The Leib garden… really looked like a Kentucky farm, with California features. Among these were the fountains in the best classic style; high basins in which stood damsels, scantily draped, pouring from ewers a trickle of water. Wry white and very cold they looked till some bold spirit painted them green. The artistic effect was not helped; and they now cool their dark green heels in the brick house once devoted to choice vintages, but now a hospice for garden tools.
Vignettes of the Gardens of San Jose de Guadalupe,
San Francisco Garden Club, 1938
Like a fireworks display that releases secondary cascades of light, the soaring popularity of gardening during the last two decades has sparked showers of interest in related subjects. Among these ancillary interests, which often illuminate each other, is a glowing curiosity about the histories of gardens and plants, and about the people who initiated the landscapes we love today.
Sooner or later inquiring gardeners begin to wonder what kinds of gardens came before their own. They want to know how the landscapes of their regions appeared in the beginning and how they evolved. These gardeners become curious about how they happened to inherit the wealth of knowledge and plants that are available to them today in their own neighborhoods. Who planned this park, with its candy-sampler assortment of exotic specimens that are now so noble? Who made this neighborhood so attractive by planting these now mature trees a century ago? Who planted this uncommon specimen, and why can’t I find another like it in my nursery today?
Interest in the history of regional horticulture is not new. In California it is built upon foundations laid by documentarians such as E J Wickson and H M Butterfield, who recorded stories of the state’s early nurserymen and plant introductions. In southern California, the tales of early gardens, plant specialists, and nursery trades were set down in 1961 by Victoria Padilla in Southern California Gardens, recently reprinted. In the mid-1970s David Streatfield, then professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, rendered a broad-brush portrait of the state’s history of landscape styles in a series of articles in Landscape Architecture. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Elizabeth McClintock has continued a tradition of documenting notable plants on the pages of Pacific Horticulture for the past twenty years. These and other writers set the stage for the surge of contemporary interest that has grown out of a nationwide fascination with the preservation of houses, towns, and even whole counties.
The lifespan of Pacific Horticulture coincides exactly with popular interest in a fledgling professional discipline — the study of our country’s landscapes and the pioneers who made them. Activities within this young discipline range from casual probing by amateur historians to comprehensive national surveys by academic researchers. These studies cut across every element of horticulture and landscape design, from small-town garden clubs to nursery trade associations to city planning boards to the National Park Service. This concentrated focus on landscape and garden history is a natural result of the nation’s bicentennial consciousness — which emerged at the very time that Pacific Horticulture was launched.
Motivated by growing demand for authentically preserved landscapes for famous buildings, national battlefields, significant cemeteries, and other cultural sites, garden historians have drawn together to create an entirely new field of landscape-related interdisciplinary studies. These include archaeology, paleobotany, anthropology, agriculture, regional planning, history, landscape architecture, and horticulture. Research within this new field is undertaken by people with skill levels ranging from volunteer trainees and student interns to doctoral candidates at universities.
As interest in America’s garden history (and in this term I include all planned landscapes) continues to grow, scholarly studies are keeping pace with the momentum of research generated at the grassroots level. In fact, one useful measure of our national fascination with historic landscapes is the proliferation of carefully researched books issued by university presses. A reflection of the passionate attachment to native landscapes that imprinted many of our young minds is revealed in some recent titles from a variety of publishers: Land-Marked, Landscape Memory, and A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time. Another measure of current interest is the number of workshops, symposia, and government publications that cover an astonishing array of subjects related to our garden past.
There are clear economic advantages to studying and protecting our authentic old private gardens and public landscapes, which include large estates, city parks, and college campuses. Heritage tourism is a growing component of a multi-billion-dollar industry that is already America’s top national source of foreign currency. In a few states tourism has become the number one industry, displacing even agriculture as a primary source of regional income. In some locales agri-tourism (including colorful floriculture) is becoming an important adjunct to other historic attractions. Missions, farm villages, Victorian manses, seaports, and early transportation corridors all need landscapes designed to enhance the educational experiences of visitors.
