Last modified on September 20, 2016, at 01:52


A back yard or backyard is the area behind a home; this article also covers the front yard in front of the home, with special emphasis on home gardens. Most historical research has focused on ornate gardens and landscape architecture, but in recent years more attention has been paid to how ordinary people use the land around their homes.
Upscale backyard in 21st century Los Angeles

The term "backyard" in foreign policy discussions refers to neighboring countries that depend on a major country; as "Latin America is the backyard of the United States."

United States

The self-provisioning yard of the colonial and Early national eras after 1840 gave way to the urban, utilitarian "outdoor basement" of the late 1800s, with its privy, wood pile or coal chute, clothes line, and piles of junk. By the early 1900s front gardens were being smartened by open, mown lawns that flowed up to foundation plantings close against the house, and soon backyards were improved too. Sewers, regular garbage collection, oil-burning furnaces (replacing wood and coal), and (after 1950) clothes dryers, enabled families to create backyard family rooms, with space for entertaining, leisure, and children's play. Outdoor habitability developed first in California, where people enjoy comfort-zone weather (65–80 degrees Fahrenheit) for most of the year. But that concept has also shaped home grounds throughout the nation. A flag is added for holidays, and at Christmas time many houses string out lights and some create elaborate electrical extravaganzas that draw spectators from across town.[1]

Native Americans

Archaeologists and ethnohistorians have long been interested in quantifying potential maize productivity for late-prehistoric and early-historic Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands. Maize (corn) yields obtained by Native Americans using traditional farming techniques in the 19th century can be compared to yields obtained by 19th century Native Americans using plows and with modern farmers. The mean yield of maize for 19th century Native American groups who did not use plows was 18.9 bushels/acre. Yields on the order of 10 bu/acre probably are closer to the average prehistoric yields that were available for subsistence purposes. The mean size of gardens cultivated by 19th century Native American families without plows was .59 acre.[2]

Before 1840

To keep house in colonial Boston usually involved growing a garden. Almost all houses known to historians in detail prior to 1700 have one or two gardens and space for livestock. English tastes in food and gardening dominated Boston's three horticultural districts. Backyard nursery businesses were common. By the 1770s, the selling of plots for housing reduced the available local propagating stock, and the space in which to grow it, and seed importers became the dominant force shaping Boston's gardens.

Thomas Jefferson paid great attention to his gardens at Monticello, and wrote about them extensively. Jefferson's visions of landscape architecture were informed by several popular 18th century guides to landscaping and gardening, by a tour of famous English gardens he undertook in 1786, and by his belief in the importance of agrarian values and the virtuous yeoman farmer to a healthy republic. Jefferson grew 170 fruit varieties, including apples, peaches, and grapes, in Monticello's two orchards, and cultivated over 330 vegetable varieties in his 1000-foot-long garden terrace. He made his gardens into a botanic laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world.[3]

The Shakers, a New England Protestant sect, developed the seed industry in their community gardens. By the 1830s they financed their church by selling paper packets of high quality seeds, branded with the Shaker logo, for national distribution.


On the American Frontier women often bore many children, were responsible for cooking, making clothing, tending orchards and gardens, nursing sick animals, teaching Christian virtues, and keeping households together in unfamiliar and difficult circumstances.


Slaves were generally allowed to keep their own gardens behind the slave cabins and in recent years historians and archaeologists have explored them to understand black culture under slavery, as well as food habits and types of recreation.[4]

19th century

Hans Jacob Ehlers brought European landscape gardening techniques to the Hudson River Valley in upstate Nw York in the 1840s, introducing ideas that were not yet well known in America.

By the 1850s the move to cities (urbanization) and use of sore-bough goods (the Market Revolution) led middle-class Americans to abandon the world of cottage industry and separate the workplace from the home. In the suburbs, however, women were cut off from paid employment. Gardening made the suburban home a productive unit. While Americans generally had no need to garden, they were beginning to understand that the economy's periodic downturns could translate into financial ruin and that gardens could always be depended on for profit. Gardening and horticultural societies also offered a sense of belonging and identity, which offset the anonymity of city life in industrial America. Gardening enabled women to participate in commerce, in this case local exchange systems. Novels and advice manuals encouraged middle-class women to exhibit at horticultural societies and sell what they had grown and asserted the acceptability of this income-producing option, an option that hardly rivaled the opportunities available to men.[5]

Ornamental gardens were promoted by gardening magazines, seed companies, and nurseries as outward signs of community betterment and personal refinement in the mid-19th century. For many people, ornamental plants also had deep, personal meanings. Specific plants and their placement often symbolized important life events, promoted cooperation between families when plants were purchased or exchanged, and elicited a commitment of time and labor from all family members.[6]

From his base in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the late 19th century, George Washington Cable worked to improve the lives of immigrants and the working class through a number of programs, including a gardening contest. The competition, funded by Andrew Carnegie, was intended to encourage the creation of modest personal gardens as a means to promote civic and personal pride among working-class immigrants. Under Cable's close supervision, the contest served to promote the idea of a distinctly American garden as an alternative to Colonial Revival style from 1899 to 1925.

