The Dirt

A British perspective on American gardens

Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Ryan Lewis
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Ryan Lewis

When it comes to American gardens, I’m no expert. I’m a British gardener. More specifically, I’m a Welsh gardener. I have lived in Wales all my life and I have a pretty privileged spot here on the West Coast, with a great climate (for Wales) and the benefit of the Gulf Stream.

The image I have always held of American gardens has been somewhat stereotypical. So what does this view look like? Images of suburbia, beautifully tended lawns, mailboxes, rocking chairs on the porch, picture perfect neighbourhoods, and the odd shrub or tree here and there. All very green with little else in between. This view has been largely influenced by television and other media sources, although my own naive assumptions may have gone a long way in bringing these stereotypes and idealised images together. I’m not usually one to form assumptions or be so highly influenced by media images, but how else do I form such mental images when living on an all-together different continent?

That narrow view of American gardens is somewhat alien to me these days. So what happened for me to arrive at such an epiphany? I have three major influences: Blogger, Twitter, and Blotanical. The Internet is a marvellous resource and has brought me closer to America than I have ever been before. Joining these websites, reading hundreds of blogs, and receiving comments from American gardeners on my personal blog has made me realise that America is rather diverse in horticultural terms. I have attempted to learn all about “zones” and it appears that I live in USDA Hardiness Zone 9, although I think the UK hardiness scale is somewhat different than that of the U.S. For example, many of the plants in my garden are at the same stage of development as those in the garden of a Twitter friend north of Boston, which I believe to be in Zone 6. A very complex issue indeed.

I have regular conversations on Twitter with fellow gardeners in the U.S., and I’ve discovered that, like in the UK, there is no such thing as a stereotypical American gardener. As in Wales, you get your specialists, your generalists, and of course the downright strange (the best of the bunch in my opinion.) So what’s the moral of the story, I hear you ask? Well, from what I’ve deduced, it’s that we are closer, in horticultural terms, than we often think. Design, planting, influences, and staple plants tend to be similar, although individuality is everpresent. I have learned more from American gardeners online than I ever could from the stereotypes I have been used to, and for that I thank you! Nowadays it is these individuals who help me to develop my views of America and, of course, the gardens therein.

Gardening, be it American, British, or otherwise, should not be about fashion, a demonstration of wealth, or a stereotype. In my opinion it should be a reflection of you, the individual.

—Ryan Lewis gardens in West Glamorgan, Wales, in Great Britain and blogs at http://ryans-garden.blogspot.com/.

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Comments

  1. Noturf 05/15/2009

    I agree with most of what is presented. But in general a wide scope has been covered. Perhaps the most important is how individuals mark their gardens depending on
    their expertise, credentials and practice of gardening.

    However, I bet the in the British Isles, USA and everywhere else, a great percentage of the gardening folks depend on the
    GREEN INDUSTRY, for installation, maintenance of their gardens
    for lots of money and cookie mold gardens. These gardens look the same everywhere.

    In Puerto Rico, USA, the situation is much worse. Through the internet, mostly looking and reading blogs from Asia/Australia for example, one sees the importance given to aesthetics, even if what is planted is not pragmatic in terms of the cost of maintenance, pollution and noise.

    On the other hand there seems to exist a disconnection between gardening as a habitat, in harmony with our surroundings in many places.

    In my case, I do not propagate, plant anything from nurseries
    since their selection is useless for other flora and fauna, regarding food or nesting material.

    I believe that gardens are not just for us, everything else
    should be in the wider scheme of nature.

    Excellent article.

  2. patientgardener 05/15/2009

    Hi Ryan
    Fab post, as a UK gardener I totally agree with you about the stereotypical US garden and I have also been stunned at the variety of habitats and zones across the US

    Helen
    http://www.patientgardener.co.uk

  3. Bimblingguru 05/16/2009

    Ah ha, this old chestnut again,
    I really enjoyed reading your article Ryan and know that you come to horticulture with a vigour and enthusiasm that I find refreshing- I too have some dreadful alarming stereotypes for our friends over the water and also here in Wales.....
    Having moved from a colder dryer part of England(East Anglia) about seven years ago I imagined that with the warmer wetter climate the majority of gardens in Wales would be lush, interesting places with all sorts of botanical suprises? Alas, it is unusual to find havens of greenery and more normal and usual to find collections of prostrate and shrub sized fir trees with a sea of concrete or tarmac for all that delicious rain to raise the levels of run off and surface water to flood the low lying land-I thought our government were going to change the planning laws to stop this evil soil sealing practise?
    Anyway, back to the planting, I so definately agree that most garden centres and large scale plant sellers show only a limited range of instant plants and F1 seeds that it really does look like an advertisement for the Stepford Wives film set! The summer bedding plants in naff hanging baskets requiring much watering in our encreasingly arid world seems immoral! I suppose that those retailers relay on the small brains of those sheople that buy clothes from a retailer's shop dummy; gosh do those humans really want to look like each other? How can we, the individuals become the majority and rescue our environments for the long term gain of our planet?
    Again, thanks Ryan, I look forward to reading more of your comments on all things green........