America’s favorite pastime, gardening, has demonstrated economic value in its own right. Any activity that generates so much income and attracts such a loyal following deserves to have its past thoroughly explored. For over a century horticulture has played a key role in the economic development of Pacific Coast states. As documentation of western world’s fairs reveals, the garden-favoring character of coastal cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego contributed significantly to their early growth.
Anyone Can Do It
Who is engaged in garden and landscape history today? In truth, anyone can do this work. Historians who love gardens and gardeners who love history are doing it. Those who maintain continuity in the files and scrapbooks of garden clubs or who record the chronology of plant societies are garden historians. So are those who write memoirs about family gardens or who tape the garden reminiscences of longtime local residents. Those who gather and protect plant catalogs, seed package labels, landscape postcards, or vintage garden magazines are also making contributions to garden history, especially when they make their collections available to the public through donations to specialty libraries or societies.
Advanced degrees and credentials are not essential to a garden historian. The only requirement is dedication to seeking the truth about a topic and to telling its stories accurately. A free-ranging intellectual curiosity helps, but the necessary skills can be acquired by using whatever resources are available: college courses, archives and photo collections of historical societies, town libraries, government publications, and, above all, books. One channel of investigation leads to a labyrinth of others, and soon the challenge of how to investigate a subject will be matched by the problem of narrowing a chosen topic to manageable size.
Nationwide enthusiasm for garden history has given today’s researchers a new generation of study sources, information clearinghouses, educational publications, and training workshops for amateurs and professionals alike. This new abundance is the happy result of new technologies such as electronic cataloging, available to an increasingly well educated population with a durable interest in preserving our nation’s rural and urban environments.
The new field of garden history emerged in synchrony with the Independent Scholar’s movement and was supported by publications from the American Association of State and Local History. Aided by technical, economic, and legal advances made by the architectural preservation movement, garden history as a discipline has matured quickly to embrace concepts broader than residential gardens and village greens. Visionary landscape preservationists saw the value of including in their scope of interest vernacular farmscapes, abandoned canals, scenic transportation routes, sites of anthropological significance, and even large multi-use rural settlements, as well as the customary designed estates, home gardens of famous people, and established public parks that had inspired the first wave of garden historians.
Standards and guidelines were freely borrowed from architectural preservationists and modified to include uniform considerations that would apply to landscape settings in every part of the United States. At the national level these diverse landscapes include America’s first National Historic Reserve at Ebey’s Landing, Washington, and the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ebey’s Landing is a functioning farm settlement, built over Native American cultural sites, located on Puget Sound’s largest island. This first-of-its-kind reserve was developed in response to changing ideas about the roles of governments and private owners in protecting significant heritage sites. Ebey’s Landing was designed as a pilot partnership of local, regional, and national agencies in tandem with an advisory trust group composed of island residents and agency representatives. Administrative, maintenance, and interpretive responsibilities are shared through innovative agreements among all groups. The distinctive feature of this reserve is that its townscapes, gardens, and farms are preserved in the context of the larger landscape of a scenic historic area. This visionary concept has many applications in the preservation of premier heritage sites throughout the Pacific region.
The Olmsted National Historic Site is the former home and office estate, Fairsted, of our country’s most prominent pioneer in landscape planning. It has been adapted to serve as an educational visitor attraction, an archival repository for the drawings and photos of the Olmsted firm, and as a consultation center for landscape preservation specialists. Careful restoration of the grounds to the 1930 layout required several years of intensive research and meticulous rehabilitation. The results are a living demonstration of Olmsted’s design philosophy, located within minutes of Boston’s famous Emerald Necklace park system, planned by Olmsted himself. Because of the involvement of the Olmsted firm in planning of projects in Palos Verdes, Long Beach, and San Diego, the preservation of his garden and professional archives has particular value to garden historians in southern California.
Some of the finest information available today about garden history comes from the Historic Landscape Initiative section of the National Park Service (NPS). Created in 1989, this initiative was a response to a widely expressed need for a broader, deeper understanding of the role of landscape in our cultural patrimony. In cooperation with the American Society of Landscape Architects and other professional associations, the NPS has refined a practical set of standards and guidelines for the treatment of historic landscapes. In addition, NPS produces and continuously updates a series of bulletins, bibliographies, and biographies germane to regional garden preservation.
