Gardens: An Overview

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Gardens are enclosed spaces, distinguished from the fields where staple crops are grown and from the rocks, forests, marshes, and tundra of the wilderness. There are zoological gardens, and parks for animals, but plant gardens do not usually find room for more than a few colorful birds and fish. The transcendental feelings inspired by ornamental gardens may be divided into Western and Eastern categories, with "Western" understood broadly as encompassing traditions associated not only with Christianity but also with Islam, and with the geographical line dividing Western from Eastern running through the subcontinent of India. In the West, nature has traditionally been conceived of as something to be conquered, and religious thought runs to extremes: the Day of Judgment, the triumph of the good, and the annihilation of evil. In the East, many religious traditions have sought to accommodate human beings to the world around them and to comprehend dualisms within an overarching whole. These differences find expression in the formal gardening of the West and in the landscape gardening of the East, and perhaps also in the fact that Western gardens are made for walking in, while Eastern ones are for sitting in, with separate pavillions for painting, composing poetry, practicing one's calligraphy, and (in recent centuries) drinking tea.

Western Recreational Gardens

The religions that inherited the traditions of the Old Testament, namely, Islam and Christianity, were founded in the desert. Their scriptures dwelt on the life-giving properties of water, foliage that was refreshing to the eye, and shade that was restful for the body. A man was blessed by being told he would be "like a watered garden" (Isa. 58:11) and cursed with the prospect of becoming "as a garden that hath no water" (Isa. 1:30). Wells and fountains quickened plant growth, and the trees that water brought to life provided both nourishment and fuel. Christians valued green herbs for their medicinal properties, and in seventeenth-century England Andrew Marvell envisaged paradise as "a green thought in a green shade." Green became the color of Islam itself, and a just king, as the Mughal emperor Akbar said when he invaded Kashmir in 1585 bce, enabled his subjects to sit in the shade of tranquillity. Above all, the influence of the desert environment appeared in the way in which, in the West, the garden was seen as an oasis, in stark contrast to the barren wastes outside. The sense of the faith, or of the church, as an enclosure, a refuge from a hostile environment, was paramount (though a missionary church might be described as a garden without walls). Confusingly, there was another more puritanical tradition in which the roles were reversed, and the garden, with its luxury, was condemned as the scene of temptation, while the wilderness was celebrated as the true garden.

Gardeners, inspired by the supposition of a Garden of Eden at the beginning of history, aimed to re-create the conditions thought to have existed in the original garden, with its mild climate and its never-failing supply of flowers and fruit. The gardener brought order out of chaos, and gardens were laid out in regular patterns, with right angles and straight lines to extend humankind's dominion over fallen nature. Both the Garden of Eden and the future Heaven were commonly conceived of as formal gardens. The tradition that Eden was watered by four rivers led Muslim gardeners from Persia to Spain tenaciously to reproduce the chahar bagh, a rectangular enclosure divided into four quarters by two streams crossing at right angles. It was an approach that combined easily with humanist ideasderived from the classical civilizations of Persia, Greece, and Romeof the regular pattern as the triumph of human intelligence and of abstract principles of mathematics and law. In Europe, plans of grounds attached to a Roman villa, to a medieval monastery, or to a Renaissance palace are not dissimilar, and it is not always easy to disentangle spiritual influences from secular ones, though it seems safe to say that the inspiration behind the greatest of all geometrical gardens, at Versailles, was at least half worldly.

Where religious influences predominated every plant was imbued with symbolic spiritual meaning. Trees opened their arms in the gesture of the prayer of supplication, and the branches of an orchard bowed toward God. The silver on the topside of the leaves of the poplar reflected the light of heaven, while the dark side beneath served as a reminder of earthor hell. The cypress (represented in so many central Asian carpets) stood both for mortality, because it did not sprout when felled, and for everlasting life, because it was evergreen. The violet genuflected. The lily epitomized the purity and the pomegranate the fruitfulness of a woman. Muslims believed that the rose, which enjoys primacy of esteem among Western gardeners, had been created from a drop of perspiration that fell from the Prophet's forehead as he was carried up into Heaven. The rosebush prayed standing upright, and the fragrant flowers budding among its thorns were interpreted as tokens of God's mercy emerging from God's wrath. In both Islam and Christianity this kind of imagery led writers like Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801 ce) to speak of "the real gardens and flowers" being "within." It was only when people's stonelike nature had been broken down into dust by affliction that their hearts could become gardens blessed by rain and have roses grow out of them.

