Before the Revolutionary War there were few elaborate formal gardens in America. Undoubtedly the best example of one existing to-day with its original shapes and edgings and many of its minor details is that at Mt. Vernon, the home of Washington, near Alexandria, Virginia. In the year 1764 it was probably the most elaborate pleasure garden in the Old Dominion, for prior to that period the planters had not been given to spending either much time or money upon useless luxuries. After the war, however, and in the early part of the nineteenth century all the large estates in the South were provided with pleasure grounds, which varied in size and elaborateness according to the inclinations and pocket-books of their proprietors, and the natural features of the land. All, however, were upon a more ambitious scale and aspired to more grandeur and dignity than the gardens of New England. In the South vegetation thrived luxuriantly and new and exquisite forms of plant life were frequently discovered to delight the heart of the horticulturist, forms that would not thrive in the bitter cold of the Northland. Slave labour was plentiful and cheap and was at the command of the planters to carry out extravagant feats of gardening; thousands of hands could be spared for the super-cultivation of the myriads of flowers and shrubs, without which an impressive formal garden is impossible.
The Garden Enclosure; Mt. Vernon.
There, too, the tradition of entail was followed by many of the prominent families, so that an estate remained with a name for an indefinite period, generally passing to the eldest son as in England. This was merely a substantial expression of the Englishman's deep-rooted respect, one might say superstition, for custom which became a considerable factor in many Southern gardens. They were made not only for the enjoyment of the generation then in existence, but planned and planted a hundred years into the future.
A Corner of the Garden; Mt. Vernon.
The ability to construct and plant for to-morrow as well as to-day is one of the most important attributes for a gardener to possess. Sentiment and respect for the perfection that time alone can give is absolutely necessary to the art of garden-designing; and refinement of touch and instinct for colouring are as important to the gardener as to the painter.
Effects of wood and stone and brick, the shapes and colours of hedges and screens, of boskets and groves, of trees and parterres of flowers in the beauty of maturity cannot be set forth on paper, but should appear correctly and vividly to the mind's eye of the designer, just as if they existed and lay spread out shimmering before him. Projects of designing and planting should be approached with the question, "How will they appear next Winter? ten years hence, when the tones have been softened and the shapes rounded out by time?" which the gardener should be able to answer offhand.
Many people plant in the Springtime with only the following Summer in view, as they drill vegetable seeds into the kitchen garden. Or they appeal to nurserymen to accomplish in a few weeks effects that Nature would consume a dozen years in producing gradually. It is painful to have to acknowledge nowadays that the old sentiments of garden-making are utterly disregarded and looked down upon with curiosity and contempt by the ruling disciples of Pluto, whose delight it is to complete things in a single night by the waving of a golden wand; miserable moderns who live and die in a hurry.
In the South in the early part of the nineteenth century garden-making became a fad, a great craze in which every man vied with his neighbour to produce the largest and handsomest effects. Architects were brought over from France to make plans and superintend the construction. Some of the schemes were so ambitious that they toppled over before they left the drawing-board. At Charleston, South Carolina, one can still trace the paths and avenues, the general outline and scheme of planting of a garden that was planned to rival the garden at Versailles, that magnificent folly of Louis XIV. Many gardens were laid out or partly planted, but as the fad faded or the impracticability of the undertaking was realized they were left to the passionate embraces of the jungle, which quickly swallowed them up.
Old Garden; Camden, South Carolina.
The men and women who conceived these many beautiful closes, arranged their walks and furnishings and planted their hedges and borders, craved the best examples of Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite, and imported them from England to adorn the interiors of their homes. Both within and without those stately mansions the inherent breath of refinement softly throbbed.
Many of those old gardens are in existence today very much as they were originally laid out, especially several notable gardens in Camden, South Carolina, and vicinity, that were made about the years 1830-35, some even as late as 1850; others exhibit but shreds and patches of their pristine glory and are kept up only in part owing to the circumstances of their proprietors, or to the indifference with which they are regarded by the families into whose possession they have come through the fortunes of war.