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Cultivating Roots: A Historical Journey Through Gardens in the United States

As April showers give way to the promise of May sunshine, the rhythm of life shifts towards the timeless ritual of planting and tending gardens.  For many, this tradition harkens back to the childhood memories of weeding, harvesting, and the simple joy of watching seeds transform into vibrant blooms or nourishing vegetables.  Yet, the history of gardens in the United States is a rich tapestry woven with the threads of exploration, innovation, and cultural exchange.

Seeds of Settlement

The roots of American gardening stretch back to the early days of European colonization, as settlers arrived on the shores of the New World armed with seeds and agricultural knowledge from their homelands.  In Virginia’s Jamestown colony, established in 1607, English colonists cultivated crops grown by the Native Americans, such as tobacco, corn, beans, and squash.  Similarly, the Pilgrims in New England gleaned vital gardening techniques from the indigenous Wampanoag tribe.  They grew crops for sustenance including corn, beans, pumpkins, wheat, barley, oats, peas, and a variety of herbs.

In 1629, when the Dutch settled in what is now New York, they began to cultivate orchards and farms, as well as introducing many European flowers to the area including roses, gilliflowers, tulips, crown imperials, white lilies, anemones, violets, and marigolds.

Cultivating Communities

As time progressed into the 1630s, New England gardens expanded with the English growing apples, pears, plums, lilacs, boxwoods, European snowballs, and English yew.  By 1639, officials in the Jamestown colonel passed a law that required all settlers with over one hundred acres of land to plant orchards and gardens, and fence them in.  Such a law is indicative of the importance of the early settlers in having gardens.

Gardens also began to appear in the public realm as well.  In Boston, the Puritans purchased 44 acres of property in 1640 which they designated as a public green space, known as the Boston Common, which is still in existence today.

Botanic Endeavors

In the 18th century, a new era of botanical exploration dawned with the establishment of botanic gardens and nurseries.  John Bartram of Philadelphia established his botanic garden in 1728.  Through Bartram’s efforts, he introduced 150 North American plant species to Europe.  As gardens became more popular, people needed a place to purchase seeds and plants, and in 1737 the First Commercial Nursery opened in New York by Robert Prince, remaining in operation as a family business for almost 130 years.

Two of the most famous gardens in the early United States were that of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  Washington wrote “…to be a cultivator of land has been my favorite amusement.”  While Jefferson wrote “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.  I am still devoted to the garden.  But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”  Such quotes prove that gardening is an activity for any age from the young to the old.  In 1820, an act of Congress established the United States Botanic Garden.

Cultivating Culture

Throughout the 19th century, gardens reflected the changing social and cultural landscapes of America.  Rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts blended ornamental plantings with commemorative spaces, shaping the way communities honored the departed.  Visionaries like horticulturalist and writer Andrew Jackson Downing championed the art of landscape gardening, articulating a distinctly American vision of domestic bliss rooted in the soil.

Victorian Gardens

Moving into the Victorian Era, Victorian Gardens became popular.  Influenced by European Victorianism, American families with “old money” designed summerhouses, decorated with ornate accessories, and cultivated lawns for leisurely outdoor activities.  In essence, these gardens provided an outside oasis for people to spend their time, instead of being shut up in their homes.

It was also during the Victorian period that Frederick Law Olmsted created a plan for the design of the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. which included drives, paths, trees, fountains, and terraces.  Such efforts indicated society’s views toward nature and outdoor leisurely activities.

By the late 1800s, the gardening movement was steadily growing.  In 1891, a group of women from Georgia organized the Ladies Garden Club of Athens, recognized as the first women’s gardening society of its kind.  Indiana County is no stranger to Garden Clubs.  The Indiana Garden Club was founded in 1930 and federated in 1938, being devoted to gardening and the preservation of the environment.  In addition, the Evergreen Garden Club, an affiliate of the GCFederation of PA is devoted to planting gardens around Indiana County, including taking care of the point located in front of the Historical Society’s Clark House.

In 1902, Fannie Griscom Parsons, a pioneer of school gardens in the United States, spearheads the idea of creating school gardens.  The purpose behind the gardens was to serve as a place for children to become “proper” American citizens through the process of gardening, environmental beautification, and contact with the natural world.

From Victory to Suburbia

In the wake of World War II, Victory Gardens sprouted across the nation, symbolizing resilience, self-sufficiency, and collective effort. Millions of Americans tended these gardens, yielding fruits and vegetables to support the war effort and nourish their families. There was even a victory garden planted on the White House grounds.  Ironically, even while being held in internment camps, Japanese-Americans also planted victory gardens within their camps.

As suburbs blossomed in the post-war era, gardens became private retreats, tucked away in backyard sanctuaries where families could unwind and reconnect with nature amidst the trappings of modern life.


As we trace the arc of American gardening history, we uncover a tapestry of resilience, ingenuity, and cultural exchange.  From the humble plots of early settlers to the manicured lawns of suburban America, gardens have been woven into the fabric of our national identity, nurturing communities, inspiring creativity, and connecting generations.  So, as you stroll through your neighborhood or tend to your own garden, take a moment to reflect on the timeless legacy of cultivation that continues to flourish across the landscapes of America.

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