The early symbolism of the garden in Islam ran parallel to that in Christianity, though the Muslim Paradise, with its ūrīs, its green brocades, and its nonintoxicating wines, was painted in more literal detail than the Christian Heaven. Where Christian tradition diverged from Islam was in the identification of the garden with specific occasions in the life of Christ. The "garden enclosed" of the Song of Songs was interpreted to refer to the Virgin Mary, whose womb was an oasis so select that none but the Holy Spirit could enter in. Adam had been a gardener. Through Adam, death came into the world. Christ, who had conquered death, therefore made his first appearance after the resurrection dressed in a gardener's clothes.

Eastern Cosmic Gardens

In China and Japan, both the awesome mountains and the streams that issued from them were thought to be possessed by spirits, and they were considered to be alive, like plants, animals, and human beings themselves. Space was organized from the center outward, and gardens were designed by professional geomancers, who surveyed the spiritual contours of the sites according to the science of feng-shui. The selection of rocks was a matter for the connoisseur. Everything was conceived within a mindset that has been called universisme, and the primary objective of landscape gardening was to raise people's understanding to the level of the cosmos. This was achieved through the art of shan shui. Rocks, pools, and streams were said to represent the physical geography of a region, such as the mountains of Central Asia and the seas of the eastern coast, or (in Daoist philosophy) the skeleton of the whole earth and the arteries that nourished it. To the Buddhist, the garden furnished a lesson on time. The flowers opened and withered within in a month. The seasons revolved. But stone decayed on a far longer time scale that turned the present into a moving infinity. The symbolism was as varied and extensible as the clouds that gathered around the mountain peaks.

The garden contained both friendly and unfriendly spirits. But threatening spirits were not persecuted as they might have been in the West: they were either left undisturbed (for example, by not digging the ground too deeply) or frustrated (as in the case of the demons who traveled in straight lines, who were thwarted through the construction of zigzag bridges). The universe, like the garden, was influenced by rival but related forces. The Chinese spoke of the yin and the yang, the Japanese of the in and the yo. Yin was female, passive, and weak; yang was male, active, and virile. In China, mountains were male, pools female; hence a mountain stood for intelligence, a lake for feeling. In Japan the more stylized gardens sometimes contained both male and female rocksfive erect, four recumbent. In both countries, gardens expressed conceptions about youth and age, growth and decay. The trunk of the tree upon which the "youthful" plum blossom hung resembled an old person's body, crooked and bent. Flowers were esteemed for being "as lovely in their withering as in their first florescence," and the samurai were compared to the blossom of the cherryhaving a short life and an exquisite end. The Yuan Ye (a treatise on gardening, dating from the end of the Ming period) records that "when a remarkable tree was about to bloom," people moved their beds outdoors in order that they might be able to observe how the flowers expanded "from childhood to maturity and finally faded and died."

Nowhere is the contrast between East and West more apparent than in their respective attitudes to night and moonlight. In the West, day was connected symbolically with good, night with evil. The creatures that moved by night, such as bats, owls, and foxes, were repellent, ominous, or crafty, and the moon was contemned as a second-rate luminary. In China, on the other hand, day and night were accorded equal status, and night was said to raise men and women to the stars. Pavilions were built and furnished for the contemplation of the moon, Chinese poets sang of the moonlight "washing its soul" in the garden pool, and the Yuan Ye encouraged its readers to look forward to the day when they might even "dig in the moon[light] on the top of a mountain."

