Color, Simplicity, Economy and Site in the Annette Hoyt Flanders Garden

Unknown garden designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders with Vitale, Brinckerhoff and Geiffert, "Tulips for the May Garden", House and Garden, September 1923

The set of cutting garden diagrams generated this fall were inspired by my interest in Flanders’ educational background.  Since Flanders had an undergraduate degree in botany, and had gone on to study landscape architecture and architecture (and even civil engineering!) it stood to reason that her approach to the planting plan would likely be interesting. (for Flanders biography, see Unbounded Practice by Dr. Thaisa Way)

In moving into this next phase of my project, I have been working to better understand Flanders’ work so that my diagramming will not only reflect interesting aspects of the Morven plan, but of Flanders’ work as a whole.  While it is unclear how much of Flanders’ built work survives, she was also a writer for several publications.  The project descriptions and and design recommendations suggest several themes in her work.

Planting and Color

Flanders devotes much of her writing to description of planting.  These descriptions seem to be more anecdotal than advisory, but begin to provide insight into her approach to planting design.  Flanders describes a layering of plants to define a space,

Just beyond the wall to frame the garden in I have used White Pine in scattered groups because its rich yet soft texture gives weight to the composition.   To lighten this again and give grace to the planting, I massed in Dogwood, with its starry bloom and slender spreading arms.  Next , for the contrast furnished by their sheets of pink bloom, I  used Malus floribunda and, as an accent, a vivid Japanese Cherry.  …  (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)

Color is used to define space,

In every way their colors must reinforce and bring out the design. The corners must not be blurred with weaker shades but should gain an added strength of form from color. There should be no pale shades planted up against the wall except as accidental notes. The colors must not blend in eyen runs nor be grouped in masses like a patch work quilt, but should be kept intermingled in a joyous mass of irridescent, blending, glowing color. (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)


But to be successful a garden must never seem complex. It must not tire us by presenting a bewildering mass of beauty which, like a three-ringed circus, leaves us exhausted by our effort to take it all in. At first glance it must be simply lovely and inviting. Its beauties must unfold gradually so that we take them in without effort. Simplicity without obviousness is the secret of charm, for the obvious is never charming. It has no mystery.
It holds nothing in reserve. That is why so many gardens fail. They spread before us like nicely patterned rugs, are seen at a glance, and leave nothing to explore. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

Flanders emphasizes the importance of editing and “simplicity” several times in her writing, warning against gardens which have too many elements or too much visual interest.  It’s clear from her description that something can be both simple and rich (presumably leaving something to explore).  Connections might be drawn between Flanders’ calls for simplicity and modern architects’ rejection of ornamentation.

A garden is a picture, and if we clutter it with too many elements of  interest-no matter how lovely each separate one may be-we lose its beauty as a whole through the variety of demands made upon our attention. We lose, too, that sense of peace and repose which must be the underlying reaction of a garden upon its observer. A restless garden has no beauty- gives no joy. Therefore, use only what you must have to create your garden picture. I can give you no more valuable advice than to keep to one simple theme for your main effect, and satisfy your collector’s instinct in your cutting garden. (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)

Wright Estate, "Sculptured Landscapes" Arts and Decoration, November 1935


Related to simplicity, Flanders’ emphasis on economy reiterates the importance of a garden that is not excessively showy or loaded with features.  Instead, she argues, a garden should have a few features and be both easily used and easily maintained.

Of all the gardens in which this fault is most glaring the so-called show place, whether large or small, is the worst offender. Fortunately, both for social and economic reasons, we are growing away from this type. The present-day tendency holds out promise of an increasing number of gardens of real charm; livable, lovable gardens planned to meet the needs of their owners and to be as inviting and much used as the rooms of their houses.

To answer this description, a garden must be designed to require the minimum of upkeep commensurate with the type of life led by its owner.  It must have permanency of construction and planting so that instead of deteriorating it will gain with the years that mellowness of beauty which only age can give. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

In the November, 1935 article “Sculptured Landscapes”, Flanders emphasizes the importance of creating a grading plan which builds on the existing topography and balances cut and fill to minimize construction costs.  She also describes the importance of creating a compact plan to avoid wasted space and keep maintenance costs low.  Describing her design for the Charles W. Wright Estate in Wisconsin, Flanders writes,

By carefully planning an entire development before any work is started, especially before the buildings are located, a great saving can be made in these grading costs. Minimum upkeep can be planned for, and all portions of the property can be assigned to some definite use. Unused land represents a waste of capital investment, and unnecessary upkeep is a constant burden and expense. A skilfully prepared general plan will, therefore, pay for itself many times over in the saving effected on all these items. There is no waste space in design shown. All parts of this forty acre tract are used for some definite purpose. All parts that require definite upkeep have been localized into a comparatively small area into a closely knit series of units lying immediately around and to the North of the residence.


A beautifully proportioned design on carefully modelled earth is the basis or skeleton that should underlie every landscape development, whether it be formal or informal in type. Before attempting to design or layout a landscape plan one should study the area under consideration with great care. Just as a sculptor sees embedded in a piece of marble the lovely statue he plans to cut from it, so one must have a vision of the landscape design he wishes to have appear on his property.
Every piece of land has its own distinctive character; no
two are ever quite alike. The soundest, most beautiful design possible is always the one which, in the simplest way, takes advantage of every natural beauty which the land offers and which, with the least modelling-that is grading-arranges the land for the desired use. (“Sculptured Landscapes” Arts and Decoration, November 1935)

Flanders makes clear that the designer has a distinct and important role in designing a garden, akin to a sculptor working with a piece of marble.  The site has value, but the landscape architect must create a design that uses the site to its greatest advantage.

Plant selection is also described as a means of connecting the garden with the site,

By using the finer varieties of plants native to the locality in the planting, it has been made to harmonize with the countryside. It thus gains a semblance of age and a simplicity and charm that
leave it quite free from any studied, planted effect. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

These first few readings provide immediate insight to the theory behind Annette Hoyt Flanders’ designs.  I will look forward to reading more of her articles to see how these themes develop and are added to across her body of work, and how they are evidenced in the Morven gardens.

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