Gardens come in different shapes and sizes. Some produce food crops while others are strictly ornamental, and some contain components of both. One garden might have water features, sculptures, furniture, and a healthy presence of a particular species of bird, while another is a small plot with only a few herbs and tomatoes, 4 feet x 4 feet. Regardless of their size, gardens represent the time, energy, and thought that an individual gardener put towards about a particular parcel of land. Whether it be acres and acres of botanical showmanship or a few tomato plants and some parsley, gardens are an expression of purpose. There’s always a rhyme and reason to a garden, for each garden tells a story as sewn by its gardener. [image: side by side of two opposite sized gardens in AAG’s collection]
One could argue that the rewards of gardening go beyond the act itself. Growing plants in an organized manner has directly affected human emotion for thousands of years, for crops and other realms of agriculture have played a pivotal role in human society since about 12,000 years ago. It was around this time when the last major ice age came to an end, and the human journey with plant cultivation took off. From then until now, humans have actively cultivated their own plant-based foods through the use gardens, farms, and other crop-dedicated plots. In a sense, the social impact of gardens is omnipresent, for the garden is completely intertwined with the human experience.
Aesthetic enhancement and practical benefits are what humans have considered worthwhile qualities of gardens. As generations of gardeners passed down their blueprints of the oases they created, ideas on plant growing, beauty, and diet were continuously built on as future generations around the world reinterpreted the ‘garden’. By the time the United States was founded in the 1700s, gardens varied widely throughout the world. [Haupt images]
The social purpose of gardens in U.S. history may be split into two categories. The first are economic gardens, those created to supply necessary food products and to establish a degree of economic agency on behalf of the gardener. These gardens were found near the living quarters of the enslaved back in the 1700s—also known as “slave gardens”—or anywhere else gardeners grew crop to establish a self-sustainable food and economic resource. [image?]
These gardens, after a successful season, enhanced the gardener’s social well-being by feeding their family and affording them an opportunity to trade for other goods, often other food products. This promoted the gardener’s social agency as they found themselves in positions to make decisions concerning prices, product, and business ethics. For these gardeners, their gardens played an integral part in establishing the individual, as well as those they provided for, within their community and society at large.
The other category of gardening for social purpose in the U.S. is found at wealthy estates, at world fair displays, flower shows, surrounding monuments, and melted (or not) into the landscapes of parks. The U. S. has continued the tradition of promoting gardens as spaces dedicated to the fundamental qualities of wisdom and beauty, and for the betterment of society as a whole. [Image]
Gardens found at aag examples, and the head gardeners behind them, sought to evoke a specific emotion and thought out of those who observed it; to leave viewers in awe at the cultural, historical, scientific, and philosophical components of what they saw. In the U.S., individuals, businesses, and governments have initiated nation-wide campaigns to promote gardening for immediate and powerful social impacts.
It should also be noted that these gardens—all gardens grown by U.S. peoples of European, African, and Asian descent—provide only partial insight into how humans have interacted with soil and seeds on this land. Native American history tells a much longer and equally important story about the history of gardening on this vast continent. Resources for the history of Native garden culture may be found in this section’s bibliography.
Today, gardens that are economically, environmentally, and aesthetically pleasing can be found throughout the country.