“Dreaming True”

For nearly half a century, the pioneering landscape architect Martha Brookes Hutcheson used her own farm to empower women and to build an ecological design theory through action.

Martha Brookes Hutcheson.
Martha Brookes Hutcheson, ca., 1935. [Morris County Park Commission]

The landscape architect and theorist Martha Brookes Hutcheson (née Brown, 1871–1959) lived in an age when most American women were actively discouraged from entering a profession. Women might consider landscape gardening as a “novel occupation … a congenial, soothing, out-of-doors pursuit to which a woman of taste, who loves flowers, cannot do better than turn her hand.” 1 But any who seriously considered becoming landscape architects were informed that women were too “impatient” to learn the necessary drawing and surveying, the horticultural and business skills, and that the resulting “physical fatigue” would lead to breakdowns. 2 Male colleagues and clients, they were warned, doubted “whether they conceive largely enough to undertake public works like the laying out of great parks or the plotting of plans for new cities.” Female landscape architects were limited to “the ample field of designing beautiful settings for beautiful homes.” 3

Martha Hutcheson, however, loved the great gardens of Europe and the farm in Vermont where she had summered as a girl, and she saw the potential for landscape design to serve a social agenda in the Progressive Era — to improve lives and conserve natural resources. One of the first women trained at university level in the emerging profession of landscape architecture, she was a founding member of the Woman’s Land Army during World War I, and her experience with a group of WLA “farmerettes” at her home, Merchiston Farm, in Gladstone, New Jersey, convinced her of the impact landscape architects could have by increasing agricultural productivity, improving soils and plant communities, and fostering women’s practical skills and economic autonomy. In her evolving designs for Merchiston Farm, and in her public lectures, writings, and advocacy through the Garden Club of America, Hutcheson argued for the contributions of landscape architects to national education, and explored tensions internal to the design theory of the age — including those between her own progressive agenda and the strictures of her elite social class. In the realm of landscape architecture, she became a leader in “a gallant little group of women who have forged for themselves National reputations.” 4

Hutcheson’s early writings and garden commissions considered good design as a matter of organization, massing, and proportion, while her later work stressed contextualism within natural systems. In this later and more daring work, she prioritized the use of native plants as a means to support healthy habitats, shift aesthetic preferences, and minimize costs; her practice hybridized sustainable water management and soil science with the normative, Europeanizing geometries of the “country place” garden, and implemented the emerging discipline of ecology on a practical level. Merchiston Farm, Hutcheson’s home for nearly 50 years, served as a workshop for these endeavors. She continually made and remade her property, using the woods, fields, pastures, and gardens to build theory through action.

Hutcheson’s work was a proto-ecofeminist landscape praxis, in which deep study of natural systems parallels the recognition of female knowledge and agency.

Reading the evolving design of Merchiston Farm thus allows us to understand Hutcheson’s work as an extended social, political, and ecological project. “An insight into ecology,” she wrote in 1938, “enables us to recognize plants as living things with laws governing their needs in their associations. Without this, we recognize plants only as a florist might who fills his windows with lavish displays.” 5 Needless to say, Hutcheson never used the term “ecofeminism,” which was coined in the 1970s. Yet I propose that we consider Hutcheson’s work as proto-ecofeminist, a landscape praxis in which deep study of natural systems and their conservation parallels and supports the recognition of female knowledge and agency.

Hutcheson and farmerettes at Merchiston Farm, 1917 or 1918.
Hutcheson (center) and farmerettes at Merchiston Farm, 1917 or 1918. [Morris County Park Commission]

Merchiston Farm plan, ca. 1940.
Merchiston Farm plan, ca. 1940. [Morris County Park Commission]

Merchiston Farm, Upper Water, 2015.
Merchiston Farm, Upper Water, 2015. [© Phoebe Lickwar]

The young Martha Brookes Brown studied graphic and textile design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, and continued her horticultural education at the University of Vermont and on a tour through Italy, France, and England. Returning from Europe, in 1899, she consulted with family friend Beatrix Jones (later Beatrix Farrand), the only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and already a successful professional who had won a commission for the National Cathedral grounds in Washington. Jones encouraged her protégée to pursue studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then one of two professional programs in landscape architecture in the country, and the only one to accept women. 6

