Humankind discovered long ago the pleasure to be found in gardens. Whether it is raising edible or decorative plants, anything that grows in sweet soil can speak to us, reduce stress and bring well-being .
I recall the thrill as a child on planting bean seeds, watching in rapt attention as those first two leaves peeped forth, seeking the light. Gardens can be as simple as one rose bush in a tub, or complex as the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Why does a garden make us feel more human? Perhaps it’s the fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. Raising plants far from their natural habitat and creating beautiful vistas brings a sense of achievement, and warms the human spirit.
The ornamental garden combines art and nature with style and taste, sometimes bringing pride and status. In Western legend, Mesopotamia near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was said to be the site of both The Garden of Eden and the HangingGardens of Babylon.
The first history of plant cultivation dates from around 3000 BC in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Assyrian Kings had city gardens with exotic plants gathered from afar, including many which are familiar to us today- cypress, juniper, almonds, dates, pomegranate, pear, quince, figs, grapes… Courtyard gardens were enclosed within palace walls, Royal Hunting Parks also belonging to kings.
No trace has ever been found at Babylon of the fabulous Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. However, recent evidence raises the possibility it may have been created by King Sennacherib at Nineveh, in Iraq, not Babylon. This ancient Assyrian city on the Tigris river, was once capital of the New Assyrian Empire, and the largest city in the world for fifty years. The ruins remain across the river from modern Mosul, in Iraq, now among the most dangerous places on earth, with frequent terrorist attacks, and a high death toll.
A fascinating SBS Documentary Finding Babylon’s Hanging Garden outlines research by Doctor Stephanie Dalley, from Oxford University. She studied a West African relief in the British Museum, London. Removed from the Nineveh site, it depicts a highly stylized elevated garden with pointed stonework arches, date palms, aromatic plants and fruit trees. Stephanie is one of the few scholars capable of translating ancient cuneiform script, dated from 300BC, to the time of Christ. This literature revealed that Sennacherib, King of Assyria and the World, possessed the expertise needed to bring such a project to fruition. A wealthy, powerful and proud monarch, he wanted to be remembered for ever – three thousand years later his name still resonates.
Creating his garden took remarkable feats of engineering, which meant construction of a canal 22 metres wide and 9 metres deep, redirecting a river hundreds of kilometres to his palace, in order to provide sufficient water. He built a spectacular aqueduct, aeons before the Romans. In order to raise tons of water to the height of his fabulous garden, he used the Archimedes Screw– and this four hundred years before the Greek scholar invented it! The screw was designed in a circular pattern, like the arrangement of scars from cut leaves of a date palm. Picture the elaborate design of his garden, an amphitheatre arrangement, fragrant with aromatic plants, trees laden with fruit, the music of a waterfall trickling into a pool, fluttering butterflies, lively bird song, vivid colours of blossoms buzzing with bees.
In the 8th Century, monks began to identify the medicinal properties of plants. The physic or apothecary’s gardens were born in Italy when, in 1543, Luca Ghini created gardens at the University of Pisa as a scientific means of identifying therapeutic plants. Other gardens for academic study of healing flora appeared at Padova, Florence and Bologna, spread to Cologne, Prague and finally to Oxford, in 1621. At Chelsea, in 1673, came another apothecary or botanical garden. Many of these gardens were both beautiful and practical.
The age of exploration in the 16th and 17th Centuries inspired the cultivation of exotic tropical plants, brought back from voyages. Botanical gardens have recently experienced a resurgence of interest in conserving threatened species, by propagation, and exchange of seeds. Many arboreta are also planned around the world, or already in progress.
Gardens represent every type of culture, taking advantage of natural features such as rocks, pebbles, creating creeks, rivers and fountains, coins of silver water glittering in the sunlight. Whatever your taste, there will always be a garden that suits your nature and needs.
Think Japanese Zen, Chinese, Dutch, English – from cottage gardens to landscaping by Capability Brown, Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden, Cornwall, Persian, Italianate, Australian native, Monet’s garden at Giverny…