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Favorite Garden Books: From Yard to Garden

July 21, 2011

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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2011 2:44 pm

    Fascinating topic and as you say much in the minds of gardeners and bloggers these days…I will have to check it out ..thx

    • July 23, 2011 10:41 pm

      Donna, I just found this comment caught in the spam filter. (You were probably wondering what happened to it.) I’m finding my dip into the history, philosophy, and sociology of gardening fascinating.

  2. July 21, 2011 3:42 pm

    Is that where the HOA rules – you may only plant one of these 3 trees – were born? To make the American melting pot. How interesting!

    • July 22, 2011 10:24 pm

      Hi Diana, I think the HOA rules are the successors to those early attempts to create residential developments that looked like continuous parkland dotted with houses — no fences or non-conforming plants allowed! The official reason for the HOA rules is to make the neighborhood look more attractive, thereby protecting property values. I think there is a fair amount of racism and classism underlying these rules, though — the idea that those “other” people will do something wild and unattractive if they not kept under control. The rules often apply to the visible front yards, not the private back yards; but the townhouse development where I rent in Gettysburg also has backyard rules (mostly ignored and unenforced).

  3. July 21, 2011 4:24 pm

    It’s amazing in America the deeper meaning of our home grounds — historically, socially, politically, emotionally. Have you read Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845, by John R. Stilgoe? It was there at the beginning. Very interesting!

    • July 22, 2011 10:25 pm

      Cindy, Thanks for the book recommendation. I checked and the Gettysburg College library has Stilgoe’s book; I can check it out when I get back there for the fall semester. I find all this stuff fascinating.

  4. July 22, 2011 6:43 am

    Interesting! my concept of “The American Front Garden” is based almost entirely on my memory of a 1980s film starring -oh, dratt! …?… A married couple… important actors through the 60s-90s… as a married couple, in ‘Mr & Mrs Brown’ Is that what it is mostly like, or only occasionally?

    • July 23, 2011 10:50 pm

      Jack, I don’t know the film, so I can’t help you with the name of the actor couple — but if the front garden (it would probably be called a “front yard” here) had turf grass from the front of the house to the street, with shrubs planted along the front of the foundation and maybe a tree or two in the middle of the grass, that would capture the typical look. This is the pattern that was developed by landscape architects for suburban developments and popularized by home and garden magazines in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. In the original conception, there were no fences; but the “white picket fence” around the front yard was popularized later. Today’s front gardens are also likely to include some flowers or mixed borders along the front of the property near the street or along the walkway leading to the front door.

  5. July 22, 2011 7:58 am

    I will look into this book. I too question HGTV for both inside and outside decor. They ‘decorate’ only for what pops on TV. As per plants, most inside houseplants are mere decoration and in magazines, disposable staging props. I have written on this phenomena and it is such a shame living things are used so mindlessly.

    I have tomato plants in my front yard. I wonder how long before I am cited. I guess when they start producing and the ‘neighborhood police’ gets wind.

    • July 22, 2011 10:41 pm

      Donna, I guess one advantage to living at the end of a dirt road in a rural town is that no one sees or much cares what I do with my property. Maine culture also has a very strong “live and let live” element and I’ve never heard of any HOAs or town ordinances against vegetables or clotheslines here.

  6. July 22, 2011 8:09 am

    It’s amazing in America the deeper meaning of our home grounds — historically, socially, politically, emotionally. I have read your post thanks you are sharing a great article information.

  7. July 22, 2011 9:09 am

    Is it true, then that Americans have been more practical about their gardens? I’ve always been interested in the topic of gardens as status symbols. In America, is gardening more or less the product of wealth and privilege as, say, in England, where gardens have long and deep connections to British nobility and aristocracy? Like most hobbies such as antiques, stamps or coin collecting–really any kind of collecting, it does seem to require some degree of wealth. Very interesting post.

    • July 22, 2011 10:48 pm

      Jim, I think you’d enjoy Grampp’s book. He’s not just talking about gardens, but about how people use their “home grounds” more generally. At times, he seems to suggest a kind of divide between the avid gardeners who are nuts about plants and the people who just want to decorate their home grounds so that they look attractive and are pleasant to be in. I am very interested in the whole social class aspect of gardening, but virtually all the research done in this area seems to be from the UK (where they are willing to admit that social class exists!). My own sense of how social class is embedded in American gardening is a kind of high-brow, low-brow distinction. One element of this is that use of botanical latin names is often seen as “snobbish.” I think there may be several lifetimes worth of research possibilities here.

