Posts tagged ‘garden history’

Little Seeds, Big Stories.

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens is a digital archive of stories about gardens and gardening in the U.S.—anyone can add their story to this Smithsonian collection!

Archives can be intimidating. The first time I truly spent any time with an archive was graduate school, researching Gilded Age costume balls in New York City as part of an internship. Flipping through the folders of hundred-year-old photographs inspired both a sense of awe and terror. I was so conscientious, never laying a finger on a photograph, turning the photos just the way I had been told to by the nice (but firm) archivist, and making sure not one thing was out of place when I returned the boxes. Having the opportunity to be so close to history, and the physical trail of documents, photographs, and objects that comes along with it, was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

It can be hard to see how archives connect to our everyday lives, or even to see how our very own stories and lives could be important enough to be included in a museum. The Smithsonian Institution is home to amazing and Important (with a capital “I”) treasures, such as a letter from Galileo and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. But also hidden in these archives and collections vaults are small gems, such as a promotional flower seed box from the mid 1800s to family photo albums.

Our family histories—and our gardens—can seem like just the tiniest, most ephemeral seeds in the vast forest of history, but our memories of “everyday” history have the power tell big stories. A story of grandma’s Victory Garden during World War II and her recipe for sweet canned peaches is also a tale of perseverance and making-do during a time of adversity. Memories of backyard barbecues and Tiki parties on the patio in the 1950s speak of a time of newfound prosperity for the middle class in the postwar years. Your story of the tiny herb garden and cucumbers growing on the balcony of your city apartment? Someday, it could show future historians how individuals contributed to the greening of America’s cities in the early 21st century.

October is American Archives Month, and the theme for 2015 is the “Power of Collaboration.” Our Community of Gardens digital archive depends wholly on collaboration to exist—we are collecting your stories and memories about gardens and gardening! Anyone can submit a memory, story, photograph, or video about a garden in America. You can help us preserve garden history and become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your story with us on the website.

Collage of Family Stories on Community of Gardens

Garden—and family—history comes alive on Community of Gardens.

Here are a few of our favorite family stories submitted by the public from the Community of Gardens digital archive. From left to right:

  1. Four Generations of Gardeners. This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes:
  2. Grandmother’s Garden. A granddaughter shares her memories of her grandmother’s love of roses and gardening:
  3. Camy and Larry’s Backyard Wedding. Recollections of a 1970’s hippie backyard wedding in a woodland setting, with Super 8mm footage. Check out those vintage dresses!

What is your family’s garden story? Get inspired by Archives Month and interview a family member about their garden memories or share your own. It’s a great excuse to dig into those family photos and videos and start asking questions! Share your story this month, or any month of the year.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens Educator

October 22, 2015 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Plants in the Ripley Center: Design for Small Spaces

Next time you visit the Smithsonian museums, take some time to venture into the Ripley Center concourse underneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You’ll find the planters lining the walkway there feature a temporary exhibit showcasing gardening styles for small spaces. Five planters host unique interior and exterior vignettes that illustrate a variety of small gardening options. They require little space and are low-maintenance, but add BIG style to any garden.

In selecting a new theme for the plantings in the Ripley Center, I chose to highlight gardening styles that fit urban settings – traditionally smaller spaces for plants – that can be adapted to accentuate any size area. I worked closely with Smithsonian Gardens’ (SG) team of education specialists and collection curators to design this exhibit which features pieces from SG’s historic Garden Furnishings Collection.

Fairy garden

Fairy garden

Whimsical, magical, fantastic – these are words I think of to describe a fairy garden. My daughter is very much into fairies, princesses, and gnomes – all that wonderful stuff of the Disney variety. For her, this form of gardening in miniature that incorporates fairies and other fantasy creatures IS magic. To me, these gardens have a tale to tell through their use of characters and scenery and spark the imagination of young and old.

Assorted terrariums


My family shares a 1950’s ranch-style house. While there isn’t a lot of room for interior plants, we’re able to fit in some of the styles on display in the modest space. Terrariums are what we use the most at home–on the dining-room table, in the bathroom and bedrooms. Since they can be almost any size, the possibilities are almost endless. A small terrarium can really brighten up a space and add a natural touch, as it has in our 1950’s galley kitchen!


Green wall

My colleague Janet Draper wrote an interesting post about her planting of a green, or living, wall in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. The green wall installed in the Ripley Center is much smaller and less tricky to cultivate than the lovely and large exterior wall that Janet maintains. Green walls have become popular in offices and homes as a way to liven up a wall and provide possible health benefits; they clean the air and increase positive moods.



