IF YOU’RE a gardener, there are certain questions you probably ask yourself on a regular basis. ‘Does the grass need cutting?’, ‘can I fit in a few more plants?’ and ‘is it nice enough to have dinner outside?’ may all feature, along with something about weeding. Most of us are so wrapped up in using or tending to our gardens that we never pause to ask ourselves the question, ‘what are gardens for?’
This question is the title of a new book by garden designer and author Rory Stuart, who agrees that it’s a topic few of us consider. “The question is more common in America where wilderness is the norm, so when someone decides to make a garden, they ask themselves why they are interfering with nature,” says Stuart. “The English countryside is so gardened, farmed and tamed that the question doesn’t raise itself so keenly − though maybe in Scotland, with its beautiful wild areas, it might be more common. The middle class English just get on with their gardening because it is what one does, what one’s mother did, and what would the neighbours say if one didn’t?”
Stuart believes that if people asked themselves this question more often, gardens would be more idiosyncratic and less predictable, because different people would want different things from their outdoor space, not just the usual lawn, border and pond. In his book, What Are Gardens For? (£16.99, Frances Lincoln) Stuart considers all of the potential answers, drawing on the thoughts of writers, philosophers and other gardeners. He cites the responses received to the same question when it was posed by 19th century rose-grower Dean Hole. Replies included ‘strawberries’, ‘garden parties’, ‘a garden is for botanical research and for the classification of plants’ and ‘for the soul’. All of these reasons could have easily have been given today rather than over a hundred years ago.
During the course of his research, Stuart came across lots of opinions as to what our gardens are for: “Several people mentioned parties, and entertaining in the garden,” he says. “Many people think that working in their garden makes them feel better. Some relish the artistry of garden making, ordering space and colour, for example, and the self expression that this entails.”
The healing power of gardens is a recurring theme and the book explores the reasons why gardening is so good for body and mind.
“There is clear evidence of the healing power of garden work from the charity Gardening Leave, whose aim is to help ex-service personnel get over their traumatic experiences in war,” says Stuart. “Many gardeners feel better ‘balanced’ if they do regular garden work. This is a result, firstly, of the rhythms of the garden; plants can’t be hurried to grow, any more than their period of beauty can be prolonged.”
In exploring the question of what our gardens are for, Stuart encourages us to cast a more analytical eye over our own garden and the gardens we visit. In effect, he shows us how to think like a garden critic, examining some of the world’s best gardens as a means of understanding what lies behind the plants and paving. He says that because gardens have been deliberately made − including certain plants and objects and excluding others − they are endowed with significance. This allows us to ‘read’ gardens, uncovering clues about their maker’s personality, taste and their culture.
“Many gardens are designed to show off, and to enclose an area from which most people are excluded,” says Stuart. “Extremely rich people inevitably betray their taste because they can do so much; the garden that William Randolph Hearst created at Hearst Castle in California tells us all too much about its maker’s character. He could have anything he wanted − and he wanted everything.” Louis XIV’s Versailles in France, with its allées radiating from a single point and extending to the horizon’s limits made it very clear that everything revolved around the Sun King, while at the Villa d’Este in Italy, Cardinal Ippolito used water as a plaything, distancing himself from the peasants who worked the land and for whom water was a vital resource.
If you’re visiting gardens abroad, having some knowledge of that country’s culture should make it easier to get to grips with what you’re seeing. “Visiting a Moghul garden in India or Kashmir, you will understand the rigid, repetitive pattern of the canals and planting better if you understand the way they demonstrate the political order the Moghuls were imposing on the conquered country,” says Stuart. The history of the country in the period in which the garden was made is also helpful, and Stuart points out that romantic gardens were made in England as society became more ordered and nature less threatening. In saying that, there are some gardens that no amount of background reading will help with. Take the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo in Italy where, Stuart says, “Vicino Orsini created a sequence of the strangest monsters which baffle us to this day, and in an inscription he asks the visitor, ‘Do you think this was all made as a work of art or just to tease you?’”
Then there are the gardens that were created with one purpose in mind but which time has altered. “Thinking of the Nishat Bagh, the Moghul garden in Kashmir. This was created by a courtier to demonstrate his power and to entertain his ruler,” says Stuart. “Today it is a public garden and I counted no less than five games of cricket being played on the highest, most private terrace of all.” In What Are Gardens For? Stuart provides a list of his top ten gardens, and encourages us to consider the same five requirements of good criticism when looking at our own or others’ gardens: describe, classify, contextualise, interpret and, finally, evaluate. The conclusions we reach might surprise us or reinforce what others think, but whatever we uncover, it should add a new layer of enjoyment to the way we experience gardens.
• What Are Gardens For? by Rory Stuart (£16.99, Frances Lincoln) is published on Thursday.
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