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Growing a New World

Updated: Mar 28

The Arts and Crafts of Gardening



Victorian Walled Garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Ireland, August 2024.
Victorian Walled Garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Ireland. August 2024.


Arrangements of shapes and space


Imagine yourself resting on a grassy knoll. Weave your fingers through the waxy blades beneath you, still damp with morning dew. Gaze over the landscape at the undulating palette of colors, saturated in a haze of sunlight. Listen to the gentle wind in the trees, birds chirping and bugs buzzing. Take a deep breath and inhale a refreshing blend of herbaceous scents. Perhaps even the sweetness of a freshly picked berry lingers on the buds of your palate.


Life is a multi-sensory experience. As human beings, we express our ideas and respond to the infinite diversity of reality through any combination of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and beyond. Art has the ability to build networks of communication through various media, appealing to our senses on every layer of being. Visual forms of creative expression include painting and drawing; meanwhile, auditory forms include music and ambient noise; tactile forms include sculpture and furniture; olfactory forms include fragrances and incense; gustatory forms include food and beverages; and so on. Gardens holistically bring each of these aspects together; and in doing so, they investigate the nature of reality itself and our place within it.



Meandering paths


Art might well be the defining characteristic of humanity, and nature has always been its primary source of inspiration. Yet, the archaeological record shows that plant domestication developed more recently in human history. Ten thousand years ago, Earth was a different world. As temperatures began to rise after the end of the last Ice Age, different communities of people around the globe learned to cultivate the plants around them for sustenance. Families and clans settled down, and various cultures evolved alongside their ever-changing environments. 


Agriculture as a term derives from the Latin words for the cultivation of fields, while horticulture derives from the words for the cultivation of gardens. Culture and cultivation have interconnected definitions, meaning to care for the land as well as each other. Garden is fundamentally an English word, but it has many cognates in other languages. Meaning also a yard, or even an enclosure, a garden serves as a microcosm for our planet as a whole. In the following chapters, this essay will explore the primeval relationship between gardening and the arts, as well as the fuzzy edges between horticulture, landscape architecture, and rewilding.



A stone pathway through wildflowers in Craggy Gardens, September 2022.
A stone pathway through wildflowers in Craggy Gardens. September 2022.


OLD GROWTH


Ancient people worked collectively to build new societies in the Levant and Mesopotamia, as well as along the fertile plains of the Nile River in Egypt, the Indus Valley in Pakistan, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, the highlands and valleys of Central Mexico, and elsewhere. Knowledge of farming techniques spread across the world, and the surplus in food production meant that social groups had more leisure and the ability to trade with each other. 


Since its invention, horticulture has been central to the arts and crafts. Greek historians like Josephus and Strabo described the mysterious and unparalleled Hanging Gardens of Babylon two thousand years ago, so named because some of the plants there appeared to float above ground. According to legend, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II constructed the Hanging Gardens around 600 BCE for his wife, Queen Amytis, to resemble her Median homeland back in Persia. Contemporaneous relief carvings from the era depict elaborate landscape features, complete with aqueducts for irrigation. Our distant ancestors laid much of this groundwork ages ago.



The "Garden Party" relief depicting Ashurbanipal with his wife. North Palace, Nineveh, c. 645 BCE.
The 'Garden Party' relief depicting Ashurbanipal with his wife, North Palace, Nineveh, c. 645 BCE.

When the Romans invasively spread across the Mediterranean, they changed the landscape forever. Many of the plants now associated with traditional gardens descend from this era, including lavender, rosemary, snapdragons, figs, grapes, and so on. During the 18th century, modern scientists like Carl Linnaeus dug up and reconstructed Latin as the language for plant taxonomy a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. 


Under thickets of overgrown hedges and mounds of decaying matter lie buried histories across the terrain. Ancient sculptures have found ways to claw their way back to the surface after centuries out of sight beneath the garden soil. One such example includes Laocoön and his Sons, a life-size white marble statue excavated from a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Likely chiseled more than two thousand years ago from a single block of stone and placed in the hortus of a Roman villa, it remained hidden from sight until 1506. 


Megalithic earthworks such as Stonehenge preserve an even more ancient type of sculpture garden. Although much of the original structures are lost to time, what features remain still function as portals to the distant past or even other realms. On ringlets of rocky islands in a sea of turf, moss and lichen cling like stubble over weathered rock faces. Sculpture gardens such as these, even without ornamental plants, create new environments where other forms of life find their niche and set root.



The Lion Grove Garden, One of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, China. Designed by Wen Tianru, 1342.
The Lion Grove Garden, One of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, China. Designed by Wen Tianru, 1342.

