Privilege Blog

Would You Like To Plant Betty Draper’s Garden?

We know how Betty, Don and the gang dress. We’ve seen Betty’s interior design, her knotty-pine kitchen cabinets, console television, and hard-edged sofa. But how, we might wonder, did her garden grow?

Little Sally Draper and I share a birthday, more or less. I remember what gardens looked like in her day, at least here in Northern California. Midcentury children played in well-behaved foliage and pink, white, and blue highly structured flowers. Not dissimilar to Joan and Betty’s dresses. Naked Ladies, also known, less colorfully, as Belladonna Lily.

Agapanthus, known, somewhat more colorfully, as African Lily.

Because so many houses were built all at once, gardens were laid out uniformly. Fuchsia, rhododendrons, camellias, star jasmine, juniper hedges, and lots of lawn. Snatching plants from across the planet. Thinking water would last forever. Featuring concrete. Thinking that it, too, would last forever. We may have killed our snails with poison, but we looked quite tidy doing so. Maybe that’s what so compelling about the midcentury American aesthetic. For a moment, all kinds of cultural threads lined up.

Midcentury landscapers may have believed that nature was only a backdrop for man’s infinite trajectory of achievement, but over the past fifty years we’ve gained tolerance for graying and scruffy foliage, drought-tolerant grasses, even weeds. We understand that rhododendrons, native to the hills above Darjeeling, probably don’t belong in the Mediterranean climate of Northern California. We’ve figured out that that concrete cracks.

And lavender, a fantastic replacement for lilies of many kinds, smells rapturous.

I wonder, what did the gardens of midcentury look like in your neck of the woods? Do you remember? Does your mother? Your father? Maybe you lived in the Draper’s suburb outside of Manhattan? In Texas? Chicago? Miami? Leeds? Neuilly-sur-Seine?  Mexico City? Hong Kong? Kingston? Lagos?After all, in 1962 it was 1962 everywhere, not just in Draperville. Or perhaps we could challenge Matthew Weiner to go ahead and show us the plantings.

Naked Ladies
Concrete Walkway via Studio G

38 Responses

  1. Oregon = Snowball Bushes. We planted one in our Berkeley back yard for nostalgia and it is doing quite well.


  2. I more or less share a birthday with baby Gene Draper and grew up in a Draper suburb.

    When they use shots of the front of the Draper residence, it looks very much the same, but I think they must shoot outdoor party scenes in California.

  3. My mother lived out in the country as a child. In family pictures, it's striking to see the wild foliage all around because most of the family pictures from the 1950s/60s don't look like that at all. However, I've seen pictures of my paternal grandmother's garden. Everything is very orderly and symmetrical, the shurbbery is perfectly trimmed, and there are lots of azaleas and rhododendrons. This would have been in Virginia, by the way.

  4. I was born in 1956 and grew up in a suburb of Oklahoma City. My mother's back garden included a large bed of orange daylilies, a huge elm tree underwhich she gradually collected concrete bricks to built a patio around an irregular shaped flower bed nestled next to the back porch. I think before I came along that flower bed was a gold fish pond. The main garden area was about 2 feet wide around the perimeter of the back yard. She had roses, peonies, marigolds, hollyhocks, mint and chives, asparagus fern, large irises, snap dragons and many other flowers I can't remember. I still have her notebook where she planned by season, by colour and by height. It wouldn't qualify as a very formal garden but it was impressive all the same and everyone who saw it could see the love she poured into it. Me? I seem to have more of a black thumb…

  5. mother-in-law's tongue, cactus, California poppies, Easter lilies, something that looked like alyssum, ice plant, red geraniums. Inland Empire. Further toward the desert: more lawns of green-painted pebbles. We did have one older Dutch gentleman who rode everywhere on a bicycle – I had never seen a grown up riding on a bike – and every evening sat outside in a chair in the middle of his dichondra lawn.