The NPS has also worked in tandem with the Catalog of Landscape Records in the United States, centered at Wave Hill, a once private garden estate overlooking the Hudson River from the Bronx, New York. The inspired and ambitious assembly of data contained in the Catalog was begun in 1987 as a researcher’s finding aid, useful to anyone who seeks information related to landscapes anywhere in America. The documents identified in the Catalog take many forms; postcard collections, business papers, aerial photos, seed catalogs, garden club records, nursery plant lists, glass slide collections, designers’ plan drawings, and miscellaneous ephemera such as scrapbooks, diaries, and letters. These items are scattered, almost hidden, in a baffling array of archives throughout the country, and would be prohibitively difficult for scholars to discover without benefit of such a finding aid. The Catalog indexes the content and location of useful but obscure materials, with information added continuously through voluntary contributions from today’s garden historians.
In 1978, almost a decade before the Wave Hill Catalog was established, the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation evolved from a midwestern meeting of professionals from diverse landscape-related fields. These professionals formed their group in recognition of a shared need to communicate across traditional boundaries of their disciplines, such as geography, history, environmental studies, horticulture, landscape planning, and civic administration. In its broad mission of landscape conservation, the group has become international in scope, with a membership of Canadian, American, and European educators, landscape designers, private non-profit organizations, landscape managers, and government agencies. The Alliance works with the NPS in some of its projects, and also conducts educational workshops and annual symposia. The 1995 conference was held in Santa Barbara, California. Reports of recent seminars, conferences, and member news are summarized in the Alliance newsletter.
In our national capital the Smithsonian Institution houses two valuable landscape history resources. The Horticultural Services Division maintains archives of garden images and a specialized garden library, both of which contain representations of Western gardens. The Archives of American Gardens includes collections of glass slides, postcards, commercial photographs, and private albums that depict period gardens of significance. The Horticulture Library is a branch of the larger Smithsonian cluster of libraries and contains garden-related books, magazines, and catalogs of seeds, plants, and garden furnishings. These publications date from 1828 to the present. In addition to the archives and library, the Smithsonian also exhibits charming garden artifacts such as Victorian nosegay holders, vintage landscape ornament, and antique equipment.
The newest national organization dedicated to historic garden preservation is the Garden Conservancy. This foundation-sponsored group is committed to ensuring that private gardens of horticultural significance and aesthetic interest will remain intact, adequately endowed and beautifully maintained, exactly as the works of art their creators intended. The first two preservation arrangements facilitated by the conservancy are Pacific region gardens: Lotusland, a notable Santa Barbara estate, and the Ruth Bancroft Dry Garden, a specialty plant collection in Walnut Creek, California. Gradually, distinctive gardens in other regions are being selected for conservation to ensure the enlightened long-term management of landscape treasures in America.
National boundaries are easy to define; they are our political borders. The boundaries of regional garden studies are elastic and may embrace terrain of a particular climate or geography that crosses state or national lines — such as the arid Southwest — or of a cultural or economic area within a single county — such as an urban coastal strip. Sometimes regional boundaries unite several counties or states, as in the San Francisco Bay Area or the Pacific maritime-influence zone. Defining the edges of a region can simplify research that threatens to become too broad to pursue with clarity. Often an exploratory survey of both national and local resources helps draw the most reasonable lines around a regional garden study topic.
Nationwide agencies such as the NPS have regional divisions that assist horticulture and landscape historians. For instance, the Northwest Regional Office in Seattle serves the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Each state has its own Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which administers a wide range of landscapes within its jurisdiction. The work and services of each SHPO vary widely, according to the funding, vision, and priorities of the state legislature. In addition to its SHPO, each state maintains libraries, photo archives, and special collections that are of particular value in exploring the economics of regional horticulture activities.