Persian gardens remain one of the oldest formal styles in the world, tracing their origin back to when the Persian Empire came to assume control of Babylon in 539 BCE. Also known as paradise gardens, each of their manifestations consist of a central pond with four equal quadrants. In the 17th century, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal—as well as himself—surrounded by a lush embrace of gardens in the Persian tradition. While under occupation by the British Empire, colonizers slashed the tropical vegetation in favor of a grassy lawn popular in Victorian England.


Farther east, horticulturalists crafted their own elements of style. Widely grown plants like hollyhocks, camellias, azaleas, and many others can trace their lineage back to these ancient flower beds. With seamless integrations of water, stone, architecture, and vegetation, Chinese gardens embody an artificial ecosystem where people and nature live in harmony. Japanese gardens tend to the existing landscape and have roots in the animist religion known as Shinto, as well as Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. Zen gardens, alternatively called rock gardens or sand gardens, also have their origins in ancient mythology. Gardeners in Japan have shown a mastery of aesthetics for centuries by cultivating moss and shaping trees into wild sculptural forms. 


Indigenous people have long managed the land, propagating a variety of native flora and agricultural crops for the mutual benefit of all. Maize (often referred to by the general term corn), gourds (including squash and pumpkins), potatoes, tomatoes, and other produce sustained Native Americans for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans. In what is now Mexico, people cultivated dahlias for their showy blossoms and edible tubers; while in the Andes Mountains of South America, people cultivated fuchsia and other flowers. In the Appalachian Mountains, ancient forests of oak and rhododendron grow on the ashes of human-controlled fires.


Many of our ancestors shared an appreciation for designing massive earthworks. Serpent Mound, located in what is currently Ohio, slithers over grassy knolls along the bank of the Ohio Brush Creek. Archaeologists believe the Adena and Hopewell peoples began to create this feature over two thousand years ago as a form of celestial calendar. Far out in the rugged terrain of what is currently Wyoming lies another site with ancient astronomical alignments known as the Great Medicine Wheel. Like the stone circles of Europe or the dry gardens of Asia, these great works of environmental art have forever changed their landscapes.



Serpent Mound near present-day Peebles, Ohio.
Serpent Mound near present-day Peebles, Ohio.



SACRED GROUND

Given the potential for certain plants to lend themselves as nourishment or medicine, they also contain powerful religious symbolism. From an animist perspective, every species and every individual being has a unique spirit—as do the rocks, soil, water, and air.


According to Norse cosmology, Midgard, or Middle-Earth, is the terrestrial plane on which humans dwell. Of the nine realms, Midgard functions as a focal point, bringing together both heavenly and netherworld regions. Various other beings inhabit the higher and lower realms, including elves and dwarves. Garden variety gnomes relate to this worldview in which elemental nature spirits coexist with humans in parallel dimensions. Now, they appear in statuary forms to offer interest and whimsy.


In the Roman Pagan pantheon, Ceres is the goddess of agriculture (known as Demeter in the Greek pantheon). Her daughter Proserpine (or Persephone) is the goddess of seasonal change as well as the harvest, while Flora is the goddess of flowers. Pomegranates are sacred to Proserpine, while apples are sacred to Venus (Aphrodite), goddess of love and fertility. In the legendary Garden of the Hesperides grow trees that bear golden apples—which are sacred to Eris, goddess of chaos. Diana (Artemis) looks after the wilderness and all its creatures; and since horticulture promotes an intimate relationship between humanity and nature, her significance appears most relevant. All of these figures still exist in literature, paintings, sculptures, and they each live on especially in our gardens.



The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510. Museo del Prado.

Even in Christianity, plants hold as much spiritual significance as they do in Pagan traditions. According to the Biblical story of Genesis, Earth itself was the first garden: the Garden of Eden. From this Earthly Paradise grew the sacred but profane Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which bore the Forbidden Fruit. Satan, an evil spirit in the form of a serpent, tempted Eve to consume the flesh of the fruit. In doing so, she allegedly condemned humanity to an eternity of sin while gaining the power of free will.


As with ancient Pagan sites of worship, a curation of foliage often surrounded medieval churches and cemeteries. Monasteries where monks congregated to live in servitude were typically built around a lush courtyard. These cloisters provided a protected and serene environment to contemplate spirituality, while providing necessary sustenance for their community. 


