July, 2017: History of American Gardens

View of the May T. Watts Reading Garden, circa 1968
The May T. Watts Reading Garden circa 1968.


“I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” --Thomas Jefferson


The history of America may be told through its gardens, from the plants of early settlers to the horticultural experiments of the founding fathers and the homegrown vegetables of contemporary gardeners. Americans both prominent and unknown have tended gardens--the care and nurturing of a tomato plant may be undertaken on both the large estate and the slim windowsill. A gardener may succeed with the modest tools of sunlight, water, and a little bit of patience. Enjoy a stroll through notable gardens in American history with these resources from the Sterling Morton Library.

At the Arboretum

Mark your calendar now for a September 13th visit from author and speaker Marta McDowell, whose program The Pen and the Trowel will explore the writing-gardening connection through writers such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Reserve your place today!


“George Washington had his mind on plants. In March, 1792, he ordered more than two hundred trees and shrubs for Mount Vernon from Bartram’s Philadelphia nursery. The order was a gardener’s dream--get a catalog in the mail and request one or more of every plant listed. When Washington ordered in such quantity, it is easy to suspect that he might have been auditioning plants for the president’s garden in the federal city… Washington selected plants from states north and south of the Mason-Dixon line: moosewood from the Appalachians, bald cypress from southern swamps, and the Carolina sweet shrub.” All the Presidents’ Gardens, McDowell, page 29.

Library Resources

Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640-1940 by Denise Wiles Adams

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses--How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by Marta McDowell

Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I by Rose Hayden-Smith*

A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello by Peter J. Hatch**

If these titles have piqued your interest in the history of American gardens, the Sterling Morton Library holds a collection of historic and contemporary nursery catalogs. To view the historic catalogs, please make an appointment with a librarian.

*Access the Library’s e-book collection by entering the number on the back of your Sterling Morton Library card.

**This book is available in print at the Sterling Morton Library, and also available as an e-book through the library website.