Although the great nineteenth-century American landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing was aware of Alexander von Humboldt, he does not appear to have applied his theories in his design proposals, nor did he discuss them in The Theory and Practice of
Landscape Gardening (1859). Although the name Humboldt occurs occasionally, as in Humboldt Park, Chicago, it is unclear whether his theories on plant geography made any impact in the USA. The Humboldtian legacy is therefore not noticeable until the return of Frank A. Waugh to the US. Waugh had studied at the Royal Horticultural College Berlin- Dahlem with Willy Lange and was clearly inspired by the latter’s theories, which he popularised as a Professor at the Massachusetts State Agricultural College and adapted to an American context in such publications as The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening (1917) (Wolschke-Bulmahn 1997:2).
In the USA there was, as in European countries, a general concern about the destruction of wild flora, in this case driven partly by advances in technology, and fundamental changes in the way people lived. The vast industrial expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century had created enormous wealth by 1900. Conspicuous consumption and unbridled materialism was seen to be undermining the morality of the country. At the same time, immigration escalated with unprecedented numbers of poor, less educated, and more culturally diverse incomers, which threatened national identities and values. Clayton observed that until then the interaction with nature had assured physical, moral and spiritual well-being, and nature had been considered such a powerful force of good that a return to nature was popularly accepted as an antidote for the various social upheavals. This was represented by calls for the conservation of wild flowers and wild gardening, which flourished as popular topics from the 1890s until the end of the First World War (Clayton 1997).
The same issues led to landscape architects desiring to establish a distinctive American style. Ossian Cole Simonds (1855) and Jens Jensen (1860-1951) both experimented with native flora and developed a garden style which, from 1915, came to be referred to as the ‘prairie style’. This name was coined by Wilhelm Miller in a publication entitled The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening (1915), which featured Simonds and Jensen’s work. The prairie style was defined as ‘an American mode of design based upon the practical needs of the Middle-Western people and characterised by preservation of typical Western scenery, by restoration of local color, and by repetition of the horizontal line of land or sky, which is the strongest feature of prairie scenery’.13
Whilst the emphasis of the prairie style was on the use of indigenous plants, Jensen normally also used non-native plants in his designs, but would include small sections with native themes, particularly his ‘prairie rivers’ in Humboldt Park (1907) and Columbus Park, Chicago (1917), celebrated by Miller as the prairie-style water garden. Like Simonds, Jensen did not propose restorations of prairie landscapes, but as they considered their gardens to be art, intended instead to provide idealised images of the prairie. Only in late works, such as the Lincoln Memorial, Springfield, Illinois (1936), did Jensen concentrate purely on native plants, which were grouped in ecological associations as they might be found in the wild. Here he anticipated natural succession, with his design serving as a framework only for a mosaic that would develop in time (Grese 1995). It is remarkable that such approaches did not occur before this time, as he had learned about ecology from the plant ecologist Cowles much earlier. Jensen contacted Cowles after the publication of ‘The ecological relations of the vegetation of the sand dunes of Lake Michigan’ in the Botanical Gazette (1899), which became a classic reference. Soon after they explored various local vegetation types together (Grese 1992). Cowles was a charter member of The Friends of Our Native Landscape, a conservation organisation founded by Jensen in 1913 (Vernon 1995). By the 1930s, Jensen’s attitudes may have derived from other sources, specifically Germany, as the phraseology and rhetoric in his writings is similar to Nazi landscape architects of the period and there were publications about and by him in German contemporary magazines (Domer 1997). Similarly, Miller’s writings gained a strong ideological stance in which he strove to promote ‘a natural “American” landscape design aesthetic’.14
Frank A. Waugh on his return from Germany in 1910 had proposed to use the word ecological to translate Lange’s biological-physiognomical method, and suggested that the nearest in approach was Warren H. Manning of Boston. Unlike Lange or Miller, Manning did not have a strong ideology, but favoured a more pragmatic approach. Manning initially considered ‘nature gardens’ or wild gardens in which the existing conditions were carefully surveyed, then eliminated material that was out of place. New plants were positioned where they appeared to grow naturally. Such an approach demanded a profound understanding of site conditions and knowledge of plants, as well as a ‘close sympathy with nature’. Manning recommended native plants because of the ease of availability, transplanting and growing; and the fact that they were inexpensive. He was not dogmatic about the use of native plants however, but recommended cultivated species which might add floral value and, in doing so, he noted that ‘the spirit of the wild garden is essentially cosmopolitan’ (Karson 1997).