Graveyards blur the boundaries between life and death, a liminal plane where trees tower over the buried souls of the departed while their roots form interconnected webs in the underworld. Relatives visit to lay flowers and other offerings to their ancestors, while groundskeepers often take care of the landscaping. Despite the false stereotype that Christians bury their dead and Pagans burn them, it appears evident that the careful alignment of headstones with the rising of the Sun draws a clear connection to sites like Stonehenge—which also serve as mass burial grounds.


With pointed arches and vaulted ceilings, Gothic architecture imitates the grandeur of a forest canopy. Towering limestone columns resemble the vertical trunks of trees, while stained glass windows filter light as though it were passing through translucent leaves. Modern industrial cities likewise resemble a forest, or even a network of cliff dwellings, and in many ways the concrete jungle mimics the structures of nature. Architects have worked alongside landscapers since antiquity, sharing a foundation in the manipulation of space on the terrestrial plane. Gardens have a mutual relationship with architecture. Cities can only exist because of gardens, which provide nutritional, medicinal, therapeutic, and ecological value.



Detail from The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495-1505. The Metropolitan Musuem.
Detail from The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495-1505. The Metropolitan Musuem.


THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS


Hagiography—also known as floriography (the Language of Flowers)—developed as a form of communication through foliage, especially in works of art. Decorative motifs and marginalia in books often correspond to the text with deep meaning. Medieval manuscripts, like the 10th century Old English Herbarium as well as Leechbook, contain illuminating glimpses at herbal knowledge and lore from different regions of the past. Scientific herbaria that catalog the unique properties of different species with botanical illustrations once resembled grimoires of cryptic lore—as with the infamous 14th century Voynich manuscript. 


Artists and botanists have also cut foliage and pressed it between the pages of books to preserve it for the ages. Known as oshibana in Japan, the art of pressing flowers and arranging them into compositions might be the earliest form of collage.


At home, most families in feudal societies had access to a small parcel of land adjacent to their cottage or other dwelling to cultivate for their daily needs. Before the concept of private property, people understood the land itself to be held in common: shared by all creatures. Over the centuries, feudal governments enclosed swathes of territory to exploit the natural resources and deprive common folk of their livelihood. As a result, garden walls became physical borders between parcels of private land. In the name of privacy, they sever a place from its natural environment.


Herbal medicine has prehistoric origins, yet beginning in the 13th century it began to face violent persecution. During a dark period called the Inquisition, Christian religious leaders cast herbalists and many others as devil worshippers, likely because their practices related to a Pagan perspective. Silvia Federici writes about this in depth in her book Caliban and the Witch. Oppression against women led to an eradication of traditional knowledge and paved the way for a society based on the fear of incarceration and the terror of religious extremism.



Daffodils along the poison path of Mallow Rose Cottage garden, March 2024.
Daffodils along the poison path of Mallow Rose Cottage garden. March 2024.

Christopher Columbus did not discover a New World, but he did initiate a destructive period of invasion and colonization far more extensive than the Roman Empire had ever imagined. Imperial governments from Europe ravaged the planet, committing genocide on a scale never seen before. As a result of the so-called Columbian Exchange, various plants and animals moved from continent to continent. Amidst the turmoil, people living in colonial societies gained access to exotic produce and the potential to birth a new world of gardening. 


Tomatoes became an essential ingredient in Italian cuisine, while potatoes found their way into the Irish diet and elsewhere. Under occupation by the British Empire, most of the agricultural produce grown by Irish farmers went directly to England under armed guard. When the potato blight ravaged the farmlands from 1845 to 1852, the native population starved in a famine manufactured by the United Kingdom. Having the ability to grow our own food at home remains vital to survival. 



Sunset over the Gardens of Versailles, photo by Thomas Garnier, June 2023.
Sunset over the Gardens of Versailles. Photo by Thomas Garnier, June 2023.

Enriched by the plunder of distant lands, European monarchs built grandiose palaces in the idyllic countryside reminiscent of their ancient Roman predecessors. None quite compare in opulence to the expansive gardens of Versailles, commissioned by the French King Louis XIV in 1661. Designed in a Baroque style by André le Nôtre, the Palace of Versailles seems minuscule within the two thousand acres of landscaping around it, which were once a forest and the royal hunting grounds. 


Just over a century later, the American Revolution inspired the people of France to rise up in revolt against their gluttonous monarchy. Now, the general public can wander the grounds of Versailles for inspiration and contemplation. Such a grandiose fascination with ornamental exhibitions of foliage, integrated with architectural and sculptural features, prepared the soil for the evolution of botanical gardens.



Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, October 2022.
Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, October 2022.

