Early 20th century innovations include lawns, foundation plantings; learn more at talk

Foundation planting in Illinois 1925 from Laura Burchfield
This foundation planting in Illinois is from 1925. Note the natural forms of the shrubs. Photo from Laura L. S. Burchfield

by Connie Oswald Stofko

We don’t live the way people did at the turn of the last century, and that’s reflected in our landscapes, said Laura L. S. Burchfield, co-author of American Home Landscapes: A Design Guide to Creating Period Garden Styles.

Back then, people had outhouses. They needed a space for livestock. An area called the drying yard was set aside for hanging laundry.

By the 1920s and ’30s, there were garages for cars, large lawns and even stone barbecues.

Burchfield and two other experts on landscape design will discuss design innovations in the United States and their impact on gardens and landscapes during a roundtable discussion called “Gardens in the Early 20th Century” to be held by the Graycliff Conservancy, Inc. at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8.

The event will be held at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo. (Coincidentally, Burchfield’s husband is a distant relative of the artist Charles E. Burchfield, for whom the art center is named.)

The other participants will be Patricia M. O’Donnell, principal and founder of Heritage Landscapes, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, who has completed more than 450 cultural landscape preservation and sustainability projects, and Pradnya Martz, who has served as the curator for the Weltzheimer-Johnson House in Oberlin, OH, which, like Graycliff, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The discussion will touch on design and plant materials in the early 20th century as well as the landscape designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ellen Biddle Shipman.

Admission is $10 for the public and free for Graycliff Estate and Burchfield Penny members. No reservations are required.

Ad for reel mower circa 1900 from Laura Burchfield
Reel lawn mowers existed at the turn of the last century and became more widespread as lawns became more common.

Gardening became more popular after the turn of the early 20th century, Burchfield said in a phone interview from her home in Columbus, OH. Many how-to books on creating landscapes were written for the home gardener, and many were written by women. Home and garden magazines were published.

New varieties of plants were being bred and many plants were available. There was an abundance of plant catalogs, which began to feature not just a list of plants, but illustrations of the plants as well.

The growing middle class benefited from new technologies that produced more leisure time. Instead of having to pump water, you turned on a tap. Electricity made so many household tasks easier.

One invention that had a big impact on the American landscape was the car, Burchfield said. It, too, was a labor-saving device.

“It was a lot easier to start a car than to feed a horse several times a day,” she said.

People no longer needed stables, and many stables were converted into garages. If you didn’t have a garage, you needed at least a driveway so you had a place to put your car.

Japanese style garden from Laura L S Burchfield
Japanese style gardens were also popular in the early 20th century. This is a view of the craftsman-style property of Denise Wiles Adams, co-author of American Home Landscapes: A Design Guide to Creating Period Garden Styles. Photo courtesy Laura L S Burchfield

While we think of the 1950s as the time when people moved to the suburbs, that trend was starting by the 1920s and ’30s, Burchfield said. The new subdivisions were kind of like living in the country, and large lawns mimicked the greenspace of a larger estate. Lawns were becoming ubiquitous, and lawn mowers, the non-motorized push mowers called reel mowers, became popular. By the 1930s, some people had stone or brick barbecues in their yards.

Garden and landscape design was changing, too. In the 1800s, plants weren’t crowded around the house; you were meant to see the building, Burchfield said. A home owner might have a lilac bush in the yard where he or she could enjoy it from the window.

By the 1920s, how people perceived your yard as they drove by was becoming more important. We started to see foundation plantings, where shrubs were grouped around the house.

You might think that this style of foundation planting was created to cover up an ugly concrete foundation, but those foundations didn’t appear until after World War II, Burchfield noted. Like many trends, the style got an early start and mushroomed later on.

As you can see in the image at the beginning of this article, the style of the shrubs in the 1920s was loose and natural, she said. Garden design was moving away from the formality of Victorian times toward the more natural style of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts style was also more doable for the middle class to create and maintain than a formal garden.

Local, natural materials were used in structures. Local stone would be used in patios. Instead of the wrought iron fences of Victorian times, wood was chosen. Furniture was more rustic. The landscape design was looser and more natural with simple forms and harmonious elements.

Border gardens with flowers and herbs were popular. People were tired of the Victorian-style garden where you had to plant annuals every year, Burchfield said, and were moving toward perennial gardens. While many of us might think that using native plants in our gardens is a new idea, native plants were actually used in the early 20th century.

While these were features of the Arts and Crafts style, there was no single style of garden in the early 20th century, Burchfield said.

There was a Japanese influence on home decor, and Japanese gardens became popular, she said. People had many kinds of theme gardens such as rose gardens, cottage gardens and Italian gardens. Even garden rooms were popular.

The roundtable discussion on Oct. 8 will be wide-ranging, covering trends during the early part of the century as well as more specific topics such as developments in design and layout and the historic plant materials used to create certain effects, many of which are still in vogue today.


3 Comments on “Early 20th century innovations include lawns, foundation plantings; learn more at talk

  1. Great topic! I just visited Naumkeag in Massachusetts. A great example of a gilded age garden that has evolved over the years.

  2. I will not be able to attend the program on Oct 8, but was wondering if it was being recorded so those unable to attend will not miss this informational event. Thanks and keep up the great website.

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