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History of Early American Landscape Design


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[See also: Border, Espalier, Fence, Shrubbery]


Throughout the history of American gardens, hedges were used for a variety of practical and ornamental purposes. The feature created divisions within the garden, protected tender plants from cross-winds, formed barriers against both animal and human intruders, screened unsightly views, outlined ornamental beds and walks [Fig. 1], and brought flowering variety to the garden. According to A. J. Downing (1838), hedges were ideal for these purposes because their architectural form functioned much like a fence or wall, while their organic material allowed them to harmonize with planting arrangements and to articulate other forms of architecture to the landscape. As Samuel Deane noted in 1790, live hedges were preferable to fences and “dead hedges” (wattle fences using woven plant material) because the living plants created a “perpetual fence” whose posts never decayed and stakes never failed. Their versatility also made them adaptable to any scale, whether enclosing a field, screening a privy, or edging a bed (see Fence).

Hedges were found throughout America, but the plant materials employed in them varied, depending on the purpose of the hedge and the climate of its particular region. In 1828, William Prince praised hedges, particularly of buckthorn and maclura, as windbreaks affording protection in areas subject to severe winds. Fast-growing evergreens were recommended for hedges needed to screen an area, although they were not advised for situations calling for trimmed effect or where a long shadow was undesirable. In these cases, the arborvitae, which grows quickly and densely, was the most common choice. At times, the screening effect does not appear to have been intentional; in 1839, for example, C. M. Hovey described the fish pond of the Elias Hasket Derby House in Salem, Mass., as being entirely surrounded by an eight-foothigh impenetrable hedge. Where such an effect was desired, various types of thorn were effective as impenetrable barriers. Downing noted that “there are few creatures, however bold, who care to ‘come to the scratch’ twice with such a foe.” [1] Cacti were similarly used at the California missions to create barriers around fields. Plantsfor ornamental hedges, however, were selected for their foliage, blossoms, and berries. For instance, a wild rose hedge was planted at Mount Vernon, while the deep green foliage of the privet was admired at Oatlands, D. P. Manice’s residence in Hemp-stead, N.Y. Because of their combination of flowering beauty and edible produce, fruit trees, such as apple, peach, and orange, were sometimes planted as espalier hedges (see Espalier). Thomas Jefferson capitalized on the many uses of hedges: he designed thorn hedges to enclose his orchard and garden area [Fig. 2], planned hedgethorn and privet or cedar to line his slopes, and, in a proposal of 1771, used a hedge to screen his icehouse from view [Fig. 3]. [2]

Climate was also a factor in plant choice for hedges. In warmer regions ornamental hedges were composed of orange, yucca, Cherokee rose, and gardenia, while cedar, spruce, and juniper were used in colder areas such as New England. Prince recommended maclura or osage orange for Philadelphia and areas to the south. Edward James Hooper, in The Practical Farmer (1842), maintained that buckthorn was suited to New England’s climate while European hawthorn did better in the west, although other descriptions suggest that the use of thorn varieties was not regionally specific.

Early evidence of hedges in the American landscape may be found in books of instruction on the delineation or division of arable fields, a practice taken directly from European agricultural tradition. Hedges created by close planting and interweaving of shrubs to create a dense barrier were categorized in many horticultural and agricultural treatises as a type of fence, rather than identified with other planting arrangements such as thicket, grove, and group. The discourse about the advantages of hedges over fences was particularly rich in the American agricultural literature of the early nineteenth century. Proponents of the new “scientific agriculture,” such as John Adams and Ezekiel Hersey Derby, reported their experiments with different plant varieties and techniques for forming hedges [Fig. 4]. [3]

