The longing for the peace and beauty a garden can provide has taken many forms throughout the years
It’s summer in Eretz Yisrael. The flowers have burst into gaudy bloom in cozy clusters, blissfully unaware of the rules of social distancing we humans have had to endure these past few months. Indeed, gardens — whether cultivated for the pleasure of kings, or for more humble uses and people — have always been prized for their ability to take us away from our concerns and connect us with something eternal.
But recreating a bit of Eden has meant different things in different times and places. Join us for a stroll down the path as we take a look at gardens throughout the ages.
In the Beginning
And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and G-d saw that it was good. —Bereishis 1:12
Adam Harishon was tasked with tending the garden on the very day he was created. And ever since, man has been caring for the land.
In the post-Eden world, cultivating food — producing vines, trees, and shrubs — continued, using a type of gardening that historians call forest gardening. The term “forest” is used because the vegetation was grown close together in an enclosed area. This made it easier to harvest the bounty — and protect the precious food source from wandering animals and marauders.
As people became more expert at irrigation (and defense) techniques, the variety and layout expanded. An average gardener living in ancient Israel might cultivate the Seven Species — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates — and also cucumbers, melons and gourds, onions and garlic, and spices such as cumin, coriander, and mustard.
A king’s garden would be even more varied and elaborate, as we know from Shir Hashirim. Shlomo Hamelech describes such a garden in 4:12–16. In this walled garden, there’s a pomegranate orchard, fragrant spices such as cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh, as well as a fountain. A garden like this would both produce food for the royal palace and provide a shaded space to relax in, where the royals could enjoy the many colors and fragrances.
Oasis in the Ancient World
A myrtle that stands among thorns is still a myrtle. —Sanhedrin 44a
Of course, the Jews weren’t the only ones to cultivate gardens in the ancient world. Ancient Egypt had its fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, which were irrigated with water from the Nile. Wealthy Egyptians had pleasure gardens filled with shade trees and flowers, as well as ponds stocked with fish and waterfowl. Some even recreated their gardens either as a painting or a miniature model in their tombs, to enjoy in the afterlife.
In Mesopotamia — home to the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians — the “power garden” became popular, as kings vied to show off their wealth and even their military prowess through horticulture. In a sculpture depicting the enclosed Courtyard Garden constructed by Assurbanipal, a seventh-century BCE Assyrian king, he and his queen are shown dining in a vine-covered arbor whose “decorations” include the severed head of the king of Elam.
An earlier Assyrian monarch, Ashurnasirpal II, was among the first to develop the concept of the City Garden, where river water was diverted into a large-scale landscaped garden located within a city’s walls. According to a historical account, Ashurnasirpal’s garden was filled with an impressive variety of trees and vines — pine, cypress, juniper, almond, date, ebony, rosewood, olive, oak, tamarisk, walnut, terebinth, ash, fir, pomegranate, pear, quince, fig, and grapevines — and irrigated by “streams of water as numerous as the stars of heaven.” This led the happy monarch to proclaim, “Like a squirrel, I pick fruit in the garden of delights.”
A century later, another Assyrian king, Sancheriv — who famously failed to capture Jerusalem when a plague decimated his army — claimed to have outdone his predecessors with the city garden he built in Nineveh, using the latest in irrigation technology. “A wonder for all peoples,” is how he modestly described his achievement.
The Persians had their ornate gardens too. But perhaps the most famous garden was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Fortunately, the term “hanging garden” didn’t refer to a leafy place where the king displayed the remains of his enemies. Instead, it earned its moniker due to a tiered system of landscaping, with terraces constructed from mud bricks. Once the terraces were filled with trees, shrubs, and vines, the elaborately designed garden resembled a large green mountain.
It must have been a wonder to see — if it truly existed. Although Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, gives a description of it based upon an earlier source, as do a few Greek and Roman historians, the location of the Hanging Gardens has never been found. This has led some later historians to believe that the garden never existed; the Hanging Gardens was a mythical, romanticized ideal of an early Eastern garden.
Others say the Hanging Gardens did exist, but it was destroyed during the first century of the Common Era. A third theory also claims the Hanging Gardens existed, but not in Babylon. The garden was actually the “wonder” built by Sancheriv.
The Romans were also avid gardeners, and for the wealthy, gardens were seen as a necessary refuge from the stress of urban life. Roman gardening often followed the architectural principles advocated by Roman author and engineer Vitruvius, with durability, utility, and beauty being the three foundations of good design. Therefore, in addition to the usual fruit-bearing trees and shaded arcades, a typical villa garden would feature several purely ornamental elements — fountains, topiaries where shrubs were clipped into geometric or fanciful shapes, sculptures, and the like.
Herbs ’R Us
Sell your herbs in a place rich in herbs. — Menachos 85a
After the fall of the Roman Empire, and throughout most of the Middle Ages, gardening in northern Europe mainly concentrated on the second of Vitruvius’s principles: utility.
