Favorite Garden Books: From Yard to Garden
Sometimes a book that I am reading for work turns into pleasure reading. That was certainly the case for Christopher Grampp’s From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds (The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2008). As part of my research on the virtual community of garden bloggers, I have been trying to learn more about the history of gardening and particularly about the social meanings attached to gardens and gardening, and this led me to borrow Grampp’s book from my college’s library.
Christopher Grampp is an American landscape architect whose interest in residential gardens has led him to focus on what he calls “the home grounds – the space that surrounds the average American house.” (p. xvii) He traces the use of the home grounds from the early agrarian dooryards and barnyards, through urban utility yards and suburban front lawns, to the twentieth century outdoor room.
Two key themes emerge from Grampp’s historical analysis. The central thesis of the book is that habitability is the key to understanding how Americans have always used their home grounds. In the agrarian life of the 18th and early 19th centuries, habitability meant using space to raise plants and animals. When Americans moved off farms and into cities and suburbs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they no longer needed to raise their own food and home grounds were used for other purposes that improved the habitability of homes. Even when yards began to turn into gardens, Grampp argues, creating habitable outdoor space took priority over horticulture in the design and development of home grounds.
A secondary theme in Grampp’s book is the tension between values of individual privacy and civic-minded communalism in the use of home grounds. As the United States was transformed in the 19th century by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, many Americans worried that the individual, competitive ethic of industrial capitalism was eroding the traditional cooperative values of rural communities. One response to these concerns was the City Beautiful movement that created open communal spaces in cities. The best known expression of this movement was the creation of urban parks (e.g., New York’s Central Park), but Grampp notes that the same landscape architects who were creating these parks were also creating new park-like residential neighborhoods in cities and suburbs. These housing developments created new standards, often enforced by local ordinances, for the use of lawns, trees, and foundation plantings on residential properties. These standards both provided a visual sense of community and helped to create the American “melting pot” by submerging traditional differences among ethnic groups in use of home grounds. Over time, as Americans became less concerned about preserving the values of traditional community and more concerned about individual liberties, privacy, and property rights, the back yard became designated as the site of privacy and individual expression while the front yard continued to be a symbolic representation of community.
Christopher Grampp’s analysis provides useful socio-historical context for issues that have been very much on the minds of garden bloggers. Recently, for example, James at Lost in the Landscape expressed concern about the trend in “garden” programs on HGTV that focus less and less on plants and more and more on gardens as “outdoor rooms,” furnished in ways that make them virtually indistinguishable from indoor rooms and in which plants are used as designer accessories. About a week later, Byddi Lee at We Didn’t Come Here for the Grass raised the alarm about the case of an Oak Park, Michigan woman who was charged with a crime after turning her front lawn into a vegetable garden.
Grampp might see it as significant that both these blog posts were written by California garden bloggers. Grampp divides his book into two parts: a general history of American yards, followed by a case study of California gardens; he argues that issues and trends in the development of American home grounds are heightened in California, where the climate encourages year-round outdoor activity.
I don’t think Grampp’s long view provides much comfort to James; Grampp would see television “garden” programs in which plants are bit players as the continuation in a new medium of a long-familiar emphasis in magazines like House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens, and Sunset. Byddi might be more encouraged by Grampp’s analysis, which suggests that the tide has already turned against the park-like front yard, both because of an increased value on personal privacy and property rights and because of a new communal ethic that encourages wiser use of scarce water resources.
Whether you find his perspective encouraging or not, I think that anyone interested in the larger forces that shape residential gardens and the social meanings attached to those gardens will find Christopher Grampp’s well-written history both engaging and compelling.