As I mentioned in this post about hedges, there’s an unusual amount of them in my New Deal town, and they’re associated with our launch in 1937. So if we care about preserving our history, are we stuck with hedges? I’m not a fan, so I was thrilled to discover a gardening book from 1930 offering two design choices for American gardens in that era: either formal (the style that uses hedges) or naturalistic, my style of choice. Here’s a local blog post I wrote about the two options, slightly modified from the original on Greenbelt Live.
Hedges in Old Greenbelt’s hedges are mainly privet or euonymus, and were installed in the early days before fences were allowed. (That happened in the ’50s after the homes became owner-occupied and and pets were first permitted.) I’m told by one historian that hedges were used to demarcate the land each resident was responsible for maintaining – to mark borders. But here’s what we know about hedges in the gardening world.
Formal hedges aren’t used much these days, for lots of really good reasons:
– They’re high-maintenance, requiring frequent sheering that’s generally done with power equipment. To avoid the use of power equipment, residents or the people they hire have to be highly skilled in hand-pruning. For that reason and because power tools are faster, they’re preferred in any event.
– They’re monocultures of a single species, which means they offer no biodiversity and they’re more susceptible to the spread of pests and disease affecting large numbers of plants.
– Privet and euonymus, the dominant hedge plants in Greenbelt, are neither native nor well adapted to our region. The euonymus in particular is pest-prone.
– Almost all our hedges were planted too close to the sidewalk, so pruning is required at frequent intervals. Otherwise, the hedges become safety hazards.
– Hedges are difficult to impossible to keep uniform – they die, they grow differently with different amounts of sun, etc). So the design intent of perfect geometry is often thwarted.
– When used as the dominant landscape feature, hedges do little to capture stormwater or provide for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife.
In other words, they’re so 1937, the year that Greenbelt opened its doors. They hark back to the bad old days of American gardening before we understood anything about the environmental consequences of our gardening plants and practices. Or so I thought, until coming upon this cute little book published in 1930 – the relevant era. In it I found this:
The two principal styles of landscape development usually employed here [in the U.S.] are the naturalistic and formal. The naturalistic style is the more simple of the two and seems to be best adapted for the American garden lover. This style permits the free use of flowering shrubs and perennial plants, as well as annuals, and permits the incorporation of the rock garden and the vegetable garden. The formal style, which is usually built along geometrical lines, demands absolute balance and symmetry and must accompany a house that is built along these lines.
Naturalistic gardening is now much preferred over formal styles and has become virtually the only kind recommended. Its advantages include:
– A mix of plants, as suggested above, means more biodiversity and filtering of stormwater (because garden plants typically have deeper roots than turfgrass).
– With no need for “absolute balance and symmetry,” there’s less maintenance required.
– Curved lines and lush borders with a variety of plants soften the straight lines of our homes and result in gardens that most people consider more beautiful than gardens with geometric perfection. (Indeed, gardens design today is all about copying and improving upon what happens in nature.)
– With a variety of plants, gardens can be interesting all year long, with blooms for about 10 months of the year in our region.
The need for privacy. Originally, Greenbelt used low hedges and lawns in both the front and back yards, creating a total openness that’s unique among planned communities. The fact that it hasn’t been replicated may be due to our natural desire for enclosure and privacy from the world, so again it was great to see the 1930 Garden Guide make the case for privacy itself and planting mixed borders to achieve it.
The Outdoor Living Room Area is an important one because here many a pleasant afternoon or evening may be spent in comfort with a good book, in practicing golf or some other form of outdoor recreation. As it is necessary to have privacy in order to enjoy this area to the utmost, it should be enclosed with a border of shrubs or a vine-covered lattice, and a delightful effect is obtained by bordering the shrubs with a planting of perennial flowers. Shade trees are also desirable here, and a delightful effect is obtained by bordering the shrubs with a planting of perennial flowers.
Who knew that such attractive, eco-friendly garden design was popular that long ago! (More evidence that the ’60s weren’t as world-changing as we thought.)
In contrast, tall hedges, now allowed by our co-op rules, go beyond privacy to walling off the neighborhood and diminishing our cherished sense of openness. We’ll probably see more and more of them, since the rules allow very little man-made screening.
But back to naturalism, my preferred style of gardening. Screening done in a naturalistic style looks like these examples:
Screening along a front yard in Rockville, MD.
Screening with a mix of shrubs in Maryland (that’s my former garden in the upper right).