8 Garden Designs for Old Houses

Ornamental gardens have complemented North American houses for more than three centuries. As successive architectural styles moved in and out of fashion, however, so did the design of the ideal garden, leading many old-house owners to wonder what garden design fits best with their building. Fortunately, residential architecture can provide important clues to an appropriate landscape.

With its emphasis on geometric shapes, an ancient-style garden accents a Federal-style house in this cover from a 1938 seed catalog. (Photo: Courtesy of Timber Press)

While the gardens outlined here can’t hit all the bases of historic house styles, they do give a sense of how greenery designs have changed through the generations, and which styles can be the basis of a complimentary and beautiful garden for your old house.

Vernacular Houses (from 1600)

While the form and construction of the earliest houses in North America varied according to their location, all were simple, and ornamental plantings typically weren’t a priority. As time went on and communities grew, the primary focus on food gardens gave way to an increase in gardening for beauty. Many of these early gardens where laid out in the ancient style, a plan based on European examples that emphasizes geometric shapes. Many a 19th-century farmhouse had gardens with simple, square or rectangular beds set between straight walkways. The beds primarily held vegetables and herbs, and might have had a few flowers lining the path. Blooming shrubs like lilac, and vines perhaps morning glory or perennial sweet pea often graced the gate or doorway. Finally, an old-fashioned rose might have been found at the corner of the house, where its fragrance could waft to greet visitors.

Georgian, Federal & Adam Styles (1700-1830)

An English landscape garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, displays the manicured greenery and sweeping views that made the style so popular. (Photo: Courtesy of Timber Press)

Owners of high-style classical homes built during the pre-industrial period faced competing garden patterns: the ancient style and the English naturalistic style, then newly-fashionable. Essential design details of the English landscape style included clumps of trees, shrubs, and perennials around the perimeter of the property, and a few trees advantageously placed throughout the lawn. Natural-looking water features grottoes, bridges, and other lavish structures were also popular, along with sweeping views. Because this naturalistic style required large properties and wealthy owners, it was not widespread in early America.

Greek Revival (1820-1860)

Greek Revival, the first indigenous American style, was so popular that it was also known as the National Style. Large examples, such as southern antebellum plantation homes, were often surrounded by gardens designed in an updated version of the ancient style. A common feature was an elaborate parterre garden consisting of beds lined with dwarf boxwood. In the centers of these beds, flowering shrubs, lilies, hyacinths or larkspur burst forth. Boundary-defining hedges made from privet, hemlock, boxwood, or roses or other flowering shrubs were used ornamentally, and to provide protection from the wind. In a final decorative touch, blossoming trees, like crepe myrtle and southern magnolia, and red cedars would line the imposing entrance driveways in allees.

Italianate (1840-1885)

Italianate residential architecture style was widely promoted in the 19th century through the books of Andrew Jackson Downing. As America’s premier landscape designer, Downing also featured the plan of an ideal Italianate garden in Cottage Residences(1844), illustrating a service area at the rear of the property with rectangular beds for fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The kitchen garden is separated from the large flower bed by a vine-covered trellis. Circles cut into the lawn contain roses and annuals or a single balsam fir. An arabesque flowerbed completes the scene with perennials, including lilies, phlox, peonies, and pansies arranged according to height.

Common to Victorian gardens were flowerbeds designed to be viewed from the windows of this Queen Anne. (Photo: Courtesy of Timber Press)

Queen Anne (1880-1910)

The flamboyant architectural features of Queen Anne style houses described as “towers and gables, and curious porches, and strange windows,”in Vick’s Monthly Magazine, a popular horticultural guide of the day provided a fanciful backdrop for landscape design.

The front lawn of a typical Queen Anne was only broken by an occasional shade or ornamental tree. Clumps of shrubs were spaced periodically along the property line. Flowerbeds were intended to be viewed from windows, and planted with brilliantly colored annuals in the popular carpet bedding style. The centerpiece would be a circular bed of large subtropical plants castor bean in the center, followed by a ring of cannas, then a row of elephant ears with an edging of coleus or dusty miller. A simple border with favorite cutting flowers, such as China asters, zinnias, stock, and sweet peas, could be located at the back of the house on the edge of the lawn.

Nearly every Queen Anne house had a porch with a trellis for flowering and foliage vines. These plants were decorative, but also provided privacy and shade. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper were popular vines, both renowned for their great fall color.

Urban Row House (1850-1920)

The tight gardens of early row houses in eastern cities New York, Boston, and Philadelphia among them stressed economical use of their space for plants. In the six city gardens that appeared in the American Gardening magazine in 1894, each 40′ X 20′ space uses simple geometric figures to provide form and function. Fences are covered with vines like honeysuckle or Dutchman’s pipe. Marigolds, balsam, zinnias and other annuals are planted in sunny areas, and choice perennials include yuccas, foxgloves, campanulas, and gladiolus. Shady sites host native maidenhair ferns, or clumps of lily-of-the-valley. The finishing touch was an urn of flowers in each front yard.

Arts & Crafts, Prairie (1900-1930)

Mixed borders lining walkways—along with plantings that merged the lawn and foundation, and moveable pots on patios—were the hallmarks of Arts & Crafts landscapes. (Photo: Courtesy of Timber Press)

The straightforward lines of Arts & Crafts and Prairie architecture were reflected in their gardens. Terraces or patios were significant as a center for family outdoor activities, and brightened by containers of red geraniums and colorful annuals. Pots of evergreens served as portable hedges.

Ground covers including vinca, English ivy, and spreading juniper provided natural carpets. Plantings along the homes’ foundation merged the walls with the landscape. Typically, these weren’t the uniform belts of evergreens we now associate with the term “foundation planting,”but rather a combination of perennials, shrubs, and vines.

Flower gardens and mixed borders were planted in view of terraces, as perimeter plantings, or to line walkways. Lawn mowers now made cutting out flowerbeds or placing a shrub specimen in the lawn a less common practice than in the 1800s.

Colonial Revival (1880-Today)

The Colonial Revival style took off after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Colonial Revival gardens romanticized versions of the early American garden emphasized straight lines, a central axis connecting house and garden, fountains, and box-lined parterres. They also displayed old-fashioned plants, such as lilacs, mock orange, and snowberry, and, in larger estates, terracing. White picket fences predominated. Formal areas might abut more relaxed gardens featuring bulbs and ground covers. Vines such as Chinese wisteria were used to soften hard lines, and herb gardens were popular. Colonial Revival landscapes also included evergreen foundation plantings at the base of the house. During this era, some overarching trends cut across home styles like the water and rock gardens, and pergolas with wisteria blooms that began appearing early in the 20th century.

In today’s gardening world where just about anything goes, incorporating even one traditional element to your home will increase your landscape’s authenticity, while adding beauty to your surroundings.

Denise Wiles Adams is author of the book Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants 1640-1940 (Timber Press, 2004).

Tags: Denise Wiles Adams gardens OHJ September/October 2005 Old-House Journal

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