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Gardens of the World: A Great American Tradition

An American Landscape Perspective

Over the past couple of months, we explored the Gardens of the World. Our explorations together took us through time starting with the Egyptian gardens along the Nile River to Greece, Rome, Persia, Asia, and Europe’s Medieval and Renaissance Gardens. The previous article discussed William Kent and Capability Brown’s ability to break the gardening mold and begin new, yet highly influential gardening styles. Lastly, and for our final article, let us explore some of the important gardening and landscape design influences in American landscapes, a great American landscaping tradition.

Admittedly, there are too many influential gardens and people to discuss that can easily fit into a single article, so we’ll focus on the beginning…

A Presidential Precedence

Gardening and landscape design existed in the Americas for a very long time. European influences arrived then arrived with the earliest settlers. As we explore gardens explicitly throughout United States history, we can see influences from all over the world. One designer Thomas Jefferson, yes, THE Thomas Jefferson, was a landscape designing hobbyist. His landscape designs included Monticello, Poplar Forest, and the University of Virginia. These three designs reflect strong Greek and Roman influences throughout the architecture and landscape design.

Monticello

Monticello, or Thomas Jefferson’s home, in Virginia was the president’s primary residence. Jefferson was described as a polymath whose interests involved architecture and gardening. The neoclassical home and surrounding gardens were all designed by Jefferson. Surrounding the main home, Jefferson planned a robust garden that included flowers, vegetables, and fruits. The property transferred ownership but became a museum in the early 20th Century. Since 1987, Monticello has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Aerial imagery of Monticello showing home and gardens

The home at Monticello (Italian for “Little Mountain” sits upon a hill with terracing and sloping gardens. Image from National Parks System

Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest, had similar design techniques as Monticello. Although slightly different than Monticello, Poplar Forest’s radial design was encompassed by a promenade of Poplar Trees. Archeological evidence showed at one time there were rotating ornamental landscape beds, but a complete ornamental plan for the property evades historians. Only archeological evidence and written letters give clues of its design.

Artist rendering of Poplar Forest

Not much is known about the original landscape and gardens of Poplar Forest, but the artist’s rendering of the property shows a rough idea of the gardens around the residence.

University of Virginia

Not many people know, but Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia’s original campus. Jefferson believed ignorance was an enemy to freedom, so believed in creating a University institute for Virginia. In 1818, Jefferson finally achieved his goal when Virginia’s legislature approved the creation of a state university. The university was built upon a ridge that gradually sloped downwards, with the most prominent building, the Rotunda, at the terminal end of the plan. A group of pavilions outlined a prominent lawn space. Behind each pavilion were additional garden space and housing.

Drawing/sketch of University of Virginia's original campus.

University of Virginia’s main lawn was surrounded by pavilions with a prominent Rotunda at its terminus. The neoclassical design was favorited by Jefferson.

Plan view of University of Virginia

This plan view of the University of Virginia shows the locations of the rotunda, pavilions, gardens, and housing. This was a very formalized design, following the Neoclassical design of the time, which was reminiscent of Greek and Roman architecture.

The Rise of American Public Parks

A key contributor to landscape design in the United States is Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing is one of the earliest, most notable designers of American landscapes and gardens. He believed gardens should be accessible to everyone, regardless of class, and should cleanse the souls of the visitors. He viewed gardens and landscapes as integral components of public health. His landscape firm hired another designer, Calvert Vaux. Together they designed Washington DC’s National Mall and began creating the foundations for the US’ most prominent park, Central Park.

Downing and Vaux argued for the importance of public parks and gardens. They ultimately convinced New York City to obtain 778 acres in 1853 for the creation of Central Park. Unfortunately, shortly before New York City’s acquisition of property, Downing died in a steamboat accident. Vaux then teamed up with Fredrick Law Olmsted in 1857, who, at the time, was the superintendent of the property to help begin preparations for construction. Vaux and Olmsted designed Central Park together.

Olmsted, recognized as a hard-worker, had no formal training in landscape design or architecture. After completing their design together, Olmsted served the Union during the Civil War and explored westward. Vaux urged Olmsted to return and they started the Olmsted, Vaux, and Co. landscape design firm. The formal union led to the creation of other American garden and landscape masterpieces, such as Prospect Park, the park systems in Brooklyn and Buffalo, and America’s first planned community, Chicago’s Riverside.

Central Park & Prospect Park

Central Park and Prospect Parks are quintessential parks of Olmsted and Vaux. In New York City’s Manhattan, Central Park became America’s most prominent park and created a movement for public park design throughout the United States, especially during a time when public health was in decline within urban areas. Park access to residents became an essential element to improving public health.  Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, was built over a thirty-year period (1865-1895). Similar to many of Capability Brown’s work, both Central and Prospect Parks recreated natural landscapes by introducing wetlands, ponds, streams, and forested areas that evoked exploration. As result, both Central and Prospect Parks are two of the most visited parks in the world.

