You look out onto your backyard and what do you see? You notice that the lawn needs to be mowed. And what about that ornamental tree you planted years ago? It is now encroaching on your house, and at this point, there are more weeds than perennials in your garden beds. And you wonder, how did we get here? Why is having a garden at your home as vital as electricity and indoor plumbing? Where did this idea come from? How come we are still doing it? And, is it necessary?
Garden’s Early History
The first documented gardens of the western world were the palatial gardens of Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians. The success of gardens in the arid landscape were made possible because of irrigation. Irrigation, (in a nutshell) is the artificial application of water to soil through various systems of tubes, pumps, and sprays. (https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/agricultural/types.html) Or as in this case, irrigation made a dry unhabitable desert, lush and habitable. For centuries, the Egyptians honed in on their agricultural, horticultural techniques, and production with extensive documentation that helped future civilizations advance.
And like most gardens in history, these were only afforded by the affluent.
It was the Roman Empire where gardens took full advantage of existence in everyday life. Villas were built in the middle of farms for aesthetics within the food production for the masses. Beauty to the Romans even in horticulture was a vital as feeding the empire. This concept stayed till the fall of Rome in 476ad.
Fall of Rome to America
After the fall of Rome, only small Monastic gardens kept this tradition alive. It was not until the Renaissance that ornamental gardens became alive again. The French went forth with the tradition of lavish gardens on a grander scale. Especially during the reign of all the King Louise’s (how many where there? 16?) Much to the demise of its citizens, the opulence of the leisure class were contained within the walls of castles and estates. Andre LeNotre, landscape architect for Versailles and other sites in France with apprentices throughout Europe brought the simple, artistic flare that was near the estate and became more naturalistic towards the countryside. This naturalistic concept would be the inspiration for eighteenth century English gardens, which reject the formal artsy way of its predecessors. “Nowhere was a straight, formal line, sheared plant, or splashing fountain to be seen. Yet these naturalistic gardens were just as contrived as their formal Continental predecessors” (Ingels).
Yet the ornamental horticulture in western Civilization, the British had the greatest influence as their role of plant collectors. Their travels back and forth through their “Empire” brought specimens back to study, propagate, and display. The New World had this sense of wonder with plants and the influence of English, Dutch, and Spanish horticulture led to its design. English naturalism and European proclivity of visual and aromatic plant material around the home, Northeastern American homes had established their own architecture. South Eastern America had a more formal European look with fountains and bowling greens. Further west led its style to the predecessors of the Spanish Conquistadors of the psychological ‘cooling effect’ of outdoor spaces with distinct outdoor rooms of kitchen gardens, vineyards, groves, and small flowering gardens. (Ingels).
From propagation for farming and appeal, ornamental horticulture has now led a new path to sustainability and environmental practices with permaculture, native plantings, wildlife habitats, rain gardens, etc. With the publication of Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home (2007), he explores the humorous human need for the manicured lawn and how we can incorporate the best environment for wildlife such as animals, birds, and pollinators: who we all know have had their struggles in the last decade or so. The culmination of American naturalistic landscape with pollinator and native planting friendly is the new ornamental garden we see today.
The history of the garden lays a path from the Ancient Egypt to the wild’s of American landscape; the landscape in our home is as necessary now as it was back then. The backyard warrior a modern term of endearment while hands in dirt much like our ancestors long ago. From planting vegetables in our raised garden beds to growing a bed of pollinator friendly flowers, our need for the landscape I believe is as vital as breathing. Even folks who say ‘I don’t have a green thumb’ (an euphemism originating back to James Underwood Crockett from the fact that algae growing on the outside of earthenware pots will stain a person’s thumb (and fingers) if he or she handles enough pots) will still buy houseplants to decorate their apartment or start Tomatoes in a container. It is part of us and will survive as long as humanity does.
Ingels, Jack E. Ornamental Horticulture State University of New York: College of Agriculture and Technology, Delmar Cengage Learning, 2009
Thursd. The History and Evolution of Garden Design Visualized, 12-4-2022