The aesthetic treatment of garden hedges was discussed and debated throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Authors and gardeners variously praised and dismissed both trimmed and untrimmed hedges, depending upon the prevailing taste and the particular situation of the hedge. Ezra Stiles admired the spruce hedges at Springettsbury, near Philadelphia, which were cut into beautiful figures in 1754, and in 1762 Hannah Callender described a hedge labyrinth at Belmont Mansion, Judge William Peters’s estate near Philadelphia. In contrast, Isaac Ware, writing in 1756, praised the “natural hedge . . . mimicking savage nature.” In 1832, both H.A.S. Dearborn and Thomas Bridgeman commended trimmed and trained hedges while other writers, such as Downing and Jane Loudon, allowed the merits of both formal and naturalistic styles. In 1845 Loudon praised evergreen hedges “neatly cut, so as to form living walls,” while in the flower garden she proposed a less “stiff and formal” appearance that would “harmonize . . . with the flowers.” In the 1849 edition of his treatise, Downing noted that trimmed hedges were “elegant substitutes for stone or wooden fences,” while irregular or picturesque hedges were handsome additions to a landscape of the “natural style.”

-- Elizabeth Kryer-Reid



  • Virginia General Assembly, 23 October 1705, describing a legislative ruling in Virginia (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“(I) Be it enacted . . . that if any horses, mares, cattle, hogs, sheep, or goats, shall break into any grounds, being inclosed with a strong and sound fence . . . or with an hedge two foot high, upon a ditch of three foot deep, and three foot broad, or instead of such hedge, a rail fence of two foot and half high, the hedge or fence being so close that none of the creatures aforesaid can creep through, (which shall be accounted a lawful fence,) the owner . . . shall for the first trespass by any of them committed, make reparation to the party injured.”

  • Grove, William Hugh, 1732, describing Virginia (quoted in Stiverson and Butler 1977: 35)
“They also make strong hedges of Peach plantsin their gardens.”

  • Anonymous, 17 August 1747, describing property for sale in Somerset County, N.J. (New York Gazette)
“TO BE SOLD, A pleasant Country Seat, fitting for a Gentleman or Store-keeper; . . . a very good Kitchen Garden, at the Rear of which is a Grass-plat, with a Prim Hedge round and pale’d, situate on level Up Land.”

  • Kalm, Pehr, 21 September 1748, describing the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pa. (1937: 1:47)
“The fences and pales are generally made here of wooden planks and posts. But a few good economists, having already thought of sparing the woods for future times, have begun to plant quick hedges round their fields; and for this purpose they take the above-mentioned privet, which they plant in a little bank that is thrown up for it.”

  • Anonymous, 22 May 1749, describing the property of Alexander Garden, Charleston, S.C. (South Carolina Gazette)
“With in a few weeks will be raffled for, A LOT . . . belonging to Alexander Gordon, Esq. . . . Together with a garden, genteelly laid out in walks and alleys, with flower-knots, &c. laid round with bricks, having also several kinds of fruit trees now bearing, and many orange trees now growing like-wise, cassini and other hedges.”

  • Stiles, Ezra, 30 September 1754, describing Springettsbury, near Philadelphia, Pa. (1892: 375)
“besides the beautiful walk, ornamented with evergreens, we saw . . . Spruce hedges cut into beautiful figures, &c., all forming the most agreeable variety, & even regular confusion & disorder.”

  • Callender, Hannah, 1762, describing Belmont Mansion, estate of Judge William Peters, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Vaux 1888: 455)
“On the right you enter a labyrinth of hedge of low cedar and spruce.”

  • Washington, George, 1785, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (Jackson and Twohig, eds., 1978: 4:102, 115)
“[14 March] Planted the 9 young peach Trees which I brought from Mr. Cockburns in the No. Garden—viz . . . 2 in the border of the Walk leading from the Espalier hedge towards the other cross walk. . . .

“[8 April] The ground being too wet ...I was unable to touch that which I had been preparing for grass; and therefore began to hoe that wch. lyes between the New circular ditches, & the Wild rose hedges.”

  • Brissot de Warville, J. P., 6 September 1788, describing the enclosure of pastures in America (1792: 253)
“Mr. L. thinks it best to replace them [wooden rail fences] by ditches six feet deep, of which he throws the earth upon his meadows, and borders the sides with hedges; and thus renders the passage impracticable to the cattle. This is an agricultural operation, which cannot be too much recommended to the Americans.”