Only a decade after the French Revolution began in 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor. Having no doubt seen his share of death, he declared that all people have a right to proper interment. As a result, he commissioned Alexander-Théodore Brongiart to design the expansive Père Lachaise Cemetery for the ever-growing population of Paris. Aware of the flourishing English garden movement, Brongiart designed the secular cemetery as a naturalistic park with intersecting curvilinear paths to meander around the scenery.


As the power of Christianity waned, more and more people began to bury their dead outside of church grounds. Père Lachaise inspired an intercontinental movement in landscape design. Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, founded by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831, represents the earliest such example on Turtle Island. Now, just about every city on the continent has their own garden cemetery.



Birds Nest, Apple Blossom and Primroses by William Henry Hunt, 1840s.
Birds Nest, Apple Blossom and Primroses by William Henry Hunt, 1840s.


PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY


As the feudal system gave way to capitalism and industrial society, many people abandoned their agricultural livelihood for a job in the mercantile class. Cottage gardens became a Romanticized aesthetic as people grew less of their own food, with exotic blossoms imported from abroad taking the place of vegetables in home gardens. During this era, the concept of landscaping and landscape architecture began to take on a more extravagant form than a domestic garden. Those with the financial advantage to acquire land and hire outside labor therefore had the ability to create pleasure gardens similar to those enjoyed by the aristocracy. 


Versailles had one of the first orangeries in the world, where citrus and other tropical plants growing in containers could be protected indoors during the winter months. Industrial technology eventually allowed for easier production of steel as well as the invention of plate glass. Gardeners quickly realized the potential for greenhouses to capture heat and grow plants otherwise suited for more tropical regions. 


Back across the English Channel, another expansive project was underway. King Edward I originally moved his court to a manor house in Richmond back in 1299, setting down the first roots there more than 700 years ago. Over the centuries, it grew into a palatial estate and the headquarters for the Royal Horticultural Society. Kew Gardens became a public botanical garden in 1840 during the reign of Queen Victoria. Its first director, William Jackson Hooker, expanded the landscaping around Richmond Palace to create the largest botanical garden in the world. 


By the mid-19th century, the medieval language of flowers came back as part of a wider Gothic revival among the Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist, and Decadent artists. In 1857, Charles Baudelaire composed a book of poetry called Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), inspired by the Gothic literature of Edgar Allan Poe. Written amidst the renovation of Paris by Baron Haussman—during a period in French history known as the Second Empire—Les Fleurs du mal elucidates the enduring strife to find beauty and mystery in a world ravaged by modern society. 



Des Glaneuses (The Gleaners) by Jean-Francois Millet. Etching on chine collé, 1856.
Des Glaneuses (The Gleaners) by Jean-Francois Millet. Etching, 1856. Met Museum of Art.

That same year, Jean-François Millet painted a more bleak yet realistic image of modern life. Des glaneuses (The Gleaners) honors the increasingly impoverished working class. In this painting he depicts three women gleaning wheat fields after harvest for any scraps left behind, so they can grind it into flour and make bread for their families at home. Instead of a verdant farm bustling with life, Millet transports the viewer to an apocalyptic wasteland. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto less than a decade earlier in late February 1848, and on the following day, France descended into political revolution yet again. Millet aligned himself with the socialist cause and sought to combat the destructive nature of capitalism through art for the rest of his life. 



Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the grass) by Edouard Manet, 1863.
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) by Edouard Manet, 1863.

Considered by many art historians to be the progenitor of Modernism, Edouard Manet shocked the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1863 with his painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). A nude woman sitting in a woodland stares at the viewer, while another woman bathes in the river behind her. Beside her sit two men, fully clothed, as well as a picnic basket overflowing with food. In this naked lunch, Manet references the Greek land of Arcadia idealized by Renaissance artists as a wilderness paradise. Gardens not only link humanity with the natural world, they also transcend time and space to link humanity with the divine.


Victorian polymath William Morris praised ancient and medieval art in his works, which drew out the blueprints for the Arts and Crafts movement. He worked together with Philip Webb to build Red House in Bexleyheath (southeast London) to serve as their base of operations from 1859 until 1865. At this Gothic manor in the English countryside, he collaborated with artists like Jane Burden and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to bring the Arts and Crafts back together so they could inspire people to live more harmoniously with nature. These intentions extend beyond the brick walls of the house itself and into the garden, which grounds the site within a certain time and place.



Irises by Vincent van Gogh, 1890.
Irises by Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

Vincent van Gogh found therapeutic benefits in painting flowers, gardens, orchards, agricultural fields, and other related subjects. Even in his earlier, more political works like The Potato Eaters from 1885, van Gogh engages with the nourishing power of plants for human livelihood. As an artist who struggled to cope financially as well as psychologically in the modern world, he no doubt understood the implications of class politics, colonization, and cross-pollination of culture such an image represents. 


