A Brief History of Garden Styles

    The desire to plant around our dwellings to please the eye and not just feed our bodies is ancient. It’s origins are certainly further back in time before man’s written history and hence, literally, prehistoric. The urge has never retreated but only expanded as man’s leisure time has increased and hence his ability to spend more time working purely for aesthetic results. 

    The ancient Romans had their rich tradition of gardens, known from writings, as well as the detailed frescos of gardens preserved at Pompeii and other ancient sites. The medieval period had it’s enclosed spaces filled with herbs and flowers valued for their fragrance, medicinal value, cultural connotations and, of course, beauty. The renaissance and baroque periods brought the great architectural formality and spectacle to garden design that we all know so well, but without ever losing the sensitivity to the color, fragrance, and other charms of the plants used. Then came the reaction to these formal gardens with the wave of scenic and romantic taste, when gardens and entire landscapes were altered to become informal and scenic. Hills were created, lakes were dug, groves of trees were planted, and even the courses of rivers were altered so they might artfully curve in the desired way, all contriving  to create scenic vistas, with Roman temples, or gothic-style ruins as focal points.  All of this effort was done so that a walk or drive through the landscape would provide an unending sequence of charming views meant to look entirely natural and informal, although in reality being completely designed and constructed with great effort and expense. It was all designed to be as if one were in a beautiful landscape painting, like those painted by Claude Lorrain, whose paintings were so admired at the time. 

     The great garden traditions of China and Japan should certainly not be ignored in our times, as they had been in so much of the past history of gardening in Europe.  Their lack of influence in the history of European gardening is understandable as they had been, at least for most people, unknown in the past. With the expanding contacts with the orient in the twentieth century, we now are aware of the beautiful sculptural and ancient trees and shrubs, the dramatic natural rocks and the asymmetrical plans of those garden traditions. Thankfully, we can now also incorporate the ideas of those cultures in our designs.

    Through all of this history, there was, of course, always the humble plantings, of those having modest means, to surround their own abodes. These were the plantings to please the individual or family’s personal taste; what flowers they loved, which one’s fragrance they found irresistible, which fruits, vegetables, and herbs were wanted. These were included because, of course, for the modest dwelling, the line between what was food for the eye and what was food for the body was not always so strictly separated. In this category, and of great importance in our western world, is the tradition of the English cottage garden, with its abundance of flowers in a free-form, or even haphazard, design. This tradition was brought to America by those early English settlers and subsequently enriched by the waves of other nationalities that brought their own prefered plants and gardening ideas. 

As a result of this history, those of us lucky enough to have a place, whether a plot of a few feet, several window boxes, a whole yard, or even a larger piece of acreage, the history of gardens that can influence our choices in design and planting, is indeed vast. With so much variety to choose from, the contemporary gardener is bound to express, through these choices, of both plants and design, their own personality.