Ever since Adam and Eve’s unfortunate eviction, their descendants have been plunging hands and seeds into the earth in hopes of bringing forth food, beauty, and the satisfaction of taming nature. Though few of us find that our home gardens offer the peace, beauty, bounty, and ease of Eden, each planting—–from Babylon’s Hanging Gardens to Gregor Mendel’s famous peas—–adds to our knowledge of and delight in the natural world.
A high point in the story of ornamental gardens came in 16th-century Holland, where Dutch gardeners imagined them as jewel boxes. They strategically placed mirrors in their gardens to accentuate their beauty and give them a feeling of infinity (land was tight in Amsterdam even then). By 1635, Holland was at the height of Tulip Mania, a frenzy during which prices fetched for the prized flowers and their bulbs soared to astronomic heights.
Around the same time the rigid geometry and topiary feats of the French garden held aesthetic sway across Europe, only to be replaced a century later by the more natural, if atavistic, English garden with its false ruins and sylvan lakes. Colonial Americans, however, desired more utilitarian gardens. Food and medicine—–especially in New England, where settlers struggled with harsh winters and stony soil—–trumped good looks.
As cities grew denser, and the largest swaths of urban green space were dedicated to public parks over private gardens, city planners like Ebenezer Howard sought a new balance of culture and nature. At the turn of the 20th century, Howard published Garden Cities of To-Morrow, a book proposing suburban living that promoted greater harmony with the natural world and greater proximity between agricultural and city centers.
Not 20 years later Britons and Americans alike got a taste of gardening as part of the war effort. During both world wars, politics, patriotism, and national identity staged a horticultural coup: Victory gardens, grown in the yards and converted flowerbeds of private homes and in larger public plots, were touted as a means to support the troops by decreasing demand on commercial produce.
The postwar boom and a rash of urbanites rushing to the suburbs gave rise to a surge in the sprawling ornamental lawn that before were only found on estates. Tellingly, Miracle-Gro first appeared in 1951, making lawns grow greener and faster. Other synthetic fertilizers and pesticides followed suit, making a few bottles of chemicals and the gas-powered lawnmower the 1950s’ biggest addition to the home gardener’s tool shed.
In the last ten years, however, many gardeners have renewed their interest in sustainability and utility in startling ways. In desert and temperate areas alike, there is increased awareness and interest in drought-tolerant and native plants. Even Miracle-Gro has hopped on the green wagon with moisture-control soils that help conserve water. Home food production is back on the scene as well, brought to new publicity heights by First Lady Michelle Obama, who planted a garden at the White House in 2009, the first time vegetables have been harvested at 1600 Pennsylvania since Eleanor Roosevelt’s day.
Though the urban, suburban, and rural landscapes are continually shifting, a constant rethinking of what with pruning shears in hand, the gardener will have a say in what practices are scattered to the wind and which branches will blossom and bear fruit.