  6. Bay Area (penninsula, in an area that was an apricot orchard before it was a housing tract): Lawn, concrete and fruit trees. We didn't have much in the way of flower beds. On our 1/4 acre suburban lot, we had one of each: plum tree, apricot tree, walnut tree, lemon bush, orange tree, bing cherry tree, peach tree, apple tree. We also had pyracantha bushes on the fences. The berries would ferment on the vines, and the birds would eat them and get drunk and fly into the windows. :-(

    Every couple of months a guy would come and spray insecticide around the yard and we weren't allowed to play outside for a couple of hours afterward. Better living through chemistry.

  7. The pride and joy of mid-century gardens, at least how I remember them, was the perfect lawn. Flowers and shrubs were secondary.

  8. Long Island – green lawns, azaleas and rhododendrons, dogwood trees, rock gardens with chicken and hens, hyacinths and other kinds of ground cover.

  9. We spent weekends and summers in Morris County New Jersey — and very much in the time of the Drapers. When I think of my parent's country property – perched high above a lake and surrounded, for the most part, with woods, the acreage that they chose to control was just that– controlled. Azaleas ran down the path to the front door, the back terraces were floored in herringbone brick and the pool was dressed in lines of fire bush. A step up to a grove of trees on higher ground was bordered by a defined run of planters that held the expected tulips in Spring, impatiens in Summer and mums in Autumn. If the wild blackberries that grew along the deep length of the post and rail fence, had been a a gift of nature, they were certainly not allowed to swallow the fence with their own intended abandon. They were 'controlled' like every other living thing on the property. Very Mid-Century, if you think about it.

    Since my parents were both pretty creative, interesting characters, I suspect that what I am remembering, is just what "Privilege" is talking about — a Mid-Century idea of what a garden was "supposed" to look like. A blend of acceptable references that made the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' blur into a tasteful and controlled ideal.

    If others had to push toward some level of public authority, we had to keep a lid on our self-expression, never allowing a hair of ostentatious or "showy" display to mar the perfectly groomed control of our well-bred facade.

    This morning as I left our CT property to head back to NYC, I saw the first huge (big as a paper plate) hibiscus bloom of the season, bright and unabashed, in an impossible, almost phony, clown-nose red. It's planted in our Red Garden – a riot of all things red — roses, lilies, dianthus, hibiscus, fuchscia, clematis, impatiens and more each year – all backed by barberry – with its own red-burgundy foliage.

    I know my parents might have come to this eventually, had they lived long enough to enjoy the fun of gardening, just to see what you can actually do when you put a little personal creativity to the task. But back in the 1960's, it must have seemed too dangerous to even think about. Whatever may have made it "not worth the risk", I just can't imagine, but isn't it nice we have the chance now – on our own – to do what we will!

  10. Oh yes. Driveways crack. Garage foundations split. Unfortunately. They are not cheap to repair.

    I grew up all over, but my strongest flower memories are of the lilacs outside my grandparents' northern Wisconsin farmhouse and of the fields of poppies and fields of sunflowers in Spain, where we lived for four years. I have planted sunflowers and poppies in my garden, but I cannot get the poppies to take.

    Diane, as far as controlled gardens – I coveted the yard of the month award when I lived in Memphis, but was told by someone on that committee (after I wrote a tongue in cheek article for the paper that the award was fixed because I had never gotten it) that my garden was not traditional and what they were seeking. True. The yards that won had controlled, Southern Living gardens. Mine was more of a wild, English cottage garden. Whatever. People came to my house just to see my flowers. Take that, yard of the month committee.

  11. Observed in friends and Grandmother's garden, 1950's, New England, very old houses with lovely gardens: stonewalled terraces around the house with johnny jump ups self-seeding and blooming wildly, symmetrical cutting garden with paths of grass edged with fruit trees, rows of sweet peas hand tied to string supports, plots of fragrant dianthus, old roses, hundreds of peonies, eventually zinnias etc. in the fall; vine covered lattice-enclosed herb garden surrounding an outdoor shower/cedar changing room, 2 rectangular pools on either side of a central grass axis on gentle hill down to the sea, one for swimming,the other shallow and decorative, each with a little hedge but no fence, –and everyone did their own gardening–maybe with a little help but they were no strangers to the gloves, hats and cutting scissors! Vegetable gardens with asparagus, strawberries and annual vegetables. Chickens for fresh eggs and fertilizer.
    Thank you for asking. The memories are wonderful. So much scent! I am shocked that even freesias–not particularly pretty or colorful in the past–but with a heavenly scent–are now hybridized out of any scent whatsoever. Makes no, well I won't pun.

