H - History
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Mini-History of the Art of Gardening

By The Garden Commando

Gardening has been around in one form or another for centuries, but thanks to the extensive drawings, and various artefacts left in the tombs and temples of the early Egyptians, the gardens of ancient Egypt left particular impact on later cultures.

Their lives were recorded in great detail, giving us a good understanding of their background. The drawings show us both the type of gardens they enjoyed, and the plants they favoured. They had lush gardens along the river Nile, where the rich silt (regularly left by Spring floods) allowed them grow bountiful crops of many types. Because the climate was hot and dry, they had to create extensive and sophisticated irrigation systems. Their garden designs incorporated practicality with beauty -  plants were used for food; medication; shade; communication (Papyrus); decoration, and for worship Nymphaea caerula and N. lotus, Water Lily).

The Persians, when they conquered Egypt in 525 B.C. apparently liked the garden designs of the vanquished; they later began to adopt the walled in, geometric garden style for themselves. (The Persians were very tree oriented - they considered it as important that their young men learned to plant and care for trees, as it was for them to learn to make armour.)

The ancient Greeks enjoyed a wide variety of wild plants, some of which have become cultivated flowers today (such as Narcissi and Colchicum). The Athenians planted trees in their many public meeting places, and used shrine and grotto gardens (a design idea which was later adopted by renaissance garden designers) for religious purposes.

The Romans made their gardens an extension of the house, rather than just an external feature (sometimes to the extent of sacrificing living space).

We however, mainly owe the preservation of the art of gardening to the Christian and Islamic faiths.

The invading Islamic armies brought to Europe plants - such as cypress and citrus trees, pomegranate, and jasmine. They also introduced patio and secret gardens, which often featured rectangular pools with cascading fountains, decorated with colourful tiles. Small, intimate garden spaces (often hedged with Cypress) were favoured, places where they could sit quietly and meditate.

 In Medieval times, Christian gardening took the form of castle and monastery gardens. Though designed to be utilitarian, these gardens were filled with beauty. Roses were used for a number of purposes, including air freshening; herbs such as Lavender, Rosemary, Comfrey, Sage and Thyme (to mention a very few) were grown for medicinal reasons.

As Western civilization emerged from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance, a fussy, formal style of gardening began to develop. That era gave us straight lines and geometric look, developing into the incredibly intricate, tiny clipped hedges (referred to as 'broderie de parterre' and which is evident in, for example, the garden of the Palais de Versailles, in France).

In England, by the late 18th century, people were becoming somewhat tired of the formal theme, and a new less restricted garden pattern began to emerge. The formal walks and detailed borders were replaced with sweeps of open grass; ponds and small lakes; shrubs such as rhododendrons, and rambling borders of roses. Statues, and real or fake 'ruins' began to appear. New plants from far countries were introduced by botanists and other travellers, causing a strong interest in the propagation of exotic material.

Many of the plants introduced to English gardeners in the 19th century (and nurtured lovingly in early greenhouses), have helped to set the standards for bedding schemes of today.

(Bibliographical note: this article was researched from Julia S. Berrall's The Garden, Penguin Books, Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England.)

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This page was updated January 23, 2000

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