A garden can be simply and broadly defined: a square or plot of soil, enclosed more often than not by a fence, a wall, or a box, and containing fruit trees, vegetables, or other plants. Gardens range from the miniature (a window box) to the vast (the cultivated grounds at the Palace of Versailles), and can vary from being purely practical to virtually ornamental. However, a cultivated garden is a certain marker of one thing: the presence of human beings, at odds or at harmony with nature.
Gardens are a common theme in poetry, religion, literature, and art. In the Christian Bible, there is the Garden of Eden. From Frances Hodgson Burnett, there is The Secret Garden. Monet painted water lilies from his home garden in Giverny, and Utagawa Hiroshige created woodblock prints of plum trees in blossom in one of the most famous parks in Edo, Japan. Clearly, there is an aspect to gardens and flora that attracts the human mind.
The first evidence of human gardens can be traced back millennia to early Egyptian civilizations. Throughout history and geography, gardens have represented different ideals. To some, the act of gardening is a game played with nature, in which the intentions of man and nature run counter to one another. The shrub branches in wild, unwieldy directions, yet the shears prune away the precocious twigs, until it resembles a perfect sphere, or a tapering cone, or the figure of a dog. The delicate leaves of the common clover or the dandelion unfold, only to be torn away by the anxious hand wishing for an immaculately manicured lawn. Despite this constant exchange of insults, nature and man also cooperate: Mother Nature provides the seeds from which the plants grow, and man carefully selects conditions that protect the seedling and allows it to thrive.
In a more extreme form, gardening entails a rigid display of human design and the bending of nature’s will to a heavy hand. In many large English and French gardens from centuries past, hedges stand to attention in perfect lines, their ranks separated by crisp white lines of gravel or sand. Symmetrical arrangements of brilliantly colored roses wave in the wind like flags and pennants on display. Lawns are hemmed in precise squares and ovals, each blade trimmed to a uniform height. The transient nature of a flower’s beauty can even be transcended, by growing them in the carefully controlled climate of a greenhouse. These gardens seem to boast, admire the beauty I control, attendant to my bidding!
Of course, not all approaches to gardening have been so martial. At the same time that large estates in Western Europe were cultivating the perfectly arranged garden, so too were explorers capturing the wild, exotic beauty of foreign flora in new lands. Glass cases were designed specifically to protect and transport these curious and rare specimens, while displaying them as objects of admiration, if not envy. The richest of collectors built rooms, if not entire buildings, dedicated to these collections of odds and ends from around the globe.
In more modern years, gardening became a symbol of leisure. As suburbs swelled and the affluent middle class emerged in America, so too did the yard, a setting for displaying one’s free time in the currency of pristine lawns, jeweled flowers, and fertile vegetables. The garden can be interpreted as a status symbol, as having a well-kept garden implies that you have the leisure time to tend to it yourself, or the monetary means to hire a few hands to tend to it for you.
In today’s metropolitan cities, gardening has also taken on another meaning. In the midst of dark asphalt roads, steel-caged towers, and gleaming skyscrapers, green space is at a premium. Even a single prickly cactus, perched in solitary on a windowsill painted white, is a stubborn protest against the rigid contours of city life. Some apartment renters choose to rear hardy peace lilies or drought-happy succulents, while other carefully bathe and fertilize more finicky orchids. In some ways, this act of indoor gardening is reminder to heed the gentle call of nature. One might say that the act of observing, watering, and pruning a plant is a reminder to take the time to tend to one’s own body and mind. The act of caring for another being, even one that makes no sound, can bestow a feeling of calm, momentarily buffering the demands that swirl around you.