Homage to the Past: Garden Designs

Take a trip back to the past to learn how people use to garden.

| April/May 1999


  • Statuary serves to draw ­visitors to the center of this traditional herb garden.
  • Herb gardens large and small have long graced European landscapes.
  • Annual herbs invigorate a classic knot garden pattern
  • A sundial surrounded by carefully clipped “knot” hedges ­reflects ancient traditions.
  • A gazebo, reached by stone paths, overlooks this herb garden.
    Photograph by Joe Coca
  • Interest in elaborate herb gardens peaked in the Victorian Era; this one forms a maze.
    Photography by Rob Proctor

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.



Monastic gardens in the West

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.



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