A stumpery is a garden feature I wish I had known about every time a tree fell in my nestled-in-the-woods childhood home. Utilizing the remains of a tree in inventive ways would have saved my father a lot of chainsaw blades. Through the creative arrangement of stumps and the incorporation of ferns and other shade-loving plants, old stumps can themselves become a focal point within a garden. This style was extremely popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901) and has experienced a resurgence recently.

Dish garden of succulents

Dish garden of succulents

Dish gardening enables a gardener to create an environment that might otherwise be difficult to sustain. For instance, in the Washington, D.C. area desert plants are not able thrive during our cold and sometimes snowy winters. The desert dish garden in our home has successfully survived multiple harsh winters. Watering and sunlight needs vary depending on the plants one chooses to use in a dish garden, but it’s a great way to grow plants you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes and DIY tips in future blogs. Be sure to catch these plant vignettes in the Ripley Center before exhibit closes on January 31, 2016. I and everyone at Smithsonian Gardens hope you enjoy the exhibit and take away some ideas you might be able to use in your own indoor or outdoor garden.

– Alexandra Thompson, Horticulturist, Interior Plants, Smithsonian Gardens

September 18, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

A Backyard Bouquet Inspired by the 1950s

DIY Backyard bouquet

Burpee seed annuals from the 1950s, left, were the inspiration for our DIY backyard bouquet, right. Seed annual, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.

We continue our June #ThrowbackThursday theme of mid-century matrimony with a fun project that combines two of our favorite trends from the 1950s: DIY and classic backyard flowers. Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist, shows us how to create a do-it-yourself wedding bouquet. We peeked into the special collections of the Archives of American Gardens, finding inspiration in the bright and cheery seed catalogs of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection. Melanie carefully chose classically beautiful flowers reminiscent of those found growing in grandma’s backyard garden, such as snapdragons and football mums. Our new traveling exhibit Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the do-it-yourself trend, flowers, and outdoor living in the years after World War II. It opens at the Tampa Bay History Center this Saturday, June 20th.

Flowers have played an essential role in weddings throughout history as symbols of love, chastity, hope, and beauty. The practice was not truly institutionalized as a marriage custom until Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Victoria wore a simple headdress of orange blossom, with additional blossoms trimming her dress, which in turn became a favorite flower for Victorian and Edwardian brides. Though she was not the first bride to wear white, her wedding cemented the popular and ubiquitous tradition of wearing of white for brides in the Western world.

Of course, many brides have taken the traditional bouquet and made it their own, with unique twists. The June 22, 1942 cover of Life magazine featured a bride carrying a bouquet composed of ten-cent to five-dollar war stamps, which could be used to buy a twenty-five dollar bond. According the article on “furlough brides” the bouquet was first popularized in the Midwest and became all the rage nationwide—they sold for the cost of stamps plus the time taken to craft the bouquet or bridesmaid corsage. It was just one of the many ways wartime brides made-do and supported the war effort, from dresses with shorter hemlines that used less fabric to hurried weddings between deployments.

Bouvardia, white orchids, and gardenias were popular choices for wedding bouquets in the 1940s and 50s, as well as a simple palette of white and pink. Shirley Temple carried both bouvardia and orchids in her 1945 wedding and Jacqueline Kennedy carried orchids, gardenias, and stephanotis in her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Our bouquet runs with the white and pink palette, but subs out the fancy flowers for the more down-home feel of backyard blooms. Hippie culture loosened up the traditional formal bouquet in the 1960s and 1970s, favoring “common” flowers such as daisies. Today, anything goes, from a farm-fresh locavore bouquet to one made of felt flowers to no bouquet at all.


DIY it!

Flowers: Melanie chose flowers that were commonly grown in backyard gardens in the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the vintage W. Atlee Burpee & Company seed catalogs in the Archives of American Gardens. Wholesale flower sellers and farmers’ markets are great places to start when sourcing flowers for your bouquet.

