Monday, January 22, 2007

Williamsburg: Home of the American Garden

When you think of the quintiessential colonial American gardens, do you think of Williamsburg, Virginia? Williamsburg was the first capital of Virginia, which was perhaps the most prosperous and the largest of our thirteen original colonies. The town not only served as its government seat, but also as the center of Virginia culture, as well.

As cities go, however, Williamsburg looked more like a green, lovely, country town than did more urbanized cities like Boston. In old Williamsburg, this country-seat atmosphere has been maintained for us to enjoy today. Thus, we can learn a lot about colonial gardening from this popular vacation spot.

One reason that old Williamsburg was lovely then and now is that it was laid out in an orderly and charming plan. The colony's Lieutenant Governor, Francis Nicholson, envisioned a city growing neatly around an orderly grouping of public buildings. He saw each building as being related to his overall scheme. He dreamed of broad, straight streets and impressive, baroque style vistas, with lots of open spaces. According to baroque style, he wanted the landscaping and the public buildings to work together. His vision reflected the citizens desire for controlled growth. Such specific planning meant that the city developed in an organized fashion, rather than sprawling out as many American cities have done.

Interestingly, there was a certain movement in Europe during that time to revive more naturalized gardens. This new theory of gardening had absolutely no appeal to Virginians. After all, colonial towns and plantations and small farms were carved out of a vast wilderness -- a wilderness that still existed outside of their fences and could easily swallow them up again. Virginians had no need to re-capture a wilderness long past; they could simply look around them to see virgin forests and unplowed meadows.

So, American coloniests wanted reassurance that their wild land could be tamed. After all, their survival depended on conquering the wilderness. High on Virginians' list of gardening priorities was creating order and tranquility, which they valued as signs of civilization. They wanted to garden controllable spaces that were safely enclosed behind hedgerows and fences. Thus, when looking back to Europe for inspiration, Nicholson and his peers turned to the classic styles rather than to more modern naturalist movements.

This desire for order was all the stronger because Williamsburg was a decidely English town with conservative English values. (Remember, this was before the Revolution, when the government of Virginia was moved to Richmond). England, itself, may have been experimenting with new architectural and gardening ideas. But, eighteenth century Williamsburg residents held tightly to their own memories of England or the memories that were passed down to them by their parents. They clung to the England of William and Mary and sought to re-create it on American shores.

In keeping with conservative British outlook, little Williamsburg boasted some of the finest examples of Anglo-Dutch gardens in the thirteen original colonies. The town's citizens favored the old formal enclosed gardens and symmetrical layouts. They planted fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants, whose seeds or bulbs they had brought with them from the old world Most of these plants had been grown in English gardens for hundreds of years.

Naturally, they also made great use of the edible and ornamental plants they discovered in Virginia. Thus, as in many places in America, the town's old gardens reflect a marriage of European and native plant life. Not only were native plants used in Williamsburg's gardens, many a Virginian was making a fortune off of a local plant -- tobacco. Those involved in the tobacco trade of that time could not look ahead and foresee the health problems that would follow as a result.

While Williamsburg was designing gardens in conservative English style, English gardeners were hungry for exotic plants from the Americas. So, throughout Virginia's colonial history, local gardeners and British gardeners corresponded with great frequency. Some of the letters and drawings they exchanged survive until today, giving us a window into what was going on in the gardening scenes of both the colonies and Great Britian. British and colonial gardeners also exchanged plants, bulbs, and seeds. Thus, many European plants were introduced to the U.S. and many American plants found their way to the old world.

In the U.S., we take plants such as black-eyed Susans, golden rod, and the fall-blooming aster for granted. In fact, for a long time, Americans thought of these as weeds -- particularly the golden rod, as it was said to induce hay fever. Yet, to the Europeans of the eighteen century, plants such as these were exciting treasures from a new world. (Of course, there was nothing new about these plants to native Americans. We are speaking from the point of view of Europeans, for whom the Americas represented a world that was yet to be fully explored.)

Just as Europe was eager to learn about species native to North America, they also adopted South American plants, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes. European gardeners then introduced these South American plants to North American gardeners, including those in Virginia.

The first gardens of any size in Williamsburg were the college yard in front of the oldest building at William and Mary College. It was a decorative, formal garden lined with topiaries. Again, this little college was surrounded by the predominately natural landscape of colonial Virginia. But, in keeping with Williamsburg ideas of gardening, it was a little spot of order and symmetry. Sadly, the garden disappeared right after the Revolutionary War, and we know of it only from written accounts.

Later, in 1710, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood arrived in Williamsburg. He built a monumental garden at the governor's mansion. This garden was more elegant and extravagant than any other garden in the settlement. The garden was well documented, so it was able to be re-created. Today, many gardeners look to Spotswood's garden for inspiration when designing gardens with colonial flavor. Like most Williamsburg residents, Spotswood equated gardens with civilization and with gracious living.

In the eighteenth century, botany and horticulture were favorite pastimes of the wealthy and the educated. Gentlemen in Virginia, like their counterparts in Europe and in the other American colonies, took a keen interest in gardening. They experimented with new methods of farming, as well. They kept diaries in which they recorded their studies of plant life and evaluated the success of their gardening and farming efforts. Two of our early Presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were Virgians who are almost as famous for their gardens and plantations as their politics.

For the ordinary settler, gardening was no gentleman's hobby. It was a means of survival. Though ordinary homes may have had kitchen gardens out of necessity, they were still planted along the symmetrical, orderly lines favored by the citizens of Williamsburg.

We take vegetable gardens for granted. But, at one early point during Virginia's development, a vegetable garden was viewed as something of a luxury. It meant that you had laid down roots enough to devote space and time to vegetables. These vegetables were valued sources of nutrition.

Since the gardens of Williamburg were typically enclosed, the plants were than and are now protected from winds and cold temperatures. Williamsburg is near the coast, which means that it has a milder climate than some parts of Virginia. One of the loveliest plants I saw on a visit to Williamsburg was a huge, old crepe myrtle that grew up against the shelter of the house. It was huge, and it's trunk was unnaturally large and strong. The protection it received allowed it to flourish. Of course, being a Southernor, I'm in tune to crepe myrtles and was curious to find such a lovely and strong one so far north.

If you've visited Williamsburg, you've also noticed that boxwoods became an essential part of the gardening landscape there. When it came to ornamental trees, colonists made use of the lovely species at hand: dogwood, redbud, magnolia, and caltpa. They used the elm, the chestnut, the poplar, the sycamore, the oak, and the pecan for shade.

Naturally, Williamsburg gardeners were interested in edible fruits. Native species that proved useful were wild grapes, strawberries, huckleberries, blackberries, and raspberries, and the local residents soon learned how to use them in the garden. Local fruit trees weren't to the settlers taste, so they introcuced apples, plums, pears, and other fruit trees from Europe.

If you're interested in creating a colonial style garden a la Williamsburg style, you can find books and pamphlets that will help you lay out your garden and choose plants. Of course, you will have to adapt it to your local growing zone. But, since Williamsburg is sort of halfway up our eastern coast, it isn't extremely Southern -- such as Charleston is -- or extremely northern -- such as Boston is. So, chances are you will find something from the Williamsburg garden to grow in your area.


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