Traditional herb gardens are testaments to an enduring principle of garden design: the more formal the structure of a garden, the more informal the planting it will support. Traditional herb gardens are often very courtly in design and rivaled only by ceremonious parterres in structural complexity. Herbs planted in knot designs, enclosures of clipped box hedges, symmetrical paths, and elaborate stonework are some of the hallmarks of traditional herb gardens.
The earliest known herb gardens were tended near Egyptian temples about 4000 b.c. We know about them primarily through inscriptions from temples and tombs, although more concrete evidence of their design also survives. During the reign of the pharaohs, high walls around the herb garden ensured privacy and kept the surrounding desert at bay.
Egyptian high culture favored geometric gardens, perhaps as much out of necessity as stylistic preference. The gardens were laid out following rectangular irrigation grids fed by slaves using shadûf, cantilevered booms still used in the region for transferring water from canals to irrigation ditches. Space was also at a premium —just as it is in many urban gardens today—and the geometric layout afforded efficiency.
Today’s gardeners would recognize many of the plants that flourished in ancient Egyptian gardens—lilies, poppies, and cornflowers; figs, apples, almonds, and pomegranates; and rosemary, rue, thyme, fenugreek, marjoram, basil, and peppermint, to name just a few. Larger gardens also contained pools stocked with fish and lotus, sweet flag, and papyrus.
It’s no surprise that Mark Antony and Cleopatra were lovers, as the Romans were fond of all things Egyptian, including their herbal and gardening traditions. Rapidly assimilated, these practices survived the Fall of Rome and influenced European gardens, particularly the “physic” gardens originally associated with monasteries. Planted within monastery walls, these gardens provided “simples,” single-plant formulas, for culinary and medical purposes and included vegetables, and fruit and nut trees as well as herbs.
The earliest European garden plan, dating from a.d. 820, is from the monastery of St. Gall in present-day Switzerland. The sixteen beds of the herb garden were near the doctor’s house and included lilies and roses. Like most other early herb gardens, the beds were designed so that the plants could be tended without stepping into the beds. During that time, such apothecary gardens usually offered more than medicinal herbs; many were adorned with decorative ponds, fountains, and ornamental plants in containers.
Monastic gardens also reflected the tradition of preserving and expanding knowledge. In addition to their immediate function of providing a ready supply of herbs, they housed specimens of unusual plants. As teaching gardens, they were used to pass herbal knowledge from one generation of monks to the next.
Medieval Christianity, intent upon imposing order on the natural world, used garden design to mirror the perceived order of Heaven and Earth, just as its architecture strove to mimic the order of the universe in the wood and stone of cathedrals and churches. In the formal physic garden, disciplining the horticultural realm to well-ordered rhythm, harmony, and repetition became passionate pursuits for the monks who tended them. These early physic gardens are the stylistic forerunners of today’s formal herb gardens.
Although Egyptian Coptic Christians continued the herbal traditions of pharaonic times, Islamic scholars recorded and thus preserved these practices. During the Middle Ages, Islamic methods of scientific inquiry were the most advanced in the world; to their own locally derived herbal knowledge, they added what they learned from the Greeks. Islamic garden design echoed many practices of the ancient Egyptians: enclosed gardens, where cool water flowed, included formal combinations of fruit trees and beautiful flowers. Hedges of myrtle (Myrtus communis) accentuated the geometric design.
The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 aroused European awareness of Eastern traditions. Greek scholars fleeing to Europe brought along knowledge of the Greek language and Middle Eastern culture—including gardening. The geometric patterns common to Islamic architecture and gardens stirred great interest, which culminated in the development of herbal knot gardens, first recorded in Europe in the late fifteenth century. Increasing migration throughout Europe and exploration of other continents also expanded the variety of herbs and knowledge of their uses. By 1573, Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry listed more than 130 herbs essential to the home herb garden.
Modern herb garden design pays homage to the past in several ways. A geometric grid usually defines the garden. Because many herb gardens of days past were positioned within courtyards or walled areas, the boundary was rectangular. Dividing the garden into workable plots, first a convenience, became an art. Simple squares and circles, which can be overlaid and combined in nearly endless ways, have traditionally defined both planting areas and walkways.
Many formal herb gardens rely on a central axis to provide symmetry and harmony. The point at which paths bisect the center of the garden is often marked by a visual focal point such as a statue or a pool. In my view, the best of these ornaments are usually the simplest.
The materials that harmonize with an herb garden setting include wood, stone, lead, terra cotta, and other earthy materials. Even concrete eventually takes on a weathered patina that suits an outdoor setting.
Backdrops can reinforce the garden’s formal geometric structure. Walls or fences of stone, brick, or wood as well as clipped hedging have long served as a uniform background to herbs. Fruit trees, a component of monastic and kitchen gardens, fit in both historically and aesthetically when espaliered against walls. In the absence of a supporting wall, the branches of espaliered fruit trees have been woven together to form a living fence. More than a design device, the carefully pruned trees stay a manageable size so that the fruit may be easily picked.
Today’s herb gardens may reflect regional influences as well as ancient traditions. A Mediterranean-style courtyard can create an oasis for herbs and gardeners in the arid Southwest, where adobe or plaster walls, red tile, and trickling tile fountains recall the influence of Spanish colonists. Elsewhere, the no-nonsense plan of German foursquare gardens is often echoed: four equal beds that put vegetables and herbs within reach of the intersecting paths. This plan harks back to medieval monastic gardens but suits midwestern clapboard farmhouses just as well.
Handsome old dry-stacked stone walls—gold, gray, or brown, depending on the location—convey a sense of history and tradition in the Northeast. Where wood is abundant, rustic arbors, trellises, and fencing can help set the tone of a garden. On the Great Plains, where timber was scarce, Kansas settlers carved fence posts from limestone and strung them with barbed wire. Friends of mine acquired a pair of these substantial posts and used them to flank the entrance to their urban herb garden in Denver. The notches that once secured the wire remain as reminders of the not-so-distant settlement of this region.
Wherever gardeners settled in this country, they adapted their horticultural traditions to their new surroundings. Such experimentation has forged new ways of gardening: raised beds, innovative irrigation systems, and control of pests and diseases without destroying the surrounding environment. There’s little doubt that the herb gardens of the future will build on the past, using technology and innovation while retaining the wealth of ideas passed from generation to generation.
David Macke is the coauthor (with Rob Proctor) of Herbs in the Garden,which was named 1998 Colorado Non-Fiction Book of the Year by the Colorado Center for the Book. He’s busy working on a companion volume, Herbs in Pots, due from Interweave Press in fall 1999.
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