Designing for History

April 9, 2004

The dimension of time is something that I find extremely interesting and challenging in relation to garden history.

In many other fields, the goal of 'restoration' is to return something to the state in which it existed at the time of its creation. The creator of a house, a painting, an article of clothing, etc. may expect that certain changes will inevitably occur over time, but these are generally viewed as incidental.

By contrast, the designer of a garden knows that one of the primary media in which he or she is working -- plants -- will change dramatically over time, and somehow takes that into account in the design. The history pros out there will correct me if I'm wrong (I hope), but my sense is that when when we talk about 'restoration' of a garden, we are rarely talking about returning the garden to the time of its initial design and planting; instead, we are referring to some later point in the maturity of the garden when the design is judged to be fully realized.

The topics of renewal and restoration usually require us to think backward in time. I thought it might be fun to shift gears and try to think, historically, about how the forward march of time has been viewed by garden designers and accounted for in their gardens. By 'garden designers,' I do not mean to limit the field of inquiry to well-known historical figures and gardens; residential gardens and landscapes are equally germane.

Here are some of the questions I've been thinking about, in no particular order:

-- Did the designers of estate gardens such as Dumbarton Oaks, Winterthur and Fioli have a sense (even if the estate owners didn't) that these would someday become gardens visited by the public in large numbers? Did they account for that in their designs?

-- In doing a period restoration of a garden, how is the target date selected? Is there some type of generally accepted standard -- e.g., 10 years following orginal installation -- or is this a case-by-case decision? What factors are taken into consideration?

-- Is it not ironic that some of the features of historic gardens that can be the most distinctive and enticing (e.g., large trees, tall boxwood hedges) are those which most certainly did not exist in this form during the lifetime of the original designer and/or owner of the property?

-- What features of your own garden, if any, suggest that the garden designer was planning for the future history of the garden?

-- Is there a notion of planned obsolescence in garden design? How have designers past and present approached this issue? (On the LD forum, I've often seen the figure of 20 years cited as the appropriate time period to bear in mind when considering mature size of plants and trees. It's made me wonder what happens to these gardens after 20 years. Are we assuming that there at least one new owner, and a desire to change, by then?) There is currently a discussion on the LD forum concerning the drawing of trees on landscape plans that touches on related issues.

-- What happens when a garden outgrows its original design? One of the earliest posts on this forum concerned how to 'restore' a garden designed by Umberto Innocenti in which, over time, the large trees featured in the design proved to be incompatible with the other plantings. I'm attaching a link to that thread below for those who may not have seen it; I thought both the question and the responses raised interesting issues that merit further discussion.

Will you join me in ruminating on the forward march of history and its role in the history of gardens?

Here is a link that might be useful: Innocenti restoration discussion

Comments (17)

  • inkognito

    I will ruminate alongside you.
    We often talk about a garden being made to include input from the client, the clients budget, and the site; time may be the fourth thing to be considered. I am not sure that anyone ever planted a "one day to be" 50 foot tree but some do grow that big. It is evident that those who built gardens to demonstrate how powerful they were wanted the result within their lifetime. Future generations have been left with this egotistical legacy which sometimes works.

  • FranVAz7

    Urbangardener, Hillwood has addressed the issues you bring up. I will mull over the topics you raised and get back to you with a well-laid-out description of how we are going about the landscape restoration/maintenance process, and what the guiding philosophy is. Right now, however, I need to work up what I'm going to say in a talk I'm giving on Monday to the docents and volunteers about the Japanese garden. But don't go away--I'll be back!

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  • ginger_nh

    Just when Garden Restoration starts to open up - so do my customers' gardens! Wish I had the time to ponder and respond in depth to the various threads that have begun recently. But I will add some quick comments as time allows.

    I can address some of the questions above as they pertain to residential and ordinary gardens.

    People as individuals and also as members of a particular sex,age-stage of life,culture,and class within that culture have differing senses of and relationships to time. Even with education in garden or landscape design, the designer's individual, unique time orientation will come into play. The Iroquois taught that in every deliberation we should consider the impact of our decisions on the next 7 generations. That's about 140 years. A very different sense of time from, say, those who set up nuclear power plants believing they would "soon" find a way to dispose of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years. Many do not think farther out than a few years or a single generation.

