What is a garden ? Although the tendency is to have more manageable outside spaces in our very hectic lives I would suggest we all like to have the opportunity to step out into a space more ‘connected’ with nature. Most of us would think of a garden as an adjunct to a house, a place to sit and relax in sunshine (if we get any !), a lawn for children to play on, borders full of splendid colourful plants, beds to grow some vegetables or fruit with perhaps some running water to soften the din from outside. But where did gardens originate ? Why are they important to us ? How have they developed over time ?
We can trace the history of gardens, certainly in Eurasia, back several millennia to the area known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. The ‘Fertile Crescent’ is the name given to a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid West Asia between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the east to the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. Often also called the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’, this area is commonly associated with a number of significant historical developments such as the birth of agriculture, irrigation, writing and counting, the wheel and glass.
This region may have been occupied by Homo Erectus migrants from Africa about 1-2 million years ago with a further wave of Homo Sapiens migrants about 100,000 years ago. Hunting and gathering would have pre-dominated as a method for obtaining food until about 10,000 BC when people started practicing loose agriculture by herding animals, harvesting wild grains and living in small communities. Larger scale urbanisation followed between 5000 and 3500 BC in Anatolia and the East Mediterranean coastal plain. Early urban homes may have included been simple compounds whereas later ones would have been built with rectangular yards or gardens to keep animals and plants. As time passed, the enclosures would have become more elaborate in terms of design and use of planting. Interestingly, the word ‘paradise’ is derived from the Persian ‘pairidaeza’meaning ‘an enclosure’. The first ‘pairidaeza’were probably fruit and animal gardens. Significantly, these enclosed outdoor spaces started to become associated with perfection. In Greek ‘pairidaeza’came to mean ‘heaven’ and was later adapted in Biblical accounts to mean ‘the Garden of Eden’. Later, in the Koran, paradise is seen as a reward for the faithful symbolised by a perfect garden having shade, water and pavilions.
Conditions in different parts of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ zone led to different ways of developing gardens. The ability to reclaim land from marshes and to irrigate dry areas in Mesopotamia from the adjoining rivers allowed an increase in agriculture. With this increase, the need for hunting was reduced to a sport which subsequently allowed the creation of designated ‘royal’ parks from the newly acquired and irrigated land to contain the hunting grounds. These further developed into more bespoke parks that were designed to contain botanical and zoological specimens. These were not designed in the modern sense but as a means of satisfying a curiosity about the known world. Again, and in my opinion, with the increase of agriculture, the need for settlement enclosures to serve purely as productive and ornamental gardens shifted to focus on gardens for pleasure.
In contrast, further north in Persia, which was predominantly mountainous and riverless, water was highly valued and regarded as the source of life. This, together with Zoroastrianism, which drew contrasts between good and evil, order and chaos, desert and cultivation and, as the Persian religion, predated Islam, influenced the way gardens were perceived and developed. Irrigation and underground canals were built which made cultivation possible. Although no-one knows exactly when first created, the ‘chahar bagh’, or four part garden, was an enclosed space divided into parts by water channels. The geometric style of Persian gardens developed from this four part theme. From a practical point of view, the need for shade and water in a hot, arid climate would have been paramount.
After the great Persian empires subsided the empires of Greece and then of Rome were responsible for further developments in the Mediterranean region. Roman town house and country villa constructions in particular provides many examples of how gardens developed in urban and semi-rural environments across the region. Typically, these were designed to have the main familial buildings accessing courtyard style gardens through to large garden sections perhaps being or leading to orchards. Due to the reaches of the Roman empire this design style permeated many areas and would also have been influential in subsequent developments.
In Britain, medieval gardens for common people were generally small rectangular, well ordered enclosed spaces with a style determined by monasteries and manor houses. They were very functional mainly growing herbs, vegetables and fruit with areas for fishponds and dovecotes to provide fish and eggs. These persisted well into the Victorian period.
For the wealthy, medieval palace gardens were less functional with raised beds for scented flowers and sheltered areas for privacy and shade. Tudor gardens, influenced by the Italian Renaissance, were developed on a larger scale with a greater regularity of design and a more determined relationship to great houses. The most recognised feature of gardens in this period was the knot garden. During the Stuart period gardens became even larger. These were influenced by the great formal gardens of France and designed to be symmetrical with long walks and rides ending in woods and parks beyond – the birth of avenues. Fountains were installed on large areas of water, pleached trees formed boundaries and parterres overtook the knot gardens. The concept of enormous landscape parks brought about by landscape designers such as ‘Capability Brown’ prevailed in the Georgian era and included such delights as grottos and ha-has.
The end of the 19thcentury saw a growth in gardening in Victorian Britain as a pushback against the industrial revolution. Styles for smaller gardens developed for the less wealthy with more focus on exotic colourful species in more natural garden settings. The 20th and 21st centuries has brought about a multitude of different styles, planting schemes and structures based on all the innovations from the previous millennia and more modern ones. The main reasons for having a garden, however, are still the same as when they were first developed: a ‘paradise’, for the person and spirit !
Rob Howard, Garden Designer