A History of African Landscape Design
By LMG Calla Victoria
While watching one of my favorite gardening programs, the host visited a historic plantation/farm and commented on the “swept yard” design. Of course, being an avid gardener and hungry for knowledge, I began to research exactly what was a swept yard.
The concept of swept yards grew out of necessity and was the first quintessential outdoor room. Back in West Africa, especially due to the heat as well as space constraints; much of the cooking, washing of clothing, and gathering was done outside. Therefore for convenience, pest control, and safety issues, our ancestors swept their yards with crude brooms made of twigs removing all grass, debris, and weeds from the areas surrounding their domiciles. If there is not grass there is no place for pesky bugs to hide. And as most of the cooking was done outdoors, if there was grass then there was the possibility of a stray cinder igniting the grass and starting a fire.
A wonderful example of sweeping yards can be seen in the mini-series Shaka Zulu, where women were seen sweeping the dirt in front of the huts as tribesmen entered the crawls. There were no lawns to be seen, just dirt. I often wondered when watching Shaka Zulu, one of my favorite moves by the way, what exactly were the women sweeping…now I know. Also I do recall on my visit to West Africa there was no grass in the yard at the compound that I stayed in. Lawns were thought to be unnecessary and labor-intensive. The tribes were more concerned with growing crops than cutting grass.
With the advent of slavery in America, West African slaves brought the concept of swept yards along with many other traditions to America. And as European settlers were preoccupied with growing crops and not grass, the swept yard concept was a mainstay for many many years. The swept yard is even a mention in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird," of the Radley's having a "swept yard that was never swept." In the south it was said that when you were expecting company you baked cakes and had the yard swept!
Definition of the Swept Yard:
The swept yard is a unique landscape tradition once common in the deep South: a bare dirt area denuded of any grass, kept 'clean' by sweeping with a broom made of twigs (dogwood seems to have been preferred). The hard red clay of the yard would eventually become almost stone like.
It was not until the mid 1800s that Americans started keeping lawns, which was really a sign of wealth and status that plantation owners adopted from European royalty. At first, only the wealthy could afford the labor provided by hired staff to maintain lawns so of course, this further cemented the idea of lawn as a status symbol.
As an avid gardener, I have no love for grass and I am baffled at how people spend thousands to have a beautiful lawn. My lawn is beautiful in spite of me. I do absolutely nothing to it. I never water it or fertilize it and yet that St. Augustine grass looks like a lush green carpet. Many gardeners, myself included, are opting out of grass all together. Some are planting Asian jasmine ground cover to replace the grass. It is evergreen and lush looking year around, rarely needs cutting, and when it does need a monthly trim you can run over it with a lawnmower at the highest height. Others are opting for cottage gardens where their entire outer space in planted with flowers and shrubs as opposed to grass. My sister Master Gardener Eileen Hollander did just that and happily said “I got rid of all of the grass and my lawnmower too!”
Now the concept of a completely swept yard may be out of the question, but we can do a twist on that concept to create pathways through our gardens, as opposed to stepping stones and bricks. As a tribute to our ancestors I am going to find some way to incorporate a swept area in my garden.
This article was published in the August 30, 2014 edition of Data News Weekly in their print publication and on their website at ladatanews.com
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