Dusty pink stock
White snapdragons
White roses
White football mums (chrysanthemums)
Pale pink carnations
Baby’s breath
Bakers fern

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Floral wire
Floral tape 
Small pieces of tulle
Satin ribbon
Pen knife


  1. Prepare your flowers by removing the bottom leaves from the stems.
  2. Wrap flowers with larger blooms and floppier stems (the mums and stock) with floral wire, starting at the top, and hiding the mechanics by wrapping the stems with floral tape. Leave four to five inches of exposed stem at the bottom.
  3. Trim the stems. Using a pen knife, rest the stem on your index finger with your thumb on top and carefully cut the stem from bottom upwards at angle and away from you. The angle allows the stems to soak up more water. Trim about two inches off the stem.
  4. Choose two or three favorite flowers to anchor the bouquet.
  5. Begin to make a bunch around the anchor flowers by adding more flowers and greens, turning your bouquet as you add more flowers or greens. This is an opportunity to play with texture, height, and color based on your flower choice! A looser bouquet will have a more informal feel, and a tighter, rounder bouquet a more classic look.
  6. Pause for a moment and take a look at your bouquet from all angles. Do you need more flowers? More greenery?
  7. When you are happy with the size of the bouquet, surround the base of the arrangement with pieces of white tulle and secure with floral tape.
  8. Starting where the tulle is attached to the stems, wrap the stems with floral wire, leaving about two inches of exposed stem at the bottom. Conceal the mechanics with floral tape.
  9. Take your satin ribbon and starting at the topmost part of the floral tape, making sure none is showing, tightly wrap the ribbon down the length of the stems. Secure with a pin two inches from bottom, hiding all floral tape. Push the pin towards the stems at a slight angle. It may take a few tries to get it to stick.
  10. Using a second piece of satin ribbon, tie a bow around the base of the bouquet and attach with a pin.

There you go! A beautiful backyard bouquet, inspired by the gardens of the 1950s. What types of flowers were growing in your backyard in the 1950s? Do you remember the flowers from your wedding bouquet or boutonnière? Did the flowers you chose have a special significance to you?

-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator and Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist





June 18, 2015 at 10:49 am Leave a comment

The Bride’s First Garden

June holds the promise of good weather and beautiful blooms, making it a popular month for weddings. This month on #ThrowbackThursday we’re mad for all things matrimonial and mid-century modern in celebration of our newest traveling exhibit, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard. Stay tuned on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and our blog as we celebrate everything from backyard weddings to DIY bouquets to a plan for a 1950’s bride on a budget and her new backyard.

Drawing of The Bride's First Garden

Drawing of the “Bride’s First Garden,” 1953. Perry Wheeler, landscape architect. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection.

“All young couples who move into new houses on bare, treeless lots share two things in common: the urge to give their house a setting that will distinguish it from others in the neighborhood, and a desire to plant a garden without delay. Both of these enthusiasms may eventually produce a dream garden, and the good outdoor life that goes along with it, but not without a sound plan.” —Excerpt from “The Bride’s First Garden,” House & Garden, 1953.

June is historically one of the most popular months for weddings, when summer gardens are still in full bloom. In 1953, an article in House & Garden entreated young brides-to-be to begin planning an important aspect of their new future home: a garden. The magazine enlisted landscape architect Perry Wheeler to design a garden for newlyweds that could be developed over a five-year period; or, in Wheeler’s words, “on the installment plan.” His resulting plan emphasizes easy-to-maintain plants, seasonal color, individuality, and outdoor privacy for the growing, young post-war family.

A Georgia native, Wheeler practiced landscape architecture in the Washington, D.C. area from 1948 to 1979. He is best known for his work on numerous private Georgetown gardens and redesigning the White House Rose Garden alongside Bunny Mellon during the Kennedy administration. His designs were practical, often incorporating terraces for backyard entertaining and room for a jungle gym, but also lighthearted and whimsical.
Sketch of a Suburban Garden by Perry Wheeler

Plan of the “Bride’s First Garden,” 1953. Perry Wheeler, landscape architect. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection.

Wheeler’s design for “The Bride’s First Garden: A Five Year Plan” catered to a young couple on a budget living in a typical, suburban home with modern architecture in a new community development. Almost two decades earlier, the Federal Housing Act of 1934 put home ownership within reach of middle-class families, and suburbs such as Levittown in Long Island were built in response to the post-war housing crisis. House and Garden was one of many magazines, along with Popular Mechanics and Better Homes & Gardens, which ran how-to articles on home improvement. Rather than utilizing the driveway as the approach to the front door, Wheeler recommended individualizing the house (which looked identical to the other houses on the street) by giving the front entrance a “welcoming aspect” with large trees and a stone walkway. The backyard terrace, pictured here in a preliminary drawing done by an assistant, is a “major must” for the second year, along with planting beds for the terrace edging and select trees for brilliant fall colors.
The plan emphasizes spaces for informal socializing and relaxation over formal elements. In his notes for the design, he suggested investing in a few pieces of antique garden furniture to go with more modern pieces, rather than purchasing a matching suite. He even incorporated a charcoal grill into the terrace design—newly introduced by Weber in 1952. The fifth year of the plan imagines that there is already a growing family in the works, and the design accordingly leaves room for a playhouse and spaces for the family to spend time together outdoors.
The Perry Wheeler Collection at the Archives of American Gardens, includes photographs, plans, business records, and newspaper and magazine clippings pertaining to Wheeler’s landscape architecture practice. More detailed information about Wheeler is available in the Archives of American Gardens’ Guide to the Collections.
-Kate Fox, curator of Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard
A version of this blog post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog.