From 1899 to 1902, Martha Brookes Brown attended MIT’s special course, a focus area within the program in architecture. Here she gained access to senior figures in the profession, including Charles Eliot, Guy Lowell, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Charles S. Sargent. Dissatisfied with MIT’s lack of emphasis on horticulture and social reform, however, she left to open her own firm, based first in Boston and later in New York City. 7 For a decade, she designed gardens and estates in New England and New York, completing nearly 70 projects and earning as much as $10,000 annually (about $266,000 in 2018 dollars). 8 In 1910, she married William Anderson Hutcheson, and the following year they purchased Merchiston Farm, a 100-acre working farm with a house dating to 1792. They intended to use the property as a summer retreat from New York City where William was an insurance adjuster and Martha continued her professional practice. But after the birth of their daughter in 1912, Hutcheson closed her office (continuing to consult for former clients), and for some years turned her focus to writing, lecturing, and developing Merchiston. In 1913, she helped to found the Somerset Hills chapter of the Garden Club of America, and through the next decades used the GCA as a social and institutional platform for her efforts, much as she was using Merchiston farm as a physical platform. 9 Following World War I, Hutcheson reasserted her professional identity and in 1919 joined Farrand as one of the first female members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In 1934, in acknowledgment of her writings as well as her realized commissions, she was elected a Fellow of the ASLA, only the fourth woman granted the honor. 10

“This many-sided profession holds great possibility for ‘dreaming-true,’” wrote Hutcheson in 1932.

A growing, changing composition is set in motion and each year brings, as by miracle, unlooked-for or premeditated beauty. No two problems can ever be the same. … Principles in arrangement or planning may be studied … but each time a new problem is solved the vision for it comes “straight out of the blue” forming itself from the very conditions which flow toward a composition. A new development is then born into the world, and each venture is complete in itself. 11

Garden-Design Theory and Plant Ecology at Merchiston Farm

American landscape architects at the turn of the 20th century inherited a British debate about the merits of “architectural” versus “wild” gardens, a variability expressed in the self-descriptions contemporaneous practitioners adopted: landscape architect, landscape gardener, garden designer. The debate played out in popular books; Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Formal Gardens in England (1892) propounded an explicit critique of William Robinson’s The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883). 12 Both men emerged from the Arts & Crafts movement, and believed in the integration of architecture, garden design, and the decorative arts. But while Blomfeld celebrated Classical architecture and the geometric gardens of France and Italy, Robinson was influenced by his membership in the Linnaean Society, where he worked with botanists and zoologists in the emerging science of ecology — a term coined in 1866 to describe the study of plants and animals as species interactively producing their environments. Blomfeld believed that “horticulture stands to garden design much as building does to architecture” — that is, as a necessary technics serving a superior intent — and argued that gardens should be organized through axis, symmetry, and hierarchy. 13 Robinson felt that biomorphic and geomorphic forms and mixed plant communities were fundamental.

Garden walkway from the southeast terrace of Merchiston Farm, ca. 1920.
Garden walkway from the southeast terrace of Merchiston Farm, ca. 1920. [Morris County Park Commission]

Merchiston Farm swimming pool.
View from gardens across swimming pool to agricultural fields, 2015. [© Phoebe Lickwar]

Crabapple allée.
Crabapple allée leading to tennis court, with irrigation pool at left, 2017. [Roxi Thoren]

At Merchiston Farm, Hutcheson used agricultural and ecological principles to mediate between these design theories. Architectural gardens provided an armature for the site, and wild gardens were incorporated into and encouraged to disrupt that armature. Merchiston’s domestic gardens were structured with geometric forms similar to those Hutcheson had used in designing estates throughout New England. But agriculture provided a bucolic substrate, with fields and livestock viewed from privileged locations, and distant woods as backdrop. Rather than extending axial geometries into the farm areas, Hutcheson allowed soil composition, crop rotation, and grazing patterns to disrupt the gardens’ architectonic forms. Productive species were integrated aesthetically into the gardens: juniper, black locust, and other utilitarian trees framed picturesque views; orchards, cold frames, and vegetable beds were incorporated into the geometric layouts; and productive plants such as squash and grapes beautified pergolas. A ha-ha and cattle run were built from the same stone as the garden walls and retaining walls for the pools, blurring distinctions between garden and farm. The water system itself, comprising a well, springs, and rainwater capture, became a similarly mediating element, with a central watercourse assimilated into the farm’s aesthetic, recreational, ecological, and agricultural programs, and native plants showcased alongside varietals beside the pools and streams.

Merchiston Farm negotiated competing definitions of landscape architecture: as an engineering science, and as an art.

These tactics not only balanced geometric and organic models of design, but negotiated competing definitions of the emergent profession: as an engineering science, and as an art. Hutcheson believed in landscape architecture as an artistic practice; in her copy of a 1903 article by Mary Bronson Hartt on women landscape architects, Hutcheson underlined a passage describing prospective practitioners as needing “to add the sculptor’s gift to that of the painter, for it is hers to mold the very contours of the earth.” 14 But she also valued botanical and horticultural knowledge. Frustrated by the lack of hands-on training at MIT, she had taken horticulture classes at Harvard’s Bussey Institute, and studied extensively at Arnold Arboretum and in commercial nurseries, beginning a plant catalogue that she would maintain throughout her life. 15

Grape arbor.
Grape arbor beside tennis court, 1923. [Morris County Park Commission]

Hayfield and meadow from southern terrace, ca. 1935.
Hayfield and meadow from southern terrace, ca. 1935. [Morris County Park Commission]