  • Strickland, William, 9 October 1794, describing the country from Fishkill, N.Y., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (1971: 99–100)
“The country in general is divided into fields . . . it wants only the ornament of live fences to be one of the most picturesque that can be seen, and those even have been attempted though they have unfortunately failed. Near Fishkyl the fields were formerly divided by Privet Hedges a shrub imported from Europe by the Dutch, which answerd the purpose, and throve well for many years, and some of them are still to be seen; but an insect attacked them some years since by which

they were destroyed, and they never have been replaced, or any substitute adopted or tried; though no doubt shrubs better calculated for making durable strong fences might be found among the natives of this country.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Worcester County, Mass. (1821: 1:375)
“An eye accustomed to the beautiful hedges of England, would probably regard these inclosures [stone walls] with little pleasure. But emotions of this nature depend much on comparison. There are no hedges in New-England: those which formerly existed, having perished by some unknown misfortune. Few persons therefore, who see these walls, will be able to compare them with hedges.”

  • Jefferson, Thomas, c. 1804, describing Monticello, plantation of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Va. (Massachusetts Historical Society, Coolidge Collection)
“make the upper slope thus at a plant a hedge of hedgethorn & at b one of privet, or Gleditria, or cedar to be trimmed down to 3 ft. high, the whole appearance this taking a border of 8 ft. at the foot of the terras.” [Fig. 5]

  • Drayton, Charles, 2 November 1806, describing the Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton, near Philadelphia, Pa. (Drayton Hall, Charles Drayton Diaries, 1784–1820, typescript)
“The Fences separating the Park-lawn from the garden on one hand, & the office yard on the other, are 4 ft 6 high. The former are made with posts & lathes—the latter with posts, rails & boards. They are concealed with evergreens hedge—of juniper I think. . . .

“The Stables & sheds, form the 3rd side of this three sided yard—The stables are seen from the front door of the house, over the hedge that screens the Yard.”

  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1 March 1808, in a letter to William Hamilton, describing plans for Monticello, plantation of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Va. (1944: 365)
“you should know this plant [haw], which is peculiar at least to America & is a real treasure. as a thorn for hedges nothing has ever been seen comparable to it certainly no thorn in England which I have ever seen makes a hedge any more to be compared to this than a log hut to a wall of freestone. if you will plant these 6. I. apart you will be a judge of their superiority soon.”

  • Peale, Charles Willson, 22 July 1810, in a letter to his son, Rembrandt Peale, describing a farm in Pennsylvania (quoted in Rudnytzky 1986: 11)
“I visited Job Roberts the day before yesterday, his farm is a model of excellence in the Culture. . . . He is growing several hedges which in less than 7 yrs. will be complete fences against all sorts of Cattle. The management of which is a good lesson, which I hope to make usefull to this place.”

  • Foster, Sir Augustus John, 1812, describing Custis-Lee Mansion (Arlington House), Arlington, Va. (quoted in Lounsbury 1994: 177)
“the fences were of hurdles to keep out pigs. The American thorn will not grow close enough and the cedar hedge though pretty is not strong enough for the purpose.”

  • Lambert, John, 1816, describing the vicinity of Charleston, S.C. (2:228)
“Between the tavern and Charleston, the road is lined with the hedges and fences belonging to several handsome plantations: the houses are, however, seldom seen, being built a considerable distance back.”

  • Lambert, John, 1816, describing the northern and mid-Atlantic States (2:231–32)
“A contrary practice is adopted in the northern and middle states, where a succession of farms, meadows, gardens, and habitations, continually meet the eye of the traveller; and if hedges were substituted for rail fences, those States would very much resemble some of the English counties.”

  • Hulme, Thomas, 28 June 1818, describing the settlement of Morris Birkbeck, New Harmony, Ind. (quoted in Cobbett 1819b: 475)
“910. I very much admire Mr. Birkbeck’s mode of fencing. . . . The banks [of the ditches] were growing beautifully, and looked altogether very neat as well as formidable; though a live hedge (which he intends to have) instead of dead poles and rails, upon top, would make the fence far more effectual as well as handsomer.”