June 4, 2015 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

The Thrill of the Grill

Farnham Garden

The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey garden, 1960s. Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens. Note the grill in the background.

Above all else, Memorial Day is a holiday dedicated to honoring those who have lost their lives serving the United States. Unofficially, the long weekend also marks the start of grilling season. As we come together as family, friends, and neighbors to celebrate the arrival of summer and strengthen community bonds, the grill is the hearth around which we gather in backyards across the country. Barbecue and grilling have a long history in America, an ebb and flow of foodways coming together and drifting apart. Each region in America has their outdoor cooking traditions, from the vinegary pulled pork of North Carolina to bean-hole beans in Maine, to tri-tip grilled on the spit in southern California. Immigrants from as far away as Korea and Brazil have introduced new flavors and cooking methods to the American picnic table, expanding our ever-changing menu.

Our newest traveling exhibit is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services and the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the rise of outdoor living in the decades after World War II, as the suburban backyard became the setting for pool parties, barbecues, and family fun. The exhibit is currently on view at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and travels next to the Tampa History Center in June 2015.

Just about every town in America has rows upon rows of suburban tract houses, built as housing for returning veterans after World War II. The GI Bill of Rights placed homeownerships within reach of millions of people; by 1959, thirty-one million people owned their own home. With these homes came backyards, small lots that could be transformed into outdoor living rooms with a little imagination, some elbow grease, and a subscription to Popular Mechanics.

As a garden feature though, the grill really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, gaining popularity on the West Coast before making its way east across the country. Fire pits and permanent brick barbecues complimented the low-slung, L-shaped ranch houses gaining popularity in California. The open architecture of the ranch house seamlessly blended the indoors with the outdoors, expanding the living space of the home. Outdoor kitchens, patios, and swimming pools began to take centerstage in the western backyard.

In the years after World War II, as wartime restrictions on materials were lifted and consumers flexed their newfound buying power, novel products for outdoor living flooded the market. The Weber kettle grill was invented in 1951 by combining two metal marine buoys, and was just one of many popular options sold at department and hardware stores nationwide. Pop culture portrayed grilling as a gender-specific activity, with women preparing side dishes indoors and men toiling away outside at a smoking grill. Cliché imagery of the cave man was often invoked when describing the art of grilling, such as in this quote from a 1956 issue of Kiplinger Magazine: “Give a man a patch of yard to call his own, and soon you will see him, garbed in white hat, funny apron and asbestos gloves, solemnly practicing that most ancient of masculine arts—the cooking of raw flesh at an open fire.”

Popular Mechanics April 1960

The April 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics highlighted a number of options for building an outdoor kitchen, including plans for a permanent outdoor kitchen with storage, a serving cart, and a number of budget-friendly simple grills. An outdoor kitchen could fit any budget, small or large. Courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

Grilling was well established in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Big brands hopped on the barbecue bandwagon as well, even those not peddling grills and ketchup. Want to be reminded of outdoor grilling season in the middle of winter? Why not choose this barbecue-themed wallpaper for your next remodeling project. From aprons to children’s toys, the barbecue motif was as hot as a burger just off the grill. In the 1957 I Love Lucy episode “Building a Bar-B-Q” Ethel and Lucy comically take on the typical suburban do-it-yourself task with humorous results (to which I am sure many homeowners could relate).

Cookbooks provided endless ideas for Jell-O salads and baked beans to accompany your grilled shish kebobs. This weekend, if you’re firing up the grill for a gathering, use it as an excuse to peak into your personal archives. Do you have a favorite family recipe from your mother, grandfather, or great-aunt? Our family recipes are our family stories, whether the ingredients came from the garden or a tin can. I leave you with two summer recipes from my grandmothers, both of whom grew up during the Depression, married veterans of World War II, and raised their families in the Maryland suburbs in the 1950s. Remember, it wouldn’t be a mid-century recipe without either pineapple or mayonnaise—or both!