From the allegorical poetry of Baudelaire to the groundbreaking paintings of Manet, to the cut-and-paste collages of Hannah Höch and the world-building literature of J. R. R. Tolkien, the most celebrated works of Modernist art take inspiration from nature and its gardens. Claude Monet, whose brushwork birthed the Impressionist movement, even stated that his gardens at Giverny were his most beautiful masterpiece


Artists like Monet were quick to understand how photography helps to preserve and document every fleeting moment. Some of the earliest photographic processes originate from botanical studies, as with the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.



Two cyanotypes from British and Foreign Ferns by Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, 1853.
Two cyanotypes from British and Foreign Ferns by Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, 1853.




YESTERDAY, TODAY, and TOMORROW


Nostalgia for an agrarian lifestyle never quite died back with the advancement of technology. Writers like Lewis Carroll (born as Charles Dodson), Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, and Francis Hodgson Burnett imagined parallel worlds through which all people, especially children, can understand the lives of other creatures living around us. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (first published in 1865) elevated the fairy tale genre to a higher realm of literature. The Wind in the Willows (written by Grahame in 1908) and The Tale of Peter Rabbit (written by Potter in 1902) delve even deeper into the creative potential for gardens to reveal hidden, neglected aspects of humanity. The Secret Garden, published as a series during the winter of 1910 and 1911, explores the intersections of colonization, class, race, gender, psychology, aesthetics, and environmentalism through a captivating story written just as much for children as for their parents.


Gardens provide the background for much of our carefree youth; yet, landscapers often do not consider these layers of complexity. As children we play outside, sipping on honeysuckle nectar, inspecting minuscule realms between the foliage, and keeping watch for venomous serpents slithering in the hedges. If only every season could last forever in the garden, but they are each illusions of eternal life. 


Blessed are those who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. Hyacinthe Loyson, an excommunicated French priest who is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, first delivered these sentiments as part of a sermon in 1866. Growing a garden cultivates hope for the future and manifests the promise of a better tomorrow.



'The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies' (page 23) by Beatrix Potter, 1909. Frederick Warne & Co.
'The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies' (page 23) by Beatrix Potter, 1909. Frederick Warne & Co.

Industrial technology fundamentally changed global society, from the ways we grow our food to the ways we communicate. Plantations took the place of small farms, while the lower classes lost more of their access to the basic necessities of life. As the children of wealthy parents played in gardens, children of working-class parents went to work in the fields or the factories. 


As the world descended into war at the turn of the 20th century, bourgeoise governments like the United States encouraged their citizens to grow crops in their yards to sustain themselves so that agricultural produce could go directly to feeding troops engaged in combat overseas. These so-called Victory Gardens were supposed to feed morale in an otherwise bleak reality.



A group of people cutting lettuce in Salinas, California, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.
A group of people cutting lettuce in Salinas, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

After the stock market crash of 1928, the failures of capitalism led people to once again grow their own food at home. At the same time, destructive land management led to a widespread ecological collapse. Invasive kudzu vines choked out native vegetation across Southeastern North America, while industrial agriculture depleted aquifers across the central part of the continent. In the Dust Bowl, vast swathes of territory became uninhabitable. Crops dried out, livestock died, wildlife fled, and an ever-present powder blew over the landscape for nearly a decade. People whose ancestors colonized the landscape and left it a waste now became environmental refugees.


It was in this climate of catastrophe that J. R. R. Tolkien conceived of his vast legendarium. A veteran of the first World War turned professor of medieval history, Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937 to widespread acclaim. Under the familiar guise of yet another story for children, he built an entire imaginary world populated by mythological beings: hobbits, known for their fondness of anything that grows, elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, trolls, along with us humans. Tolkien expands even more in The Lord of the Rings, published in three installments from 1954 to 1955. He called this land Middle Earth, based on his education in European mythology. 


Artists have always ventured out into the wilderness to find new ways of bringing us closer with nature. In the essay ‘One Place After Another,’ Miwon Kwon writes about the ability for site-specific art installations to define the cultural perceptions of a certain place. From 1965 to 1978, Alan Sonfist planted a forest of native plants at the corner of West Houston Street and LaGuardia Place in New York City as part of his Time Landscape. Similarly, Joseph Beuys planted 7000 oak trees across the German town of Kassel from 1982 until his death in 1986 to combat urbanization. Like some kind of post-modern Johnny Appleseed, both artists sought to rewild these growing metropolitan areas for the benefit of those living there. 


