Most of the world’s great and ancient gardens
developed on the fringes of Central Asia and in Europe. Why?
The answer, I think, is that designed gardens were not, primarily, places to grow food or
enjoy flowers. They were works of art based on religious and philosophical ideas. As such,
they helped explain the nature of society and how it relates to the nature of the world.
This was the case throughout Asia’s Garden Fringe – a region where great mountains met
great valleys – and produced a great variety of garden design ideas. Horticulture began about twelve thousand years
ago. But the first gardens known to history were made about five thousand years ago.
The oldest surviving gardens, with sacred ponds, paths and known planting positions,
were made for Egyptian temples. But the written history of gardens begins in the Fertile Crescent
and one of the earliest descriptions is from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written some 4000 years
ago. It describes Uruk, in what is now Iraq, as being ‘one league city’ and ‘one league
palm gardens’. The gardens are likely to have been irrigated plots inside the city wall
— places where vegetables could be grown, with irrigation and beneath shade of palm
trees. Mesopotamian cities had temple gardens and sacred trees – until polytheism and idolatry
were succeeded by Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which condemned sacred trees and sacred
groves as idolatrous. The Hindus are believed to have entered India
from the North West and to have brought horses and a reverence for forests, mountains and
water to the hot dry landscapes of North India. No ancient Hindu palaces or gardens survive,
but there is enough literary evidence to know that ancient India had a rich garden culture.
The characteristic feature of Hindu gardens was a woodland glade with a bathing pond.
They were places to enjoy swings, water and flowers.
Buddhism grew out of Hinduism and the Buddha’s life has many associations with gardens: he
was born in a garden and raised in a garden. He slept in gardens and taught in gardens.
Unsurprisingly, the beliefs he established came to have a wide influence on garden design
– though mostly outside India. China has a landscape design tradition extending
back over 3000 years. It began with the making of large imperial parks outside palace cities.
They were probably tracts of natural landscape, including mountains, lakes, forests and fields.
Daoism gave these parks significance as places where the emperors, as Sons of Heaven, could
draw upon natural forces to enhance their earthly powers.
No old gardens survive in China but design ideas travelled from China to Japan and had
a significant influence on the development of Japanese Gardens. There is general agreement
that Japanese garden design was influenced by China’s Buddhist gardens – but no agreement
that Chinese gardens were influenced by Buddhist ideas. This is odd. Garden-making spread with the Neolithic Revolution
from West Asia to Greece and then to Italy. The first gardens in Europe were therefore
around the Aegean. And from there, the idea of making gardens spread to Italy and, with
the expansion of the Roman Empire, to Western Europe.
Paganism influenced the design of Greek sanctuaries and Roman gardens. In Greece, palaces were
inside towns and sanctuaries were outside their walls. In pre-Christian Rome, large
gardens came to resemble Greek sanctuaries. The Roman emperors, often seeing themselves
as gods, took design ideas – and statues – from Greek sanctuaries. After the Roman Empire declined and fell,
it influenced the gardens of the Middle Ages – in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds.
Enclosed courtyards were a traditional form throughout West Asia and the Mediterranean.
Sometimes they were paved and sometimes they were used for growing plants.
Islamic gardens drew upon the garden traditions of both Persia and Byzantium. This led to
a new style, which used geometry to represent the perfection of the creator. Water channels
were made with both functional and symbolic roles. They supplied water, they brought freshness
and they could symbolise the Four Rivers of Paradise.
Christianity was less supportive of garden-making than Islam, possibly because gardens had Roman
associations – with idolatry, luxury and debauchery. From the fifteenth century onwards, living
outside the walls of castles and cities became safer. Wealthy families could therefore build
country villas with large Renaissance gardens. They were used for exercise, for festivities,
for collections of antique sculpture and for growing choice fruits and beautiful flowers. Gardens were integrated with palaces, socially
and, using walks and axes, geometrically. When renaissance gardens were built in hunting
forests, the extension of axial lines from gardens into parks was a natural progression
– and produced the gardens which we now call baroque. They were political, philosophical
and artistic statements – of the owners’ ideas. Neo-classical is a good name for the gardens
of the eighteenth century. Instead of looking to Roman gardens, as Renaissance designers
had done, Neoclassical gardeners looked to the entire landscape of classical times — with
temples and statues of the kind which had been used in Greek sanctuaries and Roman villas. In the Nineteenth century designers became
interested in ideas and places which were even further removed in space and time. They
made eclectic gardens with images and plants from around the world to make Japanese Gardens,
Alpine Gardens, American Gardens, French Gardens and many other types of garden. We call them
Romantic. And they were symbols of an empirical enthusiasm for history, geography and botany. By the end of the nineteenth century, forward-looking
designers were ‘sick and tired’ of sentiment and eclecticism. Assembling plants and styles
from around the world had produced jumbles. So they wanted a fresh start, with designs
based on the principles of art and on good workmanship. This led to the making of Arts
and Crafts gardens, after 1880 and to Abstract Modern Gardens after 1920. The abstract geometry
of modern art was used by garden designers and, even more, by landscape architects.
So what of the future? My guess – and hope – is that a Sustainable Style of garden design
will take shape. It can use the modernist idea that form should follow function to develop
garden forms which draw their aesthetic qualities from recycling water, greening buildings,
generating energy, growing food and other sustainable roles. Living roofs and green
walls will surely become the norm.