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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.”






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