April 5, 2013

But Where Are The Gardens?

My garden group has been reading about and discussing garden design. Recently we got talking about how our default assumption is that an ornamental garden is full of flowers, tightly packed and layered with perennials and shrubs, and presented in a curving border.

In other words, an English garden.

All other designs flow from that concept, or defy it in an attempt to update it or to be provocative. But even as modern garden designs dare to do something different, the norm they are escaping is the English border.

As I visit other gardens I don't even realize that I judge all designs from that starting point.

It made me think of the time we visited the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy to see the famous Boboli Garden.

The grand gardens are on a hillside behind the palace, with allees, paths, stone steps, hideaways and open areas twisting among the greenery as you climb. As we entered the courtyard and took in the initial scene, the tourists behind us could be heard saying:

   But where are the gardens?


First of all, I'm a tourist too, so no pretense there. Second, I had the same reaction. Where were the gardens?  Were we supposed to go up the hill to find them at the top?

Of course this was a Renaissance garden, built over centuries beginning in the 1550s. So we knew it would be formal and full of sculpture. There are resources all over the internet to tell you about the palace history, the Medici family, and the lavish style of the garden. But putting all that wonderful history aside, let me give you my impression of the design of the garden, seen through the eyes of an American gardener.

There were no flowers.

That fact alone made us disoriented. The lack of any blooms made us think there was no garden here. The stonework was impressive, and there were gravel drives and open grass and statues and walls, and a lot of greenery, but it didn't fit our concept of what a garden looks like.

Without flowers, where was the garden?

It was in the framed views.
All design in this space was to enhance what could be seen below, either the hills of olive orchards falling away in one direction or the city of Florence in the other. Or looking back from the hillside garden, the majesty of the palace structure itself, just to impress.


It was in the use of light.
In Italy the sun is an element in the garden. The way you enter the garden is up shallow walled steps, through cloistered shade and suddenly into the bold light. Pleached allees of shady trees further up the hill offer coolness, and also a play of dappled light. You walk this garden, you don't just look at it.


It was in the hardscape.
Statuary, of course; lots of it strategically placed against green backdrops. Walls and steps naturally. Stone fountains. Even a simple pool with some potted lemon trees became a beautifully designed space.

I told you I was a tourist.  I make no excuses.
For centuries this kind of walking garden in Europe, with its emphasis on light and shade, the views beyond and the sculpted hardscape within, was the norm. It went through fads and styles, adopting elements from English landscape parks, or becoming less formal. But for a long, long time, Boboli Garden was what grand garden design looked like in western culture.

The flowery herbaceous border full of color did not develop until recently, really only in the 20th century. Yet we now think of it as the norm. While we mow our lawns, hike in the woods, or love to see a prairie expanse, it is flowers and shrubs that define what it means to have an ornamental garden now.

I love the style of my typical American suburban garden, but oh, how travel to another time and place expands our definition of things!

30 comments:

  1. Lauriie,
    interesting story about the traditions and history of the structure of the gardens.
    You are right, the sun and shadow played an important role in the gardens of Italy in the Middle Ages. The flowers can not create enough shade in a hot Italian noon.
    Have a nice weekend!

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    1. Nadezda, there was so much architectural beauty in Florence, that bright colored flowery things would have competed for attention I think.

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  2. This was a fascinating post - what you say is completely correct, of course, but it had never occurred to me before. I've had the identical "tourist" reaction - where are the flowers? I confess I do prefer a flower garden, even though I love the light and architecture here. Just throw in some flowers, already! PS - I love the shot of you and your stone friend.

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    1. Sarah, thanks. We are conditioned to see gardens as mixed borders, and I do the same. Even when I think about differences in design, I am happier looking at my "norm" -- an artfully designed flower bed.

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  3. Laurrie, I like your thoughtful observations, including use of borrowed scenery and the point about light and shadow; that interplay pleases me much more than any bed of flowers ('preciate your unabashed love of flower beds). I only like flowers as transient color accents, whether on shrubs and trees, or perennials and annuals. Lawn? No. Obviously, I didn't get the English gardening gene.

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    1. Lee, yours is one of the few American gardens that has interest and beauty with few flowers, which is why I am always fascinated by it!

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  4. I enjoyed this post, ands so true what our expectations of a garden are! Honestly, for a long time I did not think of my own place as a garden, because I put such emphasis on trees, shrubs and foliage over flowers. It was in my mind, simply my 'yard'. But now I think any outdoor setting that cultivates an experience is a garden.

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    1. Deborah, I had the same feeling when I began planting trees and shrubs --- no garden here, just a yard, I thought. It took me a long time to admit I was gardening.

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  5. We wondered the same thing while we were there! Once we got over our shock I fell in love with the enormous empty pots they had scattered under the trees. It was so beautiful, even without the thrillers fillers and spillers we've come to expect.

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    1. Heather, how fun that you were there too. Florence is a marvel, although overrun with tourists (like me). I really enjoyed it all.