The move from utility to ornamentalism in plant life is shown in the statistics of seed sales: in 1900 families purchased edible and ornamental plants in the ratio of 10:1; by 1970 the proportion had been reversed in favor of ornamentation, with the vegetables purchased at the supermarket.

20th century

During the 1890s gardening for children began as a part of Progressive education and flourished rapidly throughout the country for several reasons. Some supporters said that gardening enabled students to study nature closely by working with plants. Others saw gardening as teaching agricultural skills, while advocates in urban areas expected that gardening would direct youthful energies into socially acceptable activities. A few even viewed gardens as projects for civic pride and community work. At the turn of the 20th century, federal support to all states came from the Bureau of Education and the Department of Agriculture. During World War I, school gardens that grew food reached the height of popularity. The "US School Garden Armies," in which school children contributed to wartime food production by keeping gardens, offset wartime food shortages and instilled feelings of patriotism and service in the children. Equally important was that federal intrusion in schools would set a precedent for more intrusions in American education. After the war, school gardens lost popularity among educators, especially as nature study was challenged by systematic elementary science and was moved from schools into other areas, such as summer camps, public parks, and nature preserves.[7]

Many families planted "Liberty Gardens" in their yards and empty lots in the war years.

Great Depression

Poverty caused a resurgence of gardening in the Great Depression (1929–41), to supplement family food supplies. Public versions were known as Relief Gardens (1930–39).

World War II

The emergence of food rationing in World War II encouraged the formation of "Victory Gardens" in back yards and designated empty lots. By 1943, 20 million gardens produced 8 million tons of food, including 40% of all the vegetable produce that was consumed by families. Victory Gardens, also called "war gardens" or "food gardens for defense", reduced the pressure on the public food supply brought on by large shipments of food to soldiers and Allies. Even more important, these gardens were morale boosters for civilians who demanded a chance to participate in the war effort. Similar victory gardens were planted in World War I.

Recent decades

garden tools
The switch to back yard as the locus of family activity—perhaps with a grill for barbecues—accelerated with the boom in suburban housing after 1945. It mirrored the decline of the front porch with its swing, and was boosted by concrete slab foundations after 1945, so that the living room could flow evenly into an outdoor patio. Gardening is an avocation that beautifies both the front yard and the back yard.

Ethnic groups


Typical Italian-American yard statues
Italians lived in cities and often built decorative front yards, and used their backyard to grow fruits and vegetables.

Lithuanian immigrants built a subtle, but still distinguishable, cultural landscape around 1900-40, including distinctive use of flowers and vegetable gardens, perimeter fences, and the general layout of buildings on city lots.[8]


All 100,000 members of the Japanese-American community on the West Coast were placed in ten inland internment camps in 1942. The internees reappropriated their limited space by simulating traditional Japanese gardens with bridges and stone lanterns, using white paper covering in their homes, building altars, and engaging in other traditional Japanese arts and crafts. In this way the Japanese Americans were able to assert their native and personal identities and achieve a sense of ownership and freedom during their incarceration.

Latino Southwest

Barrio gardens are important in Latino culture. Flowers, herbs, trees, and other plants enhance the enclosed patios of Mexican American homes. Within the traditional, patriarchal Latino society, women could make the garden their own private space, providing for and enriching the family table and using herbs for folk medicine. As opportunities for women developed and urban renewal removed courtyard-style houses, barrio gardens evolved to become the yard art of the Southwest.[9]


Horticulture supported the creation of a middle-class society in western Canada. Governments, agricultural colleges, scientific and community organizations, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and newspapers all supported the cultivation of vegetables, flowers, and trees to induce European immigration. The federal government established in Manitoba an experimental farm at Brandon in the 1880s and a horticultural research station at Morden in 1915. Although school gardening had been promoted by horticultural societies toward the end of the 19th century and the Federal Agricultural Instruction Act had been passed in 1913, encouragement increased as school gardens were believed to build patriotism and support the war effort during World War I.[10]


The 30th annual conference of the Australian Garden History society has the theme ‘Cultivating Australia Felix’. It will be held in Geelong, Victoria, on 16–18 October 2009.