One consequence of the 14th-century Black Plague — which killed off 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population — was that land became more available, and even the poorest worker could have a little garden to grow some food. A European Kitchen Garden ensured that a family would have a reliable source of vegetables, such as cabbage, onion, garlic, leeks, radishes, and parsnips. Peas, lentils, and beans might also be grown.
Another important component of medieval horticulture was the Infirmary Garden for herbs and medicinal plants. Many of the things grown are still familiar today: rosemary, sage, fennel, cumin, fenugreek, mint, and peppermint. Others, such as costmary (which supposedly “warmed the brain” and was good for stomach ailments, among other things) and rue (useful for curing insect bites, eye strain, and, according to some, even warding off the plague) have fallen out of favor.
Like the items that were grown, the design of these gardens was utilitarian in nature. The garden design usually consisted of rectangular or square planting beds, with narrow paths in between, so the produce could be easily collected. The garden was sometimes surrounded by a stone fence or a fence woven from thin branches to keep out the animals.
With the ink of its showers and rains, with the quill of its lightning,
with the hand of its clouds, winter wrote a letter upon the garden,
in purple and blue.
No artist could ever conceive the like of that.
And this is why the earth, grown jealous of the sky,
embroidered stars in the folds of the flowerbeds.
—“Earth’s Embroidery,” Shlomo ibn Gabirol, translated by T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse
In places with warmer climates — such as Spain, Italy, and the south of France — gardens that combined utility with beauty continued to be cultivated even during the Middle Ages. And, of course, the rich were always able to create a green haven, wherever they lived. During the late Middle Ages, for instance, raised flower beds began to appear, as well as plots of grass sprinkled with fragrant herbs.
Landscaping became even more sophisticated during the Renaissance in Italy, when wealthy people looked back to their Roman ancestors for inspiration for how to create outdoor spaces that celebrated the natural beauty of their surroundings — and impress their friends. The Italian Renaissance Garden had the usual shade trees and vine-covered trellises, as well as fountains and a place to grow herbs, but there was also much more: a “secret garden” within the larger garden, which was a quiet place to read or hold a private conversation; a “sacred grove” filled with statues of animals and mythical creatures; and hidden fountains, which drenched unsuspecting strollers with surprise spurts of water.
By the time of the late Renaissance, France had become the gardening center of the European world. The French favored symmetrical gardens with carefully designed geometric planting beds. Another element, which became popular elsewhere, was the maze, in which the walls of the pathways were composed of carefully clipped vertical hedges.
The most famous example of the French Classical style can be found at the Palace of Versailles. Its celebrated garden, created during the 1600s, was designed to show off the power and wealth of France’s monarch, Louis XIV. But the strict symmetry of the expansive grounds was meant to represent much more — the “enlightened” ideas that were beginning to take hold in Europe and that proclaimed a world where man was now able to dominate and manipulate nature; a world where man, not G-d, was in command.
While many of the ideas of the Enlightenment are unfortunately still with us, the French monarchy’s illusion that it had absolute power came to an abrupt end in the 1790s during the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were sent to the guillotine, along with many French aristocrats.
In the era that followed, a gardening style championed by the English throughout the 1700s, the Landscape Garden, came into vogue on the continent as well. The strict symmetry of the French garden gave way to rolling lawns that might happen upon an artificial lake, a grove of trees, or a gravel-strewn path bordered on either side by a mass of flowers or fragrant rose bushes.
A nod to the past, in the form of a fake Gothic ruin or a picturesque bridge spanning a small stream, completed the effect of an idyllic, informal encounter with nature — which of course took a great deal of wealth and planning to achieve.
The English, who are still known for their love of gardening, continued to develop new styles during the century that followed. The term “Gardenesque Gardens” might sound redundant, but it had a specific meaning during an era when an interest in botanical curiosities, fueled by England’s expanding empire, was at its height. In this sort of garden, small-scale plots of land were landscaped to show off the unique qualities of each plant, tree, or shrub, whether it was pampas grass from South America or a palm tree from the Middle East.
The Cottage Garden had its roots in the humble medieval Vegetable Garden. But in the more affluent 1800s, vegetables and herbs had to share space with more showy flowers and shrubs. In particular, roses — whether in the form of shrubs or climbing roses — became practically synonymous with the old-new, picture-perfect English garden.
The Garden Goes to War
A cucumber can be recognized when it is still a blossom. —Berachos 48a
During both World War I and World War II, a garden’s ability to produce food once again came to the fore. In the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia, people were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens, also known as War Gardens, to supplement their food rations and reduce pressure on their country’s food supply.
Backyards and the rooftops of apartment buildings were turned into vegetable plots, producing beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, and squash. For those who weren’t blessed with a natural green thumb, governments published pamphlets with tips for how to increase productivity, as well as information for how to germinate seeds and fight insect infestation.
Victory Gardens were also seen as a morale-boosting tool, giving people too young or too old to serve in the armed forces the feeling that they, too, were helping the war effort. But the gardens weren’t merely a public relations gimmick. It’s estimated that in 1944, America’s approximately 20 million Victory Gardens produced about eight million tons of food — or about 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States that year.