Isabel's layered salad recipe

Isabel Clough’s recipe for a layered salad from her church cookbook, circa 1960s.

Jean's pineapple recipe

Jean Fox’s recipe for a cream cheese and pineapple spread, written in her own hand, circa 1960s.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard

Do you have a favorite family recipe for barbecue, or a side dish with a story? Memories of your backyard or garden from the 1950s and 1960s? Share it with Community of Gardens, our digital archive! We are collecting stories from the public about gardens and backyards in America and building a digital archive of our shared landscape history.

May 24, 2015 at 8:00 am 1 comment

A Millionaire, a Missionary, and a Mutant Marigold

When David Burpee took over as president of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company in 1915 he set out to find a new flower to surpass the popularity of the sweet pea. Always the progressive thinker, Burpee knew the sweet pea craze of the late 1800s was nearing its end and felt it was the perfect time for Burpee & Company to thrill the gardening world with a new “all-American” flower.

Sweet peas. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

Sweet pea blooms. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

The sweet pea had been a favorite among American gardeners for decades, but by the early twentieth century its popularity was waning. Sweet peas were temperamental and difficult to grow. While they looked beautiful in a garden, they were too delicate to use in floral arrangements.

Burpee sought a new flower that would appeal to more gardeners and developed a list of requirements. It needed to be strong and resistant to disease, easy to cultivate, and adaptable to growing conditions throughout the country. In addition, Burpee wanted a flower that had large showy blooms with all the aesthetic appeal of the sweet pea, but none of its less favorable qualities.

It was a tall order, but Burpee felt he found the right flower in the marigold. Marigolds had large, full blooms and long, sturdy stems, making them ideal for cut flower arrangements. They could also be grown throughout the U.S. They seemed perfect except for one flaw: marigold leaves have small sacs containing an oil called terpene which gives the plant a foul odor. The oil protects the plant against natural predators, but also makes it unfavorable among gardeners. Burpee decided rather than giving up on the marigold that he would just ‘fix’ it by getting rid of this unpleasant characteristic.

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

Burpee searched the globe hoping to find a terpene-free marigold variety. By 1931 he had collected hundreds of specimens and seeds. Experts at Burpee’s experimental farms grew thousands of plants from these samples, but met with no success. Every marigold had the odor-causing terpene sacs. All, including Burpee, feared the experiment would never succeed.

Then in late 1933 a letter arrived from Carter Holton, a missionary in China who had seen Burpee’s request for marigold seeds in an American magazine. Holton claimed to have found a completely odorless marigold and offered to send Burpee its seeds for $25. Skeptical, Burpee nonetheless had the requested funds wired to Holton.

Four months later a package of seeds arrived. They were planted at the company’s farm in the spring of 1934. As Burpee watched the plants struggle to grow, he remained doubtful. The Chinese marigolds bloomed late and produced unimpressive flowers. Unconcerned with the bloom, Burpee wanted to know if this variety suffered from the same odiferous curse as other marigolds.

As a test, Burpee fed foliage from the Chinese plants and other marigolds to the barnyard animals at his farm. To his delight they ate the foliage from the Chinese marigold, but ignored the others. Burpee had found his treasure! His horticultural experts immediately began crossing the Chinese marigold with other varieties to develop a plant that was robust and odor-free.

This first generation of marigold hybrids were grown at Burpee’s trial grounds under the protection of armed guards. One of the plants in the trial stood out. By definition a mutant, it bloomed early and produced a large orange flower. Most importantly, its foliage was odorless.

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee employees collected and planted seeds from this new hybrid. Soon dozens of Burpee’s “gift-from-God” marigolds were growing and replicating the favorable characteristics of their mutant parent. By late 1936 Burpee & Company began selling seeds for this miracle flower named the Collarette Marigold “Crown of Gold” to the public. It was even showcased on the cover of the company’s 1937 seed catalog. Just as Burpee hoped, the introduction of a scentless marigold took the gardening world by storm. The plant was the only flower to receive a gold medal at the All-America trials in 1937.

David Burpee helped create a scentless marigold which quickly became a beloved classic among American gardeners. He didn’t stop there, however. As he hinted to a reporter in 1937, “There might be marigolds in many colors—some day—perhaps!”