In the East a miniature garden might be esteemed as highly as an estate, and (as in the West) it was sometimes said that it was not necessary to own a property at all. Fictive gardens were held in high regard, and the most perfect garden of all was "the garden that isn't really here"the one that existed only in the imagination. Real or imaginary, the garden was recognized as a representation of people's own lives containing symbols of the qualities respected in a human being. The cedar, resisting the storm, represented the beholder's own struggle with adversity, and the chrysanthemum, which braved the autumn frosts, was admired for its courage. Death itself lost some of its terrors when understood in the context of a continuous cycle of decay and regrowth. Much of Chinese gardening sought to encourage acceptance of humanity's lot. But gardens in the East could also express a yearning for transcendence. Daoists spoke of the Blessed Isles of the Eastern Sea, and many Buddhists have believed in a land, presided over by the Amida (Amitābha ) Buddha, where lotus flowers holding the souls of the faithful bloom upon the waters of a brilliant lakeparadisal concepts for which there have been parallels in the West. More often than not, however, Buddhists have thought in terms of nirvāa, or a release from the cycle of reincarnation, and for this there is no Western equivalent. The Indian youth of the Matsya Purāa (c. 500 ce), who had passed through lives by the thousand and who had in his time been a beast of prey, a domestic animal, grass, shrubs, creepers, and trees, looked forward not to a better world but to release from self. In China the highest aspiration open to a landscape gardener was to imitate the Hang painter Wu Daozi, who is said to have entered into the scene he had created, merged with his masterpiece, and been seen no more.

Subsistence Gardens

In recreational and cosmic gardens, long-lived trees, graceful foliage, and fragrant flowers have provided abundant material for religious symbolism. Orchards and fruit gardens, in which beauty and utility are combined, have also inspired their share of spiritual imagery, and the Bible contains many allegories concerning vines, figs, olives, and palms. Herb gardens and physic (medicinal) gardens have contributed their quota. But the kitchen garden, which supplies so much, does not seem to feed the imagination, and the Bible includes only one reference to the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic that the Israelites remembered having eaten in Egypt (Num. 11:5). The planting at Villandry shows how even the dominant tradition of classical French parterre gardening can be reinterpreted in terms of the potager. But this is an exception. In both West and East, class values have prevailed. The norm among aristocracies, and even among the middle classes, has been to place the vegetable garden out of sight. Historically, priests of all religions have kept their hands clean and been supported from the surplus created by the population at large. Monastic communities, withdrawn from the world, are the only ones to have embraced manual labor as a providential discipline. In both West and East, Benedictine and Zen Buddhist monks have placed gardening upon a par with prayer and meditation and supported themselves by growing their own food. Much of the virtue lies in the humble nature of the work.

Real-life peasants and laborers, on the other hand, with families to feed, know that in temperate latitudes the skills involved in planning and maintaining a subsistence garden are greater than those called for in a recreational or cosmic garden, because most of the edible plants are annuals. There is little time to compensate for failures, and sowings must succeed or the family will go without. The labor is unremitting, and, understandably, the rewards are associated with the satisfaction of the stomach rather than the refinement of the soul. Things are different in parts of the tropics where three crops may be harvested in a year and the division between extensive fields and intensive gardens breaks down. There, the subsistence garden may assume an idealized form. All over Southeast Asia, where high levels of light, heat, and moisture; the rapid growth of plants; and recycling of vegetable and animal waste allow a family to produce all their own food and fuel upon a tiny holding, there are self-reliant peasants living in ecological harmony with a bountiful nature. In Melanesia a twentieth-century study of the Trobriand Islanders found that even their staples (yams and taro) were grown in aesthetically pleasing gardens, and that skill in gardening determined social rank. Every stage from the clearing of the land, through the sowing, weeding, and thinning, to the gathering and display of the produce was carried out with the aid of the appropriate magic, and the spirits of the dead were invited to attend the harvest feast.