  8. July 22, 2011 12:39 pm

    This sounds like a very interesting book, and right up my alley.

    There are changes afoot. One hot, dry evening this week I took a walk in my neighborhood: only one sprinkler was on, whereas several years ago they would have been pervasive. And also noticed how many unlawns there are now; lots of ground covers, flowers and even vegetables. But my town is notably progressive.

  9. July 22, 2011 10:50 pm

    Adrian, I think you’d enjoy Grampp’s book. His analysis also suggests that the way to change people’s habits is to focus on how such changes will improve the livability of their home grounds.

  10. July 23, 2011 12:25 am

    Jean – I definitely have to find that book. I’d be fascinated to read it.

    Since taking on gardening in a whole new way after our home renovation 3 years ago, I look at garden design so differently now. We used to have the ‘green carpet’ lawn & foundation plants. Now if our ‘home grounds’ haven’t been converted to garden bed – the ‘lawn’ that’s left is a mixed bag of grass, dandelions and clover, etc. You know how my neighbor feels about my “field of dreams”, but the village isn’t too OCD about it, as long as it’s cut.

    • July 23, 2011 10:56 pm

      Shyrlene, I think the front yard/garden is a particularly contested part of the home grounds these days — as witness Byddi’s posts about the woman in Michigan and your tensions with your neighbor about your “field of dreams” — and Grampp writes about this at the end of his book. Keeping it cut has often been the minimum expectation. Michael Pollan’s story about his father’s tensions with the neighbors over lawn mowing are at the heart of his book Second Nature. It’s interesting to think about how ornamental grasses are challenging the “keep it cut” norms.

  11. July 23, 2011 2:19 am

    I put in a recall for this book at my library as soon as I read your post. It sounds worthwhile and seems aimed right at some of my pet interests. The notion that landscaping might have served an ennobling role is fascinating, but it’s depressing at the same since today things like HOA-enforced plantings seem less about civic virtue than protecting wealth. Even my house, which was constructed around 1951, came with HOAs, though the rules are more on the order of “Thou shalt not raise ducks” than the more draconian “Thou shalt paint thine house beige and maintain a lawn and plant shrubberies from no more than three approved species.” It’s nice to step back some paces and look at gardens in a new light.

    • July 23, 2011 11:01 pm

      James, I will be interested in hearing your thoughts about Grampp’s book. I was just starting to read it when you posted about Jamie Durr’s tv show, and your concerns were on my mind the whole time I was reading Grampp’s analysis. At one point, I thought about going back to leave another comment on your post about the book, but then it realized that it made more sense to just write a post about the book.

  12. July 24, 2011 10:18 am

    This sounds like a book that needs to become part of my library. Thanks so much for bringing it to your readers’ attention. I like being able to refer to historical trends in garden and or front yard design as I discuss these topics with clients looking to update or redo gardens and yards.

  13. July 25, 2011 8:58 pm

    Interesting…it does seem to make sense that there would be a great deal of information in looking at this topic…hm-m-m..

    • July 25, 2011 11:34 pm

      Joene, It sounds as though this book would be perfect for helping you to create that historical context for clients.

      Michelle, I would have thought there would be a great deal of information, too, but it’s taken me a while to find stuff that really focuses on the social meanings of gardens.

  14. July 26, 2011 4:54 pm

    This sounds like a very interesting read, I’d be very curious to read this. My last neighborhood’s green areas were very much all painted with the same brush. Same expanses of lawns, all mown to the same height, similar foundation plantings, and color palettes. All rather dull in my opinion. Architectural committee rules forbid vegetable gardens in front, and frowned on lawnless xeriscaped, and water wise plantings. The evolution of the outdoor room trend, with minimal plantings, doesn’t really surprise me. Most of my friends and neighbors know how to garden, almost as much as they know how to cook, which I find rather unfortunate, and I often wonder how the lack of one fosters the other.

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