    In terms of residential gardens and planned obsolescence, I think it is very common for landscapers and landscape designers to believe that plants can be chosen and placed despite the fact that they will easily out-grow their spaces. This is a throw-away,transient, instant gratification society; plants don't escape the general culture. The feeling is that overgrown trees and shrubs can be cut down and removed; the next owners will probably want things changed anyway; the designer as well as the owner will be working elsewhere/retired/in a different career/moved/dead/whatever by the time the plants have outgrown their spaces or died as cultural requirements have changed due to the garden's maturation, etc. Also, many of today's homeowners do not want to wait for plants to mature and fill in. They want specimens crowded together for a full look; they will figure out what to do about the crowding when the time comes 5 years or so down the road.
    The residential garden is often not designed with time in mind for both practical and short-sighted reasons.

  • mjsee

    My garden is suffering because of poor plant placement. My prunus Mume has serious balck knot and is dying. The tree can't be more than 10-20 years old because we've been here 7 years, and the garden, as I inherited it, was planted 3-4 years before we bought the property (at most). SO--even if they planted a 10 year-old tree, the tree is 21 years old. (Assuming I did my math correctly!)

    The people at the Botanical gardens tell me that it is "unheard of" for Prunus Mume to get black knot. BUT--the tree was planted withing 20 inches of a stone retaining wall. It's roots were utterly restricted on that side--and are crawling all over one-another up against that wall. Combined with an ice-storm 2001, then a DROUGHT in 2002, then record rain summer of 2003--this tree was doomed. As soon as my new retaining wall is finished it's coming down. WHY would anyone plant a tree there?

    This garden was designed by a local garden designer. It was overfilled...there were originally four ornamental fruit trees--I took the cherry down the summer we moved in--it was competing with the prunus mume, and had been damaged by hurricane Fran. It was RIGHT ON TOP of the prunus mume. (Almost literally--it was planted in the upper bed.) Then there are the white quinces--planted right next to each other, under the plum.

    Instant landscaping, I guess. Don't know if this was client driven over filling, or the designer's idea...but ties in perfectly with Ginger's point about "disposable landscaping". The plum has black knot as well--it's coming down too. This fall I'll assess the "root entanglement" of the quinces--and if I can I will separate them and move one.


    Luckily all the noise of construction has kept the cardinals from nesting in the mume. THAT would be a drag--I'd have to wait until the chicks fledged to take down the tree! I may wait anyway--just in case "someone" is nesting--gotta be good to the birds. Thanks for letting me rant--I hate that what should have been a lovely, mature tree, with another 20 years of life left in it (or more) will have to come down. It's JUST WRONG. Particularly since it survived so much--the ice storms, two hurricanes, etc.



  • nandina

    Dipping a toe into this conversation....The early garden designers generally did design thinking way out in the future. They had no way of knowing that rapid intercontinental travel would take place in the future allowing insects, viruses and fungi to quickly travel throughout the world. I feel blessed that I was able to visit some of the large estates along the Hudson river that were crowned with arching American elms which was then the number one landscape tree of the north. Now we have a Beech fungus slowly marching up the east coast from CT. And, as you all know, in a matter of three years Sudden Oak Death hopped out of CA. and threatens, lurks ready to destroy the best of southern landscape plants.
    Bottom line.....It is impossible to restore a garden/plantation/park to its original state because much of the plant material is gone or diseased and dying. I don't believe that today's designers can truly design for the future. They can try, but who knows what insect/plant problem will hitchike into the country tomorrow. Who knows when the hurricane, tornado, ice storm will strike?
    Today's designer should lay down a basic hardscape design which allows for plant loss. For instance, 'this is the spot for a small tree. We will plant a dogwood in that spot today even though they are subject to disease problems and because the client wants one. If it dies another small tree may be substituted'.
    To restore with acuracy a project such as Colonial Willamsburg or Sturbridge Village requres searching out the old types of vegetables and flowers. This is a specialized type of restoration. Someone restoring a Victorian home landscape may want to pause and consider if they really want to use the old timey flowers or newer varieties that have been bred for better color and disease resistance. If the 'bones' of a landscape have been carefully considered and installed the restoration project becomes a matter of making informed choices. Today, the restorer/designer must continually keep updated on plant problems in the area. A quick example: I was working in the front yard on Saturday when an unknown landscape truck turned into the drive. The owner introduced himself and inquired about a feature I had installed in the front yard. As we stood talking he suddenly told me that my dogwood was diseased. We walked over to it and he explained that the flowers were misshapened and went into great detail explaining how he would treat it. I am still feeling guilty because I did not have the heart to tell him he was looking at a very healthy Carolina Silverbell tree in full bloom.
    I really do not get 'hung up' on the term restoration. If one is restoring a garden for historical reasons you do the best you can with after careful research. The average homeowner buying a property with undesirable, established gardens can rip them out and begin over. That's okay, it's your nickle. Or, the purchase of home and garden may lead to some changes and tweaking around the original basic design. All are restoration. Hopefully this Forum will aid, abet and inform those undertaking these types of projects.