  12. It's only been a couple of weeks since our journey began but we are so over the moon excited! I just wanted to drop in and invite you along for the ride – either you're a follower of my OTHER blog or just a sweet person I'd love to come along!

    Hopefully, the secrecy won't last long…

    Much love, luck, and blessings!!

    The *Maybe* Baby Mama

  13. see you there – I have a Snowball Bush in my front yard. And one of my neighbors waxed nostalgic over it just recently:).

    Patsy – I was trying to think whether I had actually SEEN the front of the Draper house and I couldn't remember.

    VA Gal – The country was really the country then…

    Shelley – Your mom's garden sounds beautiful.

    Vildy – mother-in-law's tongue?!? That I have never heard of. But I have seen those green-painted pebbles, inland.

  14. Deja – I remember being scandalized, that birds got drunk:). Good thing we all survived the pesticides, huh?

    Belle – Yes. And my lawns are so small now. Almost ceremonial.

    Susan – Sounds gorgeous. The combination of formal landscaping and chickens…

    Diane – My father's family's place was in Morris County. I still have family there – does Gladstone/Peapack ring a bell? The landscaping you describe sounds just like my cousin's house. And I love the audacity of a Red Garden. Makes me think of Lewis Carroll.

    Class – You were just ahead of your time. As you are now:).

  15. Anonymous – Oh my gosh. I'm enraptured. The pools. The hundreds of peonies. The basket for gloves, hat and cutting scissors. You are reminding me of my grandmother's house in Longmeadow, Mass. Hers had no ocean, and fewer flowers, but the expanse of space was such a luxury. So evocative. Thank you.

    Maybe Baby – Well I will just have to play along:).

  16. Oh, my, this brings back memories. I grew up outside Chicago in a house built in 1903 with a huge yard. Neither of my parents gardened, so the yard pretty much stayed as it was when they moved in in 1952. I remember best the riot of tulips that came up every spring. Someone before us had loved tulips. They were all over the back yard. The peonies arrived after the tulips and then the old roses on a trellis. We had a side yard with wild flowers and a playhouse (left over small building that came with the house). The other side was all grass. Lots of ferns in the front. I think ferns were popular in the early 1900's?? Thorny hedges defined the side and back boundaries. There were many, many old trees that shaded the house and made it cool in the sumer even without air conditioning. We ran wild in that yard and in the neighbors' yards. What a fun childhood. I cringe sometimes when I think of my children living in a house with a tiny California yard….Anyway, I think I"m describing an early 20th century garden that existed long past its prime.

  17. We moved a lot. So . . grandparents in Pittsburgh – hollyhocks, phlox, petunias, poplar trees. House outside of Pittsburgh – wooded lot with creek in the back, peonies, Betty prior roses, bing cherry tree, azaleas.

    Main Line- azaleas, iris, rose garden, zinneas.

    By the time we moved to New England, it was no longer mid century but approaching the last quarter. the previous owner experimented with breeding day lillies, so that was the foundation of those gardens.

  18. Gladstone Peapack. Absolutely! That's where I took my first jump on a horse.

    For all who think that New Jersey is the land of Tony Soprano and oil refineries, Bedminster, Gladstone, Far Hills would be eye-opening experiences. We had fresh corn from a field within bicycling distance and corn from the dairy up the road. Just as we do now in Northwestern CT. It took me 30 years to get back 'home' to a balance of urban and rural America. Gardens are just the tip of the glorious ice-berg!

  19. DocP, did you make dolls from hollyhocks? We did that. The hollyhock bush was by the garage…

  20. And the Rhododendrons are native here where I live also in the Appalachian mountains.

  21. Love the agapanthus…I wish I knew when your birthday was ….I'd send you something…email me!
    My laptop battery is almost dead…must sign off….after I recharge…I'll come back!

  22. great post…and very very nice blog…i love your writing.Happy friendship day to you..would you like to be my friend? please reply me on my blog..I'm waiting.

