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History of Garden Design

The Persian Carpet Influence

The oldest pictures we have of gardens are from Egypt-paintings of scenes with plants and animals combined in ways that provide pleasure as well as function. One such painting, dated 1400 BC, is in the British Museum, and it depicts an ornamental fishpond. The pond is a rectangle with a stone border. In the pond are fish, waterfowl, flowers, and clumps of reeds at the edges. Around the pond are fruit trees, and to one side, there is a servant holding a basket of fruit, pomegranates or grapes, and a wine jar.

By the 3rd century BC market gardens, gardens growing fruit and vegetables for sale, were common in the Mediterranean and Eastern regions. In many a town, there was a grove of trees or park of pleasurable or religious nature (sacred grove). Herb growing was associated especially with temples that required their use for ritual and worship. There were frankincense, myrrh, cornflowers, poppies, lotuses, and chamomile. Chamomile was identified by pollen analysis as a main constituent in the embalming oil used to mummify Ramses II who died in 1224 BC.

Persian carpets give us a good idea of what early gardens were like because these are stylized representations of the gardens. The borders suggest boundary walls and paths. The interior designs are usually comprised of four quarters of equal size, each being divided into six squares. They contain alternately flowerbeds, with flowers in square and circle patterns, and plane trees located at the inner corners of the four sections. The rulers sometimes took the carpets into the garden to lay on the ground or to use as a canopy against the sun. The use of the carpet this way represents the canopied platform or open- sided pavilion that the ruler would erect over the intersection of the waterways. There were always four waterways, heavenly rivers, and they formed a cross. When the Moslems conquered Persia, they readily embraced this garden plan because of its affinity with the descriptions of the Islamic Paradise, a place that held all the delights inhabitants of burning desert regions would long for-fountains, shade, and fruit. Marco Polo described a real Persian garden as a paradise planted with the finest fruit of the world with four conduits: one flowing with wine, one with milk, one with honey, and one with water. This garden concept spread throughout the area conquered by the Moslems in the 7th century.


The Greeks and Romans—Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world in what is now Iraq, was really a terraced roof garden built over a massive, arching stone foundation and huge storage rooms whose roofs were waterproofed. Soil was added deep enough to grow trees, and deep wells supplied water by means of a hydraulic machine. Records show that thyme, coriander, saffron, anise, poppy, mandrake, rosemary, and hemp were grown alongside ornamentals. 

Just as the Islamic conquests spread the concept of the Persian garden, so the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 -323 BC) did the same throughout the Hellenistic world. There exists little detail of the descriptions of Persian and Greek gardens. Theophrastus (371 to 287 BC), the father of botany and student of Plato and Aristotle, had a garden that was a place for study for his friends and disciples. He left the garden to them upon his death. We can assume that this garden was one where plants were studied and may be the first botanic garden in existence.

The Romans developed the true art of European gardening. We have descriptions of a Roman villa in the writings of Varro (c.116 to 27), a scholar and author, and Pliny (23 to 79), a naturalist and writer. Both had extensive gardens. Villa gardens had covered arcades with windows placed to take advantage of the views beyond, open areas, and enclosed courtyard gardens, situated to retain heat and protect from the wind, keeping them pleasant in summer as well as winter. These gardens were geometrically precise with colonnades and statuary, topiary and plane trees, and canals and fountains. They had raised beds where coriander, dill, parsley, rosemary, fennel, and many other herbs were cultivated.

The Persian rivers became waterworks in the hands of expert Roman engineers. Pliny describes these in the Tuscan villa where everything was fed by streams that never ran dry, feeding a multitude of fountains. One fountain appeared in the center of a small court shaded by four plane trees as in the Persian carpet design. Another interior fountain with a bowl surrounded by tiny jets made a lovely murmuring sound. 

Varro's villa boasted of an aviary and a luxurious dining area with a revolving table bearing food and drink with alternate spouts for warm and cold water. Clipped arbors and topiary, the art of training and clipping bushes and trees into artificial shapes, are found for the first time in the Tuscan villa. The Romans were avid collectors of Greek statuary that appear in their gardens, lining the walkways. Some of these details have been confirmed in remains found at Herculaneum, Pompeii, Coninbriga, Portugal, and Fishbourne in Sussex, England.

