What isisisisis a Garden?

So What ISISISIS A Garden?

Aldeburgh town, in the Empty Quarter of Suffolk,  and on threat  of being sucked into the waters of the North Sea,  is no everyday  resort.  Pole down the road across the marshes, past the flagged-up golf club and the brown mass of the sea drapes itself  in front of you.     A massive expanse of shingle stops the water lapping at the houses, two rows deep.  Gulls shriek round the fish and chip queue.  The place is rigid with retired grandees and smoothed with the jetsam of culture.  The Met regularly beams to  the cinema,  dizzying quantities of art revolve through the galleries and  most niche of all, there is The Aldeburgh Literary Festival.

This lasts for a weekend.  A small and rather old fashioned leaflet comes out and those who do not turn their ticked-box applications around in a flash will not  get into any of the events.  Do not rely on the postman and the internet is out of the equation.   Drive straight round and get your envelope onto the doormat before Monday morning.  I’ve signed up for William Sieghart with Rosie Boycott on “Winning Words:  Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life”  and  “What are Gardens For?”  with Rory Stuart.

At the time it seemed like a gesture of horti solidarity.  Hours upended in flowerbeds, breathing-thinking-sleeping gardens.  I know what a garden is for.  Or did :  since ticking the box,  disquiet has crept in.  Gnarly gardeners’  fingers on the steering wheel, throwing up a ponder.     I know it is more than a place to hang the washing………… what is a garden for?

What indeed? What? What?What is a garden?  A long and not entirely crisp musing has begun.  Must think it through before turning up to Mr Rory’s  lecture and gamma-hoovering up his views.  So what is  garden?  It is outside, for starters.   But when is an outdoor space even a garden at all?

Last May found me in Tuscany:  a happy and lazy month above the Arno in Borgo di Casignano.   Wwoofing  on a farm,  I was given the job of preparing  the garden for a family wedding.  The garden?  the same old olive trees as everywhere else on those Arno hills.  Exception here was that the grass beneath was shorn and a good deal of grooming by rake went on. Dry stone walled off from rude farming. So does enclosure define one?

To Jarman’s Dungeness garden.  Unfenced.  A  rearrangement of pebbles, found objects and the silhouette of a power station with marching band of telegraph poles.   Jarman has personalised a little bit of the infinite space.  Is his space a garden?

Take the branch-line  train in Italy, and you will see the space higgledy-pig by the track turned over to tomatoes and  a few vines.  This is like an allotment.  Is an allotment a garden?  Think not,  but why not?

A telescopic gallop through the gardens of the ancients has  the celebration of water and shelter from the harsh elements.  From the Egyptians with doum palms and papyrus fronding the canals, to the mughal gardens of Kashmir,  water is sacred.  The cool playgrounds of the Dal valley had  myriads of gardens of fountains, cascades and rills reflecting mountain peaks.    Empty concrete basins and weedy lawns  are all that is  left.  Moghul miniatures give a glimpse that is brought to life at  the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Il Sacro Bosco

A garden as an enclosure with  paradise within.  The Garden of Eden is a common strand in judaism, islam and christianity.     From the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament we have:    “A garden locked is my sister, my bride:  a garden locked, a fountain sealed”.  There is a link-up with purity, virginity and the Madonna.  This sees a shift from the profane to the sacred.   A retreat and a refuge.

And then there are gardens as green memorials.    A place to come and contemplate as is Shah Jahan’s  monument to his wife Mumtaz:  The Taj Mahal.   A  private space made public.  Another and completely different memorial is Sacro Bosco in Lazio, Italy.  A garden of monsters tumbling about in the bottom of a ravine below the Sabine Hills.  This crazy mannerist writhing place was also to commemorate a deceased wife.

Close to a memorial in meaning but not always overlapping is the garden of contemplation.  Zen-inspired gardens shrink the scale of the natural world.  The miniature landscape is carefully arranged  to make a place for  meditation.  I think of the stillness of one perfectly poised stone on a bed of gravel.  Calmness exudes.

It is a far a cry from here to the waterworks constructed on the command of  the Salzburg Prince Archbishop at Hellbrun, at Villa Lante for Francesco Gambara or at Villa d’Este for Ippolito d’Este.  (The latter two are cardinals.)   These are gardens for amazing the guests.  Lutes of water flow down hills, there are stone tables with watery centres for keeping the white wine chilled and jets of water to spray up between the stone seats.  Man has totally tamed the landscape, bent it to his will, mastered the elements.  These are party gardens.  There is a possibility of tipping into the brashest of showing off.

