility and growing middle-class came out from behind the pale. Lawns became a necessity. They and the trees and flowers that ornamented them were adapted, as signs of wealth, from the old models of the grand nobility which could maintain estates on the outskirts of London, along the Thames, yes, but they were generally much smaller and surrounded houses rather than castles. Lawns and gardens began to be what they are today.

Sir William Temple, son of a prominent Irish barrister and special envoy for Charles II, was such an early English bourgeoisie. Advocate for a constitutional monarchy, for which history was not quite yet ready, he retired early from public life to tend his garden and his library, his two loves in life. Among the results was his book The Gardens of Epicurus, in which he provides the following description of the average garden of the late 17th century:

...our gardens are made of smaller compass, seldom exceeding four, six, or eight acres: enclosed with walls, and laid out in a manner wholly for advantage of fruits, flowers, and the product of kitchen gardens, in all sorts of herbs, salads, plants and legumes, for the common use of tables.

Minus the vestigial walls, these are the "English gardens" that the American colonists copied once they were possessed of the leisure time and the wealth. As American wealth and leisure extended to a larger portion of its population so did the number of its English gardens.

But this is not the history Mickey focuses on in his America's Romance with the English Garden. His brief introduction is meant to get the reader to the 19th century as quickly as possible—to cut to the chase. Prior to that, America was most notably a botanical Eden. The English contracted with the likes of John Bartram to catalogue the exotic flora of the New World, for them, and to send samples for their botanical gardens. There they were adapted to the English climate and dispersed to English gentlemen for their cherished gardens. The Americans were busy enough clearing the land of its flora and planting crops. It was in English gardens that American flowers were first cherished.

Among the first of many "featured plant" histories in Mickey's lushly illustrated America's Romance with the English Garden are the American mayapple and black-eyed susan, both wild native plants, he informs the reader, that were domesticated in England before finding their way back to America gardens during the 19th century.

Bartam set up near Philadelphia, America's most cultured city, and gathered his American plants there, as well. As Mickey quotes, from a late 19th century seed catalogue:

"The noise of the guns of the Revolution had hardly died away, when in 1784 the first seed establishment in America was founded at Philadelphia by David Landreth"

Philadelphia was the arboretum of the new Eden. Isolated efforts were made elsewhere in the colonies.

Early in the 19th century, America begins to pay more attention to its gardening. At least on its coast, where wealth could be made and packages of plants and seeds could be received. Journals could also be received and enterprising types realized early on that English journals did not precisely fit American gardening needs. Even tiny distances inland, however, were beyond inexpensive postage and shipping; livings inland were little more than subsistence.

America's Romance with the English Garden actually blooms in earnest in about 1832. It was in that year that the first steam powered train engine was successfully tested. In ten years, the express company began to appear, shipping mail and goods inland at thitherto unimaginable speed and affordable prices.

After seeing twenty years of growth in rail service, nurseryman C. M. Hovey said in his catalog in the 1850s, "Plants are now disseminated as rapidly over half the Union as they were in former years in the immediate vicinity of our large cities."

In the wake of inexpensive shipping, advances in light weight newsprint and color lithography led to an explosion of newspapers, magazines and catalogs. All served to make life in the expanding American hinterland more attractive. Catalog sales would fill the prairies with everything from Levy's jeans, balloon-frame house kits to flowers for the flower-bed once the kit was assembled. To pay for them, crops and cattle traveled back to the East.

Mickey's romance of the seed catalog is one small aspect of that explosion of markets and wealth. His numerous reproductions of their color covers and black and white interior prints illustrate the unfolding history of American gardening even more effectively than his informative text.

As America's Romance with the English Garden informs us, gardening magazines and seed catalogues began to proliferate after the Civil War. It was then that the railroads and the likes of the American Express Company reached Chicago and St. Louis. The light seed-packets that the Shakers had invented cost minute sums to ship from the growing number of seed companies.

In about 1870, the U. S. Postal service began to institute mobile post offices in customized railroad cars in order to further speed its service in a bid to take over the express business. Speeds increased still further as far as there were rail spurs. Postage became still less expensive. Still more inexpensive printed matter, advertising every imaginable product, seeds among them, went out to distant customers.

Being located along the earliest east-west transportation routes, along the Mohawk Valley, Rochester, New York, became the center of the American horticulture industry.

Lithographic businesses such as the Stecher Lithographic Company,... were kept busy most of the year with catalogs, advertising, and seed packets. By the late nineteenth century, more than two hundred Rochester printers, employed in eight printing and lithographic firms, devoted their time almost exclusively to horticulture.

With the passage of President Grover Cleveland's Civil Service Act, postal clerks were no longer appointed by local political machines. Instead they were hired based on their score on a civil service exam and advanced in their profession based upon their professional competence. As the result, the mail was even less expensive and delivery even faster.

The expansion of the postal service was helping to change the country in enormous ways. By 1890, the Ladies' Home Journal was the most popular advertising venue in the country. There, between ads for cook books, children's clothing, stave-less corsets, indoor water-closets, refrigerators and pianos, and popular female columnists who advised the housewife about them all, were a profusion of ads for seeds. The husband away from the house, participating in a rapidly expanding economy, the wife was now the modern manager of the modern home. It was she who made the purchasing decisions and her budget was also growing. The seed companies were very aware that their customers were almost entirely those managers, almost entirely women.

By the 1890s the American garden—though founded upon the English—had its own culture. Influences were traveling both ways across the Atlantic. Various regions had their own distinctive styles. The American gardener was now eagerly seeking out latest exotic varieties available from her or his annual catalog. As Mickey's featured plant histories inform us, the clematis made its way from Central Europe to become a common flower along American fence lines. The Crimson Rambler rose, imported into seed-men's test-gardens from Japan, was all the rage for decades, well into the 20th century.

Like Sir William Temple, Thomas J. Mickey clearly loves his garden and his library. Unlike Temple, the history of America's Romance with the English Garden is the history of the seed catalog and it is accompanied by a gratifying number of color illustrations and reproductions of 19th century black and white etchings from those catalogs. Those seed catalogs imply a great deal. More and more people had the time and money to garden. While the scale of the individual garden was much smaller, lawns and gardens were everywhere in the landscape. An expanding country and the technologies it demanded had created the American garden.


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