Where I grew up, it was common for us country people, whenever we found ourselves in a town, to drive around looking at the different neighborhoods, scrutinizing the houses and front gardens, noting what we liked (or not) and, if we were younger, dreaming of one day living in something similar. A dutiful teenager, I enjoyed sitting in the back seat with my parents in front, giving a running commentary, as we rolled along. This is what passed for weekend entertainment in north central Kansas in the 1960s.
After I graduated from college, my husband and I moved to Oxford, England for a year and, good Midwesterners both, we naturally expected to relax on Sunday afternoons by taking little drives around the city looking at the houses and gardens. We soon found ourselves turning around and going home.
English people live behind tall hedges and walls, with the gardens in the back. The English like their privacy and don’t want people looking in on them. They promptly close the drapes when the sun goes down. The English journalist/memoirist/gardener Beverley Nichols comments on this preference in A Village in a Valley, one of the books in his Allways trilogy that I read recently.
The American penchant for openness, on the other hand, was articulated explicitly during the 19th century by garden designers and tastemakers who saw fence-less, wall-less streets linked by one continuous sweep of green lawn as a glorious symbol of democracy. “We are all equal!” they preached, and we became believers.
As luck would have it, an example of this 19th century group-think recently arrived in my Inbox. The man who runs my neighborhood’s Good Neighbors group email includes a photo with his daily posting, and this week he sent an old photo of a whole row of fence-less lots linked by identical democratic lawns on the 4800 block of Chicago’s South Blackstone Avenue.
The American garden aesthetic has evolved since then. We see it in our neighborhoods and reflected in the pages of Chicagoland Gardening. We will also see it this summer as we move into garden walk season. More driving around and looking at gardens – something that hasn’t changed since those early days in Kansas.