Inspiration Through History and Culture
WORDS & PHOTOS BY SUSAN TIMMONS
As economics and culture go, so go gardens. Gardens inevitably reflect their time and place in history. From subsistence gardens that give sustenance for survival to glorious, grand-scale pleasure gardens that flaunt wealth and power, garden and landscape designs run the gamut.
Our ornamental gardens in Lynchburg typically fall comfortably between these two extremes. They have been greatly influenced by those that came before us yet are uniquely American both in design and plant material.
Setting the Standard
Let’s take a sweep through time to see how gardens evolved throughout Western civilization and consider what that means to us when we design our own garden. A good starting point is late 15th century Renaissance Italy, which boasted gardens prized for their design, elegance, and political and social message to complement villas of the ecclesiastic and secular wealthy around Rome and Florence. As the Renaissance progressed, villas and their companion gardens became increasingly larger and more elaborate, reflecting classical ideals of proportion, formal order and symmetry, architecture and literature, and the desire to impress.
Prime examples are the Medici’s Boboli gardens at the Pitti Palace in Florence, the Vatican gardens in Rome, and the magnificent 16th century High Renaissance Villa d’Este at Tivoli. The latter boasts a magnificent terraced garden featuring elaborate water courses, pools, fountains (including a water organ), a grotto, and delightful visual surprises at every turn. This garden exemplifies the typical Italian design of a central axis with cross axes leading the eye to focal points, terraces on the side of a steep hill affording spectacular vistas, and adornment with classical and mythical statuary. These and similar, albeit often less elaborate, gardens throughout Italy set the bar for ideal garden design for the Western world.
This basic standard for gardens was adapted in many ways as it spread eastward across the northern shores of the Mediterranean into France and Spain, where steep shorelines meant it took great effort to move the earth and chisel terraces out of high cliffs. Another challenge was to engineer increasingly clever ways to channel waters by advancing knowledge gained from the construction of Roman aqueducts. The reward was lush gardens with exotic plant material and spectacular views of the sparkling blue Mediterranean.
The formal Italian garden was climatically and culturally tailored and embellished through Renaissance France, with Versailles as an extreme example of the trophy garden to display worldly wealth and status. And the French took the idea of conquering and controlling nature to its utmost extreme with fantastic forms of precision topiary, elaborate open and closed parterres, dramatic water features, and endless sculptural and other ornamentation.
Then, of course, the English would not be outdone by the French, so formal Italian- and French-style gardens became the rage there too, and many still today accompany palaces and great country manor houses, such as those in the Cotswold Hills. At Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, the formal Italian garden is nestled closest to the palace (for exclusive use of the residential Marlborough family and their guests), while the French, via Italian, influence is obvious in the terraced water features and classical sculptures that are open to the public.
The Focus Shifts
Then, in the 18th Century, along came the most famous English landscape designer, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who transformed the concept of gardens into a more relaxed design in tune with the natural landscape. He designed 170 or so parks and numerous estate gardens with a departure from classical formal symmetry and a celebration of the countryside beyond. His goal was to create gardens that looked as if they were nature’s own creation. But they only seemed so.
He, in fact, moved hills, created lakes, naturalized waterfalls, and strategically planted clumps of trees (a design feature adopted by Thomas Jefferson for Poplar Forest) to look as if they were there all along. Looking past the formal gardens at Blenheim Palace out toward the countryside is a showcase of “Capability” Brown’s brilliant artistry in nature. Thus was born “The English Landscape Style” that to this day influences our gardening here in Virginia.
Another significant shift that changed gardens and garden design forever resulted from the Industrial Revolution. Tools were developed, such as the lawnmower, to make cost and workload of planting and maintaining lawns and gardens manageable for middle class folks who couldn’t afford teams of hired gardeners. With new building materials and engineering skills, “glass houses” at London’s public Kew Gardens were constructed to shelter tropical and temperate plants from around the world for viewing by the general population. An appetite for gardening was, of course, whetted.
When Thomas Jefferson traveled in Europe, he embraced worldwide plant exchange. His fascination with plants and gardens compelled him to bring numerous exotic species of plants to America, and many have grown in popularity through the years.
As the middle class proliferated, well-designed public gardens grew in number and educational value. Love of gardening and interest in garden design was no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich and powerful. Gardening today in England and the U.S., and indeed around the world, has become one of the most popular hobbies and is accessible to almost everyone.
New Styles and Honored Traditions
English garden design further evolved through concepts developed by Gertrude Jykll (1843-1932), horticulturalist, garden designer, writer, and artist, who thoroughly understood plants, color theory, and other principles of art—line, form, structure, color. To her a garden was a blank canvas to which she could translate her knowledge into brilliant, artistic garden designs. Her robust combinations of color created exuberant flower borders that bloomed profusely in sequence as the gardening season progressed, and her aesthetic strategies and motifs have greatly influenced U.S. gardeners, including myself.
Vita Sackville-West, 20th century novelist and designer of the famous Sissinghurst Castle garden, masterfully embraced the concept of individual “garden rooms” with windows and doors in walls and yew hedges linking a multitude of rooms—each with a unique purpose, design, and character. Some of her other concepts expressed at Sissinghurst were mown grass paths, one-color gardens, and roses on brick walls (as we see in our Old City Cemetery). Another notable artistic English gardener was Rosemary Verey, who, according to a eulogy after her death in 2001, “brought the art of clipped boxwoods, laburnum walks and ornamental vegetable gardening to America.”
