History of Garden Design
The Persian Carpet Influence
The oldest pictures we have of gardens are from Egypt-paintings of scenes with plants and animals combined in ways that provide pleasure as well as function. One such painting, dated 1400 BC, is in the British Museum, and it depicts an ornamental fishpond. The pond is a rectangle with a stone border. In the pond are fish, water fowl, flowers, and clumps of reeds at the edges. Around the pond are fruit trees, and to one side, there is a servant holding a basket of fruit, pomegranates or grapes, and a wine jar.
By the 3rd century BC market gardens, gardens growing fruit and vegetables for sale, were common in the Mediterranean and Eastern regions. In many a town, there was a grove of trees or park of pleasurable or religious nature (sacred grove). Herb growing was associated especially with temples that required their use for ritual and worship. There were frankincense, myrrh, cornflowers, poppies, lotuses, and chamomile. Chamomile was identified by pollen analysis as a main constituent in the embalming oil used to mummify Ramses II who died in 1224 BC.
Persian carpets give us a good idea of what early gardens were like because these are stylized representations of the gardens. The borders suggest boundary walls and paths. The interior designs are usually comprised of four quarters of equal size, each being divided into six squares. They contain alternately flowerbeds, with flowers in square and circle patterns, and plane trees located at the inner corners of the four sections. The rulers sometimes took the carpets into the garden to lay on the ground or to use as a canopy against the sun. The use of the carpet this way represents the canopied platform or open- sided pavilion that the ruler would erect over the intersection of the waterways. There were always four waterways, heavenly rivers, and they formed a cross. When the Moslems conquered Persia, they readily embraced this garden plan because of its affinity with the descriptions of the Islamic Paradise, a place that held all the delights inhabitants of burning desert regions would long for-fountains, shade, and fruit. Marco Polo described a real Persian garden as a paradise planted with the finest fruit of the world with four conduits: one flowing with wine, one with milk, one with honey, and one with water. This garden concept spread throughout the area conquered by the Moslems in the 7th century.
The Greeks and Romans—Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world in what is now Iraq, was really a terraced roof garden built over a massive, arching stone foundation and huge storage rooms whose roofs were waterproofed. Soil was added deep enough to grow trees, and deep wells supplied water by means of a hydraulic machine. Records show that thyme, coriander, saffron, anise, poppy, mandrake, rosemary, and hemp were grown alongside ornamentals.
Just as the Islamic conquests spread the concept of the Persian garden, so the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 -323 BC) did the same throughout the Hellenistic world. There exists little detail of the descriptions of Persian and Greek gardens. Theophrastus (371 to 287 BC), the father of botany and student of Plato and Aristotle, had a garden that was a place for study for his friends and disciples. He left the garden to them upon his death. We can assume that this garden was one where plants were studied and may be the first botanic garden in existence.
The Romans developed the true art of European gardening. We have descriptions of a Roman villa in the writings of Varro (c.116 to 27), a scholar and author, and Pliny (23 to 79), a naturalist and writer. Both had extensive gardens. Villa gardens had covered arcades with windows placed to take advantage of the views beyond, open areas, and enclosed courtyard gardens, situated to retain heat and protect from the wind, keeping them pleasant in summer as well as winter. These gardens were geometrically precise with colonnades and statuary, topiary and plane trees, and canals and fountains. They had raised beds where coriander, dill, parsley, rosemary, fennel, and many other herbs were cultivated.
The Persian rivers became waterworks in the hands of expert Roman engineers. Pliny describes these in the Tuscan villa where everything was fed by streams that never ran dry, feeding a multitude of fountains. One fountain appeared in the center of a small court shaded by four plane trees as in the Persian carpet design. Another interior fountain with a bowl surrounded by tiny jets made a lovely murmuring sound.
Varro's villa boasted of an aviary and a luxurious dining area with a revolving table bearing food and drink with alternate spouts for warm and cold water. Clipped arbors and topiary, the art of training and clipping bushes and trees into artificial shapes, are found for the first time in the Tuscan villa. The Romans were avid collectors of Greek statuary that appear in their gardens, lining the walkways. Some of these details have been confirmed in remains found at Herculaneum, Pompeii, Coninbriga, Portugal, and Fishbourne in Sussex, England.