  23. You want a living 1950s time capsule? Visit Los Alamos, NM. A lot of the houses there are these boxy, oddly retro-futuristic government-issue monstrosities, and they have the white picket fences, manicured lawns, water-hungry perennials (lilies, lilacs, roses). The last time I was there xeriscaping was starting to make inroads, but Los Alamos is largely a community of transplanted Easterners who were brought there to beat the Nazis, then the Soviets, through science, and they needed to reinvent the landscape to make their exile and isolation a bit more tolerable.

  24. I love agapanthus- they grow like weeds rounf these here parts. I love it too that Henry's Mother is so onto the Real Betty x

  25. I am a little younger,born in 66, grew up on a farm in OK and if it wasn't something we could can then it didn't get planted at our house. I would run away to my neighbors house every afternoon where she had seedings, and greenhouses and every square inch was planted with something that was, even if edible, pretty. I remember being facinated that you could take those pretty little flowers from different plants and make tea out of them.
    My uncle lived in town and had this huge old fashioned rose bush that grew next to his propane office I would amuse myself by picking bouquets of flowers for him. He also had roses at his house and a big ol snowball plant. And everyone had these old cedar trees that I was told were supposed to block the wind.
    Then there was the lilac bush at the little old white house across the street from the school. My best friend and I took ever bloom off of it our Jr year(with permission) to decorate the prom. It smelled FANTASTIC! Still one of my favorite memories and smells.

  26. You can't beat the smell of lavender and roses, though I currently have neither in my garden.

    Well, I've not much to say about midcentury gardens, except that a native plant in them would most likely be a rarity. They're beauty without function, from the point of view of our fellow creatures. I love to enjoy them in photos, but on the ground I prefer something more locally sensitive and supportive.

    Still, I'm not opposed to celebrating the beauty of a rose, as my post today shows, and every spring I do enjoy the white peonies which my predecessor left for me.

  27. Suburban Boston: long row of lilacs, peonies, roses, phlox, zinnia, hydrangea, spreading yews to form hedges, Japanese maples, hosta and the most perfect lawn in the Commonwealth! I always wanted to get married in May so that I could carry the lilacs – got married too many years later (Daddy died, Mother sold house and remarried!)

  28. Kansas City with lush peonies, lilies, lilacs, irises, so many flowering trees! The Cherry Blossoms, Weeping Willows on and on!

    Art by Karena

  29. Ours was not the typical SoCal garden. We had a dichondra lawn, extremely well-manicured boxwood hedges, statuary and the same Japanese gardener for 30 years who didn't speak English. I guess you could say I grew up in a garden of privilege. :)

  30. i need to ask ash's grandmum about the flowers in nepal for that time. she has a huge garden full of flowers and veggies but i dont know many names of those flowers *eeeek* apart from hibiscus, lilies, roses…

    rhododendron is nepal's national flower. :)

    ~ash's mum

  31. Dichondra!!! Yes, I forgot all about the Drama of Dichondra…trying to keep it looking good, trying to keep the dog from peeing on it and creating those brown spots.

  32. Sewing Librarian – The tulips sound fantastic. We can't leave them in the ground here so I make do with daffodils.

    DocP – I love even the sound of phlox.

    Diane – My guess is that if I tell you where my father's family house was, you will know it.

    Anon – I bet they are gorgeous on the hillsides. They certainly were in Darjeeling.

    Hostess – Thank you! My birthday is September 30th. 54 this year. My goodness.

  33. Rakshanda – Nice to meet you.

    Staircase – Oh my gosh. That would make a good David Lynch movie.

    Vildy – :).

    FF – I liked to pop the agapanthus buds as a kid. And I despite Betty, I must say . Too mean.

    Shannon – Thank you so much.

  34. Alison – I agree that natives were usual then.

    SuSu – "Spreading yews to form hedges…." Lovely.

    Karena – Sounds beautiful. Almost Japanese.

    Pink Martini – I think so:).

    Ash – I'd love to hear about gardens in Nepal.

    Deja – Why did anyone ever choose plantings that augmented anxiety, we wonder….

  35. Just thought you'd like to that in Australia Agapanthus is called Star of Bethlehem, because it flowers near Christmas.

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