What defines a proper garden?

One of the most common put-downs I hear in horticulture is that something isn’t a “proper garden”. As a botanist who studies our cultural relationship with plants, and a designer who has created gardens for the Chelsea Flower Show, I have yet to pinpoint what this term actually means. In the interests of getting it right, lets take a closer look.

In some definitions, a garden is a piece of land that adjoins a house in which plants may be grown. But this view would exclude anything that isn’t a domestic dwelling – from every allotment in the country, to some of the world’s most famous botanical gardens. Even if we gloss over the “house” part, as other definitions do, we are still left with the stipulation of a garden as “piece of land”. Does that mean that roof gardens – such as the spectacular sky parks of Singapore, where palm-filled rainforests are lifted towards the clouds – don’t count? If they aren’t gardens, then the living walls clinging to the sides of buildings that are cropping up in cities all over the world aren’t either. What about miniature gardens, where entire landscapes are shrunk down in trays, glass terrariums and even enclosed tanks? Absolutely no land – often not even soil – is involved in these, so perhaps they are not “gardens” in the true sense of the word?

Do gardens even really need to contain plants at all? I would be tempted to say yes they do, until you consider the centuries-old Zen gravel gardens of Japan, or the modernist wonders of water and architectural concrete created by Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx, one of the world’s most famous 20th-century garden designers. Where do we draw the line?

Perhaps the best way to answer this is to move beyond definitions of the term in the English language, which will inevitably come with some language and cultural bias, and look at examples of gardens from history to see what they all have in common. While most horticultural texts will tell you that concept of the garden as a landscape designed exclusively for pleasure, not food production, can be traced back to the Middle East, this is only true of the western garden style. In reality, just like agriculture, the concept of ornamental horticulture appears to have arisen independently across unconnected civilisations. From the floating gardens of the Aztecs set amid a vast lake to the manicured miniature landscapes of rocks and rivers created in ancient China, to the range of ritual ornamental plants carefully selected by indigenous peoples from Papua New Guinea to New Zealand, the desire to garden seems almost universal.

The one thing they have in common is that they are stylised landscapes that – whether we know it or not – depict nature the way we think it “should” be. In fact, I’d argue that gardens are probably the best barometer of how a culture sees nature and humanity’s place in it: the physical embodiment of what the world around us “should” look like. The wonderful thing is, of course, that this is entirely in the eye of their creators.

So what is a “proper” garden? Anything you want it to be – and anyone who tells you differently is simply betraying how little they know about gardens.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek





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