  • inkognito

    Nandina: assuming that it was possible to see the result of your work 20 years from now (let me see, I shall be 45 then) and all the problems you envision did not exist, let's say that you are an optimist; what would be the essential ingredients of a garden that you designed if you designed it for posterity?

  • inkognito

    Oh well.
    It seems to me that it is the plants that suffer more from aging than the hard features. Dare I suggest that it is gardens that have a non vegetale structure that stand the test of time. I am not saying that plants are irrelevant only that if there is nothing other than plants then it is easy to loose the way. I have worked in some gardens with perennial beds that were designed by Miss Jekyll and neglected by others and there is no reference point at all and probably wasn't for fifty years. Restoration in these cases is a matter of trying to re-capture the spirit and not the detail.
    How long would you expect a perennial bed to stay the same?

  • Saypoint 7a CT

    I'm now dealing with an old, overgrown landscape, much of which was probably planted 50 or 60 years ago, with the exception of some of the extremely large trees.
    I have a 15' tall and wide yew planted exactly 2 ft. from a corner of the garage that really has to go.

    Two large Norway Maples and one large Sugar Maple in front of the house have seen some storm damage in the past, two are leaderless, and all three have varying degrees of rot because of the poorly cleaned up damage long ago. Like people, these trees are living things that have accidents, contract diseases, and just plain get old.

    The cedars that were planted along one side of the lot in the 40s or 50s ended up encroaching on the street and garden, rooted where the lower branches touched the soil, and some suffered storm damage as well. A lot of privacy was lost to the pruning saw. The towering white pine drops branches on the street every winter, ticking off the neighbors who leave their houses first in the morning and have to move them.

    So the character of the landscape has to change, I think there's no avoiding it. If I remove the large trees and replant, they'll be small and medium trees for the next generation and probably headaches for the generation after that.

    It seems that the intended mature design is a relatively fleeting thing, with the majority of the time spent in getting there, and the rest being past its prime.


  • ginger_nh

    That is a nice piece of writing above; a garden renovation essay that should be catalogued in the GR FAQs-to-be. Has a nice flow to it and good content. To the point, but somewhat poetic and wistful as well.


  • nandina

    I will attempt a brief answer to the question you asked me above. It is a bit difficult to give you an all encompassing answer as we are dealing with gardeners growing in all the planting zones. Situations vary. All this leads me to something I have never seen discussed on these Forums. Mainly, that I feel it is very important to design to the 'human scale". Let's just stick with the home landscape in this discussion. Of course, it is not possible to plant for posterity. However, it is possible to plant slow growing, tough trees and shrubs (cacti, whatever) that are survivors and do not outgrow the bounds of the human scale. If this type of planting is incorporated within a good hardscape the gardener is free to play with garden beds, perennials, annuals. Search out long-lived trees that when mature will not outgrow the human scale. It takes study and an effort to find who is growing them. All sorts of tricks to making this happen. I can lead you to 70 year old blueberry bushes that are thriving. Great shrubs! How many have the courage to use them as landscape shrubs? You have to know the mature characteristics of plants. This you learn by visiting arboretums. Has anyone written a book on this subject? Designing to the human scale for posterity...or something like that.
    An additional thought....A landscape may no longer exist and be lost to the ages. Yet, certain features first designed into it have been copied and passed down through the ages, possibly still in vogue today. That, also is designing for posterity.

