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Is there such as thing as an American garden?

“[T]o me the idea of American gardens remains undefined. The extremes of garden design, and what is possible to grow there, is fascinating to English eyes conditioned by roses.”

— Mirabel Osler, “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” 1989

Mirabel Osler dedicates several pages of her book to ruminations about American gardens. She admits that she knows very little about them, and she laments the lack of books about American gardens available in England.

But she imagines what it must be like to live, and garden, on a landmass that is 40 times larger than the United Kingdom (11 states in the U.S. are larger than the whole island of England), and where the average number of people per square mile is 10 times fewer.

No wonder Osler writes, “Enviable Americans, with frozen wastes and sweltering forests; with rivers like arteries passing through state after state.”

She is particularly fascinated by the “bizarre tradition” of the American front yard, plot after plot of tidy green lawns with no boundaries between the properties. Osler remarks, “Where we have walls, fences or hedges defining our territorial frontiers, in small American towns they appear to have nothing.”

She marvels (in her thoughts) how the green swaths of grass connecting one house to the next must elicit a restful, congenial neighborhood atmosphere.

It’s true that when I was growing up in a suburban, central Florida neighborhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we had a front yard like Osler describes, although my dad eventually planted a fig tree and a palm tree in the middle of the yard that partially blocked the street. However, the U.S. population has increased by 100 million people since Osler wrote her book in the 1980s. Nowadays, American neighbors often don’t know each other, and front yard privacy hedges are more common.

I’m not sure Mirabel Osler ever had a chance to visit American gardens before she died in 2016, but the question has persisted for decades in England and elsewhere, including in the U.S.: “Is there such a thing as an American garden?”

I think Osler would have been delighted to know that England’s garden ambassador — gardener, writer and television host Monty Don — set off to the U.S. in 2019 to find out the answer to that nagging question. His three-part series “Monty Don’s American Gardens” began airing on BBC2 in the UK in January 2020, and currently can be streamed at https://hdclump.com/category/monty-dons-american-gardens/.

I recently watched the second episode in which Don visits several gardens in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. I wonder why Americans don’t have our own garden ambassador who could have greeted Monty Don as a fellow horticultural dignitary and showed him around? Certainly that would have prevented one of the garden owners in New Orleans asking Don during his visit, “Do you have a garden?” (Don politely responded, “Yes, I do.”).

I was especially eager to watch the Southern episode because I lived and gardened in Florida and Louisiana for more than 30 years. I was interested to hear Don’s more unfettered assessment of some of America’s southernmost gardens for his primarily English audience.

Interestingly, Don visited some of the gardens that Osler mentions in her book, including the Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s almost as if Don wanted to finally lay to rest Osler’s self-described vexation about American gardens.

Don began his tour of Southern gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, and gardens located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Monticello is one of the most historically important gardens in the country, not only because Jefferson experimented with growing hundreds of different varieties of vegetables, berries and fruits, but because the estate and 1,000-foot-long stretch of garden beds were built and tended by 400 enslaved people.

Don noted, “The contradictions between Jefferson’s wisdom and humanity as a statesman, the horticultural importance of the garden, and its history of slavery remain uncomfortable, unresolved. This visit makes me realize that the legacy of slavery is still present in many parts of America.”

Don also found that legacy at Middleton Place, home of another of America’s founding fathers, Henry Middleton, who owned 800 people to care for his 60,000-acre estate. Don marveled at Middleton’s English garden, transformed into an American garden by its spectacular views of the Ashley River, huge oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and an alligator lolling in the sunshine on the grassy terrace.

At Magnolia Plantation, the first American garden to be open to the public, Don discovered informal plantings reminiscent of the Romantic period during the 19th century. Here, rather than trying to control nature, the gardeners embraced it. The garden is “designed to inspire an emotional rather than an intellectual response,” Don said.

Before leaving Magnolia Plantation and its magnificent magnolia and oak trees, Don remarked, “I don’t think I’ve seen trees as beautiful as these anywhere in the world.” That’s an impressive statement coming from someone who has traveled as extensively as Monty Don.

Throughout Don’s tour of Southern gardens, he observed that although the gardens are often inspired by European design trends, they become uniquely American by the climate and history of each place. This was certainly evident when he visited the Charles Deering Estate near Miami, Florida, which features 12 acres of gardens in Italian Renaissance style that were built over swampland.

“The gardens here are premier examples of what unlimited wealth and unlimited optimism can do,” Don said.

Of course, there are less pretentious gardens Don might have visited to gain a more balanced perspective of American gardens in each region he visited. I wish he had visited gardens like the Black Sanctuary Garden at the Alena Museum in Oakland, California, designed to provide physical/spiritual sanctuary and sustenance for Black people. He might have visited Soul Fire Farm in New York, an Afro-Indigenous community farm with the mission of “uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.”

But I think Don got it right with his summation that American gardens are based on our abundance of land and natural resources, along with what he called a “pioneering spirit” that sparks our enthusiasm but also fuels a tendency to conquer nature rather than work alongside it.

Don concluded, “A unique feature of American gardens is they are, in a way, limitless. They can be a product of your unfettered imagination. You can create whatever you want.”

I can picture Mirabel Osler smiling at that.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.