New American Garden Style

Ilona Erwin

Lower Maintenance Gardening……..letting the ‘genius loci’ speak to you

The idea or feeling of a place is comprised of many things. It is this impression that makes a recognized style. The feeling taken from the wide open spaces of the New World prairies is what we term The New American Style.

What features of a prairie garden turn it into a “New American” landscape?

This page is my own interpretation of how I see this style, especially as it is developing in popular gardening. You likely were introduced to the New American garden style if you read about xeriscaping.
Prairie Grasses and Prairie Flowers

Genius Loci, The Genius of The Place

I don’t personally subscribe to the ideas of spirit and soul the way this idea  originated with the Romans. At the same time, though, I think it is descriptive of information we innately gather from our environment and interpret through our emotions.

The dark coolness of a woodsy ravine is very different from an open savanna dotted with trees. The light of the sunshine is different, the colors are different; the entire feeling of space and plants creates the raw resource against which we build our living spaces of homes and gardens.

Elements of New American Design

What are the factors that give New American designs interest and attractiveness?

  • masses of ornamental grasses
  • strong drifts of brightly colored native flowers
  • naturalistic “feel”
  • importance of foliage, en masse
  • pathways and ‘hardscape’ that give freedom to the visual effect
  • a sense of drama and importance

The book ‘Genius For Place, American Landscapes of the Country Place Era’ covers the entirety of the Country Place movement, including the designers Olmstead, Ellen Biddle Shipman, Beatrix Farrand, and has hundreds of illustrations.

On Amazon: A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era

Developing The American Style

This style ripened in Europe with a replication of the feeling from American natural landscapes. This may be seen in the way native plants developed into very sophisticated garden plantings, when used in the way Piet Oudolf, James Van Sweden, and others envisioned them.

Using Graceful Grasses For A Wild Feeling

“Do gardens have to be so tame, so harnessed, so unfree? What’s new about our New American Garden is what’s new about America itself: it is vigorous and audacious, and it vividly blends the natural and the cultivated.” -James van Sweden

Long grasses were eschewed as the bane of the garden not so very long ago. This may give an impression of neglect. Now they are used everywhere. Favorite uses are in drifts of a perennial garden and as innovative accents.

Ornamental grass clumps and their graceful swaying remind us of prairie views of long ago.


Real Prairies

Real prairie is now hard to come by, but its spirit lives on. In a large drift of Rudbeckia and grasses, interspersed with Echinacea and Liatris, one might imagine the vast ocean stretches of primeval grasslands.

In tandem with the interest in prairie land, there has been the growing American interest in creating meadows or naturalistic areas in their landscapes. Some of these in defiance of neighborhood sentiment and zoning.

If English gardening is about the intricate interplay of plants in textured layers of plantings, then the American style is simplicity of impact.


As I see it now, the “New American” garden has strong elements of the cottage style tempered with the Landscape style of Capability Brown, a natural, sweeping look. Natural vistas taken down in scale for more personal rather than parklike spaces.



Or take a look at the landscaping ideas of AJ Downing‘s Country Place Era gardens, well illustrated by Oldfields Gardens in Indianpolis..

In Your Home Garden

Use a worksheet for planning

A worksheet to help you think out your own style is one way to begin observing your own space and decide your place in it and its place in the wider community.  “Louisiana Voices” has one example of how that’s done.

Plants for this Look

Create a plant list of which plants will work well in your conditions and to give the effect you desire.

The American prairies had a huge influence on the the look and plantings of the New American garden, to know more about them read my article on prairies, “The Prairie Garden“. A focus on Prairie Plants gives another perspective.


One of the biggest differences between New American and European styles is the use of ornamental grasses, and the large sweep of these plants with strong visual presence.

If English gardening is about the intricate interplay of plants in textured layers of plantings, then the American style, in this new shape-shift, is simplicity of impact.

The strong colors of the flowers against the subtle neutrals of the grasses, create geometries of color inside a frame of “natural” wide open spaces. (Which is why Rudbeckias, Black-eyed Susans, are so popular an element)

Grasses automatically insert a gracefulness of movement into the garden scheme. They create the perfect foil for bright color blocks of flowering plants.

Another feature of this style is that it is left on its own much more, something unimaginable in English-style gardens. That characteristic of lower maintenance is attractive.

Native Plants Have Benefits

Native plants which are stalwart and hardy in ones climate, large expanses of plants which thrive together in the wild, and low maintenance plants, all these things factor into a garden area much easier to maintain.

This freed American garden is minus the “gaps” of careful color plans, meticulous maintenance, and stepped heights that many other styles require.
New American garden style
This makes it a style for public area landscaping, and that might prove its downside.

The very ubiquity of the style means an unthinking wholesale application to any and all environments. The same consequent disdain is now apparent towards “suburban foundation planting”.

“The garden is the most visible opportunity for self-expression in most of our lives. Why waste this on suburban sameness when it can dance and sing?”

That mundane future does not need to be the fate of this rich and subtle style. Creative home landscapers have the opportunity to showcase native plants and this way of designing that articulates American aesthetics.

It is a further evolving of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s integration of home with surroundings in design, the keywords being freedom, ease, and harmony.
New American Garden Philosophy


3 Plant Mainstays

Some of the commonly used plantings in American style gardens are hardy, mound shaped plants like Sedums,  a wide swath of the ‘Goldstrum’ Rudbeckias, and/or clumps of  ‘Stella D’Oro’ daylilies.

Now there are many other choices, and more sophisticated designs.

The three plant mainstays are  chosen for their ability to give the design impact and presence over a long part of the bloom season with the ability to withstand very adverse conditions. You have to respect them for those qualities!

That toughness is part of the American planting style, bred into the plants in their original prairie environment.

American Country Place Style

 It is the way in which the plantings are combined is what makes this style New American. The very broad hand that incorporates the feeling of wide open spaces, once one of the earmarks of the American landscape.


People Are Busy Today

Busy people want a serene and naturally casual surrounding for relaxing and entertaining. One that still has a tone of stylishness to it. Those modern day needs result in either a lack of landscaping or palming it off to the unimaginative design consisting of a lawn and some boring foundation plants.

New American Style Livens Things Up

It must be said that this mode of garden fits the demands of their lifestyles. Thankfully, such gardens have an air of sophistication for all their laid-back ways.


Plants Common to this Style

Grasses are an Important Feature

Prairie Grass Sunset

  • Black-eyed Susans
  • Coneflowers
  • Joe-pye weed
  • ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum
  • Russian sage
  • Salvias
  • Feather reed grass
  • Fountain grass
  • Daylilies
  • Liatris
  • Little Bluestem grass
  • Panicum grass
  • Mountain mint
  • Drumstick Alliums


To Learn More…

You also may be interested in the following page:

All about the concept of incorporating the surrounding landscape.


Jakobstuin: Designer/photographer Jaap de Vries

Jakobstuin: Designer/photographer Jaap de Vries via The New Perennialist

The New Perennialist blog

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.