Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

What are gardens?

I consulted a couple of books about gardens and gardening and they did not explain what a garden is.

From this we learn that having a garden is a cultural practice considered so obvious as to not require explanation. This, however, has not always been true everywhere (see the post on What are cities?), though indeed gardens are very common around much of the world today. Wikipedia helpfully states that a garden is a space for the “display, cultivation and enjoyment” of nature elements, usually plants but also potentially animals or rocks. A very early garden, the Karnak “Botanical Court” from around 1440 BC, contained King Thutmosis III’s collection of plants, mammals and birds in a courtyard; the plants may have been planted, but its hard to tell.

In my last post from Lesotho, I suggested that a garden consists of plants moved by humans. In Lesotho I gathered (though I do not speak Sesotho) that there are two words that can be translated as “nature,” one that refers to things that can be controlled, and one that refers to things that are outside our control. A garden, if I can be permitted to extrapolate from this interesting concept, might be thought of as a collection, a splitting off of the “nature that can be controlled” from the nature that can’t. At the same time, though, the act of moving and arranging the plants, soil, animals or rocks, etc., arguably forms these categories rather than simply recognising their latent existence. Many garden plants are domestic varieties that have gone through processes of selection over generations. A large interesting rock placed in a garden becomes amenable simply through our desire and ability to manipulate it.

The word “garden” apparently comes from a Germanic word meaning an enclosure. Thus a garden is a space apart, a space that some things can’t get into and other things can’t get out of. The enclosing wall, whether it is a real wall or just a boundary of effort, is what prevents the collection of “nature we can control” from agitating back into its emulsion with things we can’t control.

Another thing one immediately notices about gardens is that they often represent other gardens, or idealized landscapes. McCall’s Garden Book, a practical guide to gardening from the 1960s, contains many illustrations of “ideal garden layouts” that “you, too, can have.” Many of the gardens featured in The Garden Book (Phaidon) also have this characteristic. The Insel Mainau in Switzerland is a “Mediterranean island paradise north of the Alps.” On the facing page, the Sanssouci garden in Potsdam, Germany, is a “European fantasy of imperial Peking.” Persian gardens, which influenced many other garden styles, are references to earthly oases and heavenly delights. Gardens are thus doubled, pleated spaces in which each gardener strives to create a uniquely ideal garden of immediate sensual enjoyment, which should simultaneously evoke an imaginative reference to other ideal or desired gardens and landscapes. The less the real experience of the garden pales in comparison to the imagined ideal experience suggested by the garden, the more it has succeeded. You are never in just one garden at a time.

Finally, though gardens may incorporate seasonal change and may change over the years, they are largely intended to be static, to fit a design, to match an ideal. It is for this reason that gardens require constant care and maintenance, and why people speak of dilapidated gardens that need to be restored. When a garden undergoes succession, it gradually ceases to be a garden and becomes an abandoned lot, whereupon it enters a different realm of human desires (see post on Ruins!).

In nature conservation, certain practitioners speak disparagingly of conservation having become a form of gardening. I see little point in disparaging gardens themselves, nor the impulses to collect, to arrange, or to enjoy the presence of plants, animals and rocks. But saying that nature conservation is too much like gardening is a way of saying that people are trying to control the part of nature that can't be controlled, that they are mistaking nature itself for the image or practice that evokes nature, or that they are seeking to arrest succession and other ecosystem processes. I wouldn't advocate a hard split between gardens and nature-- anyway this doesn't exist anywhere, given evidence of ancient anthropogenic activities (such as collecting things and moving plants around) in all "pristine" habitat types. But there is an argument for recognising a variety of way-posts of practice along this gradient, and thinking carefully about where we make garden enclosures and why.

The Garden Book. 2003. Tim Richardson, Ed. Phaidon.
Gretchen Fischer Harschbarger. 1968. McCall’s Garden Book. Simon and Schuster.

Meredith Root-Bernstein 29 January 2019.