  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, 20 February 1819, describing the Montgomery House, New Orleans, La. (1951: 43)
“Close to the river, & separated only by the levee & road, is the old fashioned, but otherwise handsome, garden & house of Mr. Montgomery. The garden, which I think covers not less than 4 acres, is laid out in square walks & flower beds in the old French style. It is entirely enclosed by a thick hedge of orange trees, which have been suffered to run up to 15 or 16 feet high on the flanks & rear, but which are shorn down to the highth [sic] of 4 or 5 feet along the road.”

  • Forman, Martha Ogle, 21 April 1823, describing Rose Hill, home of Martha Ogle Forman, Baltimore County, Md. (1976: 158)
“The hedger, Mr. Green, arrived here this evening, he laid a part of the Apple hedge and all the thorn hedge.”

  • Waln, Robert, Jr., 1825, describing the Friends Asylum for the Insane, near Frankford, Pa. (pp. 231–32)
“The flower garden, extending from the vestibule to a dark green hedge of cedar, which separates it from the kitchen garden, offers a rich repast to the eye. . . .

“About twenty acres of the farm are in a state of cultivation; the rest is woodland. It is separated from the road which passes in front of it, by a flourishing thorn-hedge.”

  • Derby, Ezekiel Hersey, 1828, in a letter to Thomas Green Fessenden, describing his use of the buckthorn in constructing hedges (quoted in Fessenden 1828: 57)
“After trying several kinds of trees, for the purpose of making a hedge, without much success, I was induced to try this [buckthorn], which has afforded a most beautiful fence, so much so as to attract the attention of every person who has seen it. It divides my garden, is about three hundred feet in length, the plants set nearly a foot apart, is five feet high, and two feet wide at top, which is cut nearly level. It shoots early in the spring, makes a handsome appearance, and continues its verdure till very late in the fall. It has not so much spine as either the English or American hawthorn, but I think sufficient to protect it from cattle. . . . You will observe that Miller speaks of it as not so proper for hedges as the hawthorn or crab, which may be the case in England, but I cannot agree with him as it respects America.”

  • Hall, Capt. Basil, 1828, describing a “bungalow” in Alabama (quoted in Lockwood 1934: 2:389)
“We soon left our comfortless abode [the inn] for as neat and trig a little villa as ever was seen in or out of the Tropics. This mansion, which in India would be called a Bungalow, was surrounded by white railings, within which lay an ornamental garden, intersected by gravel walks, almost too thickly shaded by orange hedges, all in flower.”

  • Hall, Capt. Basil, 1828, describing a plantation he visited during his trip from Charleston, S.C., to Savannah, Ga. (quoted in Jones 1957: 98)
“From the top of the bank, on which the house stood, we could see over a hedge into the rice fields which lay beyond, and stretched over the plain for several miles, their boundary line being the black edge of the untouched forest.”

  • Bell, Caroline, 6 April 1829, describing Iberville Plantation, La. (Historic New Orleans Collection, Butler Family Papers, folder 459, MSS 102)
“I have set out a great deal of beautiful shrubbery & Flowers, tomorrow shall plant, all my orange seed for hedges & plant all my Myrtle and sweet orange Trees.”

  • Anonymous, 17 April 1829, “Neglected Grave Yards” (New England Farmer 7: 307)
“I wish to call your attention to the subject of repairing, clearing, and ornamenting the burial grounds of New England. These enclosures are commonly neglected by the sexton, and present to the curious traveller, an ugly collection of slate slabs, of weeds, and rank or dried grass. A small effort in each sexton or clergyman, would suffice to awaken attention, to bring to the recollection of some, and to the fancy of all, a scene which every village should present, a grove sacred to the dead and to their recollection, to calm religious conversation, and to melancholy musing—inclosed with shrubbery, and evergreen, and dignified by the lofty maple, and elm, and oak, and guarded by a living hedge of hawthorn.

“Every sexton should procure some oak, elm, and locust seed, and make it a part of his vocation to scatter it for chance growth.”