The conference will explore the theme of pastoral expansion in Australia especially the pastoral legacy and the gardens and homesteads built in the area opened to European settlement after the journeys of Major Thomas Mitchell in 1836. The conference will explore the theme in three ways – through artists’ recording of the settled and natural landscape, through oral history, especially by descendants of significant properties, and through on-site visits.


The British aristocracy had always favored very large elaborate gardens for their country estates, tended by a professional staff. By the 19th century the garden had become a source of pride for middle class men as well, andgarden clubs flourished. Craftsmen in the cities could rent small plots for garden use. Sheffield was the first English town to provide small rental gardens for the use of craftsmen and other workers. There were more than 1,500 allotments available to urban residents in the 1780s. The practice spread to most cities and continued into the 21st century.

A new role for women emerged in Victorian Britain: the middle class woman backyard gardener. From the 1840s to the 1880s, gardening books offered pragmatic advice to middle-class women, but after 1880 this practical bent was augmented with an aesthetic consciousness. The advice aimed at the woman gardener actually furthered the vision of the garden as a public realm for women's activity. The later Victorian gardening texts were politically radical and structurally innovative. In the 1850s, the garden was presented not simply as a site of repose and contemplation but as a place where women could both act and experience. While unorthodox female behavior - sweating and debating - were possible in the garden, it was also a place where a woman could wrest control, imposing ideals of aestheticism and order. By 1900, women took garden design away from male architects and hired gardeners and gained a new role in the development of garden aesthetics and a builder of the home as refuge from the hostile commercial world.[11]


The fruit and vegetable garden in France in the 17th and 18th centuries represented a dietary ideal for fine eating for the rich, and a basis for food security for the poor. The vegetable gardens were a privileged space, closely connected with the owner's interests and lifestyle, and as a space of abundance and variety. A space shared by fruit trees and plants, herbs, vegetables, and flowers, the garden was not only in good social taste from the peasantry to the nobility, but it also provided the owners with fresh fruit and vegetables all year. This moderate degree of self-sufficiency was a necessity for the majority of the rural population in a society where scarcity of food was widespread.

See also

External links


Further reading

  • Delehanty, Randolph and Martin, Van Jones. Classic Natchez: History, Homes, and Gardens. (1996). 164 pp.
  • Earle, Alice Morse. Old Time Gardens (1901), on colonial America
  • Emmet, Alan. So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens. (1996). 238 pp.
  • Grampp, Christopher. From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America's Home Grounds.(2008) 302pp; the standard scholarly history
  • Krase, Jerome. "Polish And Italian Vernacular Landscapes in Brooklyn." Polish American Studies 1997 54(1): 9-31.
  • Lawson, Laura. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America
  • Sarudy, Barbara Wells. Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805. (1998). 220 pp.
  • Turner, Suzanne. The Gardens of Louisiana: Places of Work and Wonder. (1997). 237 pp.


  1. See Christopher Grampp, From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America's Home Grounds (2008) for the standard history
  2. Sissel Schroeder, "Maize Productivity in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains of North America." American Antiquity 1999 64(3): 499-516. 0002-7316
  3. see Monticello: Gardens and Grounds
  4. Barbara J. Heath, and Amber Bennett, "'The Little Spots Allow'd Them': The Archaeological Study of African-American Yards." Historical Archaeology 2000 34(2): 38-55. 0440-9213
  5. Glenn Moore, "'A Very Housewifely Ambition': Women Gardeners in Industrialising America." Australasian Journal of American Studies 2001 20(1): 18-30. 0705-7113
  6. Cheryl Lyon-Jenness, "Bergamot Balm and Verbenas: The Public and Private Meaning of Ornamental Plants in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Midwest". Agricultural History 1999 73(2): 201-221. 0002-1482
  7. Sally Kohlstedt, "'A Better Crop of Boys and Girls': The School Gardening Movement, 1890-1920." History of Education Quarterly 2008 48(1): 58-93
  8. Gerald L. Pocius, "Lithuanian Landscapes in America: Houses, Yards, and Gardens in Scranton, Pennsylvania." New York Folklore 1996 22(1-4): 49-87. 0361-204x
  9. Suzanne Waldenberger, "Barrio Gardens: The Arrangement of a Woman's Space" Western Folklore 2000 59(3-4): 232-245. 0043-373x, focused on Tucson, Arizona
  10. Lyle Dick, "The Greening of the West: Horticulture on the Canadian Prairies, 1870-1930." Manitoba History 1996 (31): 12-17. 0226-5044
  11. Sarah Bilston, "Queens of the Garden: Victorian Women Gardeners and the Rise of the Gardening Advice Text," Victorian Literature & Culture 2008 36(1): 1-19