Ana Mendieta, who was tragically murdered in 1985, situated herself within the landscape in her Silueta series. Digging out female figures in the dirt or even painting herself with mud and grass, Mendieta channeled the ancient divinity of nature into these haunting photographs. In her artworks, she expressed that the human body, especially the feminine, is just as natural, native, and beautiful as a tree or a river. 


Along a similar path, Andy Goldsworthy began to create his own forms of outdoor ephemeral sculptures. With precarious cairns of rocks, ice, twigs, and other found materials, his creations seem to defy physics and thus appear like magic. Perhaps they actually do possess supernatural qualities, in the sense that all art is magic. His documentation with a camera preserves them for eternity—or at least for as long as our technology will allow. 



Hodgepodge by Patrick Dougherty. Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, Vail, Colorado. 2019.
Hodgepodge by Patrick Dougherty. Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, Vail, Colorado. 2019.

Maya Lin has established a storied career as an artist and landscape architect ever since her commission for the minimal yet monumental Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. In the tradition of megalithic earthworks of ages past, her memorial pays homage to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in a manner that communicates with the surrounding terrain. 


Some other artists use sustainable materials to construct site-specific installations. Patrick Dougherty and his team of assistants weave countless willow branches into immersive structures planted in the ground. Botanical gardens around the world have commissioned him to design stickworks unique to their landscape. Swirling to form arches, doorways, windows, and rooms, these branches quite literally bridge connections between humanity and nature, twisting over the flexible boundaries between us. 


In the present, many people living in urban environments have access to a botanical garden. Unlike public parks, these urban oases usually depend on fundraising, charitable donations, and entrance fees. Higher levels of funding allow such organizations to employ horticultural experts who can manage the collection. Botanical gardens often cultivate a range of styles into their landscapes, with curated outdoor exhibitions that blur the edges between art and science. 


Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, green spaces took on greater significance as sanctuaries of tranquility, fresh air, and nourishment. Yet even before this outbreak of disease encouraged more people to seek out healthy hobbies, contemporary artists experimented with gardening as a creative outlet as much as a well of inspiration. Derek Jarman moved to Prospect Cottage in 1986, where he found sanctuary amid the coastal countryside of Dungeness during his final years of suffering with HIV/AIDS. Prospect Cottage has since become a pilgrimage site for other artists to appreciate his enduring impression on the landscape.



Prospect Cottage, home of Derek Jarman until his death in 1994. Photo by Howard Sooley.
Prospect Cottage, home of Derek Jarman until his death in 1994. Photo by Howard Sooley.


Garden theory


Planting seeds is no simple act. Billions of years have led up to that moment. Gardens can dig up buried histories and enliven the complexities of human nature. Gardening also has the ability to weather a range of criticism. Through aesthetics and deconstruction, psychoanalysis and gender studies, Indigenous knowledge and environmental conservation, class struggle and racial justice, the garden becomes a wonderland of inspiration.



FUNDAMENTALS OF THE CRAFT


Plants have always been a physical source of creative material, from their roots to their bark to their leaves and everything in between. People have discovered ingenious ways to make pigments for paint, fibers for weaving, pulp for paper, reeds for music, and countless other media. Even their scents inspire people to adorn themselves in floral aromas, with perfumes sold in tiny containers which have an art history of their own. 


As with other forms of art, gardening involves the use of certain materials, tools, and processes. Sketching with pencil and paper remains a critical aspect of design, research, and planning. Just like a painting, under any garden lies the ground. Dirt, in its myriad forms—detritus and mulch, sand and gravel, loam and clay—all provide the terrain from which to grow. Not every garden is static, however; pots and other containers allow for mobility. Still, with all the equipment available to gardeners in the present, no tool compares to human hands. 



Garden tools of the Victorian Walled Garden at Kylemore Abbey, Ireland.
Garden tools of the Victorian Walled Garden at Kylemore Abbey, Ireland.

Each of the formal elements and principles of design apply to the horticultural field. We experience gardens through a combination of lines, shapes, forms, colors, textures, spaces, and layers. Through pattern, contrast, emphasis, balance, proportion, harmony, rhythm, movement, and beyond, gardeners engage with artful approaches to altering the landscape. 


Gardening as a practice extends far beyond the physical realm. Whether managing local ecology, germinating seeds, propagating new plants, arranging bouquets, pressing foliage, making wreaths or garland, all of these arts and crafts intersect with horticulture.



Cut daffodils at Mallow Rose Cottage, March 2024.
Cut daffodils at Mallow Rose Cottage, March 2024.