Early Herb Gardens

The first Christian monastery was founded by St. Anthony in El Faiyum, northern Egypt, in 350 AD. Right from the start, monasteries strove to be self-sufficient. St. Anthony made a small garden with a water supply, and cultivation became so firmly established that when St. Benedict founded the Benedictine order, gardening was second only to prayer. A plan drawn up around 816 at St. Gall, a Swiss monastery, shows four gardens. They are rectangular, and each has a particular purpose. One, the herbularius or physic garden next to the infirmary, has sixteen separate beds, each for a different plant: lilies, roses, climbing beans, costmary, fenugreek, rosemary, mint, sage, rue, iris, pennyroyal, watercress, lovage, and fennel. The second, hortus or vegetable garden, has eighteen beds, each for a different plant. The third contains thirteen fruit trees and the graves of deceased monks. The last one, a kitchen garden, is a walled rectangular plot adjoining the gardener's house. It has raised beds, but these, unlike the Roman beds, are enclosed in planks for the first time. Herbs are featured in this garden as in the medicinal: coriander, dill, two kinds of poppies, parsley, chervil, and savory. It isn't surprising to find so many herbs in these gardens, as they were needed for dyeing clothes and illuminating manuscripts, for repelling moths from cloth and fleas and lice from people, for preventing and curing disease, for freshening the air by strewing herbs in rooms and hospitals, and for disguising spoiled food.

Another early document showing the importance of herbs and gardening is a Latin poem referred to as Hortulus or "little garden" written by Walafrid Strabo (808 to 49) and dedicated to Grimald, the Abbot of St. Gall, Strabo's teacher. The first 75 lines contain horticultural information:

He digs up the tangled roots of nettles, a weed. He encloses his raised bed with planks to prevent the soil from washing away. He plants from seed and cuttings and waters them drop by drop "with my own hands letting the water run through my fingers" so as not to disturb the seed by the rush of the water. He grows sage, rue, southernwood, gourd, melon, wormwood, horehound, fennel, iris, lovage, chervil, lily, opium poppy, tansy, catmint, and roses.
With the Renaissance, we see gardens on the scale of public parks, not places for growing food and medicine. Yet herb gardening was not altogether forgotten. It grew in popularity, often as a result of the need for medicine. By the 13th century, most large houses grew a variety of herbs for household use along with vegetables, fruit trees, and flowers. In the 16th century, herb gardens, called physic gardens, were planted by universities for teaching botany and medicine. As new species were brought back by colonial explorers and botanical knowledge expanded, the physic garden contained a far wider range of plants. These were the precursors of the botanical gardens of today.

Formal Gardens

The formal garden, associated with the French, begins to distinguish itself from the gardens of Italy by the year 1600. The Mollet family is at the very heart of the development of the formal garden. In 1651, André Mollet published Jardin de Plaisir, which codified the concept of the formal garden. The text and designs include the following paragraph-a summary of the arrangement and ingredients of a French formal garden:

To the rear of the house [i.e. facing the garden front], the parterres de broideries (the parterre was the part of the garden that was seen from the center and commanding position in the house where the master received and could dazzle his guests with his possessions and his gardens; broderie literally means embroidered like brocade and refers to the varied patterns of boxwood) must be set out, so that they can be seen and enjoyed from the windows, without any obstacle in the form of trees, fences, or other high objects which might interrupt the view.

Beyond the said parterre de broderie will be set the parterres or compartments of turf, as well as the bosquets (groves, arbors), walks, and various fences in their proper places; so contrived that most of the walks are always terminated by some statue or fountain; and at the end of these walks you should erect fine scenes, painted on canvas, so that you may take them indoors in bad weather. To complete this design, statues should be erected on pedestals, and grottoes built in the most appropriate places. According to the quality of the site, the walks should be raised on terraces and one should not neglect aviaries, fountains, water-works, canals, and other such ornaments. When these have been properly established in the right places, you have made the perfect pleasure garden.

Another garden designer of this period who cannot be overlooked is André Le Nôtre. It is he who designed the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, and his greatest garden still survives at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which became the inspiration for Versailles. These formal French gardens are more magnificent parks than gardens. Versailles was described by the Englishman Martin Lister as "a country laid out into alleys and walks, groves of trees, canals, fountains and everywhere adorned with ancient and modern statues and urns." It is indeed vast. It influenced garden design throughout Europe. One can trace the influence in England, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, and even in the US in cities like Williamsburg and in estates like Middleton Place in Charleston.

Early Gardening in America

John Bartram (1699-1777), a Quaker farmer, began his garden in 1728. Though not a garden designer, he was the first person to gather together a large collection of native North American plants. His garden also had many species that were sent to him from other colonies, the West Indies, and botanists world-wide. In 1729, he established his own nursery and supplied plants to George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. In 1736, Bartram became a plant hunter and over the next 30 years, he made a series of expeditions to gather new species of North American flora. He is credited with introducing about 200 species into cultivation.

On his farm of 102 acres in Philadelphia, Bartram practiced techniques that helped him yield twice as many crops per acre as his neighbors. The oldest Gingko biloba tree and yellowwood tree (Cladrastis lutea) still exist in his gardens, which can be visited today because they were made into a park in 1891 and donated to the City of Philadelphia. His sons were the first to establish a mail-order nursery catalog in the U.S.