From the late 1920s, however, ecological principles can be seen to be more generally applied by other landscape architects. In their book American Plants for American Gardens, Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann (1929), a plant ecologist and a landscape architect respectively, promoted the use of native American plants in groupings based on natural plant communities. The text provided underlying ecological concepts and also recommended lists of native plant species for use in landscape designs (Tishler 1989). The landscape architect H. Stuart Ortloff refers to Roberts and Rehmann, and summarises the ecological knowledge a few years later when he writes:
A better understanding of plant ecology opens up many new fields of endeavor, and allows us to correct many old mistakes that have endangered the success of our gardens. It is one of the guides to the selection of plants particularly suited for use in naturalistic plantings. If we are trying to catch the spirit of Nature in our work it is obviously important that we follow her principles of plant arrangement. The native plants have already grouped themselves together according to the conditions of soil, moisture, temperature, and exposure. Each given grouping of conditions will result in particular groups of plants being found together. Any change will bring about alterations in the plant grouping. Such groups or associations do not necessarily follow botanical relationships, but consist of several species, one or two which are dominant. Under and around these dominants are smaller trees, shrubs and herbaceous material.
The currency of ecological discourse among landscape designers is confirmed by Florence Bell Robinson, a landscape architect working for the University of Illinois, whose Planting Design (1940) includes a slightly more extended section on ‘ecological factors’ in which she refers to ‘soil and climate’ and lists ‘some natural plant associations’. The overall premise she quotes in this is ‘the survival of the fittest’ as determined by ecological factors (Robinson 1940:105-121). Robinson is used as a reference by one of the modern designers, Garrett Eckbo in Landscape for Living (1950), and like her he understands ecology as referring to the conditions required for satisfactory plant growth, and continues with deliberations on the aesthetic of planting. He does not suggest using these natural associations as a basis for new planting schemes however, and instead of involving himself with the general potential of such schemes, goes as far as to recommend that ‘the ecologist is and will be an essential member of the designer’s team of consultants’. He additionally hypothesises about positive and negative ecology, positive meaning ‘good habitat factors’ (Eckbo 1950:36, 94, 105).
The continuing all-encompassing nature of ecology is clear from Ian McHarg’s proposals for ‘An ecological method for landscape architecture’ in January 1967, in which he suggests that ‘ecology provides the single indispensable basis for landscape architecture and regional planning’ (McHarg 1966-67). In this he shows his preoccupation with large-scale issues and processes rather than issues of planting detail. In an introduction to his Design with Nature (1969), the regional planner Lewis Mumford maintains that McHarg might be better described ‘as an inspired ecologist’ rather than a town planner or landscape architect. Mumford suggests McHarg’s message reinforces issues highlighted by such authors as Rachel Carson (1963) in Silent Spring, and investigates how this knowledge might be applied ‘to actual environments, the caring for natural areas, like swamps, lakes and rivers, to choosing sites for further urban settlements, to reestablishing human norms and life-furthering objectives in metropolitan conurbations…’ (McHarg 1969). Nowadays, McHarg would probably be referred to as an environmentalist interested in sustainability issues. His interest is in the overall system and he therefore does not comment on issues of detail such as planting design.
Innovations in ecologically based planting design increasingly came from outside landscape architecture. Warren G. Kenfield tried to get to terms with the management of an abandoned farm after the Second World War, overgrown with ‘brush’, and which was too small to farm and too big to garden. With the help of the ecologist William A. Niering of Connecticut College, he developed what he referred to as a ‘herbicide-sculptured landscape’. Herbicides ‘allow you to work with nature, not against her’. It enabled him ‘to carve out, carefully to excise, what you do not want’, and instead sculpture your own landscape of ‘waving grasslands, dotted with bright flowers, backed by curving borders of shrubs, surrounded by varied forest of boldly contoured evergreen and hardwood trees’ (Kenfield 1966:vii, 15, 5). Whilst nowadays most environmentalists may abhor such an approach, it is remarkable that
The National Wildflower Research Center in Texas has promoted the establishment of national wildflower meadows
such a book was published so early in the wake of Carson’s Silent Spring, which evoked a general concern about the environmental consequences of synthetic chemicals. Interestingly, many of the groups and individuals involved in the restoration of native plant communities in the USA today often rely on herbicides to initially control invasive native and non-native species, perhaps a case of the ends justifying the means. The Kenfield approach included exotics: ‘Perhaps also you can ornament these natural plant – communities with a few bright gems, special plants chosen from far-off lands, or even hybrids that always could have existed but never did until man brought the parents together. Such hardy plants, judiciously used, will “belong” to your natural landscape just as completely as if a wild bird had dropped the seeds and nature raised the seedlings’ (Kenfield 1966:5).