Sensuality has always wrestled with spirituality for the soul of the garden. In the West, Priapus and Venus presided over Greek and Roman gardens, and remain better known, to this day, than Saint Phocas and Saint Fiacre, the patron saints of gardening. No amount of Marian imagery could conceal the erotic meaning of the Song of Songs, and in the thirteenth century the Roman de la Rose contraposed a garden of courtly manners and passionate love to the ecclesiastically approved one of lowered eyes and chaste thoughts. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Voltaire challenged and Darwin overthrew the concept of gardening as an innocent activity. The struggle for survival is every bit as wasteful, and as blind (or cruel), in a garden as it is in the wilderness. The difference is that there are more human interventions. Even these do not appear, since Freud, as blameless as they once did. Gardeners are autocrats who draw arbitrary distinctions between plants and weeds. Except, perhaps, in India, they wage chemical warfare and carry out mass exterminations. Manylike the Chinese mandarins who were encouraged, when they fell from favor, to retire and take up gardeningare in denial, working off their frustrations by philosophically rationalizing the pleasures of an enforced rural retreat.

In addition to its literal sense, the word garden has frequently been used as a literary term, to mean an anthology. More than one collection of improving stories or homilies has been titled A Garden of Flowers, and others in this vein have been titled gardens of "consolation," "repose," or "contentment." But the word has become detached from its religious context. Many people no longer agree with Dorothy Frances Gurney that they are "nearer God's Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth." J. M. Brinnin, who began writing poetry when he was a student at Harvard in the 1930s, thought of "garden" as "tragedy up to its generous eyes." Faced with the rise of the Fascist dictators, "even the illiterate snake," he wrote, must know "the garden is political" (the title of a collection of his poems published in New York in 1942). Within the last half-century others have offered readers gardens of disorder, evil, ignorance, illusion, lies, malice, poisons, and scandal. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the meanings and associations of the word are still being contested.

See Also

Flowers; Geomancy; Paradise.


Few books on gardening pay sufficient attention to the significance of religious symbolism. Among those that do, the best general history remains Marie Luise Gothein's A History of Garden Art, 2 vols. (1928; New York, 1966). Islamic gardens may be studied in Elizabeth B. Moynihan's Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India (New York, 1979) and in a collection edited by Elizabeth B. MacDougall and Richard Ettinghausen, The Islamic Garden (Washington, D.C., 1976), one of the publications arising out of the colloquia held annually at Dumbarton Oaks since 1971. For medieval European gardens see Marilyn Stokstad's essay "Gardens in Medieval Art," written for the Gardens of the Middle Ages exhibition organized by the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, in 1983, and Teresa McLean's Medieval English Gardens (London, 1981). The "garden enclosed" of the Song of Songs is the subject of Stanley N. Stewart's study The Enclosed Garden: The Tradition and the Image in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Madison, Wis., 1966). Some effects of the discovery of America on European gardeners' attempts to recreate the Garden of Eden are outlined in John Prest's The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise (New Haven, Conn., 1981). Osvald Sirén's China and Gardens of Europe of the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1950) traces the influence of Chinese garden design upon the adoption of the landscape garden in Europe, particularly in England. The distinctive features of the successive periods of Japanese gardening are best conveyed in Teiji Ito's The Japanese Garden: An Approach to Nature (New Haven, Conn., 1972), and Norris Brock Johnson's article "Geomancy, Sacred Geometry, and the Idea of a Garden; Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan," Journal of Garden History 9, no. 1 (1989): 119. One of the earliest works written in English about Chinese gardening ideals, Dorothy Graham's Chinese Gardens (London, 1938), still contains valuable insights. More recent studies include Jan Stuart's "Ming Dynasty [13681644] Gardens Reconstructed in Words and Images," Journal of Garden History 10, no. 3 (1990): 162172, and David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames's "The Cosmological Setting of Chinese Gardens," Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 18, no. 3 (1998): 175186. Rolf A. Stein's The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, translated by Phyllis Brooks (Stanford, Calif., 1998), continues the great tradition of French Far Eastern studies. A special issue edited by Léon Vandermeersch, "L'Art des jardins dans les pays Sinisés: Chine, Japon, Corée, Vietnam," Extreme-Orient, Extreme-Occident 22 (2000), covers the whole region and is invaluable. Bronislaw Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic. A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands, 2 vols. (London, 1935), is a classic anthropological study. Michael Niedermeier's " 'Strolling under Palm Trees': GardensLoveSexuality," Journal of Garden History 17, no. 3 (1997): 186207, touches on the garden as a setting for erotic love.

John Prest (1987 and 2005)