Plant ecology was a rapidly emerging discipline in the early 20th century, building on Alexander von Humboldt’s pioneering research into the boundaries of plant and animal communities as determined by climate or altitude, and Eugenius Warming’s 1895 study The Oecology of Plants. 16 In the United States, some landscape designers had begun to protect regionally specific ecologies against the homogenizing trends of industrialization. Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen, for example, sought to preserve fragments of the glaciated New England landscape and Midwestern prairie, respectively; Jensen’s colleague, ecologist Henry Cowles, published seminal essays on ecosystem dynamics. 17 Showcasing Jensen and other Prairie Style landscape architects, Wilhelm Miller’s The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening (1915) sought to define an American style of garden design rooted in the plains landscape. On the east coast, Frank Waugh published The Natural Style of Landscape Gardening (1917), which likewise advocated close study of nature, as well as the replication of “proper social groupings” of native plants. 18 Cowles’s former student Edith Roberts, a professor of botany at Vassar College, co-authored American Plants for American Gardens (1929) with landscape architect Elsa Rehmann, collecting a series of essays first published in House Beautiful from 1927-28. 19 Merchiston Farm took shape in this milieu, and over the years Hutcheson shifted her designs to reflect an evolving understanding of agriculture and design within a specific yet mutable ecosystem.

Swimming pool and spills from Upper Water to swimming pool.
Swimming pool after restoration (left); spills from Upper Water to swimming pool (right), 2017. [Roxi Thoren]

Children wading; Bamboo Brook.
Children wading in livestock pond, ca. 1920 (left); constructed pools and spills in Bamboo Brook, ca. 1935 (right). [Morris County Park Commission]

Hutcheson’s growing interest in ecological systems encouraged the integration of hydrologic features and the conservation of habitat and soil quality that characterize Merchiston, while her attention to native plant communities can be tracked in her photographs of the farm and her essays from the period. Merchiston’s central watercourse was developed over three decades, as what had been an agricultural necessity expanded into a complex water-harvesting network that incorporated practical, aesthetic, and ecological functions.

Hutcheson began the system by damming a small stream to create a cow pond, which she later deepened into a swimming pond that the family and their visitors shared for nearly ten years with livestock and water fowl. A 1923 farm plan shows a small stream emerging from a spring and traveling west and then south to the pond, which is a focal point on the plan’s east-west axis. In a later construction campaign, Hutcheson expanded the spring-fed stream into an irregular livestock pond dubbed the Upper Water; the original livestock-and-swimming pond was then formalized into a round, stone-edged swimming pool framed with native plants. Uphill, the central watercourse divided to fill the new pool, serve the house, and irrigate the gardens and watercress pond. A series of concrete and stone cascades was added to the stream below the pool, animating the hillside with rippling light and sound. At the fifth cascade, the house and pool watercourses reunited to flow under Hutcheson’s writing studio, over additional cascades, and into Bamboo Brook, which was similarly enhanced with stone weirs, creating pools and lively spills in the river. At last, in 1941, a well and reservoir were dug to supplement the spring and rainwater supply. Hutcheson described the Italian Villa Falconieri in Frascati as an inspiration; like Merchiston, the Frascati gardens interweave reflection pools and fountains with domestic water provision, swimming pools, and irrigation. 20

As the water system evolved, so did the Hutchesons’ agricultural practices, from managing nearly the entire property in rotational production, to intensified management for soil improvement and support of wildlife. In the farm’s first decades, the land had been divided into twelve zones, plus three wooded areas and a wetland. Two zones were rotated into use as pasture every four or five years, while the rest were managed through crop rotation, with nutrient-intensive crops like rye and wheat followed with cover crops such as clover and a fallow period of hay. These field crops, along with fruits and vegetables, were produced for the family’s use and for sale; the Hutchesons also raised pigs, poultry, sheep, and dairy cows, and sold pork, milk, eggs, butter, and apples to the local grocery. 21 Martha’s involvement in agricultural productivity increased markedly around World War I, when she managed a crew of Women’s Land Army farmerettes at the farm, and again after William’s death in 1942, when she continued to sell pork and dairy products to the local market. 22

Hutcheson’s interest in ecological systems encouraged integration of a water-harvesting network and conservation of soil quality and wildlife habitat.

