Gardens, Formal and Less So: A Brief, Partial History

Even in January, with the expectation of wintry mix, I’m still thinking about gardens.  Gardens go back a long time.  There is, of course, Eden, and its synonym, paradise, which derives from the Persian and Greek paradeisos, or garden.  Egyptian tomb paintings dating to 1400 BC depict detailed garden plans and irrigation systems.  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are documented by ancient Greek and Roman writers, and Pliny’s letters describe at some length the gardens at his country villas outside Rome.

Most westerners, however, when we visit a famous garden, are only seeing the results of about four or five hundred years of history.  At the time Versailles was built, the formal garden was in vogue.  Plants were clipped and pruned and mastered.

Formal Gardens at Schoenbrunn

Pollarded trees formed straight allées and flowers and topiaries created symmetrical lines.

Plane tree allee at Villa Melzi

The 18th century saw the advent of the English landscape or natural style garden, championed by William Kent, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and later Sir Humphrey Repton.  Owners of large country houses such as Blenheim Palace and Studley Royal ceded formal gardens to lawns, lakes, and tree-topped hills.

The lawn at Dumbarton Oaks

At the same time, plant hunters were introducing new plants and plant varieties from Asia, Africa and the Americas.  In the 18th century, the American colonies facilitated extensive horticultural exchange with Europe.  Just last summer, in the gardens of the Villa Melzi in Bellagio, Italy, I saw my first cinnamon tree, brought as a specimen in the 1800’s.

The second cinnamon tree--at Isola Bella

Another garden with extensive specimens was Isola Madre, a “natural” landscape garden with plants whose native habitats span the globe.

Plant hunters greatly increased the types and quantities of stock available to gardeners and as a result, two different garden styles began to emerge.  One style, influenced by English cottage gardens and advocated by William Robinson, championed “natural” gardening by gardeners, using hardy plants.  The other, advocated by architect Reginald Blomfield, held that architects rather than gardeners should design the layout of the garden and then leave the gardeners to see to the bed preparation and tend the plants.  This latter style, which included architectural features such as stairways,

A stairway at Isola Bella

fountains, statuary, clipped hedges forming rooms,

View of the enclosed water gardens from the roof of Biltmore House

grass walks, and paved footpaths, can be seen in most of today’s preeminent gardens.

One of many different kinds of paths at Dumbarton Oaks

In the United States these ideas took a less adversarial tone and can be seen in Andrew Jackson Downing’s cottage gardens and gothic revival home designs for those who did not own vast estates.  Downing, who coined the term landscape architecture, was also an advocate of public parks, which were unknown until the middle of the 19th century.  He designed the first plan for the National Mall and mentored Frederick Law Olmsted who worked on later plans and also designed Central Park in New York City.  George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate is an example of Olmsted’s work for an individual.

A view of Biltmore House

Thus gardens and garden design were viewed as not only the province of the wealthy, but ordinary individuals and as a force for public good.

I have taken a Eurocentric view of gardening in this post, reflecting the style most readily seen in American gardens and those I have visited in Europe.  One exception is Innisfree in the Hudson Valley.  While it is a distinctly American garden, it reflects a Chinese style of gardening, seen in centuries old paintings and called cup gardens by Lester Collins.  It is a place of astonishing beauty, with a vista everywhere you turn your eyes.  I would like to revisit it and look further into varieties of Asian gardens.  Maybe this summer….

Different levels of the garden at Villa Monastero on Lake Como

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