American gardening traditions

The article about Thomas Jefferson’s garden (Country Life, January 14, 2009) reminded me of my own recent visits to gardens in the US, including Monticello. There is something quite distinctive about the American garden making tradition. It’s to do with the nation’s attitude towards wilderness, formed, as it was, during the earliest days of colonisation and subsequently honed by writers including Thoreau and Emerson and, more recently, by the likes of Michael Pollan (in Second Nature).

For sure, there is a strong moral and religious element to it, as Jefferson himself opined: ‘Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God… Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example.’ I’m not sure how many ‘cultivators’ I know who are utterly devoid of sin, but I understand what the president was getting at.

The frontier mentality of making do with what is available and living within Nature rather than in opposition to it is reflected in American garden-making, which has always contained an element of sturdy practicality (witness the experimental fruit and vegetable gardens at Monticello). And, to some extent, it can still be seen in the tradition of ‘yard gardening’ in small-town America.

Whereas Americans have traditionally sought to invite the natural world into their gardens, such notions are at odds with the European tradition, which has usually fenced out Nature by means of sequestered enclosures. Even the English landscape park, an ostensibly ‘naturalistic’ approach to garden-making, had as its object a particular version of the pastoral, which often involved the redevelopment of the existing topography.

My conclusions have been hard won at times. Take my visit to the extraordinary 18th-century water garden at Middleton Place in South Carolina. I had travelled south from Virginia on the overnight Amtrak train, thinking it would be more civilised than flying. Wrong: my ‘sleeper’ cabin looked like a death-row cell for a midget, and throughout the night, massive jolts lifted me bodily off the thin mattress.

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I arrived at Charleston in an addled state at 5.30am, where  a taxi took me straight to Middleton Place. The reception desk at the hotel connected to the property was deserted, so I took an early-morning stroll in the gardens, set on the banks of the Ashley River amid the swampy remains of ricefields from plantation days. It was a glorious morning, with shafts of impossibly bright sunshine lighting up dew droplets in the grass.

Then I saw the sign: ‘Alligators.’ It didn’t say ‘Beware the alligators’, as surely it should have done, but took a more informational tack, explaining that these giant reptiles roam around the place in groups of up to 200 and are, in fact, altogether charming, contrary to every basic human instinct. I immediately legged it (or ‘high-tailed it’, in local parlance) up a ladder and onto one of the wooden viewing platforms erected for viewing these creatures. Can alligators climb ladders, I wondered. Or are they like Daleks, flummoxed by steps?

Later, after I’d spent several hours exploring far and wide in the garden, I overheard a conversation between the stockman at the estate’s model farm and a visitor who was asking him whether the sheep ever got to graze on the lush pasture near the river. ‘We never let them down there,’ he replied. ‘The alligators take ’em.’ So it transpired that those hideous jaws were not reserved for vegetarian purposes, after all… I was going to relate how I was later attacked by a swarm of killer bees in the Italianate gardens of Vizcaya in Miami, but reliving the alligator experience has proved more than enough for now.

Another ‘issue’ around garden visiting in the US is the almost complete absence of public transport. Arranging a visit to Longwood gardens, near Philadelphia, I was perplexed to be told by both the garden and my hotel (almost next door, albeit along the freeway) that it was ‘impossible’ to get to the garden without a car. The only option (apart from hiring a car) was to summon a taxi from the nearest city, entailing a 30-mile round trip for what is really a one-mile journey. I decided to walk.

Leaving soon after dawn,  I embarked on a commando-style mission, along the edge of the freeway. I skirted around parking lots, strode across the springy front lawns of ‘nailcare parlors’, trekked past ‘gas stations’ and hacked through areas of thick woodland that looked like
crime scenes waiting to happen. At one point, as  I scrambled along fairly close to the hard shoulder, a police patrol car seemed to take an interest in me. I melted into the foliage, Rambo like (if I may say so).  I eventually reached Longwood via a cemetery.

Longwood is the greatest horti-cultural extravaganza in the US, created by Pierre du Pont of the Pennsylvania chemicals dynasty in the early 20th century. The great conservatory alone takes up five acres, and there are no fewer than three monumental fountain displays, which are set off for visitors’ delectation every day. Even the local Amish community comes to visit. After all this fun, I returned to my hotel the same way, dodging through the undergrowth.  I felt vindicated, but had a nagging suspicion that my perfectly rational approach to environmentally friendly garden visiting may have appeared a little ‘unusual’ to some.