Within many states, and sometimes even within subregions, privately funded historical societies maintain records and photo collections specific to the region. Because such archives often are not cataloged by garden-related topics, a researcher must plan to sift through a great deal of material to discover pertinent data. The payoff for this sometimes tedious sorting process is the serendipitous discovery of shoals of interrelated scraps of data that can form the nuclei of future investigations.
This hands-on garden history paperchase requires a long-term commitment to becoming acquainted with the scope of a resource and getting to know the dedicated archivists and librarians who are, in my experience, uncommonly knowledgeable and helpful people. Because they are so familiar with their collections, archivists often can help researchers make mental connections or find hidden treasuries of data on events, people, or places not yet discovered by other historians, thereby transforming a daunting task into an intriguing adventure. The more familiar a researcher becomes with a collection, the more fluid such interconnections become, as a recognizable cast of characters, timeline of events, and map of places begin to emerge from formerly unlinked bits of information. Time invested in learning about resources is always time well spent. Sometimes this process of getting acquainted also reveals information gaps that can be filled only by specialists such as horticulture historians, thereby reinforcing the need for their services to all historians.
In many regions small-town historical societies with limited resources often band together to sponsor an annual Congress of History, designed to foster deeper study within area boundaries. Such umbrella groups sometimes act as peer review boards and help to promote members’ publications. A wide range of regional topics is welcomed, and because gardening is such a universally appreciated subject, it often finds a place tucked into the monographs and memoirs produced by regional federations of historical societies.
Statewide special-interest organizations such as nursery trade associations, plant societies, and design profession groups are often gold mines of hard-to-find information. Like an argonaut of 1849, a garden historian must be prepared to dig and dig for wanted data. Precious nuggets of information rarely sit on the surface unseized, so the history miner must stake a claim and stubbornly search, prospector-style.
Broad historic districts often constitute oddly shaped regions that cross county or state lines. The Gold Rush country is one example. Others are El Camino Real, with its chain of missions, or pioneer homestead valleys or areas of specialized early commerce, such as vineyards or seed production fields or coastal greenhouse zones. Such districts often maintain separate archives within governmental agencies or trade associations or special interest societies.
Regional botanic gardens, natural history museums, and even theme parks keep their own historic records, ease of access to which will depend on the priorities of their parent organizations. The same is true for the works of famous garden designers and landscape planners who have influenced the horticultural character of a region. Often such records and plans languish uncataloged in the dim basements of government offices and institutional stacks, just waiting to be discovered by inquisitive garden history detectives.
Local study resources helpful to a garden historian are as varied as the plants and personalities that have molded the landscape identity of a place. Community historical societies, libraries, and garden clubs are logical starting places for local research. University and college history departments often can provide good leads for garden investigators, and some schools offer classes that teach useful research and reporting skills. Historic sites, arboreta, and associations within the horticultural trade sometimes keep private libraries, as do city and county agencies. Old-fashioned networking among friends with shared interests is often a fruitful activity. Fellow historians often come upon bits of garden information that they are delighted to pass along, and can also warn the beginner about shoddy earlier studies that need to be taken with a grain of skeptic’s salt.
The best resources for any historian, novice or pro, are the ones that only the researcher can bring to the task: time, imagination, a probing mind, dedication bordering on obsession, and a driving passion to learn more about gardens of the past. It helps in this work to be part detective, part cub reporter, and part career diplomat.
Many horticulture historians begin their first sleuthing in nearby gardens, where they become intrigued by an unusual plant or a charming layout or some vision of the garden’s preservation potential. The home garden of a well known person or a backyard planned by a famous gardener may trigger a new awareness of the past and can provide an ideal starting point for a novice history detective. Yet the gardens of ordinary people who lived everyday lives in plain places can also yield insights about western landscapes. Collectively, such gardens tell us a great deal about the development of an area, and they are sometimes a fine source of sturdy parent plants worthy of propagation. Whole neighborhoods can thus be mined for lost-to-fashion plants that have proved their horticultural durability for half a century or more.
