Book Review: American Gardens by Monty Don and Derry Moore

Book cover and selected images from American Gardens. Photo credit: Derry Moore
Monty Don in Phoenix, Arizona; Lotusland, California; and Monty in Central Park, New York. © Derry Moore. 

What is an American Garden? asks Monty Don in the introduction to this lavish volume. The images above give us a clue to his unsurprising conclusion: America is simply too vast. The varied landscapes, climate, and people are too mind bogglingly wide to provide a definitive answer. 

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC. © Derry Moore

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to find out and I'm pleased Monty Don did in both his TV series in January, and now in the follow-up book published earlier this week. I was due to visit America again for the latest Garden Bloggers' Fling, but of course Covid-19 put those plans on hold. It's great to do that from my armchair instead, especially as one of the gardens featured - The Lurie in Chicago - is one I was due to visit on my way to Wisconsin. Another garden - Dumbarton Oaks - was closed when I visited Washington DC in 2017, so I'm delighted to catch up with it here. Alongside these, a further 35 places feature, divided into three main chapters which roughly follow the three episodes of the series.

Foliage colour of the acers and other trees is a strong feature at The Bloedel Reserve
The Bloedel Reserve, Washington. © Derry Moore

Within this structure lies two deeply personal journeys across America. These intertwine and separate, perhaps reflecting the times when Monty Don and photographer Derry Moore travelled together and at other times apart. Both also bring their previous experiences of travelling and living in this vast country, which inform Don's lyrical essays and the sumptuous views from Moore's camera. It's also interesting to compare notes with the gardens I have in common with the book, like The Bloedel Reserve pictured above. At first I was surprised they're quite different, but then again it's not because as Don says in his introduction, a visit made to a garden on one day, will be quite different if made on the next. I credit The Bloedel Reserve as being my best garden visit ever, even though it poured with rain the first time (and I sense for Monty it's not).

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania
Fallingwater, Pennsylvia. © Derry Moore

The book has some extra visits to those featured on TV. I was pleased to see Derry Moore's photos of Fallingwater as I'm a huge fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, but I'd have liked an accompanying essay from Monty Don as the captions alone aren't enough. The same applies to Don's standalone essays from his solo visits to the gardens which Derry Moore didn't visit and for me this is a weakness in the book.

Monticello, Virgina
My photo of Monticello, Virginia

As well as a thoughtful essay with praise or criticism of each garden (sometimes both), Monty Don also provides a gentle introduction to American garden history. Here he's not afraid to acknowledge the role slavery played in the development of American properties and gardens, especially those of the deep South or grander designs. It was interesting to read of his contrasting visits to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, where he found there was a far greater acknowledgement of slavery in his later visit. This is something which surprised me when I visited in 2017, where I was pleased to join specific tours of the slave area and vegetable gardens and learn about this aspect for myself. I wonder how the tours here (and elsewhere) might have changed again in the light of this year's Black Lives Matters movement, just as they have done in our own National Trust this week?

Dan Hinkley's Windcliff
My evening view from Windcliff in 2014

Monty Don also suggests the American pioneering spirit still has a key role to play in the making of gardens there, where perhaps gardeners are still trying to work out what makes an American garden and how their smaller space fits within their vast surroundings. Here there's a nod to some marvellous personal, contemporary examples, which strike out boldly from the English/French influence of early American gardens with the notable inclusion of James Golden's Federal Twist (have a read of James's thoughtful blog here) and plant hunter Dan Hinkley's Windcliff. I was lucky to visit Windcliff as Dan's guest in 2014, and here Derry Moore's photographs match my memories of that magical evening.

Monty Don amongst the redwoods in California
The Redwoods, San Jose California. © Derry Moore

Vast as this volume is, it can only scratch the surface*. Firstly because there is a limit on the text and photographs a book can hold, but secondly it can't cover every aspect of style, State, region and approach to gardening found in the country. I for one would have liked to see more of the community gardening and activism I've seen happening at the grass roots level, plus the emphasis on gardening with native plants (so different to our cosmopolitan gardening palette!) and for wildlife many of my American gardening friends pursue. However, as an introduction which serves to tempt the reader into further exploration it's admirable.

I'd also like to see an exploration of Austin plus Denver and the Rocky Mountain region, which simply blew me away on previous Fling visits. TV series and Book 2 perhaps?

American Gardens by Monty Don and Derry Moore is published by Prestell, with a RRP of £35. It would make a wonderful gift for the gardener in your life.

Alternatively my friend Dave has a copy for you to win over at The Anxious Gardener. NB entries close on October 4th!

Thanks to the publisher for my review copy and images used in this review.

Chanticleer, Pennsylvania
Chanticleer, Pennsylvania. © Derry Moore

* = I've seen some criticism of the TV series, especially on the other side of the pond which often says most of the chosen gardens belong to the "grand design" category, or it doesn't include enough of x or y (just as I have done). Featuring more private gardens is often the suggested solution (which is great), but when I've discussed this point with my American friends, I say I'd be disappointed not to have gardens on my Must See list such as Chanticleer or Longwood featured, just as they would be disappointed not to see Hidcote or Sissinghurst appearing in a similar volume on English gardens. Luckily I have the Fling to provide a balance for my own travels and I've also helped suggest both private and key gardens for American tours to this country.


  1. This book looks fascinating! America really does have such a vast array of landscapes.

    1. I love going there - hopefully again one day

  2. Looks great. However, you can only win the book if you're in the UK. Sigh.


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