For the first style in our series, we will start with a garden look that is seen almost everywhere in the country, but perhaps especially in the east. Houses that are now around 100 years old, and even those built in the early years after Word War II, have a distinctive traditional look. The often feature gable roofs, porches, and construction in brick or timber. The gardens around them have a distinctive look – timeless to some, perhaps ‘old fashioned’ to others. Their inspiration was Europe, especially the grand gardens of England, a taste developed when travels in Europe were part of growing up for the wealthy – and remember it is almost always the wealthy who set the style of what is attractive at any time – why else our current obsession with celebrities’ homes, clothes and meal choices?
If you own an older house – certainly one from the Arts & Crafts period, or even later – then a Classic American Garden is probably the style you will want to emulate if you don’t want a disjoint between your house and garden. Of course it can be modernized, and older plants replaced with easier modern ones, but staying true to the overall character will give you an elegant and appropriate garden that adds curb appeal and value to your home. All of us sooner or later sell our houses, and an attractive and appropriate garden is the first thing a potential buyer sees – and hopefully falls in love with.
We might trace the interest in gardens in America in these times to 1841, when Andrew Jackson Downing published “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America.” He was the first to speak of the “American Dream” that with the growth of cities had gone beyond the desire for a farm, to a city home, ‘an attachment to a certain spot, and a desire to render that place attractive’. This motivation is still with us today.
Let’s take a look at the components of Classic American Garden, and how they could be used today in your own garden:
The great 20th century garden designer Russell Page had something to say about straight lines and curved lines. He says we should ‘project’ the straight lines of architecture our into the area surrounding the house, and as we move further away we can introduce the curved lines of nature. In the original Classic American Garden straight lines projected right to the very edges of the property, but today we can capture that look by using them immediately around the house, and then adding more modern curves in the main garden areas – keeping the feel of the Classic Garden but reducing the work and updating the look.
The path to the front door should be straight, but it doesn’t have to be that boring straight line from street to door. Bring it in from the driveway and then turn it in closer to the house, perhaps making a T-junction so that it also continues out into the garden a short way. Make the front edge of the bed around your foundation planting parallel to the walls, perhaps copying the ins and outs of bay windows or rooms that protrude forwards. Or make extensions of those beds outwards, lined up with the width of important windows. You can capture that Classic feel easily with just a few right angles and square corners.
For many gardeners – usually older men, to be honest – those trimmers in the garage are the most important garden tool. Keeping those hedges neat and organized, and the bushes all looking round is ‘what gardening is about’. Now you may not want to spend your time trimming – and these days we like to discourage too much trimming – but in the Classic American Garden style you do need some of it. The grandest gardens were surrounded with tall, immaculate hedges, and the beds circled with short clipped ones, usually in boxwood. So to capture something of this style, we need to do the same. Fortunately today we have a host of hedging plants that are faster-growing, more compact and needing less attention to look good.
It’s unlikely you want miles of trimmed hedges, so consider where it would be most appropriate to plant a nod towards this look. Close to the house would almost certainly be best – perhaps on either side of the path to the front door? A larger clipped hedge could give privacy from the street, while your side plantings could be informal screening with natural shrubs.
For those small hedges the classic (and still popular) choice is boxwood, but that plant doesn’t do well in hot and humid areas – and suffers pests almost everywhere. If you want an alternative, take a look at the compact, small-leaf Japanese hollies. These don’t have spines, they are low and bushy, and their leaves are small and very boxwood-like. Even in Europe they are taking over for boxwood hedges – you would be smart to do the same.
Vistas & Focal Points
After those trips to Europe, our great-grandparents knew all about the classical use of vistas and long views towards interesting features. Many famous English gardens, like Hidcote Manor, created by the American expat Lawrence Johnston, are in the Arts & Crafts tradition, like many American homes. They use long straight views, often intersecting, and defined by paths, long strips of lawn, or parallel beds. Try looking at your own garden in the same way. At the end of long views you can plant a simple clipped bush, a rose tree, or a potted shrub. Where they meet create circles or squares with anything from a sundial to an urn of flowers at the center. These nods to the Classic Garden will do wonders to integrate your garden and home.
Trimmed Plants & Topiary
Simple round bushes, cones, pyramids and columns are terrific focal objects for vistas. These can be created out of boxwood, yew, Japanese holly, other hollies, cedar or cypress. Keep them simple, and use them singly as focal points or in pairs to frame doorways or gates, or at the corners of paved areas. Just a few – they don’t take all that much upkeep – will really give the right feel to this kind of garden.
Pots & Boxes
Something else our grand-parents brought back from their European adventures were urns and pots in classic styles. Early ones were very ornate and ‘French’, even with cherubs and lion’s heads. In the Arts & Crafts period they became very simple and even rustic. Plain terracotta pots or a Greek-style urn perhaps. Something like this, or a square wooden box, is perfect for a classic feel. You don’t need many – even one will often do the trick – but go big, you want something that makes a statement. Place it in a prominent place, or use a pair for balance. It doesn’t matter if it is already chipped or a little broken – that can even be better for a classic look.
Look at Pictures
Finally, spend time looking at pictures of original gardens. Get beyond, ‘Wow!’ and try to see what has been done to make the Classic American Garden look – and do it in your own garden – it’s not as difficult as you might think.