  4. GardenWiseGuy 05/17/2009

    Ryan: welcome to Fine Gardening. What a pleasure to read more than 140 characters from you! For you others reading this, Ryan and I have been connecting at Twitter for a while. When his head hits the pillow in Wales, I take over; when I'm down for the count, Ryan rules the world!!! Mwah, ha ha!

    But seriously (LOL) I very much enjoyed this post and getting a feel for how gardens vary so much, yet fundamentally fill the same need in so many people. You're fortunate to have that Gulf Stream influence. Same as southern Ireland? I was there on my honeymoon and expect to find a very foreign landscape, but found many of the plants that I know from southern California, of all places. Cordyline growing on the grounds of ancient stone abbeys!

    Great job! See you soon. BTW: Don't get too good at this or I'm out of a gig just as I'm getting started with Cool Green Gardens here at FG.

  5. InterLeafer 05/18/2009

    Great article, Ryan! Glad to be a follower/followed. Really enjoyed your blog as well.

    I credit much of my deep appreciation of plants and landscape gardening to the year I lived in England while attending the University of Sussex. The glory of that British spring (after the darkness of a British winter...tough for a California girl!) will forever be a part of me...even as my style has evolved from cottage gardens to eclectic, water-wise heavy-on-the mediterraneans creations.

    My appreciation for the row-house garden alone informs the way I approach small spaces, and visiting grand estate gardens reminds me about sweep and scale and lines of sight, and to always have a bench in just the right spot.

    Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is the influence goes both ways, and that we are formed by everything we've ever seen or done. Thanks for being a part of what will form me going forward.

    And if you have a good resource for Corylus maxima 'Purpurea' I would love to know it...I've not seen it in cultivation in this country, and have lusted after it ever since Dan Pearson wrote about Home Farm...cheers!

  6. hortiho 05/19/2009

    Nice post! I do have a couple of comments which might help you to put some things into yet another perspective. First of all, there's a great place to read about garden zones in the UK vs the US here: (http://www.gardeningcd.com/Adapt/adaptPg21.htm).

    You're probably in a zone 8 garden by US standards. If you look on the USDA Hardiness Map, you'll see that you're in an area similar to northern Florida and southern Texas, zones which do not have the sort of weather extremes shared by most of the US, especially the northern half of the country.

    Another thing to consider is that the total square footage of Wales is 8,022 sq mi (20,779 km2). That is slightly smaller than the size of one of our smaller states, New Jersey. I think if the UK were the size of the US, you would find huge expanses of land where gardening is a lost cause, just as we do here. Gardeners in Maine can't possibly grow the same plants as gardeners in southern CA and that has influenced pockets of garden styles throughout our country.

    I spent almost 40 years gardening in New England, in zone 6. For the past 10 years, I've been in the Midwest, in zone 5. There is a huge difference in what I can grow here vs in Connecticut, and it doesn't all have to do with the zone change. The Midwest is hotter in the summer, and more humid. And we don't have that lovely salt spray drifting across our gardens. The winters are colder, with much more snow and ice.

    Even the ground beneath our feet is different across our huge country. Where I used to find granite rocks in my garden in CT, I now find clay. Can you believe I actually have to go to a store and buy rocks in Chicago? And when I do, they're flat limestone, the sort used frequently by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was influenced by indigenous materials. I'll take moss-covered granite stonewalls over limestone retaining walls any day, and yet I can't have that here unless I win the lottery.

    So our gardening across this country is influenced by many things aside from our own personal tastes. When I first moved here, I ripped out all the Yew hedges which were planted in front of my house about 50 years ago. But as it turned out, the previous homeowners were on to something. Yews can withstand extremes in temperature, light and soil. And now that new cultivars are available which do not require constant shearing to stay a manageable size, my neighbors are rediscovering this extremely hardy foundation shrub.