It was also after William’s death that Martha’s pursuit of scientific land management came to the fore. Congress had authorized the Soil Conservation Service in 1935, during the devastating soil loss of the Dust Bowl period. William did not take advantage of the technical expertise the assistance program provided. But the goals of the SCS aligned with Martha’s interests in landscape design and management as publicly or institutionally sponsored social goods; she was enthusiastic about an empirical approach to agronomy, erosion control, and habitat creation, which related to ideas she advocated in her writing. In 1944, Hutcheson worked with the SCS to develop a voluntary soil-conservation agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The plan defined eight soil classes based on soil type, slope, and vegetation; set goals for each class; and prescribed tactics for each area aimed at enhancing soil fertility through fertilizing, composting, and manuring, while controlling erosion with contour cropping, contour hedges, reforestation, and gully planting. The plan also set aside eleven acres on the northeastern boundary of the property (which had previously been managed for hay and field crops) as wild land. The USDA plan is an early version of what we now call ecological or conservation agriculture — a careful integration of agriculture with wildlife corridors and habitat, along with soil conservation and amendment. 23

USDA land-use analysis plans.
USDA land-use analysis plan (left) and USDA Soil Conservation Service capability-class analysis for Merchiston Farm (right), 1944. [Morris County Park Commission]

Butterfly on joe-pye weed.
Swallowtail butterfly feeding on joe-pye weed at Merchiston Farm, ca. 1930. [Morris County Park Commission]

While her investments in water harvesting and soil and habitat preservation are clearly documented in the archive, Hutcheson’s papers do not include planting plans for the farm. She discusses plant palettes in her writing, however, and some varieties can be identified in photographs; her planting at the farm in all likelihood evolved in parallel to her writing. For instance, in her influential book The Spirit of the Garden (1923), she describes an ideal design for setting off bodies of water, noting that, “clethra, benzoin, willows, flags, and azaleas belong to these natural margins.” 24 She took her own suggestion with the swimming pool at Merchiston; in photographs of the farm from the 1920s and ’30s, one can discern native rhododendron, iris, joe-pye weed, and fern used both aesthetically and to attract and support birds, butterflies, and other pollinators as well as small mammals. Hutcheson’s essays for the GCA regularly call for increased understanding and use of indigenous plants. “Our native growth” she wrote in 1926, “calls to us through appealing grace and color. It flaunts blooms and berries … and makes cover for the bird life it feeds. It … carries with it unparalleled beauty of line for winter as well as summer.” 25 The Spirit of the Garden champions the same belief in a distinctively American version of European landscape design: “As individuals, we are slowly becoming conscious of the value of cultivated and aesthetic knowledge in adapting to our home surroundings the good principles in planning which have been handed down to us from the Old World.” 26

Women and Garden Design in the Progressive Era 

In 1916, the newly established Garden Club of America posed a question to two nationally prominent landscape architects: What should be the club’s aim in the new century? The first respondent, Warren Manning, set out paired areas of aesthetic inquiry for the women of the GCA, one being “that exquisite piece of fine jewelry … the perfectly appointed and maintained little home garden,” and the other the “Great Gardens of the Landscape,” nationally significant vistas and locales. Manning admonished that “if the Garden Clubs are to be a potent and far-reaching force, they must be active in the conservation of the Great Gardens, and they must make little gardens that are of interest to every one who passes along the highways.” 27

Pond with fern and dogwood.
Pond (originally a watercress tank) bordered by native fern and dogwood, 2015. [© Phoebe Lickwar]

Swimming pool with ferns and trees.
Swimming pool viewed through native ferns, shrubs, and trees, 2015. [© Phoebe Lickwar]

Responding to the same prompt, Martha Brookes Hutcheson promoted neither local nor civic beautification. Her recommendation instead concerned education and social action, describing club members’ engagement as “a remarkable amount of potential energy which, if properly directed, might lead to much important knowledge with its naturally important results.” Hutcheson saw the GCA as a venue for epistemological praxis, a framework for testing theories and creating knowledge. She disparaged the idea that chapters might become “merely tea clubs with a smattering of lectures thrown in as a raison d’être for the gatherings,” and advised members to have “a year’s study mapped out” in order to advance the “serious enterprise toward learning.” She argued that the organization’s aim should be the “intelligent enlightenment of the average woman on garden subjects in all their varied phases.” Manning advised the women of the GCA to maintain beautiful home gardens and to use their social status to protect Great Gardens — presumably designed by men. Hutcheson envisioned the production and dissemination of garden knowledge by American women to American women as a method of improvement for American society at large. 28 Throughout her career, she advocated for garden designers in general — and women in particular — to create and manage gardens that could provide physical and mental health benefits, foster aesthetic and civic education, and protect natural resources.

Hutcheson envisioned the production of garden knowledge by American women as a method of improvement for American society at large.

