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Landscaping Choices in 1930: Formal or Naturalistic

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Greenbelt's original homes and landscape

In Old Greenbelt we see an unusual amount of hedges, mainly of privet or euonymus, most of them installed in the early days before fences were allowed.  (That happened in the ’50s after the homes became owner-occupied and and pets 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 now know about hedges:

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 are disease-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.

– They’re formal, using straight lines that emphasize property lines.Cover of Henderson's Garden Guide and Record

– 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!  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 for the establishment of Greenbelt.  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.

That’s great news because 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.

And mixed borders can create privacy in a way that doesn’t wall off the community. Here’s what our 1930 Garden Guide has to say about privacy:

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.

Hedge of the aptly named ‘Green Giant’ Arborvitae, popular because it grows fast.

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 are very effective at creating privacy but at the expense of neighborliness.  We see examples here in Old Greenbelt, since GHI no longer limits the height of hedges (except at entrances to parking lots where they could create blind spots.)




Screening done in a naturalistic style looks like these examples:

Lovely garden in Greenbelt Homes
In Old Greenbelt, garden-side screening with shrubs, grasses, and a Japanese maple.


Lovely garden in Greenbelt Homes


Lovely garden in Rockville


Lovely garden in Takoma Park
Mixed-shrub plants provide privacy from next-door neighbor in Takoma Park.


GHI’s Architectural Review Committee, which has jurisdiction over plants in member yards, is now updating plant-related rules and recommendations and welcomes member input. Just leave a comment here.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

4 Responses

  1. Vivian Park
    | Reply

    Great Article! I like the ideas that curved lines and lush borders with a variety of plants soften the straight lines of our homes

  2. Robert Smiddy
    | Reply

    Great write up! I’m so glad naturalistic landscaping is what is “trendy.” It just looks so much better and well, natural and not so forced!

  3. Kathie
    | Reply

    This is great! There really is a lot we can do with our small yards and common spaces – whether sunny or shady or some of each. Thanks for sharing these wonderful ideas. Your blog is fantastic every time.

  4. Cheryl Corson
    | Reply

    Great article and photos! I want to advocate for the now-mature hardwood trees that grace Old Greenbelt, unlike the first b&w photo at the top. These are the greatest and most irreplaceable landscape feature on the property and should be protected and maintained for the shelter, shade, stormwater uptake, groundwater recharge, beauty, and comfort they provide to all residents, even those who don’t happen to have one in their own yard. Shrub planting, hedges or no hedges, should be guided by knowing what trees can accept, and protection of all trees with calipers (diameter) greater than 8″ (as in DC) should be managed by the GHI with periodic advice from a certified arborist. Best wishes in your efforts!

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