Until very recently, there's been very little that's American about the average American garden.
We've imported our plants and borrowed our designs to the point where our gardens are having a cultural identity crisis, says Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
"If you take photographs of suburban homes that have yews and hollies planted around the foundation, it could be Illinois, it could be Kentucky, it could be Delaware, it could be New York, it could be anyplace," she says. "It's a rubber-stamp creation."
Maybe because we're a fairly young country, a nation of immigrants, American gardeners have traditionally looked everyplace but here at home for their inspiration. We've copied the perennial borders and rose gardens of the English cottage, taken our hedges and clipped evergreens from the 17th century estates of France and Italy, and lifted our azaleas and cut-leaf maples from the ancient gardens of Japan.
But that's slowly beginning to change, Ms. Sawyers says. "We're finally coming of age and saying, 'Wait a minute. We shouldn't be copying English gardens or Japanese gardens.' That doesn't really work here."
What does work, she says, is to extract lessons from the great gardens of the world and use them to develop a uniquely American garden style.
Ms. Sawyers will be describing what makes a garden uniquely American at 8 p.m. Wednesday, when she will be the guest speaker at this year's Robert Lewis Baker Memorial Lecture at Bryn Mawr School.
The first step is to look at nature as a role model, to extract the beauty from the natural landscape and capture that in the garden. This is one of the hallmarks of Japanese gardens and the reason why many Americans are attracted to the Japanese gardening style.
"Japan looks very different from America," Ms. Sawyers explains. "It's a volcanic island. The ocean is all around. There are strong mountain lines. That is not the case here, so if we copy the Japanese who are copying their nature, we're going to have a very different-looking garden than if we look to the natural areas in our own country and draw inspiration."
To illustrate her own sources of inspiration, Ms. Sawyers notes a tidal pool in Maine, a carpet of moss on Spruce Knob in West Virginia, dripping rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the rolling hills of the Piedmont. "We need to become sensitive to what our nature is like," she says.
An important part of capturing the natural landscape is to use indigenous materials, whether it's local stone,timber or plants. "By having materials from the area, it helps the garden blend with the surroundings. There's a greater fit. It doesn't look like something bizarre has been plunked down or transported from some different place."
We've traditionally had a distain for native plants, she continues, unlike the Japanese who until recently have not imported any plants at all.
In her own garden in eastern Pennsylvania, she has several native plants including river birch, winterberry holly, asters, fothergilla, native azaleas, inkberry holly, bayberry and red-twig dogwood. Not all are indigenous to her specific area, but the overall quality of the plants fits in with the local landscape.
"I certainly have exotic plants in my home garden as well," she says, "but if you want your garden to blend with nature and you want to have the local woods or pastureland as borrowed scenery, you need to tie into it. And one of the easy ways to do that is to use the same kind of plants."
She believes we ought to look to our own history and culture when choosing elements for the garden. "The Japanese don't show gilded gates, carved marbles or any ostentatiously showy materials. Instead they'll use humble materials, things like discarded roof tiles to make walls. They'll recycle foundation stones, turning them into wash basins, or use old logs for fencing.
"Frequently people will say, 'I want a Japanese lantern or a wash basin.' But those things don't mean anything to people here. They don't fit with our cultural heritage. Instead we should be using things like old millstones. These are things that have resulted from life here."
People could design barbecues so that they're a focal point in the garden rather than an eyesore or a distraction. And, she notes, many people are now starting to put birdhouses into their gardens because of their ornamental quality.
Americans need to become more involved with their gardens, Ms. Sawyers believes. In Japan, there's an integration between the inside and the outside. They design their homes and gardens to harmonize with one another.
Here we could do that same thing by bringing back the traditional American porch and by designing our gardens to be beautiful when viewed through the windows of our homes rather than just from the street.