Romanticized in film and novels, the traditional plantation garden is often envisioned as a spacious ornamental landscape with sweeping lawn vistas and long allees of oak trees leading to an elegant manor. While this landscape may have been true in some cases, landscape historians report that this image is “gone with the wind,” as many plantations were really working farms and offered little time for maintaining vast ornamental gardens. As a matter of fact, most of these gardens were utilitarian and were used to produce food and medicine for the family and workers. So, how should the landscape appear today when one has a historic home from this period?
First of all, like the outbuildings and barns that once surrounded these homes, those days are long gone. Just as the generations of families have changed over time, so too have the uses of the landscape. Rarely are these properties used as working farms, but instead have become bed and breakfasts, are open for historic tours or, more generally, are used as private pleasure grounds. As people do not live in a museum, the landscape should also serve the current needs of residents. However, there are a few landscape principles that may be borrowed from the past to help make a historic home and its garden look “just right.”
AMERICA’S “FIRST NATIONAL STYLE”
As new wealth poured in from “King Cotton” and other economic crops in the early 1800s, affluent Americans began to search for a new architecture style that was simple yet elegant. American architects began to embrace the use of Greek building elements such as columns and pediments (a triangular gable on the front of a building) for capitol buildings, monuments and, later, homes. The use of Greek Revival elements rapidly spread throughout the country, as citizens wanted to become a part of America’s “first national architecture style.”
This new style used a strong symmetry for all lines, buildings and features. Interestingly enough, although most Americans felt no love for the British, they continued to embrace the formal English garden. American ornamental garden designs from the period of 1820 to 1850 were often rectangular parterres that divided the garden into equal parts. These rectilinear garden beds were traditionally bordered in dwarf box (boxwood). Each section was planted with flowers, herbs and bulbs, and enclosed by a picket fence. In contrast to the small parterre gardens of towns and cities, plantation gardens were larger and included traditional European garden features such as formal avenues, bowling greens, terraces and elaborate box-bordered parterres. Curvilinear garden shapes did not become popular until after the 1850s.
So what does this fascinating garden history offer for today’s owners of historic Greek Revival structures (or those who would just like to add a little historic feel to their contemporary home)? Here are a few tips to keep the landscape features fitting to the period of design.
SHAPING THE LANDSCAPE
A central idea to organizing all exterior items in the early 1800s — including roads, outbuildings, walks, garden beds, lawn areas and trees — was the use of a strong axial line. Popularized in French and Italian landscapes, this long, linear feature typically created a dominant center line to the front door or middle of the great house (usually accomplished with a grand carriageway, an allee of trees or a walk).
This central line was framed by symmetrical landscapes on both sides, often rectangular in form. Porches, patio areas, garden beds, shrub borders and trees were oriented from this line to allow the house to be the organizing feature. Also introduced to landscapes of this period were amenities such as gazebos, pergolas, trellises, arbors and statuary, which were placed on or within these rectangular lines. Paths of gravel or crushed oyster shells helped to subdivide the larger landscape into smaller garden rooms.
EVERGREENS FIT THE FORMAT
Well featured in 17th and 18th century European landscapes, evergreens formed the backbone of the garden. Large evergreens, such as cypress, cedar and yew, were planted in symmetrical linear lines that created tall vertical walls to separate views and individual gardens. Smaller parterre gardens featured dwarf evergreen shrubs, such as box, planted along the edges of all hard landscape items such as brick walks. Camellia, gardenia, oleander and arborvitae were often used during that period to provide a strong evergreen format to all garden areas.
With established port towns along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the plants of Europe and Asia were well introduced to American markets by the 1800s. In addition to exhibiting wealth and prestige, obtaining these exotic species fortified the owner’s feeling of control over his land. The South’s mild climates and long growing season were suitable for newly introduced plants from China and Japan such as camellias, tea olive (sweet olive), banana shrub, crapemyrtle and wisteria. Additionally, local native plants were also used for shade and blossoms. Interestingly enough, many of our best garden plants today were common to that period and have truly stood the test of time.
The Greek Revival period of the early 1800s not only helped to define Southern gardens, but more importantly, provided a distinct identity for a young new nation. As generations come and go, the homes still stand as a testament to democracy and tradition. By using these few time-honored landscape techniques, this tradition will stand strong for generations to come.
Garden phlox, daffodils and other fragrant perennials were Colonial favorites.
The gardens were often enclosed by wooden or brick fences to keep animals out.
(1) Photo by Corey Balazowich. All other photos courtesy of Bob Brzuszek.
(From State-by-State Gardening April 2005.)