Early American Gardens

Featured image: gardens at the Whipple House in Ipswich.

Isadore Smith (1902-1985) who published as Ann Leighton, was born in Portsmouth, N.H., graduated from Smith College in 1923, and married Archibald William Smith (1897-1962), a veteran of the First World War. Their home was the Tilton-Smith house at 168 Argilla Road in Ipswich. He was the author of two books, A captain departed, (New Haven, Yale University Press, (published 1935) and A gardener’s book of plant names; a handbook of the meaning and origins of plant names. (New York, Harper & Row, (published 1963)

Early American Gardens "For Meate or Medicine" by Ann Leighton

After Col. Smith enlisted again during WWII, Isadore wrote While We Are Absent, about how she maintained the home and gardens and raised the children without him. Col. Smith died in 1962. In 1967, as a member of the Ipswich Garden Club, she took on a project with the Ipswich Historical Society to create a traditional seventeenth century rose garden at the Whipple House. In 1977 she and Katharine C. Weeks designed the gardens at the Weeks Brick House in Greenland NH, described as a typical housewife’s garden of the late 17th century, including the herbs and plants essential for a New England household.

Mrs. Smith combined her knowledge of early gardens with New England history in three volumes, the first of which, ”Early American Gardens: ‘For Meate or Medicine,” was published under the pseudonym of Ann Leighton by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1970, followed by a second volume, ‘‘American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century.” The final volume, ”American Gardens in the Nineteenth Century,” was published a year after her death. Her impeccable knowledge of plants and pleasing writing style has made the books classics. The introductions state, “While buildings may decay and crumble, the plants of every age are still with us and need only to be collected and replanted to speak for the time and its people.”

Quote by Isadore Smith, who wrote as Ann Leighton

In the introduction to Early American Gardens, Leighton included a quote by Captain George Fenwick, a founder of Saybrook CT, describing his wife’s “special enjoyment.”

Excerpt from Early American Gardens, “For Meate or Medicine

“The requirements of the Puritan housewife had to be the deciding factors in the layout and materials of the garden near the house. The garden close to the dwelling, neatly fenced, and bright with “a variety of flowers” was as much her domain as her kitchen and her still room. Throughout the seventeenth century she must be able to extract from it all she would need for flavorings and seasonings and garnishings, for insect repellents and deodorants, for changing the air in rooms and keeping out moths and rodents and snakes, for dyeing and fulling and ‘teasing,’ for concocting syrups and cordials and waters, for making plasters and salves and coated pills, for treating wounds and aiding in childbirths and in laying out the dead. And of course, all of these plants, useful and dull though they may sound, were capable of bursting into fragrant bloom to make gardens gay and pleasant spots. “

“It was hard work…The settler’s gardens probably looked very like English cottage gardens of today, the direct descendants of Elizabethan gardens with which early Puritans were familiar. Gardens were reputedly healthy spots, convenient for thinking or for discussing matters with friends. Men of affairs like Samuel Sewall liked to walk n their gardens. In his old age, John Winthrop Junior liked to ‘step out into’ his. The wills of Essex County in the seventeenth century abound in mentions of ‘the garden before the house with its fencing’ and nearby, ‘the little orchard’ or ‘the great orchard.'”


The Mission House in Stockbridge MA. From 1928 to 1933, noted landscape architect Fletcher Steele designed the Colonial Revival garden, which features a colonial-style dooryard garden of circular brick paths enclosed by a cypress fence. A kitchen garden divided by crushed stone walkways contains 100 herbs, perennials, and annuals that had culinary or medicinal value to early colonists. A replica of an old cobbler shop serves as the entrance to the property.


The Parsonage garden at Old Sturbridge Village. The garden’s layout is based upon a plan laid out in Thomas Bridgeman’s 1839 The Young Gardener’s Assistant. Bridgeman describes permanently raised beds, enriched with composted manures and household wastes. The beds were planted strategically with annual and biennial crops rotating around beds of perennial vegetables.


Garden at the House of Seven Gables in Salem was designed by landscape architect Joseph Everett Chandler in 1909, in partnership with Caroline Emmerton during the restoration of the house.


English gardens at the 1684 David Burnham house at 57 Pond St. in Essex


Ed and Barbara Emberly called on Lucinda Brockway to landscape the garden in front of their First Period house on Water Street.


Ed Emberly in the front yard garden at 6 Water Street, the Reginald Foster house (1690). Photo courtesy: Old Houses Online

The 1728 Glazier – Sweet house on Water St.

The 1728 Glazier – Sweet house on Water St. in Ipswich

The 1735 Benjamin Grant house on County St in Ipswich

The 1735 Benjamin Grant house on County St. in Ipswich


The Butterfly Meadow on North Main Street is maintained by the Ipswich Garden Club.

The writer, Ipswich town historian Gordon Harris grows a vegetable garden behind his 1950's house.

The writer grows an organic vegetable garden behind his 1950’s house.