    Anyway, I hope you get over here to do a big garden tour someday. One that takes you to every zone we offer so that you can see what sort of obstacles our gardeners are up against. Meanwhile, keep up the great work! :)

  7. heucheraqueen 05/20/2009

    Brilliant blog, Ryan. I'm still trying to come to terms with the hardiness zones just in my own Welsh (Swansea)garden - cold, gloomy and damp in my North-facing back garden, warm and difficult to work in the steep front, a wind tunnel up my sloping side garden, turbulance round all the walls and the odd frost pocket or two which did for my Phormiums even though I have a patch of annual (!) Cineraria which made it through the winter. That's why I'm such a fan of Heucharas. They flourish in all my zones, look great in pots but are not fussy about my heavy clay soil and the amber ones were excellent (Southern Comfort, Mahogany, Creme Brulee, Marmalade) looking like little fireplaces dotted round my garden. At the moment, my purpley-grey ones (Midnight Rose, Stormy Seas, Silver Scrolls, Gypsy Dancer) are looking wonderful in this gloomy, damp May.

  8. plantaholic 05/21/2009

    Hi Ryan, enjoyed your blog.I also live in the Swansea area, 8 miles `down the road' as they say. To be honest I've never given American gardens or gardeners much thought until reading your blog, only to discover that when I thought about it I also had this preconceived idea of what they would look like, which when you think about it is quite ridiculous. If this small island of ours has such a great diversity of growing zones much greater must it be across the water. Reading your article has piqued my interest and I think I will be checking out the web sights you mentioned. I too have lived in Wales all my life and have been an enthusiastic amateur gardener for 25 years. I love propagating plants and sowing my own from seed(a much cheaper alternative to a garden centre).The surplus I pass on to friends and family. Always looking for a good home for the rest.
    Nos da.

  9. TorontoGardens 05/23/2009

    Interesting that so many of what we learn about other countries comes from the movies. It's not suprising that the notion of the suburban lawn, picket-fence America is pervasive in England and Europe. I confess, I've seen a lot of them in real life too, here in Canada.

    But the sterile and cookie-cutter suburbs that were built in the 50s, 60s and 70s are only a small part of what gardens are here, and even they are changing now. The suburbs that I saw in the mid-60s look a lot different when I revisit them today: there is a huge shift taking place to making gardens more interesting and varied.

    Suburbs and movie visions aside though, I think that historically, for most of America (and Canada, where I live) gardens were informed by their European originators. British settlers in New England wanted to create a "little bit of England", and did, in many places. Imported Dutch, German and Italian styles of gardening create their own garden flavours.

    What it amounts to is a battle with what we might historically "want" and what is in fact possible. Some of our best nurseries around Toronto were started by European immigrants: The vast Humber Nurseries, which specializes in *everything*, and Richters, which specializes in Herbs. Their knowledge of plants and garden practices imported from their country of origin means that we learn from them, purchase the plants, and create new styles of gardens. It really is a bit of a gardening melting-pot.

    I know in Toronto, because of our huge Italian population here-many of whom are great gardeners-Toronto becomes "Rose City" in June with climbing roses at the fronts of houses everywhere.

    People miss what they have left, and want to re-create it in the new land. The trouble is we run up against the "Zone Problem", and that's where creativity and synergy come into play. In accepting certain truths about your zone, you make new discoveries and develop new appreciation for things that work: in the last few years many in North America we are in the growing phase of a love affair with "native plants", and naturalized planting. It was a style dubbed: The New American Garden. This is all good - and beautiful new (sustainable!) gardens are coming of it.

    However, I know I (deeply) envy warmer zones. A trip to England and Wales last year had me drooling at shrub sized fuschias that live in the ground outside all year, and the fact that you can actually over-winter pots of New Zealand Flax outdoors. (I come by it honestly - I was "imported" from England)

    On the flip side, when my aunts came over here from Wales they were marvelling at our "Solidago" (what we call Goldenrod, a beautiful and somewhat invasive native plant/weed) growing along the roadsides in the fall, along with the New England Asters. I have to admit, they were right. It is one of the joys of fall here.

  10. Stoneware 06/08/2009

    Hey Ryan, here in South Africa, I've had the same perceptions. I think that no matter where you are in the world though, you have gardens and gardeners that play it safe, and stick to what everyone else is doing. Thats what results in the stereotypes - its just that the stereotypes look different depending on the climate, history and plant choices of the area you're in.

    The problem is, that as designers, we are often limited by what our clients want, and need to stretch them a little to try something different. I guess also, the mainstream media needs to be giving more focus to those who are doing something different - that way our clients become more open to new ideas?

  11. mainegardener 07/26/2009

    It is so interesting how stereotypes can even apply to gardens. I think film and TV art directors often use the gardens (or lack thereof) you describe, to instantly convey that you are in a typical American home. It is kind of amazing that off the top of my head I can't think of any mainstream US film or TV that has a location with a fabulous garden. Hmmmm...what's with that?

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