  • Committee of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1830, describing Sweet Briar, seat of Samuel Breck, vicinity of Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Boyd 1929: 425)
“Mr. Breck has taken considerable pains with a hedge of white hawthorn (Crataegus), which he planted in 1810, and caused to be plashed, stalked, and dressed last Spring by two Englishmen, who understood the business well. Yet he apprehends the whole of the plants will gradually decay, and oblige him to substitute a post and rail fence. Almost every attempt to cultivate a live fence in the neighborhood of Philadelphia seems to have failed. The foliage disappears in August, and the plant itself is short lived in our climate.”

  • Committee of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1830, describing a country residence near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Boyd 1929: 438–39)
“On viewing this seat, our attention was immediately drawn to the handsome hedges of Hornbeam and Pinus Canadensis. We were delighted with the latter; never having seen it before. Its fine green foliage contrasts very sweetly with the delicate appearance of the tender shoots. These hedges are trimmed periodically and kept in excellent order.”

  • Dearborn, H.A.S., 1832, describing Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass. (quoted in Harris 1832: 82–83)
“Hedges, used as inclosures, will disappoint expectation, and require to be entirely eradicated after a few years, if even for a short time they should have a pleasing effect, when young, healthy, vigorous, and well managed. They are only proper for extensive grounds, farms, or large gardens, embracing some ten or twenty acres, or for long lines of circumvallation, which are to be seen at a distance, in which the imperfections, occasioned by insects and the ravages of time, are lost in the perspective, but should never be employed to surround a mere parterre, a buisson of roses, or a bed of hyacinths. To look even beautiful, hedges, of all kinds, require constant attention; they must be kept clear of weeds, and be pruned and clipped several times in the course of the season of vegetation, and this, too, by a skilful hand.”

  • Hovey, C. M., June 1835, “Notices of some of the Gardens and Nurseries in the neighborhood of New York and Philadelphia,” describing D. and C. Landreth’s Nursery on Federal Street, Philadelphia, Pa. (American Gardeners’ Magazine 1: 201)
“The object of a hedge is generally to keep from the grounds cattle and other animals; though in some instances, they are only set to obscure one part of the garden from the other, or to hide some disagreeable object from the eye.”

  • Martineau, Harriet, 1835, describing Charleston, S.C. (1838: 1:228)
“The country is flat and sandy, and the only objects are planters’ mansions, surrounded with evergreen woods, the gardens exhibiting the tropical yucca, and fenced with hedges of the Cherokee rose.”

  • Derby, Ezekiel Hersey, 1 January 1836, “Cultivation and Management of the Buckthorn (Rhamnus Catharticus) for Live Hedges” (Horticultural Register 2: 28)
“The rapid increase of our population, and the consequent vast consumption of timber for other and more valuable purposes, by increasing the relative cost of the old fashioned wooden fences, must eventually render the introduction of hedges here, advantageous, if not absolutely essential, from motives of utility and economy; while the lover of rural scenery will hail with pleasure the picturesque charm of their verdant beauty.

“It is now about thirtytwo years, since I first attempted the formation of a live hedge as a boundary for my own pleasure-grounds.”

  • Forman, Martha Ogle, 30 April 1838, describing Rose Hill, home of Martha Ogle Forman, Baltimore County, Md. (1976: 396)
“The General planting a hedge of Osage apple from the poplar tree gate to the woods gate between the horse chestnuts row.”

  • Hovey, C. M., November 1839, “Notices of Gardens and Horticulture, in Salem, Mass,” describing Elias Hasket Derby House, Salem, Mass. (Magazine of Horticulture 5: 410–11)
“The extent of the garden and pleasure ground is several acres. The garden lies to the south of the mansion, and is, we should judge, nearly a square. It is laid out with straight walks, running at right angles, with flower borders on each side of the alleys, and the squares occupied by fruit trees; the green-house and grapery stand in the centre of the garden, and are screened on the back by a hedge.

“In the centre of the garden is a small oval pond, containing gold fish: this pond is hedged round with the buckthorn, which has now been planted over thirty years! It is not over eight feet high, and is thickly set with branches and foliage from the top to bottom, and perfectly impenetrable.”