Hutcheson dedicated The Spirit of the Garden to “those with a progressive spirit in their concern for the fine art of garden making,” and she had long believed in the ameliorative and therapeutic potential of landscapes. 29 In fact, she explained her very entry into the discipline of landscape architecture as a response to observing the desolate grounds of Bellevue Hospital in New York City — where, she wrote, she had been “overcome with the terrible waste of opportunity for beauty which was not being given to the hundreds of patients who could see it or go to it, in convalescence.” 30 She later collaborated with the Garden Club of Somerset Hills to design a garden for the State Reformatory for Women in New Jersey, a project in which inmates worked with GCA members to install the new landscaping, to “relieve the bareness of the place and to awaken in the minds of the girls a love of nature.” 31 This commitment to the transformative physical and social power of gardens was echoed in Hutcheson’s lectures and writings for the GCA, as she sought to shift the institution’s focus from a “mere social gathering and mutual admiration party” to a “political and civic force.” 32

Hutcheson was writing in an era of widespread progressive campaigns, including those for social insurance systems, public education, child-labor laws, an eight-hour workday, and — not least — women’s suffrage. American women in Hutcheson’s youth had not yet gained the right to vote. They were not allowed to study at most colleges and universities, and entering a profession was considered to be “almost social suicide and distinctly matrimonial suicide.” 33 A 1908 article saved among her papers explores “novel occupations for women,” describing the hardships of landscape architecture and impressing on the reader the seriousness of the undertaking, from rigorous architectural and horticultural education, to site visits in freezing winter and muddy spring, to long travel hours and hours at the desk. The essay closes with a quote from Guy Lowell, director of the MIT program that Hutcheson had left six years earlier: “Don’t go into it unless you simply can’t keep out!” To which Hutcheson responded in a marginal note: “a Rotten Guy Lowell jealous of women.” 34 Yet it was in this same era that Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican party, forming his Progressive Party to advance a social-reform agenda. 35 Prior to that split, Roosevelt had had asked reformer Jane Addams to second his unsuccessful nomination at the 1912 Republican Party convention, a highly visible gesture that put women’s rights and social justice at the center of national politics.

Farmerettes harvesting wheat.
Farmerettes harvesting wheat at Merchiston Farm, 1918. [Morris County Park Commission]

Farmerettes at Merchiston Farm.
Farmerettes at Merchiston Farm, 1917 or 1918. [Morris County Park Commission]

World War I radically, if temporarily, furthered the emancipatory agenda, as women on the home front took up work in hospitals, factories, offices, and farms, finding new authority and earning power. Hutcheson was in the vanguard of these changes. In 1917, following the entry of the United States into the war, she was one of seven founding board members for the Women’s Land Army, which aimed to protect the national food supply and help to provision U.S. allies by educating and employing women as farmers. In operation through 1919, the WLA combined three powerful women’s organizations, each contributing its particular skills and influences: the suffragist movement, with its activism; the GCA, which brought social influence; and the Women’s National Farm & Garden Association, a professional organization formed in 1914 to train women for careers in horticulture and agriculture, which lent its sense of educational mission. The WLA employed more than 15,000 women in 40 states, including a crew at Merchiston Farm, which thus became a landscape of the women’s war economy. 36 In the summer growing seasons of 1917 and 1918, when Hutcheson employed a WLA crew of “farmerettes” — agrarian suffragettes — to work the farm, production of corn increased more than twofold. Yield in wheat and oats increased by 50 percent, and gross receipts from field crops more than doubled in 1917, and tripled in 1918. These economic benefits resulted partly from wartime inflation. But the land’s increased productivity was due to the farmerettes’ labor. 37 And such labors were widespread; the crew at Merchiston comprised one of 32 WLA units active in New Jersey alone. 38

A Women’s Land Army crew of “farmerettes” — agrarian suffragettes — was employed to work the farm.

Reporting after the war on the impact of the farmerettes’ work, one of Hutcheson’s sister writers for the GCA reflected that the program had shifted both women’s self-perception and the public appraisal of their agency. “The ideals for which [the WLA] stood remain, and its path is followed. Women may now earn their living while working in the open air, under conditions of their choosing and with the respect of the community.” 39 Hutcheson herself was exercising this power of choice on a professional level. In her paid writings for the popular press, she returned to topics of good garden design. Yet her writings in the GCA bulletin took a different tone. The bulletin was in a sense a safer venue, since it was available to GCA members only. Simultaneously, however, the woman-to-woman intimacy of the publication allowed Hutcheson to speak more freely in support of the Progressive causes she believed in, including women’s education, women’s advocacy for the stewardship of wild lands, and the GCA as a force for social change.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the social standing that Hutcheson shared with the bulletin’s readership, these values were not a given, and after the war Hutcheson tried with increasing frustration to persuade the GCA to continue its progressive activities — even as many clubs returned to “a pleasant form of social intercourse between chosen, congenial friends.” 40 The clubs’ affiliation with other wartime women’s groups had, after all, contributed to wide-ranging and tangible results, permanently changing the national conversation on women’s capacity for political organization, education, physical labor, and economic management.

