Gardening for Diversion & Amusement
Throughout the 18th century, gentlemen sometimes referred to flowers, botany, and their gardens as their amusements, their diversions.
William Stephens (1671-1753), President of the Province of Georgia from 1741-51, kept a diary between the years of 1742-43. In March of 1741, he wrote, "Thursday...I busy'd my self good part of it at the 5 Acre lot in gardening, and propagating Variety of Seeds and Plants, which I always thought an Agreeable amusement when I could find proper Leisure."
At another point Stephens wrote, "No Want of Diversion to employ my Time and Thoughts...: It was a Pleasure to see my Corn coming on, and other Things that were planted, very promising...and all hitherto in a hopeful Way: Besides the Amusement it gave me, in forming Schemes for many future Improvements in Gardening, and more curious Cultivation of Land, for the Production of Vines, Mulberries, Cotton, &c. of all which, I had provided a small Nursery, in the little five-Acre Lot near home."
Men were not above simply amusing themselves in their gardens either. George Washington reported that gardening had become his amusement.
But who could actually garden for amusement & diversion in early America?
Even though Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816) promoted gardening to every segment of society in the new nation in his 1806 The American Gardener's Calendar, it was evident that before the Revolution true pleasure gardening as a “fine art” was only theoretically accessible to every man in the emerging republic.
All the aspiring garden “artist” needed was
an excess of land & leisure time;
some knowledge of the rules of perspective, classical design, mythological symbolism, & horticulture;
regularly available labor not otherwise needed to produce income; and
the inclination to present himself at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of nature as he ordered it.
Gardening primarily for ornament, amusement, and diversion in the 18th century was obviously limited. Even after independence, the true pleasure gardener of the emerging republic was primarily the property owner, the male citizen of the United States of America. His wife usually tended the greenhouse & decorative plants.
In the Maryland landscape paintings of Francis Guy (1760-1820), it was usually the male owner, often accompanied by a male visitor, who was depicted surveying his ornamental grounds.
The pleasure-gardening property-owning male was usually also a slave owner or rented others’ slaves or paid free blacks or indentured whites to help shape & maintain his personal external environment. The possession of capital was an important ingredient in determining who pleasure gardened.
Yale graduate & father of 8 children Frederick Butler (1765-1843) wrote in Wethersfield, Connecticut, of the multiple motives for gardening, "The productions of a well cultivated Garden, are too evident to need any remarks by way of illustration. The health they afford to the family, not only in the luxuries Which they furnish for the table ; but in the exercise, amusement, and enjoyment they impart in their cultivation, exceed all description : in fact, the fruits and vegetables of a garden are the life of a family, upon every principle of enjoyment and economy."
Thomas Jefferson was constantly changing his house and his gardens at Monticello. "Architecture is my delight," he said, "and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements."
But George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, & John Adams knew that gardening was more than just an amusement to occupy their idle hours. Each were aware of directions in garden design that had been spearheaded by the political leaders of centuries past & which were the basis for gardens in early America. The spiritual importance of gardening & the agrarian way of life was not lost on the gentlemen shaping American's future.