I have about a dozen books that chronicle the history of gardens, and they all follow a familiar template. In rational sequence, they explore the flowering of garden styles, periods and philosophies in most of the world’s civilizations, from the pre-Islamic gardens of Persia and Egypt to the horticultural refinement of the English country house garden and beyond.
These titles have obvious parallels to books on art history. In garden-making and painting, one genre is either a progression from the one that came before it or a reaction against it. A new book, “The Story of Gardening,” beckons me once more down this well-trodden path. Do I want to follow it? Absolutely, and for at least three reasons.
First, it marks the return of one of the most insightful voices in the gardening world, the venerable British landscape historian and garden designer Penelope Hobhouse. Second, the 511-page book, with hundreds of color images, is a joyful reminder of the unflagging human need to locate and celebrate our place in nature. Third, it connects all this history to the current rich state of landscape design and horticulture.
After finishing the book, I wanted to rush out and create something marvelous, or at least see some of the gardens featured in the book that I have yet to visit. First published 18 years ago, the book has been updated with the collaboration of Ambra Edwards, who gives us the contemporary picture of the garden.
Hobhouse, who is now 90, has taken a special interest in historic Islamic gardens, which grab the underlying power and beauty of a garden and intensify it. This heightened quality is achieved by designing landscapes for the senses – for sound, scent and taste, as well as sight. As Hobhouse points out, while the gardens of, say, Japan or England are formed in dialogue with the outlying scenery, Islamic gardens are starkly separate from the hostile desert environments in which they sit, again to amplify the experience.
“The gardens of Islam,” Hobhouse writes, “are among the most sublime in the world – soothing, refreshing and deeply spiritual.”
And what of our contemporary paradise? The underlying sensibility of our own time might be called the naturalistic garden, which has different meaning to various camps, but at its heart is about a closer connection to the Earth and a greater environmental sustainability. At its most stylish, this approach relies on symphonies of perennials and grasses beyond the constraints of efforts to use native plants alone to mimic plant ecologies.
The naturalism has a number of origins going back to the ideas of a Danish designer named Jens Jensen (who brought a Nordic take on the Midwest prairie) and the German plantsman Karl Foerster but is manifested today in such figures as Piet Oudolf in the Netherlands and, in England, Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Price and Tom Stuart-Smith.
On this side of the pond, the cause was taken up by Washington landscape architects James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme and Maryland nurseryman Kurt Bluemel, two of them German emigres and now all deceased.
Some of these compositions of herbaceous plantings exist within traditional frameworks of clipped hedging, and some are much freer. As naturalistic as they are, they are, ironically, demanding in their execution and endurance. This is because they rely heavily on so many different plants – the gardener has to know how (or if) they will work together, particularly as the style has evolved to rely more on the integration of plants rather than their use as discrete blocks.
“How far this wilder approach can develop is debatable,” the authors write. “Much deeper knowledge of plants is needed to maintain these more complex plantings, which need regular editing to keep going, and require a level of skill and commitment of time that is rarely available for the maintenance of public spaces; it may be something that can only happen in private gardens.” Two high-profile gardens – Westpark in Munich, planted in 1983, and the Olympic Park in London, created for the 2012 summer games – already have lost their pizazz, they note.
We also live in an age where landscapes become the outward embodiment of ideas. This is what the authors call Thinking Gardens, and they remind us of Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, where he used quantum and cosmic geometries to fashion land art. At Boughton House, a stately home in the English Midlands, Kim Wilkie created an inverted pyramid sunken into the ground.
In a humbler experiment, Derek Jarman established a beach garden on the southern coast of England, Prospect Cottage. It is a quirky driftwood sculpture garden around a fisherman’s hut, barely distinguishable from the pebble beach from which it is hewed, but it was crafted by Jarman, a filmmaker, when he knew he was dying of AIDS. A garden, at the best of times, is a personal act of faith in the future. To make one while staring death in the face must be heroic.
“The history of gardening, traced through three millennia to the 21st century,” writes Hobhouse, “is not just one story but an infinite number – as many as there have been gardeners.”