These successes prompted Hutcheson to write “A Wider Program for Garden Clubs” (1919), calling for the GCA to turn its attention towards ameliorating public sites such as schools, churches, and parks; promoting public education in native planting design for rural towns; extending native plant and animal habitats; supporting soil conservation efforts; and improving public infrastructure — even if such persuasion had to be exercised at a polite remove. “The influence would gradually go through the wives as members of garden clubs to the husbands who devastate roadsides, and instead of garden clubs meeting, as now, to see how they can undo the harm that has been done, they would meet to cast their influence, before the roadsides are ruined.” 41

Jane Addams, 1930.
Jane Addams, 1930. [Library of Congress]

While figures such as Jane Addams were taking to the national stage fighting for broad societal changes, women were also leading local and national initiatives aimed at natural-resource conservation through institutions such as the GCA, as well as the Society for the Protection of Native Plants, founded in 1900 by Amy Folsom and a group of Boston women, and the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America, founded in New York in 1902 by Elizabeth Britton. Landscape historian Thaisa Way has observed that this female leadership in organizations studying and preserving regional ecosystems was not coincidental; “the use of native or ‘naturalized’ plants was a logical extension of women’s knowledge rather than a radical stance,” emerging alongside the increased popularity of wild gardens, and the normative association of women with gardening, including their traditional role as the tenders of kitchen gardens and domestic flowerbeds. 42

Hutcheson was not a firebrand, nor was she a philosopher. Her career manifested the “logical extension of women’s knowledge” as a pragmatic rather than radical pursuit. Nevertheless, while the site for her experiments was local, she participated through her advocacy in the GCA in the reformist culture that Addams’s philosophy represents, encouraging members to become vocal ecological advocates at the national level. 43 In the same 1926 essay in which she praised the “unparalleled beauty” of native growth, Hutcheson anticipated contemporary assessments of environmentally sustainable design, decrying typical domestic lawns and plantings as “appalling” and calling for an end to the planting of “foreign importations”:

Almost without exception, wherever our citizens, rich or poor, “improve” our land by building on it, devastation is the accepted code of embellishment. First of all every trace of natural beauty in shrub growth must be eradicated, — grubbed out and burned, — and then this spot of lost opportunity, which can never again be brought back, must be decorated with foreign importations and a lawn.

In place of such depredations, she argued for “the embarrassment of riches” offered by “varied native vegetation tempered to the soil, the moisture and the climate of its environment.” 44 In a 1937 address, she reminded listeners that, as Americans, “we take for granted the heritage we possess in a variety of plant life unequaled by any country on earth,” and pleaded for the preservation of “native growth before it is slaughtered through indifference, ignorance, or commercial greed.” 45 

Women’s Work and Ecofeminism

Hutcheson was the socially connected spouse of a wealthy man, and she felt the pressure, after her marriage and the birth of her child, to conform to the norms of her class by giving up her design practice — a professional achievement that was in itself highly unusual for a single woman in the 1910s. Nevertheless, Merchiston Farm and the GCA provided sites for her to continue her creative and intellectual development for nearly a half century. It is certainly anachronistic to use the term ecofeminist, with its origins in second-wave feminism, to describe the thinking and the career of Martha Brookes Hutcheson. She would not even have called herself a feminist, a term that had been in circulation since the 19th century. Nevertheless, an ecofeminist analysis can help us to understand the ways in which Hutcheson’s career was a nascent form of later developments in American landscape design.

While Progressive figures such as Jane Addams were fighting for broad societal changes, women were also leading initiatives aimed at natural-resource conservation.

Women’s work — understood as the domestic tasks typically assigned to women, including provisioning, cleaning, and child rearing — is in many ways a fraught concept, given that any gendered category can become essentialist. 46 Yet I am interested in the term as a means by which to link Hutcheson’s practical endeavors at Merchiston Farm and through the GCA with the feminist Pragmatism promulgated by Jane Addams, in which routine work is understood as the foundation of an ethic. 47 Homemaking, for Addams, includes the essential components of civic governance: health care, education, feeding, sanitation, budget management. Women were and are largely responsible for such maintenance, and hence already connected to the larger society; their concerns and expertise are the basis of social organization. 48 Valuing women’s work and its embodied expertise thus liberates not only women but also communities at large. 49

More specifically, following World War I, Addams argued that the sustenance production of food had historically been women’s responsibility, with food crossing into a “male” realm only when it was traded as a commodity. Addams emphasized women’s agency in the wartime economy, when food production again became an issue of survival rather than profit, with women provisioning not only the United States but also its allies. 50 Such beliefs in the work of caring as fundamentally political can also frame Hutcheson’s activities as she turned away from seeking entrance into the male-dominated world of landscape design and towards the expansion of women’s civic influence and agency.

As Thasia Way argues, gardening was seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries as an appropriate and even safe outlet for women, unlike the masculine realms of engineering and architecture. Thus, despite the discouragement that female practitioners regularly encountered, landscape architecture did provide an avenue for women into professional and scientific fields. Landscape historian Deborah Nevins notes that, “In terms of fame and influence in their time, women landscape architects were far ahead of their sisters in architecture, no doubt in part because women and gardening, as opposed to women and building, were naturally connected in the public mind.” 51

Upper Water and Hutcheson House.
Upper Water and Hutcheson House, 2018. [Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center]

The Spirit of the Garden cover and title page.
The Spirit of the Garden, 1st edition cover and title page (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1923).