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  6. Very thought provoking post. So true that the English style of gardening became the norm, or goal, of many gardeners in this century. I love garden history, and how the design of gardens have changed over time, and is always changing. For instance, Piet Oudolf may or may not have an impact on design in this century. And I loved your point about sun being a big element in that garden's design. There are many lessons for us to learn! Some of my favorite garden photos are from the old Italian gardens with the water play and grottos - no blooms. But I still want blooms in my own garden!

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    1. HolleyGarden, it will really be interesting to see if the Oudolf naturalistic style has any staying power over the years, and if it comes to define the norm of what a garden is "supposed" to look like.

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  7. So true. You brought up a good point about how we hold all gardens to the standard of an English garden. I like the idea of light and shade elements making up the garden as well. It is always nice to get a different and fresh perspective. Thanks for sharing...love that photo of you!

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    1. Nicole, travel is great for opening up different and fresh perspectives. The photo of me is shameless, but I obviously have no shame : )

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  8. There is a movie called Marie Antoinette that was made about 2 years ago starring Kirsten Dunst. In that movie they are walking around the gardens and those gardens look just like this. I think these are pretty, but I much prefer a garden full of shrubs and flowers! I like the picture of you imitating the statue!!

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    1. Christy, I love the Kirsten Dunst movie, if only for the glorious costumes. The scenery and gardens are amazing too, all so decadent and over the top!

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  9. Interesting post. I admit I have wondered the same thing looking at pictures of the Alhambra, which has flowing water and greenery but not much in the way of blooms. I can appreciate these other styles, but I need color and fragrance in my own garden - and in any garden that is going to get me really swooning. Culturally conditioned or not, that's how I like it.

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    1. Jason, we like what we like, and that's why we garden in the style we do! But it was interesting to examine my own reaction to a completely different style.

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  10. Ha... I don't think of wide open places as gardens. It is amazing what other cultures think of as gardens. A fountain in a courtyard. parterres. It is all beautiful.

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    1. Lisa, I didn't think of my yard, an open space with some plants, as a garden either. It's funny how we have limited our understanding of what a garden is!

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  11. I really like your expansive perspective. But I have to admit I am a sucker for English gardens, the prairies of the American midwest, and Japanese gardens. I think I would have found the gardens at Pitti Palace disappointing. But the last picture is the best. :o)

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    1. Tammy, There is a reason the English garden style has become our norm -- it is very appealing and the home gardener can create it pretty easily at different scales -- no massive statuary or huge garden staff needed!

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  12. I think there's a difference between a landscape and a garden, and that the garden must fit within a landscape when it can. So many designers seem to forget about this.

    I'll be the odd one out and say that the Boboli Gardens don't appeal to me at all. I want a garden I can look into and as well as through, and this one leaves me cold. The rows of citrus in the small pots makes me want to tip one over into the pool to break up the monotony and surely they don't leave those out in summer?? Sorry if I'm being a boor, just my opinion. Could be that if I was there IRL I'd have a completely different opinion.

    I will say that the English garden is my favorite, but there are so many variations within that theme as to be practically endless. I like all the abundance and hum of life that goes with it. There's the cottage garden, which can be almost anything you like and fit anywhere. Just look at the blog Rock Rose. (She's in Texas if you're not already familiar with her blog.)

    Masha at A Rose is a Rose did a beautiful study of a restrained garden, a Japanese Garden. I think restrained can work beautifully but like anything else has to be well done.

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    1. Sweetbay, I laughed at your urge to tip over one of those lemon tree pots! Clunk! Splash : )

      Old European gardens were all about control and order, and the look of it all is difficult for us to comprehend now. I was kind of surprised at my own reaction to it.

      Thanks for the links to other sites to check out!

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  13. Brilliant post Laurrie. While I adored the photos of this italian garden I'm sure I would have found myself looking for a spot of colour as well. A very good idea to look beyond what we see as normal and take in other ideas.

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    1. Marguerite, thanks. Travel expands our concept of "normal" doesn't it!

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  14. Great post to help us see gardens aren't just about the flowers...I love Italy and the lanscapes are stunning with and without the flowers.

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    1. Donna, Italy was so different from my New England world -- not just the gardens, but the old cities and the views and the total landscape!

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  15. I love the memories this post evokes. I was lucky enough to visit the Boboli Gardens the summer after my freshman year in college, 49 years ago (it shocks me to count the years!). So on subsequent visits to the garden, it never even entered my mind to ask where the flowers were. I was so ignorant of gardens at the time, I didn't know what to expect; I anticipated nothing. I was a boy from Mississippi, and I think it's likely those early visits to gardens in Italy were my first garden experiences. I've never thought about this before, so I thank you for the post and for stimulating this insight. By the way, on an early spring visit to the Boboli Gardens about ten years ago, I did find flowers, but not planted flowers. They were wildflowers growing among the grass on a hillside, reminiscent of the flowery meadows and Oudolfesque gardens so popular today.

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    1. James, I am so glad this brought you back, not just to Italy, but to a time when you were a different person and a non-gardener. And so much younger too. Great memories.

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