REWILDING OURSELVES


Nature and humanity are not mutually exclusive. We as humans will never escape the wilderness around us, even if we can survive on another planet. Humans are not even the only species to radically transform our ecosystems. Squirrels, birds, and other animals scatter seeds across the globe. Beavers saw down trees to build their homes and dams along flowing water, creating new wetland environments. Many of our fellow creatures increase biodiversity in their habitats. By learning from them, so can we.


In contrast, clear-cutting a forest—or enclosing a parcel of land with fences—represents an attack against nature. Under a capitalist system, real estate developers mow down ancient woodlands and deplete desert aquifers to construct homes surrounded by turf or exotic plants. Amidst widespread ecological devastation driven by the ongoing greed for endless growth, a diversity of tactics can help to heal the wounds. Rewilding lawns with native plants instead of a monoculture of grass produces a cascading benefit to local ecology. Before labeling anything a weed, consider its native habitat and the history behind what led it there. 


Gardens allow entire communities to thrive within a wider ecosystem. Flowers attract pollinating insects, birds, and mammals. Lush foliage allows animals to take refuge or make a home that is close to their source of food. Underground, plant roots link with a mycorrhizal network of fungi to pass nutrients and probably even communicate. Managing any garden, no matter how small, likewise employs a team of people.



Grovewood Village, Asheville, October 2023.
Grovewood Village, Asheville. October 2023.


OVER THE GARDEN WALL


Aesthetics no doubt play a huge role in the garden. Every place on Earth has a unique combination of terrain, weather, and other climatic factors specific to that ecoregion. Where a garden exists also reveals much about class and social dynamics of that place. Formality implies a level of planning, maintenance, and space that many people do not have access to at home. 


Many styles of gardening have thus emerged over the centuries. Contemporary cottage gardens harken back to the medieval era, with their lush and lawless growth; however, they also now incorporate exotic flora and hybrids that are fit to survive in particular locations. Country gardens usually have more room, more lawn, and more organization, but they are not as elaborate as a Baroque palace or Roman villa. Natural gardens exist within a larger environment, such as a forest or a desert, with a primary focus on native species and supporting the local ecosystem. 


Other styles include minimalist gardens, bonsai gardens, topiary gardens, moss gardens, and many more. When access to land is limited, gardens can be grown in pots—inside or outside. Some garden spaces may actually have little to no plants at all, as with stone gardens and sculpture gardens.



Alice with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, illustration by John Tenniel, 1865. Macmillan.
Alice with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, illustration by John Tenniel, 1865. Macmillan.


DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE


Gardens provide an immeasurable blessing to humankind and wildlife in general. They exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, as well as helping to clean up the mess of industrial toxins in the atmosphere. Caring for them involves varying levels of physical activity and can also be therapeutic, with endless meditative tasks such as weeding to get lost in. 


Within the structure of their DNA, plants contain psychological symbolism. It was no accident that Lewis Carroll based Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass around a gardenscape. Going down the rabbit hole, Alice shrinks to the size of a flower herself. In this world she encounters an outdoor tea party, a talking caterpillar atop a magic mushroom, and a courtyard of hand-painted roses. Carroll captures the botanical fascinations of Victorian England by transporting the reader into this surreal and animist multiverse.


Artists like Georgia O’Keeffe have also gazed into the deeper meaning of floral forms. Although she herself denied their associations with human anatomy, many have seen analogous shapes in the fleshy folds of her flower petals. During the era in which O’Keeffe grew up, Sigmund Freud cultivated the field of psychology with his perspectives on the unconscious mind and sexual repression. Other writers like Simone de Beauvoir have since fairly criticized Freud for his misogyny, or phallocentrism, as well as his drug abuse. When the Dole Food Company paid O’Keeffe to travel to Hawaii and produce a painting to use as part of an advertisement for their products, she spent much of her stipend painting flowers instead of pineapples.


Naturally, the botanical field contains many analogies of what it means to be human. Binary definitions of gender fall apart in relation to plant anatomy. Most blossoming plants contain all the necessary components for reproduction in their flowers or cones. Monoecious plants have both male and female flowers or cones on each individual. Among the monoecious plants, some are bisexual, androgynous, or hermaphroditic (meaning they have both stamens and pistils) and some are unisexual (meaning they have either stamens or pistils). Dioecious plants have either male or female organs on each individual, and they are always unisexual (with stamens or carpels, instead of pistils). Reproductive morphology can even change over time with evolution and artificial selection.



Hibiscus with Plumeria by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939.
Hibiscus with Plumeria by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939.