  • inkognito

    Excuse the prod Nandina, I just knew that you would have something of value to say. For me what you call your "additional thought" is the gem.

  • kategardens

    So many interesting thoughts expressed here, I want to respond to many, but instead find myself packing up to attend my third conference in the past 2.5 weeks. (At least this one I'm not in charge of running!)

    No internet access there, alas, but I am taking along some new garden history readings, and look forward to re-joining the conversation over the weekend. Best to all -- Kate

  • egyptianonion


    You've really gotten to the nub of the problem--trees. The hardscape can get fixed or replaced as needed, perennials and shrubs take from only a couple of years to a few, but trees take seemingly forever to mature. Ideally, the larger the garden, the better, because the only thing we can do is to plant trees in time layers; that is, plant fast growers among the slower-growers, the slow-growers, of course having potentially more majesty and quality.

    This is really hard to do in a limited space. I'm trying to put some up-and-comings under the canopy of my biggest silver maple--not a quality tree (my neighbors call it a "dirty tree"), but it is BIG, passes as majestic, and gives a tremendous amount of shade to the house and front yard (please see "improved family farm picture" in Gallery). I used to wake up in cold sweats worrying about what to do when it finally blows down. I thought I had it licked when I put a couple of its own seedlings under the canopy, but I'm afraid they'll never grow much as long as it's still there.

    So I've got a couple of store-bought ashes on either side of it but farther away, that I think will help mitigate the eventual loss somewhat. They're fairly fast growing, but don't make the wide canopies that I prefer, and can be fragile in our winds as well. I've decided that when the time comes, I'll just buy a silver maple at the nursery and put it near the stump of the old one. After all, it *is* a fast grower.

    Meanwhile, when I first took over the place, I planted 12 little bitty white oaks ordered from the catalog. (I can't seem to find any sold in nurseries in my area.) I love white oaks, but we've never had any to my knowledge on the farm even though it's native to the area. Disappointingly, only five remain after 12 years, and they're still really tiny. If they ever amount to anything, it'll be another hundred years, but at least I'll have done my part. One is near the silver maple, but not right under the canopy, so it might have a chance.

    Obviously, I'm can't restore the place back to what it was at a particular point in history. But the family does seem to have a history of having shade trees, and I like to keep that going for myself and for whoever comes next.


  • FranVAz7

    At last I can join this thread (gave my talk, took some vacation days!). The experience I have had in historic garden work, and most of the historic places I am familiar with, are public gardens not because of the gardens themselves so much but because of the person who originally owned the house or estate that has then been turned into a museum. Therefore, the focus is to attempt to portray a certain significant time period in that person's lifetime, and the garden therefore is supposed to reflect that. So ideally, the landscape should be brought back to look like it did during that period of time the museum is emphasizing, even if the design was relatively new and not "mature." That's the ideal. The point of restoring the garden along with everything else is to allow visitors to feel like they have stepped back in time and are seeing the grounds in much the same condition as the important historic figure would have seen it. Not the way it looked fifty years later. This is rarely done, however. Mount Vernon prides itself on having completely redone their restoration to reflect George Washington's design for the flower and vegetable gardens. However, the trees he planted around the big lawn in front are way overgrown and too big to look anything like what Washington saw there during his lifetime. Gives completely the wrong picture. But no one's going to suggest we cut down the trees George Washington planted (except me)! So there is a conflict between authenticity of material (original trees) and authenticity of look (replant to get the right size for the time period).