The Garden, American Style
Said Rabi Shimon: “Every single blade of grass has a corresponding mazel in the sky that strikes it and tells it to grow.”
—Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 10:6
While Catholic Spain wasn’t usually associated with promoting democratic values, in the 16th century, the Spanish introduced the idea of public parks to Europe and the Americas. The idea was to provide a green space where a city’s residents — including workers — could relax and enjoy some fresh air, just as wealthy people did in their privately owned city gardens and country estates. The idea caught on and soon just about every city had its own municipal-sponsored public park.
Immigrants brought a bit of the “old country” to their new home in what would become the United States. For instance, early Dutch settlers brought tulips and other flowers to Manhattan, while English settlers grew apples, pears, and plums in their New England colonies. With time, wealthy Americans created expansive landscaped gardens on their country estates that could compete with any in Europe. But as more and more Americans fled from crowded urban spaces to suburbia, they made their own unique contribution to the history of gardening: the unadorned American lawn.
Grass wasn’t exactly a stranger to the garden. But as anyone who has a lawn knows, grass has to be mowed fairly often. Before the invention of a rudimentary lawn mower in 1830, only the wealthy — who could afford to maintain a team of gardeners — could include an immaculately manicured lawn in their garden design. After the lawn mower was invented, anyone could acquire this status symbol and Americans rushed to obtain their own “green carpet.”
Some garden historians claim it wasn’t just the lawn mower that made Americans as passionate about their lawns as the English are about their roses. Author David Beaulieu, in his article “Brief History of Formal Landscape Design,” comments that “A blade of grass is as boring as the plant world ever gets.” But, he continues, “The whole point behind a lawn, aesthetically speaking, is its uniformity. It should be uniform not only in height but also in composition (no weeds) and in color. The more precision, the better.”
In other words, the lawn is meant to show off the qualities of the person who owns it, rather than the beauty of nature. A well-maintained lawn requires money and time, which makes it a status symbol. And because a well-kept lawn also helps to maintain a community’s real estate value, doing your bit to keep housing prices high shows you are a good neighbor. A lawn therefore successfully combines two American ambitions: strike it rich and remain a good guy in the process.
But despite the attractions of a lawn, we Jews have never forgotten the promises of our neviim and their visions of the perfect garden of the future. As Amos says in 9:14 about the time when Hashem will bring us all back to Eretz Yisrael: “And they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will also make gardens and eat their fruit.”
Off the Garden Path
While food and beauty have traditionally been the main reasons people planted a garden, there are other options for those who’d like to create a green space that’s truly unique.
The Ugly Garden
A decade ago, the Royal Horticultural Society asked readers of a British newspaper this question: “What is the world’s ugliest plant?”
The winner was the corpse flower, which blooms just once in ten years. That’s enough for most people, because when it blooms, the flower emits a scent similar to that of rotting flesh. The distinctive scent attracts carnivorous insects, which pollinate the plant and thereby ensure it receives techiyas hameisim ten years later.
Australian gardener and author Stephen Ryan casts his vote for Welwitschia mirabilis, which, he says, “looks like a messy pile of half dead kelp attached to a bulbous woody trunk that looks like a malignant growth.” But what the plant lacks in beauty, it makes up for in longevity; apparently it can live for more than 2,000 years in its African desert habitat, watered only by condensation from the ocean.
Another candidate for the honor is the stinky squid, a mushroom that develops red, squid-like “arms.” It’s usually found in forests, which people say is just as well, because it also gives off a putrid smell.
And, finally, there’s the elephant’s trunk, a spiky succulent from southern Africa that looks like — you guessed it — the trunk of an elephant.
The Biggest Garden
If size is your goal, you’ve got some serious competition. Currently the titleholder for the world’s largest natural flower garden is the Dubai Miracle Garden, which is 780,000 square feet and has over 50 million flowers and 250 million plants. The garden’s irrigation system uses about 200,000 gallons a day, but it’s wastewater from the city that has been treated and filtered.
One of the highlights is the Butterfly Garden, an indoor sanctuary for some 15,000 butterflies from 26 species. The Miracle Garden also has the world’s largest topiary, which is in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Mickey, who is 59 feet tall and weighs over 30 tons, is joined by other Disney characters, such as Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck.
The Sensory Garden
On a more serious note, sensory gardens are a beautiful way to help people connect with their five senses, including children with autism and elders with dementia.
For sight, plants with different colors and different growth habits — stationary, climbing, bushy, etc. — are often included. The sense of hearing can be experienced through planting rustling grasses, vegetation that attracts bees and birds, or by installing wind chimes or fountains.
When it comes to touch, it’s best to avoid prickly plants such as roses. But, fortunately, the plant world comes in many different shapes and sizes, and its many textures range from silky smooth to rough or rubbery.
From sweet-smelling honeysuckle to licorice-scented anise hyssop to the pungent aroma of thyme, even a small garden can awaken the sense of smell. Edible fruits, vegetables, and herbs can do the same for the sense of taste.
A sensory garden can be as small as a window box — which makes it a perfect natural therapy for anyone who needs to relax and unwind during these stressful days.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 700)
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