In 1936, George Washington's vegetable, herb, and flower gardens were restored, using the diaries he kept from 1748 to 1799. He had a passion for fruit trees, and he scoured the countryside looking for new native trees and shrubs for his garden. He was a master gardener, as was Jefferson, and taken together, their writings provide the fullest and best information on post-revolutionary war gardening in the southern United States.

As Minister to the court of Louis XIV, Thomas Jefferson was able to study French gardens and during this time, he also toured English gardens to study landscape gardening and horticultural skills. This certainly contributed to the excellence of Monticello's design. One of its main features is a long walk around the edge of a large lawn with plantings on either side-native flowering plants and shrubs. Monticello is beautifully maintained as a monument to his ingenuity and wide interests.

Cottage Gardens and Gertrude Jekyll

Cottage gardens, border gardens, and wild gardens all have an overlapping theme. A cottage garden combines a formal outline and sense of enclosure of the old-fashioned garden where flowers neatly border walks and walls (also called border gardens) with carefree wild gardens. Roses are bushy, climbers are rampant, and tiny flowers nestle under flowering shrubs, revealing a lush mix of growing plants full of hidden treasures. It is the artists and writers of the Victorian Period who have influenced how we look at the cottage garden. William Robinson, writer and gardener (1838-1935), in his book, The English Flower Garden, defines the charms of the cottage garden as "the absence of any pretentious plan which lets the flowers tell their story to the heart." The background may be tall shrubs, a picket fence, or a wooden privacy fence. Climbers arch over trellises and provide vertical lines. Robinson advocated woodland gardening and championed the natural approach of the informal garden. He liked to hide formal architecture under a riot of mixed native and exotic perennials.

This style most certainly is reflected in Gertrude Jekyll's (1842-1932) designs. It is Gertrude Jekyll, friend and collaborator to Robinson, who reconciled the two points of view, and any study of garden design is incomplete without her contributions. A contemporary of Robinson, she is credited with "inventing" and popularizing the border garden. A border garden is a narrow planting along some division or boundary in a garden: a walkway, wall, road, or lawn. It can be a mix of plants or only a single species, from the most permanent of shrubs to the most tender of annuals. It implies a tapestry of different plants, regardless of placement. Her planting schemes were profuse, carefully orchestrated, and controlled to obtain the effect she wanted. As a painter, she had spent time with the Impressionists in Paris, and when her eyesight began to fail, she devoted her life to gardening, honing her painterly color theory to make garden pictures with her borders. This was an innovation, and in her partnership with Lutyens, the architect who designed her house at Munstead Wood, created a new English garden style.

A border is part horticulture and part art, and a good one is a masterpiece of both. It requires accurate knowledge of when plants flower, growing requirements, orchestrating color harmonies, and balancing forms. To achieve Jekyll's ends, she planted in generous swaths, controlled the blending of colors, worked from a formal layout for the plantings, used a mixture of plants including many cottage garden favorites, and used lawns to lead away from buildings, to unite gardens with woodland. Any ornamentation in the garden was functional-seats, walls, stairs, urns and sculpture. One of her greatest talents was her recognition of the value of harmony and the importance of contrast to keep it from degenerating into monotony. In her words from Colour in the Flower Garden:

The planting of the border is designed to show a distinct scheme of colour arrangement. At the two ends there is a groundwork of gray and glaucous foliage……With this, at the near or western end, there are flowers of pure blue, gray-blue, white, palest yellow and palest pink; each colour partly in distinct masses and partly inter-grouped. The colouring then passes through stronger yellows to orange to red. By the time the middle space of the border is reached the colour is strong and gorgeous…Then the colour-strength recedes in an inverse sequence through orange and deep yellow to pale yellow, white and palest pink; with the blue-gray foliage. But at this eastern end, instead of pure blues we have purples and lilacs….Looked at from a little way forward…the whole border can be seen as one picture, the cool colouring at the ends enhancing the brilliant warmth of the middle.

The color schemes at Sissinghurst in Kent, England, especially the White Garden, are renowned for illustrating Jekyll's gardens of special color. A description from The Garden Book:

White roses and honeysuckle combine to create a striking white colour-scheme, which is harmoniously balanced by a background of green. The White Garden…is one of the most influential… Planted in 1948…it started a cult in gardening taste that can still be discerned in gardens from Cape Town to Sydney….the overall layout… is based on a series of 'garden rooms'-formal in shape but informally planted.

One of the garden rooms at Sissinghurst is an extensive herb garden: a large square intersected with paths that form a cross, dividing it in four smaller squares. These are again divided into four squares each, making a total of sixteen. Herbs included are: mints, creeping thymes, dill, southernwood, hyssop, sage, green santolina, chives, chamomile, borage, strawberries, gray santolina, summer savory, angelica, lemon verbena, mullein, calendula, comfrey, caraway, parsley, lemon balm, catnip, and sweet cicely, to name a few.

History of Garden Design
History of Garden Design