In the 1960s, native wild flowers were popularised by Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, who together with a group of volunteers formed a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital in 1965, which encouraged civic pride in the USA. The committee encouraged the improvement of Washington’s parks and playgrounds, and planting of major routes into the city, including trees, shrubs, bulbs and annuals. Beautification involved more than a purely cosmetic approach, and included a ‘total concern for the physical and human quality’ passed on to future generations and thus concerned with ‘clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste-disposal, and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas’. The popular manifestation of this campaign was the planting of ‘masses of flowers where the masses pass’, on traffic islands, which Lady Bird Johnson carried on in Texas after her husband relinquished the Presidency in 1969. Whilst recognising the importance of using native plants for ‘reasons of the soul and the pocketbook’, there was insufficient knowledge of how to establish and manage them by field. For this reason, she donated 60 acres of ground and enough money to found the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 (with David Northington as the first Director) (Figure 2.16), which set out ‘to learn as much as we can about wildflower propagation and growth and to be a clearinghouse to spread that knowledge to developers, park managers, and private citizens everywhere’ (Johnson and Lees 1988:8-19). The emphasis here has been in the establishment of regional wildflower meadows to compliment the woodland gardens in the East and the prairies in the Midwest.
The renewed interest in native plantings encouraged professional interest and in the 1970s professionals re-emerged with so-called ‘natural landscape restoration concepts’, with Jensen and Roberts and Rehman as the main references. Darrel G. Morrison was one of the main proponents of this movement who demonstrated the ‘ecological and aesthetic potential of plant community restorations’. His projects were related mainly to corporate and residential sites in Wisconsin. Morrison maintained that:
The art of restoring natural lands implies first an understanding of the natural landscape and native communities of a region; then an ability to simplify and stylize without losing the aesthetic essence of these complex systems in a designed environment; and knowledge of plant propagation and establishment techniques. Finally, it requires an understanding that natural landscapes, particularly restored natural landscapes, require intelligent management to perpetuate dynamic natural character whilst maintaining designed spatial configurations.
Morrison’s ‘restored’ landscapes, therefore, were still only an interpretation of native landscapes, like that of previous generations, but he had access to more extensive ecological information.
John Curtis and Henry Greene who, in 1934, started experimentation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with re-establishing prairie plant communities, undertook a much more exacting approach (Figure 2.17). They were led in their concern by the disappearance of the prairie and by despoliation of the land, a cause taken up by Aldo Leopold, who had joined the University in 1933 as Professor in Wildlife Management. Leopold’s posthumous Sand County Almanac (1949) was a plea for the development of a land ethic, which prevented the desecration of the soil and disappearance of the wilderness. A co-founder of the Wilderness Society, he spent years single-handedly trying to restore a parcel of farmland he had acquired (Sand County) to its natural habitat (Grese 1992:155, 237, 272). Leopold became the spiritual leader of the restoration ecology movement, which saw ecological restoration as a technique for basic research (Jordan et al. 1987:3). The emphasis here was to create the pre-existing plant communities previously destroyed with genetically identical plants. His writings and approach have since
The Greene Prairie at the University of Wisconsin arboretum, Madison, re-established lost plant communities
Lorrie Otto has spent years fighting against the American lawn and promoting more naturalistically planted front yards, here an example in Milwaukee
William Robinson drew his inspiration from the wild and promoted naturalisation and natural groupings of hardy exotic plants (Robinson 1894:101)
Getrude Jekyll suggested an artistic approach in order to make garden pictures—one of the examples included in her Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden (1925), and includes an example of the alteration of the formal planting of a heath garden, showing the drifts instead of blocks
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A Wild Heath Garden Upper Figure: As First Planted Lower Figure: After Alteration
profession. One well-known environmentalist is Lorrie Otto who took the plight into the community, fighting against the American lawn and promoting ‘naturally landscaped frontyards’ (Figure 2.18). She had converted her own garden in Bayside, Wisconsin, to native plantings in 1955. Her example had a great following, particularly from the Wild Ones, a native plant educational group, which promoted the Otto cause.