We in the U.S. continue to be greatly influenced by English garden designers/writers/lecturers, including modern-day experts Penelope Hobhouse (who designed many gardens in the U.S. as well as England), Mary Keen (who visited and spoke in Lynchburg last year), and Heidi Howcroft (who has also visited Lynchburg). The list of English garden gurus could go on and on. Most have taken historic concepts, refined them, created their own oeuvre, and taken our U.S. gardens to the next level. And we in Lynchburg listen to what they have to say.
As for U.S. garden designers, we already know that Thomas Jefferson, informed by his European travels, set the bar; and we must not forget landscape and garden architect/designer Charles Gillette, who in the first half of the 20th century so aptly created landscapes to pair with Colonial Revival architecture, most notably in Richmond, and earned fame as being the father of what’s known as the “Virginia Garden.”
Since our heritage continues to be of such value to us in Virginia, we revere Rudy Favretti, noted horticulturalist and designer of garden preservation and restoration projects, to complement historic sites, and William D. Rieley, landscape designer in Charlottesville, who works with the Garden Club of Virginia and serves as consultant for ongoing garden archaeological research at Poplar Forest to “honor the past while looking toward the future.”
As important as the evolution of garden design through Western civilization may be to us, it’s not the whole story. Let’s journey east from Italy, where West meets East, and consider that European gardens adopted many design motifs (as well as plants, such as the rose) from the East. Mogul gardens of Northern India were created with Muslim, Buddhist, Persian, Christian, and even Mesopotamian influences. These, like Italian gardens, adhere to principles of formal symmetry. They follow strict geometric and symbolic guidelines and proudly rely on mastering the flow of water, essential to exotic plant survival—a common denominator for all successful garden designs.
Far Eastern garden design also developed over a couple of thousand years. Rather than relying on formal symmetry, famous and elegant Chinese gardens, such as the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, create an entire landscape of rocks, water, plants, pagodas, and pavilions artfully compressed in a relatively small space. Every stone, structure, and horticulture specimen holds scholarly or spiritual significance. According to UNESCO, this and other gardens of Suzhou are the “most refined form” of the art of garden design.
Japanese gardens have certainly made their mark on the Western world. They, like Chinese gardens, can typify complex landscapes, but with cultural variations in their carefully-placed rocks, streams, meticulously pruned trees, and raked sand/soil—designed to stimulate intellectual and spiritual contemplation. Or they may be Zen minimalist, simple, and unadorned to invite meditation and serenity.
The most recent trends to influence our garden design are an outgrowth of environmental concerns. The Native Plant Movement, embracing the critical role of pollinators for bio-diversity and healthy ecosystems, has benefited from substantiation by scientific research translated into lay terms, most notably by Professor Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware. Understanding native plants and their value in home gardens is further changing the way we design our gardens to focus more on open, loose, and natural looks rather than closed, contrived, and exotic ones.
Designing YOUR Garden
I’ve been fortunate to experience guided tours of iconic gardens all over the world to inspire my vision for my own garden and make informed decisions on what would work for me in translating aspects of gardens from various cultures, and from grand scale to a smaller, simplified, more “human” scale. But if garden travel isn’t in your future, you can easily Google and read to help you sort through garden designs—historic and current trends.
What appeals to you? What’s your vision? And what will work for you? This is the starting point for any garden design.
To help answer these questions, consider your values, goals, desires, lifestyle, and personal preferences. Are you looking for material or spiritual rewards from your garden? Your ideal garden may be an elegantly designed showplace, or you may prefer as simple a setting as possible to grow your favorite flowers. It may be a retreat for private enjoyment of the senses of sight and sound or to soothe your soul. Or you may be looking for an attractive outdoor extension of your home as a garden room (or rooms) for dining, entertaining, relaxing, or playing.
Are you more of a scientist or an artist? You may be focused on growing, propagating, and sharing interesting and healthy plants or more interested in creative, eye-catching arrangements of color, shape, and form. Or you may want it all with a combination of these attributes. It’s not necessarily one or the other. But it is a matter of knowing yourself. It’s up to you to decide.
If all this is confusing or if you need help with your design, there are excellent professional landscapers and garden designers in our area to offer guidance and assistance. Although most of my gardening has been DIY (see my “DIY Garden Design in 8 Steps” on the following pages), I’ve sought help for specific design and planting challenges at times—both Rosser Landscaping & Design LLC and Rainfrost Nursery have offered excellent suggestions as well as quality plant material and workmanship. And don’t forget that the Hill City Master Gardener Association offers the free services of Master Gardeners to come to your home and offer advice.
You may choose to develop a grand garden scheme or master plan before lifting your first shovel full of soil, or you may let your garden design evolve over time, as mine did, by focusing on one challenge or section of your land at a time. Again, there’s no right or wrong way for home gardens. It’s your garden. Within constraints of law and a reasonable nod toward community cohesion, express yourself and do it YOUR way!
Meet the Gardener
Susan Timmons served in the 1970s as Virginia’s first Environmental Impact Statement Coordinator, then Assistant Administrator and Acting Administrator of Virginia’s Council on the Environment and editor of The State of Virginia’s Environment. During that time she also served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Environmental Professionals and received the National Wildlife Federation’s Award for Environmental Communications. More recently, she worked in higher education and nonprofit management and, in retirement, she serves as a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Hill City Master Gardeners Association with a series of talks on “Gardens of the World.”