    In the case of Hillwood, Mrs. Post intended early on that the house be made into a museum to house her vast collection of Russian and French art, furniture, and porcelain. She had the gardens redesigned for the purpose of entertain groups of people, and often led tours of the gardens herself during her lifetime. When deciding to do a massive restoration of the grounds, they were faced with lots and lots of huge trees which would have made it impossible to restore the vast collections of azaleas, rhodos, camellias, and other flowering trees and shrubs that were part of the original design but were languishing under all the towering evergreens and shade trees. So. What to do? Archival photos tell the story of what the grounds looked like, and so lots of the trees have come down and been replaced by the same but smaller, to get the same look as during Mrs. Post's time. It gets controversial from time to time, of course, but there's no other course of action if you want the garden she had. As an example, there are five immense arborvitaes that dominate some shrub beds on either side of the formal lawn. They're about 30 feet tall. However, in the mid 1960s, they were about 6 feet tall and meant to be kept that size by shearing (as were most of the evergreens). The rhodos actually tower over the little sheared arborvitae in the photos. So, we're yanking out the old ones and putting in new, shorter ones that will be kept in proper scale. Drastic, but necessary. There will be fights over replacing the huge American elms, but that will eventually be done as well. As for whether the garden was at its "prime" during the mid 1960s, which is what we are trying to portray, (the design dates from about 1957) it all depends and what you like, mature shade trees or blooming borders! A logical question to ask is, what happens when the new trees outgrow their allowed size? Obviously, we'll replace them again. If this doesn't get done, then you are back to losing the totality of the design for the sake of a few trees.

    Saving the mature trees at an old site can then lead to a "restoration" that can never be authentic because the right plants can't survive in the altered conditions. That in turn leads to problems if a historic site has an educational mission, as most claim to do. Add the complication of donated funds with many strings attached, making interpretations say what the donors want instead, and you have a real mess. I've been there, fought that fight, and lost. That's why I'm at Hillwood instead of one of the historic sites that are practically a stone's throw from my house.

    Sorry this is so long. I'm having a day off to plant some new perennial beds. So out I go for more soil prep. The plants arrived yesterday from Bluestone.


  • JeanneK

    Fran, thanks for the interesting details on how historic sites are restored.

    I can see how it difficult it would be to restore a historic garden, particularly if you restore it to the way the original owner saw it. Having said that, Fran, I would be one of the ones fighting for the American Elms. lol.

    I guess as a visitor to these gardens, I would rather see the trees that George Washington planted, with a slightly revised planting scheme that has the general feel of the original design than cut down the trees and replant the same type of tree. I find it interesting to see how garden has aged, whether the design has held up to the test of time.

    I guess it depends on how literal you take the task of "restoration".

  • FranVAz7

    Jeanne, the trouble with the idea of trying to do a new design with the old trees what is somehow "faithful to the intent" is that it's the way historic revisionism starts. Compromises start piling up on top of one another, the motivations of the people doing the compromises and revisions are sometimes suspect, and before you know it you have hash instead of history.

    Hillwood's elms are about 80 years old. They are in decline, their massive root systems are sucking the life out of the rhodos and azaleas, and they cost $15,000 a year to keep alive. That's money that could pay for a seasonal gardener to help us maintain the grounds to a higher standard. Also, if we replace with healthy, dutch-elm-disease-resistant specimens, in ten or so years the new ones will look just like the old ones did when Mrs. Post first bought Hillwood in 1957. That will be extremely cool.


  • egyptianonion


    I truly admire what you do, but I guess I'm too much of a tree-worshiping Druid somewhere way far back to be able to imagine cutting down a healthy, or even a reasonably healthy, tree because it had "overgrown" its space. Yeah, maybe it would serve Geo. Washington right for chopping down that cherry tree if we cut down all of the trees he planted (just joking about the cherry--I know it's a myth), but I would prefer to stand in awe of those majestic shade trees at the height of their glory. They are in themselves actual relics, in the best sense of the word, of life at that time. Yes, they're bigger than they were when he was alive. That was the whole idea--for them eventually to grow into their majesty long after he would be here to enjoy them himself. They are his personal legacy to the world (whether intended or not, I suppose), making the world a better place for his having been here--even if he had done nothing else in his life. To stand under a tree and imagine that George Washington himself was responsible for its being there would be awesome.

    So, I'm keeping the pine tree that sneaks into the A.D.1900 family picture, and that my father played under in several later pictures. I don't care if it doesn't look the same as it did back then, or that I had to move the bridal wreath to a different location because they won't bloom underneath it anymore.

    Gardening historically seems to have built-in paradoxes.


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