There is something distinctly American about the word “yard”, and despite the shared use of the English “garden”, the yard, or backyard, remains as American as baseball, pecan pies, and white picket fences.
But why do Americans say yard and not garden?
The answer goes right back to the beginnings of this great nation and reflects the culture and lifestyles that are unique to the United States.
In This Concise Article – We will look at the origins of the American word “yard”, and how the yard has become the hub for the very best of American living.
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Why do Americans say yard and not garden?
When an American is talking about their yard, they are describing the land surrounding their property, the land in their possession.
Using the word “yard” is very much in keeping with its etymology, as we see here:
Old English geard “patch of ground around a house,”
Old Norse garðr “enclosure, garden, yard”
Old Frisian garda
Dutch gaard, “fenced enclosure, garden, court; residence, house”
Gothic gards “house,” garda “stall”
The American yard is like to be a more accurate description of what we understand as a garden than contemporary English.
This is because American English is much closer to earlier forms of English and, in some contexts, imparts the root meaning of the word better, in this case, an owned and enclosed area of land.
Yard makes sense given the strong agricultural tradition of the US
With skyscrapers, jets, and space shuttles, it’s hard to believe that just over 100 years ago most Americans earned their living off the land.
With over 69 percent of the American population working in agriculture in previous generations, and many more establishing themselves as settlers or subsistence farming, the word yard has roots in this agrarian heritage.
What Americans mean by the word “garden”
So if a yard is the land surrounding property, then what’s a garden? Well, for Americans, a garden is an area of land within the yard that has been cultivated for a specific purpose.
A garden may be a vegetable patch, an area of ornamentals, or a simple flower bed.
Take a look at this sweet Tennessee garden of Zinnias which is part of a larger homestead:
Or this family’s lush vegetable garden, which is more akin to a small farm:
Classic backyard pastimes in the USA
Americans love traditions and many of the nation’s distinctive backyard pastimes are in keeping with the strong agricultural roots, can-do mentality, and dogged self-sufficiency of their forebears.
Americans love their yard and enjoying outside time is a big part of the US lifestyle.
Let’s look at some all-American recreations that take place in the yard.
The barbecue is a strong American tradition that is prevalent in almost every state.
It goes back to colonial times, with even George Washington himself partaking of a “barbicue” in the 1700s!
Barbecued (or barbecue flavored) foods are staples of the American diet, and where it can be afforded, most households will have a grill in their yard.
In times past, Americans could enjoy as many hot toasted s’mores as they wanted on their backyard campfires:
With widespread environmental protection laws and other restrictions on burning wood outdoors, times have changed significantly, but those who can still burn on a fire pit while entertaining friends for the evening.
The pioneer spirit of Americans is still strong and even the most compact yards can become a hive of enterprise and productivity.
One way in which Americans use their yards is the keeping of backyard chickens.
Interestingly, with favorable zoning, you can even keep them in the big cities too.
It’s not just the newly laid eggs that are popular; lovers of backyard hens love the personalities of their hens too:
Just like the garden shed, or man cave, the ‘shop is a key retreat for the American male where they can tap into their inner Wilson.
The yard is often the setting of a wide variety of home improvement projects that can be tackled with an impressive selection of power tools.
Though just under 10% of Americans own their pool, backyard pools and pool parties are a big part of American popular culture.
If the weather is hot and the yard is large, many Americans will cool off in a backyard pool, whether in-ground, above-ground, or inflatable.
Along with the patio, pools represent the American zeal for alfresco living.
The move to using yards for lifestyle activities rather than a utilitarian space began at the end of World War II when the standard of living for the average American household surged ahead of most other countries.
Adverts, film and television, and even architecture, changed to promote the benefits of outdoor living.
Manufacturers repurposed surplus war materials such as garden furniture pools, grills, and barbecue tools.
And compared to many places, American yards are huge!
Just about everything in America seems to be bigger, and the same goes for the size of backyards.
The average American yard is three times the size of a British garden, in part, because of lower land prices in the States.
Within the US – Yard sizes can vary significantly. The average American yard size is just over a quarter of an acre (10,871 square feet).
But if you are living in Vermont, your yard size will be up to seven times larger than average.
You can find other massive backyards in Montana, New Hampshire, and Maine.
On the other extreme, Nevada residents have some of the smallest yards in the nation with an average of 4,386 square feet.
When it comes to yards versus gardens, it’s a bit of a Fred Astaire “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” situation.
The American yard is no English country garden, but outdoor enthusiasts of all nationalities can relate to relaxing and being productive in your little piece of nature!