Is it possible to pour the entire well of American garden history into 10 glass cases? Probably not, but the Smithsonian has made a valiant effort with a new exhibition at the American History Museum.
The show inhabits a small gallery on the museum’s ground floor; if you see a silver, three-eyed Tucker automobile, you’ve gone too far. Make a U-turn and pop into “Cultivating America’s Gardens.” Grouped more by theme than chronology, the show is modest in size but not in scope. It gives a sense of how all the threads of gardening — and these include botany, horticulture, landscape design, agriculture and commerce — are woven into the fabric of the nation’s history.
It would be nice to think that the meeting point is a single garden of Eden, but as the exhibit shows, divergent groups in America have tended to touch the soil in their own discrete way. This is the show’s poignancy.
At one end of the gallery, the viewer finds images of grade-schoolers from Anacostia tending kale and tomatoes at their school garden. The faces convey discovery, pride and joy. At the other end, we have the spectacle of a doyenne from Newport, R.I., who, in 1913, dedicated her grandiose, blue-themed Italianate garden dressed as “Lady Sapphire” in a Renaissance-style gown embroidered with sapphires. She is clutching a staff wrapped in an azure ribbon, which somehow cements the fatuity of it.
A year after this, World War I began and gave birth to that more down-to-earth horticultural incarnation, the victory garden, which returned to even fuller effect in the next world war.
You might argue that today’s thriving community garden scene is an echo of the warrior gardener. In the wars, the victory garden was intended to prevent food shortages and free farm boys for fighting. Today, you can view the community plot as being both for something (dietary empowerment) and against something, if you view Big Ag as the enemy.
And this is the resonance of the exhibition, that everything we hold dear and trendy in contemporary gardening has been seen before, if in a different form.
School gardens today are fashionable and prolific and were given a high profile by Michelle Obama in the White House Kitchen Garden. They’re seen as an outdoor classroom and an antidote to children’s poor diet and distance from the natural world. It was ever thus. The projected, black-and-white stills from the Anacostia garden date to 1982, and the origins of school gardens go back a century earlier, to the reform ideals of the Progressive Era.
Those who think the urban agriculture movement is a 21st-century phenomenon should pore over the blown-up image, from 1909, of the DeWitt Clinton Park in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district. Here, plots were set aside for immigrants and their children to cultivate. It was the creation of the reformer Frances Griscom Parsons.
One case gives a spotlight to world’s fairs, which played a large part in setting styles in garden design. From the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, we find a visitor’s pass that contained a mug shot of the holder. Photo IDs in 1876 — who knew?
The current interest in blending ecology with horticulture — seen in native plant gardens, pollinator gardens and green landscape architecture — has many progenitors, from the 19th century’s William Robinson and his influential writings on natural gardening to the native prairie visionary Jens Jensen (1860-1951) to Rachel Carson’s seminal “Silent Spring.”
Everyone knows of Carson’s prescient warnings about the damage of pesticides. Fewer know of Jensen, a Danish immigrant who wrote in the 1920s: “For the first time in the course of human history mankind actually possesses power and the might to alter and throw out of harmony the natural order of the earth. . . . The future will curse us.”
The exhibition was prepared by three curators, Kelly Crawford and Joyce Connolly of Smithsonian Gardens and Lilla Vekerdy, head of special collections at Smithsonian Libraries, and runs until August 2018.
“Millions of people come to the museum, so I’m hoping that gardeners will take away things they didn’t know, but also that folks who aren’t gardeners understand we have a long tradition of gardening,” Crawford said.
Gardening may be expressed differently by various communities through the years, but there is a commonality to growing plants for food and pleasure that speaks to the American story, she said. “It’s something that unites people. Anybody can do it,” she said.
International visitors see the United States as the land of the lawn, an abiding feature intertwined with the 19th-century inventions of the lawn mower and suburbia.
The lawn is not a singularly American garden element, but the way it has been adopted here is. Europeans in densely populated lands like to enjoy the greensward behind high hedges; here, the lawn was open and formed one seamless hearty handshake to your neighbors. That was the American way, open and friendly.
The lawn today provokes greater ambivalence. Environmentalists point to the polluting effects of its fertilizers and pesticides; plant devotees see it as a waste of good planting space. Crawford is amused that one of the contraptions invented to mow the lawn was a tricycle whose pedals drove the blades. That hasn’t come back. Yet.
She is intrigued that the physician Nathaniel Ward, who invented the Wardian case — essentially a terrarium for transporting and keeping plants — was driven by the idea that the act of cultivating plants was in itself healing. “Horticultural therapy isn’t new at all,” she said. “The pendulum always swings.”