– Thomas Hull, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

May 22, 2015 at 8:58 am 2 comments

Growing a Digital Garden Archive

Gardens at Chewonki

The gardens at the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, Maine evolved over a century as the summer camp transformed into a year-round environmental education organization. Generations of students and staff have left their mark on the farm and gardens.

We are a nation of gardeners. Thomas Jefferson grew over 300 varieties of plants at his Monticello home and like any dedicated gardener kept meticulous records detailing the triumphs (and failures) of his adventures in gardening. In the nineteenth century Italian immigrants introduced new vegetables like artichokes to the United States. Today, heirloom seeds originating from around the globe—or grandma’s backyard—can be purchased online and grown wherever we make a home. The Smithsonian Gardens Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History tells a story of citizens feeding their communities during wartime years, as well as a story of the diverse cultures that comprise the American people. In the summer ‘Carolina Gold’ rice, a traditional crop from the Carolina Lowcountry, can be found growing only a few feet from ‘Corbaci’ sweet peppers, a hard-to-find heirloom from Turkey.

Gandhi Garden

Inspired by the quote “you must be the change you wish to see in the world,” the artists of the S.A.G.E. Coalition in Trenton, New Jersey transformed an abandoned lot into a vibrant community garden and gathering space.

April is National Garden Month, and we are celebrating the diversity of American gardens and the gardeners who make them grow. Small gardens and large gardens, community gardens and backyards, our diverse stories are part of a verdant quilt of gardens growing across the country. Gardens tell us where we’ve been, and where we are going. They can tell us stories about how people in our communities lived in the past and articulate our cultural values in the present. So often our everyday stories—the dahlias bred by a great-uncle, the nursery owned by a family for generations, the hot peppers grown as a reminder of a faraway island childhood—are lost to the historical record, and therefore lost to future generations.

Community of Gardens website

Community of Gardens is a participatory digital archive collecting stories from the public about gardens and gardening in America.

Community of Gardens is our answer to the call to preserve our vernacular garden heritage. Community of Gardens is a digital archive hosted by Smithsonian Gardens, in partnership with our Archives of American Gardens, and created by YOU. It is a participatory archive that enriches and adds diversity to the history of gardening in the United States and encourages engagement with gardens on a local, community level. The website uses a multimedia platform that supports images, text, audio, and video. Visitors can add their own story to the digital archive, or explore personal stories of gardens from around the country.

To contribute a story to the digital archive visit the “Share a Story” page on the Community of Gardens website to sign up for an account. Once you have set up your account you may then add a written story and photographs. If you’d like to add video or audio files to your story email them to You will hear from a Smithsonian Gardens education staff member within a few days, and your story will be posted on the website usually within 3-5 business days. Once you have shared a story, share another story, or encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same!

Paul, on the right, shared his family’s garden history with Community of Gardens, beginning with his great-grandfather immigrating to America in 1881. His grandfather Harry Sr., on left, grew tomatoes, and in the nineteenth century his great-grandfather sold vegetables the old Central Market in Washington, D.C. Today Paul maintains a large garden that he tends with his children.

Paul, on the right, shared his family’s garden history with Community of Gardens, beginning with his great-grandfather immigrating to America in 1881. His grandfather Harry Sr., on the left, grew tomatoes, and today Paul maintains a large garden that he tends with his children.

We are looking for any story about gardens and gardening in America—even stories of Americans gardening abroad. Here is just a sampling of the stories we are looking to include in Community of Gardens:

  • What’s growing in your own backyard, or on your apartment balcony? What motivates you to garden and how did you get your start? How does gardening enrich your everyday life?
  • Interview a neighbor or family member about their garden.
  • Memories of gardens past. Do you have strong memories of your grandparents’ garden, or visiting a public garden that no longer exists? Gardens can live on in stories and images through the archive.
  • Family history. This is a good opportunity to get out the photo albums and scan old family photographs. Are you a fourth-generation gardener like Paul, pictured above?
  • Community gardens—past and present.
  • Did you immigrate to the United States from another country? How do your traditions and culture play a role in your garden?
  • College and university gardens.
  • School gardens. Involve your students in telling the story of their garden!
  • Pollinator gardens and beekeeping.
  • Americans gardening abroad. Are you a veteran or member of the Foreign Service? Did you keep a garden while living abroad? How did living in another country influence your garden?
  • Sustainability and eco-friendly gardening.
  • Stories of gardens committed to providing food access in urban areas.

Join us in preserving our national garden heritage—this month and every month. What is your garden story?

 -Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

April 15, 2015 at 8:42 am Leave a comment

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