Book Reviews, Gardens, Landscape History

Book Review: America’s Romance with the English Garden by Thomas J. Mickey

October 21, 2013

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The gardening season has barely ended when they arrive in the mail – seed and nursery catalogues touting tantalizing descriptions and images of new and improved plant varieties.  Within every page lies a promise for the coming year of an improved and possibly perfect garden, enhanced by the latest wonders of the horticultural industry.

If you are seduced by the photos of amazing plants in miraculous shades of transcendent color and mesmerized by the graceful prose and practical advice that the seed and nursery catalogues contain don’t fret. They have been enticing American gardeners for more than a hundred years.

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In America’s Romance with the English Garden, Thomas J. Mickey traces the evolution of the American garden style through the lens of the nursery and seed industries and the associated publications they developed, including catalogues, books and gardening magazines.  Their profound influence on the American public had an impact on all levels of garden fashion, from the seeds and plants that were planted to the landscape designs that graced suburban homes. These designs, based upon the English Garden style with its verdant lawns, artfully sited trees and shrubs and planting beds adorned with native and exotic species, remain popular today.

The book is divided into four thematic sections beginning with an overview of British influences on American horticultural practices from the colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century.  From the onset, Americans adopted British techniques and lacking professional gardeners relied upon their European counterparts. British horticultural societies, parks, rural cemeteries, botanic gardens and publications provided additional models for American interpretation.

What America lacked in gardening expertise was overcome by the entrepreneurship of the seed and nursery companies who, aided by advances in printing techniques, transportation and mass-marketing, transformed gardening from an act of utility to a social activity attractive to an emerging middle class.  A well kept garden added value to the home and an aura of respectability. Everyone wanted one.

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America’s Romance with the English Garden, provides an insightful overview of an aspect of  American garden history that is under-appreciated.  Today, it is difficult to imagine the profound influence that  the seed and nursery industry wielded in defining gardening tastes for mainstream culture. The companies, mostly family run, were intensely personal endeavors and the catalogues with their anecdotes, testimonials and stories were both literary masterpieces and practical guides.

The book concludes with a chapter titled “Landscape Design According to the Catalogues” in which detailed landscape instructions and American home landscape examples, including those based upon the English precedent, are explored.  A more critical question posed by Mickey on the very last page concerns Americans ongoing infatuation with the English Gardening style, an unsustainable model that continues to be promoted by the horticultural industry.

The advertisement below, depicting a home landscape with traditional English elements, is from Joseph Breck and Sons a Boston-based company founded in 1818.  In the 1950’s the company was transformed into a Dutch bulb importer and flower bulb company by the fifth generation of the Breck family. Today Breck’s is the largest importer of Dutch flower bulbs in the U.S.

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At 230 pages in length, America’s Romance with the English Garden is a thoughtful book with appeal for the gardener and historian alike.  For those wishing to learn more there are extensive notations and a comprehensive bibliography. Generously illustrated,  each chapter concludes with a bonus – a “featured plant” from Mickey’s own garden chosen based upon its relationship to the chapter’s contents and available to the home gardener.

America’s Romance with the English Garden by Thomas J. Mickey is published by Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, 2013.

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, October, 2013.

Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Donna@Gardens Eye View October 22, 2013 at 12:25 am

    I really love garden history….I will check this out further

    • Reply Patrice Todisco October 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Donna, It’s an easy read and provides a good overview of American and English landscape history. The author also has a blog you should look at.

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