Use the links below to purchase these books from used book sellers through Amazon:

Early American Gardens, published in 1970, the first of her three authoritative volumes of garden history, is a 464-page masterwork of garden history, reissued in paperback by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1986. Concentrating on the gardens of the early settlers of New England, the book deals with gardeners as well as the plants they depended upon for household aids, flavorings, drinks, and medicines. The well-illustrated and scholarly volume appeals to history buffs as well as avid gardeners.

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century is the second volume about garden history by Ann Leighton. She drew from letters, journals, invoices, and books of men and women who were interested in the plants of the New and Old World. As with the first volume, she included illustrations and descriptive listings of native and new plants that were cultivated during the eighteenth century.

American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century is the final of the three volumes of garden history by Ann Leighton, and includes reproductions of contemporary illustrations and descriptive listings of native and new plants that were cultivated during the nineteenth century. In this volume she connects the natural landscape with the growth of the industrial age and cultural change in nineteenth-century America.


Isadore Smith

DEC. 5, 1985

Isadore Smith, aka Ann LeightonIPSWICH – A memorial service for Isadore L. (Luce) Smith, 83, a well-known landscape artist, con­servationist, author and authority on early American gardens, will be held Friday, Dec. 20, at 11 a.m. in Ascension Memorial Church. She died last Saturday in the home of her sister, Mrs. Wallace Niles, in Tallahassee, Fla., after a long illness. In her honor, town flags are be­ing flown at half-mast this week.

Mrs. Smith, who worked tire­lessly to preserve Ipswich’s natu­ral and architectural history, was the author of “Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine” and “American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century,” both published by Houghton Mifflin Co. un­der her pseudonym, “Ann Leighton.” When her first volume was published in 1970, the late Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston historian and director of the Boston Athe­naeum, said: “What a perfectly enchanting book! Why has no one ever had the wit and imagination to combine a taste for gardening and 17th century New England history until now? Because, I sus­pect, few people read as widely, garden as enthusiastically, or write as engagingly.”

Mrs. Smith’s third volume, “American Gardens in the Nine­teenth Century and After,” will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press next year in a boxed paperback trilogy that will contain the earlier volumes. She wrote many articles and short stories that appeared in such magazines as House & Garden and in such collections as “The American Woman’s Garden.”

An ardent conservationist, Mrs. Smith many years ago proposed and persuaded the Ipswich town meeting to designate the Old Town Poor Farm as a park, thus preserving it from development. During the 1960s, she served on the Ipswich Salt Marsh Com­mittee concerned with the preservation of the town’s coastal wetlands and more recently was a member of the Hall-Haskell House Committee, which assumed the task of restoring the town’s “Little Red House,” a federal house next to the Town Hall. In addition she is credited with the inspiration to create what is known as “Sally’s Pond” in the center of town, which reflects the two historic houses owned by the Historical Society on the town green. Her plan for the pond was adopted by the town as part of the legacy of its 350th anniversary celebration last year.

A member of the Ipswich School Committee in the 1950s and a longtime sponsor of the Essex County Greenbelt Association of Massachusetts, she also was a dedicated member of the Ipswich Historical Society and was in charge of the grounds of its Whip­ple House. A member of the American So­ciety of Landscape Architects, she had designed period gardens for the Lee Mansion of the Marblehead Historical Society, the Colo­nial Dames in Swansea, the Weeks Family Homestead in Greenland, N.H., and the Paul Re­vere House in Boston’s North End.

Mrs. Smith was the widow of Col. A. William Smith, who was formerly director of resources at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston. They were mar­ried in Bombay in 1925 and lived in India and Burma before coming to this country in 1928, settling in New York City. They moved here in 1934. Mrs. Smith was born in Portsmouth, N.H. She was a graduate of Portsmouth High School, the National Cathedral School, Wash­ington, D.C., and Smith College in 1923. In addition to her sister, Mrs. Smith leaves two sons, Thomas W. M. of Washington, D.C., and Readfield, Maine, and James M. Smith of Lexington; a daughter, Emily M. S. Cain of Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada; and six grandchildren.

Review of Early American Gardens

Sources and further reading:

4 replies »

  1. This is a wonderful article. I grew up on an old resort estate built at least 100 years later than this but it too was planted with a huge variety of things that I only now realized what they were. So many of these plants that she writes about were in my garden and I never knew until now what they were. I would really like to find these books. Any chance that one of the bookstores in Ipswich carries them? I was just online trying to find the books after reading your article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful little piece of Ipswich history. I would love to find Mrs. Smith’s books. Thanks for writing this up! The gardens at the Foster Grant House ( behind, unfortunately not visible from Summer St.) were designed by MaryAnn Tolvanen in the 1970’s and are filled with traditional native plants and contain we believe many elements particular to this area.


  3. Hi Gordon, I was enjoying your garden article about the Whipple House. The garden shed by the rose garden to the left of the house was part of my home at one time. That little building was the only remaining centuries old kitchen section, with gunstock corner beams, and attached to the Bradstreet home that we lived in. We watched the removal and transfer of it to the Whipple House around 1968. After the removal I discovered that under the foundation were many discarded artifacts and very old bottles that I still have today. Garden tools are stored in the old kitchen presently. Sandra Godzik


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