Chicago’s Riverside

Riverside became one of the first planned communities in the nation. Vaux and Olmsted desired to create a 1600-acre community devoid of right-angles, increased access to green spaces, and flood-plain preservation. Olmsted’s roadway planning for the community followed the natural grade of the land, which minimized disturbance of the land. Lastly, a major tenant of the design which exists in many planned unit developments to this day is the transition between public and private. Olmsted viewed spaces between streets and houses as private spaces that served as a transitional. In essence, this cemented the idea of a “Frontyard” within the United State’s landscape vernacular.

Plan of Riverside

The plan of Riverside shows the meandering roadways and strong connection to green spaces (pocket parks) and preservation of the floodplain that doubled as a public amenity.

Father of American Landscape Architecture

After Olmsted and Vaus dissolved their partnership, Olmsted continued designing, Many of his projects included the Biltmore Estate ground; Cherokee Park in Louisville, KY; and Franklin Park in Boston, MA. He also designed many universities, including Yale, Cornell, American University, and Stanford. Nonetheless, his reputation grew and Olmsted is now considered the founder of American Landscape Architecture.

Many of Olmsted’s designs reflected the balance of nature and the urban environment. His influences derived from Downing and other European gardens, but his designs created a template for many landscape designs throughout American History. As time progressed landscape styles and designs varied. Other notable landscape designers, such as Jens Jensen, Dan Kiley, Martha Schwartz, and Lawrence Halprin left their marks on different gardens and landscapes in the United States.

Franklin Park
Plan of Franklin Park

Franklin Park consisted of large meadows, wooded areas, and large promenades for active recreation. The park has evolved greatly since the 1890s, but the park has adapted to meet the needs of Bostonians.

Olmsted designed Boston’s Central Park, or Franklin Park, in 1885. As part of the city’s park plan, Olmsted designed the 500+ acre park on the south side of Boston. Divided into two sections, Country Park and Ante Park had similar design characteristics to Central Park. Country Park brought natural elements into the urban setting through passive recreation, by including forested areas, streams, creeks, rock outcroppings, and meadows. Despite the need for passive recreation, Ante Park served as the active recreation portion of Franklin Park. The park has evolved since its development, but still contains many of the design characteristics originally planned by Olmsted.

Cherokee Park

Cherokee Park in Louisville, Kentucky, brought nature into the city. Gently rolling hills create opportunities for different vistas across the landscape and onto Beargrass Creek. The highly forested park has open meadows for activity spread throughout the area, but the park is known for its meandering scenic trail that bisects the park.

Image characteristic of Capability Browns designs

Cherokee Park is known for its rolling hills. It is very similar to Capability Brown’s designs, which even include architectural follies throughout the design to evoke exploration.

Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate’s property is considered Olmsted’s crowning jewel of design. His final project in his career, Olmsted took a seemingly poor landscape and forested hillside into one of the east coast’s most notable properties. Commissioned by the Vanderbilts, Olmsted worked on the project until 1898 where he passed the final stages of the project to his son. Olmsted designed every detail of the 120,000-acre property. The Vanderbilts desired a vastly different landscape, but Olmsted convinced the Vanderbilts to keep the property mostly managed forests. Nonetheless, this decision led to the inclusion of two foresters, Gifford Pincho and Carl Scheck – the two men who earned helped earn the Carolina’s the title “Cradle of American Forestry”.

Biltmore's formalized gardens

Olmsted, although different from his traditional designs, still had a highly formalized component to the Biltmore Estate’s gardens. This knot-garden takes influence from Italian and French Renaissance gardens.

Biltmore in context to its forested surroundings.

Vanderbilts built the Biltmore in a managed forest. Maintaining the vast property’s forested lands led to the birth of American forestry and led to the creation of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

Series Conclusion

At the conclusion of the Gardens of the Worlds series, it is important to note that gardening styles and traditions have changed throughout time. Nonetheless, no matter where you look in gardening history, landscape and garden design played a significant role in creating livable spaces the reflected culture, and a mainstay of each style was the use of plants to help create those spaces.

If you have any questions about maintaining about selecting plants or maintain your own garden, please reach out to UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County’s Office. You may contact our Master Gardener Volunteer Help Desk at mag@alachuacounty.us. In the meantime, we’re all in this thing together and as always, I’m rooting for you.

Gardens of the World Series, Additional Articles

A Beginning Along a River

Expanding Empires

A Period of Darkness

Renaissance Gardens

Chinese & Japanese Gardens

A Capable Garden

A Great American Tradition

Interested in more gardening-related blogs or following Alachua County’s MGVs on Social Media? Check out the additional links from Dr. Clem.

Taylor’s Blog Homepage

Alachua County Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program Page

UF/IFAS Alachua County Extension Master Gardeners, Facebook Page

UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County YouTube Page

Podcast: Extension Cord

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