According to the dictionary, a garden is “a piece of land next to and belonging to a house, where flowers and other plants are grown, and often containing an area of grass” At the end of the day, a garden can be anything it needs to be to meet the needs of the garden owner. It can be practical or aesthetically pleasing or both.
But how did we get to this point? Originally a practical garden was an essential place to grow food, as well as herbs and flowers for remedies and other beneficial uses, for those who were fortunate to have room around their homes and the time to tend a garden. A beautiful garden was a luxury item, a playground for the rich and powerful who had plenty of space and resources to demonstrate their wealth with rare plants and expensive landscape designs. The desire to manipulate nature herself showed how they could dominate the world around them.
With their great wealth, the rich landowners were able to pay others for their creativity in order to create these beautiful gardens. With hundreds of labourers at their disposal, some of the most wonderful gardens ever seen were brought to life.
As it is human nature to want to mimic what is popular and what others are doing, watered down versions of gardens at the height of fashion were imitated on smaller scales with less impressive budgets. But even on a shoestring, the general idea can still result in something beautiful in the smallest of spaces. Gardening is such a wonderful activity, it is accessible to everyone.
The most notable gardener for the formal style was André Le Nôtre who created many impressive gardens but is best known for designing an extensive formal garden at the Versailles Palace for the French Sun King, Louis XIV, from 1661.
His use of geometrically-created symmetrical paths and tree-lined alleys throughout the garden, and his use of water and canals defined the perspective of the landscape, drawing the eye to acknowledge the immense scale of the garden or narrow it down to focus it on a fountain or statue.
Elaborate parterre garden beds richly planted out in intricate patterns and designs were best viewed from the windows of the palace above the garden, but the style was widely adopted elsewhere, even today, and can be recognisable as being influenced by French Formal Design.
After a while, the formality of this style of garden felt too restrictive and those with the wealth and influence craved change and wanted to leave their mark on the world around them. This was perfect timing for Lancelot Capability Brown who, by the mid 1700’s, was beginning to make a name for himself and became known as “England’s Greatest Gardener”. Capability Brown recreated 170 of the country’s most prestigious gardens, often by completely clearing away what was already there and removing all traces of the previous formal designs and replacing them with informal, elegant designs that mimicked and ‘improved’ the countryside.
His style was to recreate nature using carefully planned scenes with unimpeded views across the land, inviting the pastoral scenes right up to the house. Architectural features such as bridges, follies and temples were strategically positioned to give interest to the garden but not to distract from the natural feel of the landscape. There was always a waterway in his gardens, often a serpentine lake and many times created where there wasn’t any water before. Significant earthworks were undertaken to ensure the garden reflected his version of natural, informal and yet elegant landscapes.
Following along from Capability Brown was Humphry Repton. While the previous style was grand, it lacked practicalities for making the most of the garden closest to the house. Humphry brought back a formality in the form of terraces, balustrades and trellis for flowers to grow up.
He believed a good garden should make the most of the natural beauty but hide any flaws. It should blend into the background, disguising boundaries and borrowing features in the distance to enhance the view for a seamlessly natural look. Any practical objects in the garden should be attractive and part of the look of the garden or not used at all.
He was influenced by the picturesque movement and created themed gardens such as Chinese Garden, an arboretum or a perfect lawn for cricket or bowls. But his success was largely down to how he marketed his designs – with his prolific “Red Books” that showed the garden owner what could be, with before and after watercolour overlays of the proposed garden. Many of the ideas in the books are very much a part of modern day landscape design.
Humphry, along with other landscapers that came after him, freed up garden designing so it could suit smaller gardens, but also suit the wants and needs of the individual rather than follow the fashion and trends.
A popular style today is thanks to the influence of the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. His "new perennial" movement can be found all over the world reflected in his contemporary plant compositions that feature bold drifts of grasses and herbaceous perennials that give ethereal vistas, dramatic pops of colour and year round interest. His natural approach, while similar to Capability Brown, is more in line with respecting the environment that is already there and using plants that suit the location, while still creating a beautiful image through careful design, use of structure and texture, and plant choice. It has earned him the title of the “World’s Greatest Living Landscape Designer”.
In this day and age, we are fortunate to be in a position where we can reach back in time and cherry pick the design ideas and concepts that we like the best and adapt them to create our own haven in our own backyard, allowing the garden to reflect our personality. That is the beauty of gardening, you don’t need to follow fashion, you can just grow what you love.