  • Kemble, Fanny, 24–28 March 1839, in a letter to

Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick, describing an estate on St. Simon’s Island, Ga. ([1961] 1984: 284–85)

“Hamilton struck me very much—I mean the whole appearance of the place; the situation of the house, the noble water prospect it commanded, the magnificent old oaks near it, a luxuriant vine trellis, and a splendid hedge of Yucca gloriosa, were all objects of great delight to me.”

  • Hovey, C. M., September 1840, “Notes on Gardens and Gardening, in New Bedford, Mass,” describing the estate of James Arnold, New Bedford, Mass. (Magazine of Horticulture 6: 363)
“Passing into a straight walk which leads from the conservatory, by the flower garden, (which is screaned by a hedge from the lawn front,).”

  • Hovey, C. M., November 1841, “Select Villa Residences,” describing Highland Place, estate of A. J. Downing, Newburgh, N.Y. (Magazine of Horticulture 7: 406)
“18. Flower garden, in front of the greenhouse. . . . Under the arbor vitae hedge, which is here planted against the boundary line, the greenhouse plants are principally placed during summer.

“19. Hedge or screen of arbor vitae, shutting out the back shed, compost ground, &c. The arbor vitae is well adapted for this purpose, growing rapidly, and forming a perfect screen in three or four years.” [Fig. 6]

  • Longfellow, Samuel, 3 September 1845, in a letter to Annie Pierce, describing Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House, Cambridge, Mass. (quoted in Evans 1993: 40)
“A buckthorn hedge has been made between us & Mr. Hastings, and Mr. Worcester not satisfied with the rustic open fence which separates

between us demands a hedge there also which will cover up entirely the glimpse that I get from my western window and which I do not at all like to loose [sic].”

  • Hovey, C. M., August 1846, “Notes of a Visit to several Gardens in the Vicinity of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York,” describing D. and C. Landreth’s Nursery on Federal Street, Philadelphia, Pa. (Magazine of Horticulture 12: 284)
“Referring to our account above mentioned, we particularly alluded to the fine hedges of the arbor vitae which existed here, and recommended this fine tree as peculiarly well adapted for screens or hedges to shut out one part of the garden from another, or hide disagreeable objects. Twelve years’ experience has convinced us of the correctness of our remarks, and we may still urge them upon the attention of our readers. The arbor vitae is unquestionably one of the finest of evergreen trees, and far superior to any other for forming hedges or screens.”

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1847, excerpt from “Walden” (Clarke, ed., 1993: 2:47)
“Self-sown my stately garden grows;
The winds and wind-blown seed,
Cold April rain and colder snows
My hedges plant and feed.”

  • Lyell, Sir Charles, 1849, describing Natchez, Miss. (2:153)
“Many of the country-houses in the neighborhood are elegant, and some of the gardens belonging to them laid out in the English, others in the French style. In the latter are seen terraces, with statues and cut evergreens, straight walks with borders of flowers, terminated by views into the wild forest, the charms of both being heightened by contrast. Some of the hedges are made of that beautiful North American plant, the Gardenia, miscalled in England the Cape jessamine, others of the Cherokee rose, with its bright and shining leaves.”




  1. A. J. Downing, “A Chapter on Hedges,” Horticulturalist 1 (February 1847): 346.
  2. Jefferson purchased much of his plant material for Monticello from Thomas Main, a nurseryman and author of an 1807 work on hedges. See Brenda Bullion, “Early American Farming and Gardening Literature: ‘Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States,’ ” Journal of Garden History 12, no. 1 (1992): 37–38. view on Zotero.
  3. For example, see Ezekiel Hersey Derby, “Cultivation and Management of the Buckthorn . . . for Live Hedges,” Horticultural Register 2 (1 January 1836): 27–29. For a discussion of scientific farming in the Boston area, see Charles Arthur Hammond, “ ‘Where the Arts and the Virtues Unite’: Country Life Near Boston, 1637–1864” (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1982), chapters 2 and 3. view on Zotero.

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