Cass Foundation

Gardens for collectors are usually very attractive.  With  the placing of site specific art or the sale of gorgeous uncommissioned pieces.  Roche Court or Cass Foundation in this country are fabulous places to wander.  I am pretty sure you can buy anything here but meanwhile Gormley jugglers play against beech woods,  the slate of Richard Long flows riparian down the hill.    But seldom do collections of plants achieve the same aesthetic.   Think of the botanising beds in Oxford Botanic Gardens.  The giant cacti of Cesar Manrique’s moonscape in  Lanzarote do make a garden.   But why?

And then there is inspiration or stage.  Claude Monet was an expert  gardener and at Givenchy he grew what he wanted to paint.   His canvases became larger and larger taking a ever more microscopic view.  Friends with the French PM, his titanic water lily series was set up after the first World War as an installation to celebrate the Peace.    Jarman used his garden for filming.  His opus ‘The Garden‘   is  a challenge but he like Monet used his  garden to create art.

My weak conclusion is that is whatever the hell you wish it to be.    The place for the ultimate flamboyant self expression. But the washing line of my mind is nagging me:  how does the small suburban garden fit into all of this?  I am looking forward to enlightenment.


  1. Mark and Gaz says:

    I suppose it depends how the owner of a small suburban garden personalises it. Self expression is possible in small places too, even if a washing line has to be a compromise (it can be tucked away at least when not in use).

  2. A garden is whatever you want it to be. For me it is for peace from the outside world where I commune with nature, it is planted to encourage as much wildlife as possible but to others I hope it looks a perfectly normal garden. The only problem is that I don’t get much time to sit and enjoy it, far too much work always needs doing!!

  3. Holleygarden says:

    A garden, to me, is what you stated above, anything “man has bent to his will”. Which would include any style, or size. I especially love the last two photos. Timeless. Thanks for the reminder that I should do something a bit more striking in my garden than just collect plants!

  4. Refuge? Playground? A living, growing ever changing experssion of self? Anywhere that someone consistently intervenes to mould and limit nature? What does that say of the stark areas of lawn strewn with brightly coloured plastic toys and dominated by the ubiquitous trampoline? I don’t know what a garden is, I am still trying to decide what my garden is! How very thought provoking…

  5. Definitely a thought-provoking question. And I guess an undisturbed, uncultivated plot of land is not technically a garden? Yet, as you say, the Garden of Eden presumably was uncultivated, at least by man. I also find it fascinating how we humans have such varied tastes in “gardens” — from the tightly manicured to the barely cultivated. I guess your question has presented more questions for me, which I find a very pleasant thought process on this wintry day. Thank you.

  6. What can I say after the thought-provoking depths of this excellent post? Only that I agree that a garden is a place where we attempt to exert control over the uncontrollable for our own purpose, whether that involves growing veg, feeding our soul, hanging out our smalls to dry or indulging in a few impressionist paintings, or indeed a combination of all of these worthy pastimes. Clearly there has to be continuity of control, if not, the space will revert to a natural state (whatever that might be). Even a solitary rotary dryer in a fenced-off space will need a path to it, although this might involve nothing more landscaped than a strip of trampled-down weeds. Enjoy the festival – don’t you have a music festival there too?

  7. I’m fascinated by your use of ‘pole’, which is a word I used to use (almost) in this way when I lived in Norfolk. I have tried to find the origin without much success. Also we used to hear/say e.g. ‘he poled up eventually …’ meaning rolled up/arrived. I wonder if you can enlighten me. Oh, and I I now live in Suffolk.

  8. Whoops … that should simply be ‘I now live in Suffolk’.

  9. Malc Mollart says:

    I enjoyed this post very much indeed and I love your conclusion to your own query. I would say that my definition of a garden is “a place you want to be in, that makes you feel good and you have a hand in nurturing it. And of course you must love it!”

  10. A garden is an expression of unity in diversity, where the gardener has the challenge to tame his environment and make it flourish in a manner that celebrates both unity design and the infinite diversity found in nature. It may also be an expression of the instinct within us that agriculture has always and may ultimately always be the foundation of social groupings, and the cultivation of a garden may in some small measure allow us to compensate for the absurdity of city existence and reconnect with the environment we live in. Cities are the land of people, but the country will always be the land of the soul.

  11. Thank you, Catharine, for your comment. I’m wondering if ‘bowl up‘(which is probably what I was thinking of) is the opposite of your ‘pole down’!!!

  12. P.S. If you click on ‘bowl up’ above, it will take you to the link, I think!

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