Martha Brookes Hutcheson created a material practice of farming and gardening through which she could theorize a role for women drawing on this “natural” connection to the land, while balancing creative and professional fulfillment with domestic and class-based expectations — the notorious work-life balance. Implementing Addams’s dialectic of theory and practice, Hutcheson’s writing and speaking for the GCA constituted an intellectual activism, much as her work at Merchiston Farm and her involvement with the WLA constituted practical, local activism. Merchiston Farm was a site of study, experimentation, and change, and the GCA was a venue through which Hutcheson could disseminate her ideas, addressing women’s ethical problems and working to change women’s roles in society.

Hutcheson’s landscape architecture required the designer to work with plants and landforms, not on plants and landforms.

Merchiston Farm can therefore be read as a model of ecofeminist critique and practice. In the early years of the farm, agriculture, gardens, and hydrology were woven together to mediate between the two dominant design theories of the day, the architectural garden and the wild garden. In later years, the farm mediated between science and art, integrating emerging techniques for ecological amelioration and conservation into farm operations and garden design. Ecology provided a means of understanding land as an autonomous entity with needs and personality beyond the instrumentalization of abstract knowledge. “One cannot use plants well until they are known well,” Hutcheson wrote, “known as we would know friends by their names — their families — what their individual needs are — under what conditions they are at their best — how long they will live and what we must not do to offend them! They are very much like all of us.” 52 In ecofeminist terms, her landscape architecture required the designer to work with plants and landforms, not on plants and landforms. Later still, the farm served as a matrix for a social agenda, allowing her to carve out a place where women could contribute physically, intellectually, and economically to society; she promoted landscape architecture as a socially ameliorative practice that might materially improve women’s lives, and thereby the society at large. Reflecting on her career in 1932, Hutcheson urged, “We, who first lit the way for women in the profession, would beg of those who are following, on a far easier and smoother path, to hold the torch higher and higher until the world in general learns that Landscape Architects are to be reckoned with.” 53

Editors' Note

This article is drawn from Farmscape: The Design of Productive Landscapes, by Phoebe Lickwar and Roxi Thoren, forthcoming from Routledge.

