American Gardens – Review

The Covid-19 pandemic has made me appreciate more than ever the value of gardening books and especially those covering gardens that I cannot at the present time visit. The armchair traveller in me relishes being taken on a journey from my living room to discover or in some cases rediscover the wealth of gardens and green spaces this planet has to offer.

In ‘American Gardens’, Monty Don and Derry Moore take the reader to both well-loved as well as little-known American gardens, tracing the fascinating histories of a myriad of outdoor spaces, in their efforts to epitomize or redefine the American garden. The book, published to complement and further expand the BBC television series, is lavishly illustrated with Derry Moore’s photography, perfectly illustrating the engaging and fluent style of Monty Don’s writing. Monty certainly gives us a fascinating insight into  gardens visited in his quest to discover ‘what is an American garden‘?

(above: Longue-Vue, New Orleans)

Monty and Derry came together to work on this book from totally different positions. As Monty points out in the Introduction, Derry first travelled to the USA as a boy and has had a close relationship with the country whereas Monty has paid sporadic visits since the 1980s and confessed he knew enough of the country to know how little he knew! This is, perhaps, the essence of the success of this book. As Monty points out, ‘we agreed that we would not be bound to trace each other’s footsteps, but would celebrate our different relationships to and experiences with America and follow them wherever they took us.’ Although they mostly travelled together, there were periods when Derry went off alone and times when they visited the same garden on different occasions. It has worked superbly.

The book is divided into Journey One, Two and Three, with Journey One covering iconic gardens such as Monticello in Virginia; the British Embassy, Washington DC; Longue Vue, New Orleans and Magnolia Gardens in Charleston. In Journey Two they encounter Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn; Chanticleer, Wayne, Pennsylvania; Federal Twist in Stockton, New Jersey and Target Bronx Community Garden in New York as well as the iconic Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Journey Three includes the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix; Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island Washington and the Sheats-Goldstein House, Los Angeles. Some 37 gardens are covered, some will be familiar and well known, others less so.

America is made up of a cross-section of the world’s humanity and so one would expect to find many garden styles across its expansive landscapes, however, I think more than anything the television series and the book has made me understand the complexity of American gardens more clearly. I loved reading about Vizcaya, the Florida Italian Baroque garden created by James Deering who by 43 was enormously rich with houses in Chicago, New York and Paris. When he developed pernicious anaemia he was advised to spend his winters away from the cold and so he bought land in the Biscayne area of Miami. As Monty points out, and Derry’s photographs testify, everything about Vizcaya is operatic, staged and mannered but none the worse for that.

Less well known to me is Oak Spring, in Upperville, Virginia, (pictured above) the house of ‘Bunny’ Mellon, who was the doyenne of 1960s and 70s gardening in America. The wife of one of the richest men in America, the garden at Oak Spring became her labour of love. Monty points out how relatively modest it is – here he was to find a garden with ‘discretion’ and ‘ease’. Bunny died at the age of 103 in 2014 and her work, once the height of fashion, has today assumed a historical cast, however, it is a design many of us will be familiar with.

As Monty points out there are many gardens they should have visited but time is always the guardian of these sort of trips, however, the book does certainly celebrate the dynamism of American gardens and I felt that Monty and Derry have more than done justice to the variety and optimism of America’s gardens.(Monty pictured left among the Redwoods, San Jose, California.)

There are a few entries where the pictures simply tell the story, for example the British Embassy in Washington with its Lutyen’s grand (portico) and the iconic Fallingwater. However, as one has come to expect with Monty Don, with each of the gardens he describes, he takes us with him so we too come to understand the history, the thought processes and ideas behind the gardens and their appeal today, and he does it supremely well.

Monty Don OBE, is one of the UK’s leading garden writers and broadcasters. He has made several acclaimed series such as Around the World in 80 gardens and Monty Don’s Italian Gardens. Derry Moore’s photographs have been reproduced in numerous magazines and his work included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York and the National Portrait Gallery.

‘American Gardens’ Monty Don and Derry Moore, is published in hardback by Prestel at £35.00.

Photo credits: ©Derry Moore