Local landmarks such as exposition parks, school campuses, and civic plazas always prove worthy of garden documentation. Often these public places were planned by designers of note, who continued their work in other parts of a community or region. Because good records may have been kept for such sites, parks and campuses are especially valuable as examples of trends in garden design and of plant availability in a given area.
The larger a town or city, the more resources it probably offers, and the more likely that its historic landscapes have suffered in the name of progress. (And therefore the greater its need for a landscape historian.) But in most of our rapidly expanding Pacific regions, rural areas need garden historians too. This is particularly true in districts with a strong agricultural past, because farmed valleys and coastal terraces are so often choice sites for the development of subdivisions or office parks. These excellent growing areas are frequently the most vulnerable to new urban encroachment, so their histories of specialty nurseries or field-grown cut flower businesses or seed and bulb companies are in urgent need of timely documentation.
Certain communities give rise to unusual garden groups or history-study events that have in themselves become part of local history. Such exceptional resources can help a landscape researcher in unusual ways. One such local treasure is Honolulu’s Outdoor Circle, a civic beautification group founded in 1912. World famous for its successful campaign to ban billboards, the Outdoor Circle has exerted great influence in preserving the splendid landscapes and gardens of Hawaii, America’s most Pacific state.
Another quite different local phenomenon is San Diego’s Institute of History, an annual competition among student and avocational historians. This professionally juried event awards prizes and prestige to winning research papers submitted in certain categories, such as law, art, or military history. Recently a new category has been added: a garden and landscape award named in honor of a much admired local horticulturist who also loved history, Bob Ward. Sponsorship of this award will help advance the formal study of garden history in continental America’s most southwestern locale, which shares an international border with Baja California, a splendid source of drought-adapted plants that continue to be introduced to horticulture in regions of little rain.
The Outdoor Circle and the Institute of History are but two examples of unusual grassroots movements that contribute to an accumulating wealth of garden history resources. The future of this emerging field of study is both rosy with promise and hazy with uncertainties. Cheering aspects of the new discipline are that interest in this field is high and growing, and that there are many practical applications for studies generated by a new group of historians. Uncertainty about the future of the field lies in the unevenness of public understanding of the need for and value of such work. This uncertainty translates into that perennial arts-related question: Who will pay?
Answers to this question, and others, may lie in the handy analogies between plant production strategies and interdisciplinary garden history studies: cross breeding usually produces hybrid vigor. This may well prove true in scholarly history pursuits as well as in practical plant genetics. Recent garden history activities at every geographic and intellectual level have made it easier for researchers to loop their own findings back into a nationwide pool of garden lore — which adds value and energy to the efforts of every historian. The almost simultaneous evolution of the Wave Hill Catalog, the NPS Historic Landscape Initiative, and the other resources mentioned here point to a future that is more rosy than hazy for garden history.
In generalized writings about garden history, the West is often neglected, simply because no one has published the systematic studies needed to understand the special constraints of western horticultural development. The one wonderful exception to this, Padilla’s Southern California Gardens, sadly lacks the footnotes required to satisfy a serious historian’s needs for references. Nonetheless, the book is a peerless guidepost, directing the earnest historian in a hunt for primary sources necessary to sound horticultural research.
Garden History Resources
National Coalition of Independent Scholars
PO Box 5743
Berkeley, CA 94705
American Association for State and Local History
530 Church Street, Suite 600
Nashville, TN 37219
Charles Birnbaum, Coordinator
Historic Landscape Initiative
Preservation Assistance Division (424)
National Park Service
PO Box 37127
Washington, DC 20013
Catha Grace Rambusch, Director
Catalog of Landscape Records
675 West 252 Street
Bronx, NY 10471
Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation
82 Wall Street, Suite 1105
New York, NY 10005
Horticulture Services Division
The Smithsonian Institution
Arts and Industries Building, Room 2282
Washington, DC 20560
The Garden Conservancy
PO Box 219
Cold Spring, NY 10516
The Outdoor Circle
200 North Vineyard, Suite 502
Honolulu, HI 96817
Institute of History
San Diego Historical Society
PO Box 81825
San Diego, CA 92138
California Historic Preservation Office
PO Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296