  1. Mary Bronson Hartt, “Women and the Art of Landscape Gardening,” The Outlook (March 28, 1908): 695.
  2. Hartt, 701, 703. The idea of physical fatigue and breakdown appears, surprisingly, in a quote from Beatrix Jones (later Beatrix Farrand).
  3. Hartt, 699.
  4. Hartt, 697.
  5. MBH, “The First Quarter Century of the Garden Club of America as Seen by an Old Member,” Garden Club of America Bulletin 7, 6th Series (January 1938): 23.
  6. Eran Ben-Joseph, Holly D. Ben-Joseph, and Anne C. Dodge, “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Planning, 2006.
  7. Rebecca Warren Davidson, “Introduction to the Reprint Edition,” in Martha Brookes Hutcheson, The Spirit of the Garden (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), xii.
  8. MBH notes on her copy of Hartt: “I made $10,000 several years. MBH.” Martha Brookes Hutcheson Archive, Morris County Park Commission (MBHA, MCPC), Box 92.1. For lectures at GCA meetings, Hutcheson charged between $50 and $100, plus expenses.
  9. After Hutcheson’s death in 1959, Merchiston Farm passed to her daughter, Martha Hutcheson Norton; in 1972, Hutcheson Norton and her husband, Charles McKim Norton, donated the property to the Morris County Park Commission. The farm now operates as Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center. The house was restored in the 1990s and the gardens in 2004. The meadows, woods, and streams are networked with trails that link the property to over a thousand acres of County parks.
  10. Beatrix Farrand, a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, was the first female Fellow, followed by Elizabeth Bullard (1899), and Marian Coffin (1918). ASLA Fellows Database.
  11. Fowler, 9.
  12. Blomfield (1856–1942) advocated for a geometric or architectural garden design well into the twentieth century. Robinson (1838–1935) was similarly prolific and vocal; he republished The English Flower Garden fourteen times, with the last edition appearing in 1933.
  13. Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield and F. Inigo Thomas, The Formal Garden in England (London: Macmillan and Co.,1892) vi.
  14. Hartt, 699.
  15. Thaisa Way, Unbounded Practice: Women in Landscape Architecture in the early Twentieth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 178.
  16. For more on Humboldt, see Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 88-89, 126-127; see also Alexander von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, Stephen T. Jackson, and Sylvie Romanowski, Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  17. See for example, Cowles, Henry Chandler, “The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan,” Botanical Gazette (1 February 1899), 27(2): 95-117.
  18. Frank A. Waugh, The Natural Style of Landscape Gardening (Boston: Richard D. Badger, 1917), 51.
  19. Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, American Plants for American Gardens (1929) (University of Georgia Press, 1996). See also Elsa Rehmann, “An Ecological Approach.” Landscape Architecture (July 1933): 39-245.
  20. The Spirit of the Garden, 360.
  21. MBHA, MCPC, Box 93.19.
  22. MBHA, MCPC Box 92.1. The farm manager in the 1920s was George Temple.
  23. Howard Mason, the USDA district conservationist with whom Hutcheson collaborated, encouraged her to expand the plan to include “a complete program of soil, water and wildlife conservation for your land.” Howard Mason, letter to Martha Brookes Hutcheson, September 22, 1944. MBHA, MCPC, Box 92.24.
  24. The Spirit of the Garden, 362. As Rebecca Warren Davidson notes, The Spirit of the Garden was well-received from its first appearance. “In Architectural Record, for example, the architect William Lawrence Bottomley wrote that the book was ‘remarkable for its concise and practical suggestions, its grasp of fundamental principles of garden planning and at the same time, [it is] brilliantly and entertainingly written.’ He concluded that ‘every architect who ever does a country place should read it, and every garden lover should have it on a most convenient ’” William Lawrence Bottomley, Architectural Record no. 55 (February 1924): 205. Davidson adds: “Bottomley (1888–1951), a well-known country-house architect of the period, worked with Hutcheson on alterations to Merchiston Farm made in 1927, according to a note in the MBHA” (xxiv).
  25. MBH, “One of Our National Blights,” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America (Nov. 1926): 31.
  26. The Spirit of the Garden, ix.
  27. Warren Manning and MBH, “The Aims and Propaganda of the Garden Clubs of America.” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America (Jan. 1916): 2-4.
  28. Ibid, 4.
  29. The Spirit of the Garden, v.
  30. She adds, “In trying to find out how I could get in touch with such authorities as those who might allow me to plant the area of ground, I stumbled upon the fact that my aim would be politically impossible, but that there was a course in Landscape Architecture being formed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first course which America had ever held.” Quoted in Clarence Fowler, “Three Women in Landscape Architecture,” Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Alumnae Review 9 (1932): 9.
  31. Lillie V. S. Lindabury, “Report of Special Committee on Garden at State Reformatory, Clinton Farms, N.J.” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America ( 1917): 33.
  32. Davidson, xxix
  33. Fowler, 10.
  34. MBH notes on her copy of Hartt, 708. MBHA, MCPC, Box 92.1.
  35. In the 1912 election, Democrat Woodrow Wilson captured 41.9% of the vote to Roosevelt’s 27.4%; Republican incumbent William Howard Taft received 23.1%. Roosevelt remains the only third-party candidate to receive more votes than a major-party candidate.
  36. Elaine F. Weiss, Fruits of Victory: The Women’s Land Army of America in the Great War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, Inc., 2008), 107.
  37. MBHA, MCPC, Box 93.19
  38. Weiss, 48, 175.
  39. Delia West Marble, Land Army News VIII, New Series (January 1921): 30.
  40. “The First Quarter Century of the Garden Club of America,” 25.
  41. MBH, “A Wider Program for Garden Clubs,” Address to the general meeting of the Garden Club of America, May 1919, New York, NY. Reprinted as “Excerpts from the Wider Program, 1919,” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America (Jan. 1938): 26-27.
  42. Thaisa Way, “Landscape Architecture’s Ecological Design: A Feminist Historian’s Perspective.” Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.
  43. “The First Quarter Century of the Garden Club of America,” 22.
  44. “One of Our National Blights,” 30-31.
  45. MBH, “Progressive Aims for new Garden Clubs.” Public lecture, December 2, 1937, Fleming Museum, Middlebury, VT. MBHA, MCPC, Box 92.13
  46. The idea of “women’s work” can of course be used oppressively to justify a “natural connection” between gender and certain types of activity. Moreover, for women of Hutcheson’s class, the drudgery of domestic maintenance and care was typically reassigned to working-class women.
  47. See Chris Cuomo, “Toward Thoughtful Ecofeminist Action.” Ecological Feminist Philosophies, ed. Karen Warren (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 44. Addams was a close friend and interlocutor of the Pragmatist philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey (1859–1952).
  48. Lisa Heldke, “Community Gardeners or Radical Homemakers?” in Contemporary Feminist Pragmatism, ed. Maurice Hamington and Celia Bardwell-Jones (London: Routledge, 2012), 132.
  49. Jane Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907), 217.
  50. Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922), 82.
  51. Deborah Nevins, “The triumph of Flora: Women and the American landscape, 1890-1935,” Antiques, (April 1985): 905.
  52. “Progressive Aims for new Garden Clubs,” MBHA, MCPC, Box 92.13
  53. Fowler, 10.
Roxi Thoren, ““Dreaming True”,” Places Journal, November 2018. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/181127

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