Scotsman William Murray wrote to his cousin Dr John Murray near Charleston in 1753, advising him to adopt the English Taste for his new landscape plans. Redesigning their landscape to imitate Nature seemed a little impractical to many American gentry.
In 1789, Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), noted clergyman & geographer, wrote of one country seat, “Its fine situation. . .the arrangement and variety of forest-trees - the gardens...discover a refined and judicious taste. Ornament and utility are happily united. It is, indeed, a seat worthy of a Republican Patriot.”
Generally, American gardeners shared John Adam’s (1735-1826) negative attitude towards the excesses of the English natural grounds movement. During his 1784 tour of English gardens with Thomas Jefferson, he announced, "It will be long, I hope, before ridings, parks, pleasure grounds, gardens, and ornamented farms grow so much in fashion in America."
In the same year, George Washington (1732-1799) wrote to the wife of Marquise de Lafayette (1757-1834) encouraging her to accompany her husband on a return visit to the new American republic. "You will see the plain manner in which we live; and meet the rustic civility, and you shall taste the simplicity of rural life."
In 1783, Johann David Schoff traveled to Pennsylvania and wrote, "The taste for gardening is, at Philadelphia as well as throughout America, still in its infancy. There are not yet to be found many orderly and interesting gardens. Mr. Hamilton's near the city is the only one deserving special mention. Such neglect is all the more astonishing, because so many people of means spend the most part of their time in the country. Gardens as at present managed are purely utilitarian—pleasure-gardens have not yet come in, and if perspectives are wanted one must be content with those offered by the landscape, not very various, what with the still immense forests."
In the early Republic, many gardeners strove for a balance of useful plants & trees & genteel design. On both town & country plots, most gentry, merchants, shopkeepers, & artisans planned gardens that were both practical & ornamental in geometric patterns.
Some gentry who gardened were aware of the new English natural style & sometimes added serpentine entry roads & paths that meandered through the wooded edges of their grounds, but they overwhelmingly designed their gardens with traditional rectangular beds & approaching straight avenues of trees.
Why were early American gardeners slow to adopt the English natural grounds movement? During the first decades of the 18th-century, English gardeners had begun to rebel against strict geometric gardens with rigidly trimmed topiary trees, and in favor of more natural garden layouts. The emergence of an informal garden style based on irregular rather than straight lines was influenced, in part, by travel books on the Far East, illustrating the winding paths & random rock formations in Asian gardens.
In mother England the landscape garden had become established as the new taste by 1750. The master of the English landscape garden was Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716–1783), who transformed English landscapes into Elysian fields, at Blenheim, Stowe, & Claremont. Concentrating on sweeping undulating lines; serpentine lakes & walks; & the play of light & shade by rearranging hills & wooded areas, Brown created a series of picturesque scenes dotted with Palladian temples, classical monuments, & bridges. Brown's principles were expanded by Humphry Repton (1752–1818), whose successful career depended in part on his Red Books, illustrating his clients' estates before & after suggested landscape improvements. Repton introduced more picturesque sensibilities as well as glasshouses full of exotic specimens.
Early American gardeners were engulfed in untamed surroundings & their interest in ancient precedents prodded them toward designing the orderly gardens, that they planted around their dwellings. Early in his 1806 garden book The American Gardener, Philadelphian Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816), described “ancient gardens,” by which he meant the gardens common a hundred years earlier in Britain & Ireland.
Ironically, just as the English were rebelling against their “ancient” geometric garden designs, M’Mahon found America’s new citizens clinging to the formality of the classical past. Perhaps the young nationals were looking for the security of precedents to reinforce their present unsteady situation. The ordered & hierarchical implications of classical terraced gardens probably appealed to the gentry, who were losing their privilege of rank through association with the British & groping to maintain that privilege through natural, & therefore inevitable, order instead of through historical precedent.
Americans found the enlightened ideas & orderly, geometric gardens of the Italian Renaissance particularly attractive during the early national era. Thomas Jefferson once boasted, “Ours are the farmers who can read Homer.”
One British visitor to the Chesapeake observed, “Frenchmen...appear to me to be the best judges of gardening in America, perhaps because their own climate & soil are more nearly similar to those of America, than either the English or Scotch.”
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, upon his initial tour of America between 1795 & 1798, condescendingly noted the classical influence prevalent in the Chesapeake. He wrote that the gardens at Mount Vernon were “laid out in squares, & boxed with great precision…for the first time again since I left Germany, I saw here a parterre, chipped & trimmed with infinite care into the form of a richly flourished Fleur de Lis: The expiring groans I hope of our Grandfather’s pedantry.” Americans were clinging to European gardening traditions rather than adopting the natural grounds movement.
M’Mahon had come from the British Isles when English landscape architects were abandoning Western traditions of formal garden design & embracing more natural forms, which were applied to the larger expanses they called pleasure grounds. The extreme formality of French & the fussiness of the miniature Dutch flower gardens helped spark this British movement against geometry & artificiality in the garden.
Influenced by writers such as Joseph Addison & Alexander Pope (whom Charles Carroll of Carrollton claimed was his favorite poet), & by the romantic landscape paintings of the French artists Claude Lorraine & Nicolas Poussin, English landscape architects rejected centuries of traditional Western garden design. English garden design reformers, such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown, & their followers favored peaceful landscapes featuring created & controlled green lawns for grazing deer & livestock, stands of needed trees, & serpentine rivers that would invite fowl & animals.
The English landscape itself was to become the ultimate garden. Intricately planned serpentine rivers & lakes reflected “natural” hills planted with carefully chosen trees & shrubs. M’Mahon’s gardening treatise reviewed the use of the popular English ha-ha, a wall or ditch sunk below the level of garden, which was intended to make the gentleman’s lawn appear to flow into the surrounding countryside. In England, where laws kept all but the rich from hunting deer & small game, these ha-has kept the hunting preserve of the gentry secure.
Ha-has were used occasionally in the 18th-century Chesapeake, but they usually surrounded grounds still dominated by formal geometric gardens. The ha-ha was not just an invisible barrier to keep intruders out of the garden & grounds. It was simply the area that divided the stage upon which patricians exercised paternalism safely separated from their hopefully awe-filled audience, all of their lesser neighbors. The ha-ha was a device to make the gentry seem at one with their personal external environment, in which they could place themselves on top but within the safe confines of an invisible wall.
Eighteenth-century English pleasure grounds were never truly natural. As M’Mahon explained, they were planned to look natural & were then decorated, often with classical Roman ruins or oriental ornaments. Chinese garden concepts excited the European gentry, when first reports of them reached Europe in the 18th century; but Western attempts to emulate Oriental design usually resulted only in copies of their architectural features.
Chinese architecture directly influenced some 18th-century American homes & garden structures. Pagodas, garden houses with upswept eaves, & Chinese style bridges decorated a few American garden grounds, but the garden spaces themselves were still divided into geometric partitions, often on terraced falls.
Until fairly recently, garden historians generally agreed that by the end of the 18th century, very few formal gardens, with traditional geometric bed designs, remained in Britain. This may not be the case, but apparently, the British had reached a level of sophistication that allowed them the freedom to resist their highly structured civilization & their hedged landscapes. This change, combined with the need to conserve dwindling supplies of timber & game, led to the natural grounds movement in England. The movement did not spread quickly in America.