LAND BACK


Any discussion about the landscape is incomplete without consideration for historical and cultural context. Indigenous people have managed ecosystems for countless generations, learning various techniques of tending the wilderness for the benefit of all; meanwhile, colonizing settlers uprooted foreign cultures to extract the natural resources around them. 


Palestine—considered by many to be the cradle of civilization—is another territory once exploited by the British Empire, from 1918 (when the Ottoman Empire collapsed following the First World War) until 1948 (when the newly formed United Nations allowed Zionist Jews to claim their own sovereign state following the Second World War). Israeli occupation forces have since chopped down many ancient groves of olive trees, decimated local farms, and bombarded community gardens in their bloodthirsty pursuit of a Jewish ethno-state. By depriving the native inhabitants of food, destroying their economic system, and erasing their cultural legacy, the Israeli government has committed egregious acts of genocide in line with their colonial predecessors (the UK as well as the US). 


Colonization and the dispossession of native land has caused immeasurable damage around the world. As a result, the stereotypical turf lawn globally represents an erasure and whitewashing of native ecological stewardship. In the aftermath of devastating fires on the island of Maui—which destroyed the Indigenous Hawaiian capital of Lahaina—evidence shows a combination of climate change, invasive grasses, and industrial technology all combined into a raging inferno.


Gardening itself has perpetuated colonial systems of resource extraction, erasure of Indigenous people, and homogenization of the cultural landscape. Horticulture has long been the work of the lower classes, including peasants, indentured servants, and enslaved people. By taking back power into our own hands, gardens have the potential to liberate humankind from the deadly clutches of racism, capitalism, and colonization.



Pear blossoms at Mallow Rose Cottage, March 2024.
Pear blossoms at Mallow Rose Cottage. March 2024.


Gateway to the Otherworld


I moved to Mallow Rose Cottage at an uncertain time in my life, very much in need of healing. I felt like I had gotten lost down the rabbit hole and was clawing my own way out of the darkness. Upon first walking past the chain-link gate of its split-rail fence, I knew I would make this place a home. With a red door and green-gray coat, it sits like an old cat on the northeast corner of an urban three-way intersection. Resting upon a foothill of the Black Mountains, the highest peaks in eastern North America, this modest house has well over 120 years of gardening history. 


Mallow Rose Cottage was built in 1905 on ancestral Cherokee territory, as the city of Asheville experienced a rapid growth in population from the Gilded Age of the 1890s until the Great Depression of the 1930s. It displays clear inspiration of the Arts and Crafts movement in its style of carpentry and millwork, both exterior and interior, as well as its original working class context. Much like today, people came to Appalachia from all over the world to enjoy the mild climate and spectacular scenery. 


Less than a decade after this house was built, pharmaceutical tycoon Edwin Wiley Grove commissioned the nearby Grove Park Inn as a lodge for the rich and famous—from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Barack Obama. Under the management of his son-in-law Fred Seely, the Grove Park Inn filled their halls and rooms with hand-crafted furniture made by the Roycroft guild of artisans. Over the next several years, Seely also constructed a series of medieval-inspired buildings adjacent to the hotel known as Grovewood Village to house the weaving and wood-working industry of Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance. In the present, Grovewood Village remains a thriving center of Arts and Crafts. Along with an Antique Car Museum and Homespun Museum, which catalogs the history of the site, it also boasts the expansive Grovewood Gallery and sculpture garden.



Poppy and chamomile at Mallow Rose Cottage, July 2023.
Poppy and chamomile at Mallow Rose Cottage. July 2023.

I feel like I was drawn here by forces beyond my comprehension, and I would like to think that the first people to live at Mallow Rose Cottage had some connection to Grovewood as I do. Both places have allowed me the space and time to grow, enlivened me with hope, and surrounded me with the beauty of human nature. 


Ever since moving here, I have made this yard my canvas. With several dozen bags of fresh dirt and mulch, I painted the lawn black and filled it with an assortment of flora. With a focus on renovating the antique garden and rewilding the landscape, I propagated a variety of native and traditional plants—some from seed and some acquired from local nurseries. For now the garden at Mallow Rose Cottage remains my own most beautiful masterpiece, even while I continue to learn and experiment. One place after another, I will leave this planet in a better condition than I found it. 


Gardens are the most holistic of all art forms. They form a bridge between worlds by appealing to all of our senses: harkened by an orchestra of insects and birdsong, bedecked with a spectrum of color, infused with an aromatic blend, and skewered with nourishing delicacies. These spaces are interdimensional, rising from underground to heights beyond our comprehension. They evolve across time, bursting from the singularity of a seed into a constantly changing multiverse, simultaneously eternal and in decay.




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