From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds

“It is a curious phenomenon, however, that home grounds have been popularly linked in the public mind to horticulture and gardening because, when one looks closely, this association does not bear out.”

America’s gardening style of nationally prevalent sweeping lawns, foundation plantings, low maintenance plants, patios, and prominent garages often seem like the furnishings of an outdoor room rather than a garden. In his fascinating book, landscape architect Christopher Grampp discusses the evolution of the American yard and garden from a strictly utilitarian place to an outdoor room, best understood in terms of habitability, whose criteria of success is: “was this a place where people would want to spend time?” Grampp, with wit and perception describes the social, economic, and media influences that shaped the American yard and garden from the nineteenth century to the present.

Illuminating anecdotes are found throughout the book; for example, the front picket fence, which we hold as a prerequisite for a nostalgic domestic garden, was originally designed to deter voracious pigs that ran loose on public streets. Such anecdotes are interesting in themselves, but also enlightening in their aftermath; fences, for instance, disintegrated after it became illegal for animals to roam, leading to a backlash against fences and then to a promotion of the sweeping, park-like, front lawns—an aesthetic ideal we hold onto today. Numerous black and white archival images and many citations from authors and magazines make the content of Grampp’s theme come vividly alive. The quality of the printing and binding is of the highest caliber.

Grampp traces the evolution of the yard from its rural origins as a place of utility to its urban manifestation in the industrial era, when few public services existed and the yard sequestered the unmentionables of life. He describes how electric trolley lines helped relieve terrible population density, generating street-car suburbs and the emergence of the single-family home—“one that promised comfort, spaciousness, greenery, and a healthier life,” and that forms the perceived standard for us today. That was in the 1880s, when the City Beautiful movement took root along with improved city services.

Landscape architects discouraged fences and encouraged park-like settings in front yards, with lawns backed by foundation plantings to cover the unsightly flanks of houses. These ideals were taken further for the busy middle class; influential landscape architects, such as Frank Jessup Scott, promoted the concept of the backyard as an arrangement of efficient spaces for the family. Wild nature and rural life were out; control of nature was in. Scott warned, “A dense forest around a home suggests the rudeness of pioneer life, not the refinement of culture.”

In the mid-twentieth century, automobile traffic sent people from front porches into the quiet of the backyard. The focus on the family in the years following World War II resulted in an expansion of suburbia and a de-emphasis on labor-intensive gardens; spaces became outdoor rooms for family activities. The calming effect of a controlled nature was highly desired, with minimal manual labor invested in its upkeep. Modern technology, both chemical and mechanical, was called into service to keep the outdoor room well behaved, albeit at significant cost to the environment and the pocketbook. Apart from the devotion to the perfectly maintained lawn, hardscape and design were emphasized over plants.

Grampp devotes about one quarter of the book to a discussion of California gardens, showing how a benevolent climate, a broad diversity of plants, and a dense population can generate a more individual gardening style and the fullest expression of the outdoor room. Lawns still abound there, however, particularly by those relocating from moister climates who, by tradition, hold that aesthetic as an ideal. Grampp reminds us that we should develop our gardens appropriately for our regional climates, and not take intensive irrigation for granted.

Though Grampp focuses on the garden as an outdoor room, seen in terms of habitability, I consider the most important point he makes is how far removed from both nature and horticulture our gardens and our sensibilities have become. He says,

Most of all, I learned that basic habitability was far more important to people than was the pursuit of gardening….where day-to-day needs of people took precedence over plants, where gardening was more related to household management activities than a love of horticulture, and [where] homes and their grounds…played an important role in community identity.

Grampp’s book reveals how our busy work schedules and our joy in embracing modern conveniences have resulted in a gardening style that looks inward toward the private space of the garden, rather than out to the surrounding community; consequently, our gardens often have a high impact on our environment, by virtue of their ambivalence toward it.

The City Beautification movement was a powerful civic improvement campaign that “embodied a belief that urban problems might disappear if citizens could only make their cities more attractive”—an idea that was promoted by influential college professors, landscape architects, garden clubs, and the media. Could not we and the environment benefit, today, from a similarly widespread movement that promoted the concept of regional gardening, wherein appropriate plants for site, soil, and climate were grown—a movement that could emphasize designs and styles that make the mower, trimmer, hedger, blower, and garden chemicals virtually obsolete? There are lessons like that for us all in this well presented and thoroughly researched book.

Kate Frey, horticulturist
Ukiah, California