Table of Contents

Creating a Period Garden

The American Front and Side Yard - From Colonial to Contemporary,
for a zone 4 garden

Master of Agriculture
Integrating Capstone Project

University of Minnesota
College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources
Department of Horticulture Science

Gunda Grotans Luss


This paper is an overview of garden and corresponding house styles in America from the 1600s until the present. Reference is made to the effect that world-view has on attitude towards “Nature” and consequent treatment of landscape. To facilitate creating a period garden appropriate to a period home, material provided, besides text, includes: a timeline chart, a photo index of historic Northern house styles, sample garden plans and illustrations for the Saltbox home, Arts & Crafts home, and the Cape Cod Revival (cottage garden), an appendix with four lists of plants available or introduced in 1600-1775, 1776-1849, 1850-1900, and 1900-1950. Garden styles discussed include the Colonial Formal Parterre, the Transitional, the Romantic/Picturesque, the Gardenesque Victorian (early & late), Neoclassical, Arts & Crafts, Cottage, the Abstract, and the Sustainable Garden. There are also short paragraphs about the design principles and effect on contemporary gardens of Gertrude Jekyll, and Feng Shui, and some suggestions for Dutch Elm resistant elm cultivars. References.

Earliest colonists are superstitious and in a wilderness. They fear much from the supernatural, wild animals, and unfamiliar Native peoples. To exhibit their ‘control’ they continue traditions from Europe and make their gardens rectilinear and fenced. As circumstances and world-view change, with independence from Britain and the beginning of Romanticism, American gardens (in the north) evolve to a ‘natural’ English style. By the 1850s the sense of power, but loss of individuality produced by Industrialization, makes gardens an arena for control and commodification of nature. Exotic plants, labeled & set out as specimens as well as intricate, high-maintenance, one-of a kind bedding designs, show off a home owners wealth, taste, and uniqueness. By 1900 the wilderness is tamed, and suitable for recreation, and home. Victorians are comfortable, and feel safe enough to include porches as part of their living space.

After the First World War, Americans take elements of the Beaux Arts, Arts & Crafts and Modernism to develop a native architecture – The Prairie style, while gardens go through a similar evolution. There is a turning away from European models. The economic crash of 1929 shrinks the house, lot, and garden in size and minimizes complexity. The house is in a Cape Cod revival style, while the front and side yard is lawn and planted with a few mixed foundation plantings. While an old-fashioned cottage garden is an attractive alternative, the ‘minimalist’ garden ‘style’ predominates until the 1950s, when California landscape designer, Thomas Church, revives an interest in garden design. This new Abstract Style, however, mostly affects the back yard, with terraces, patios, bar-b-cues, and kidney-shaped pools.

By the 1970s concern for the environment creates an interest in sustainable gardens, producing boulevard gardens, rain gardens, and roof gardens. This is the garden as ‘environment’, for personal enjoyment but also for managing water and creating habitat for beneficial insects, birds, & small mammals.

The 300-year period from earliest Colonial gardens to the present in some ways has come full circle. New fears about the dangers in the environment and declining use of the outdoors by young people (35%-45% drop in use of parks since 1980), is a concern for worry. Children’s direct experience with nature is the best assurance of their enlightened, caring environmental decisions in the future.


I would like to extend my thanks to Brad Pedersen and Julie E. Weisenhorn, for suggesting this topic and for encouraging my lengthy pursuit. To Dr. James B. Calkins for guidance in refining the Integrating Project Proposal and final suggestions for the finished paper. To Dr. Mary Meyer, my advisor, for valuable resource material and pertinent advice. Special thanks to Diane Norman, and Michelle Menken, trusted fellow students, for suggesting ways to improve continuity. Thanks to my long-suffering husband, Gerold, who has provided tech support through many technical challenges as well as trip planning to revived period gardens. Although I received good advice from several quarters, I take full responsibility for any shortcomings or errors. Thanks to all my professors, especially Jeannie M. Larson, and Prof. Bud Markhart, for their inspired commitment to teaching, which made this journey so rich. Lastly, a heartfelt thanks to the Judd Fellowship for the travel grant, which allowed me to study firsthand, many of the old gardens near Berlin.

This version of the thesis has been modified slightly during the translation to HTML. The substance, however, remains unchanged.

A PowerPoint presentation is available for downloading.