On gardens and gardening

By Graham HarrisGraham Harris v3

“We must take care of our garden” Voltaire in “Candide” (1759)

While gardening has become incredibly popular in many countries in recent years; and everything from garden centres to visiting and restoring historical gardens have become big business [1], gardeners are not it seems a deeply reflective and philosophical lot. There are many excellent texts on garden design and the way it has changed over time on various continents [2], and while the literature on gardening and garden design is vast, the literature on the philosophy of gardens is rather small. Do we think deeply enough about what we are doing? Some do [3], but not that many.


This lack of reflection, to me, is curious because gardens are very much “philosophical objects” [4] in which art, design, action, perception and aesthetics are intertwined with us as embodied and embedded agents who dwell in an uncertain world. I have written before about infrastructure developments as philosophical objects – gardens are important pieces of our human infrastructure and should also be seen as such.

Suburban gardens can be an important source of recreation that contribute much to our streetscapes, while parks and gardens in larger urban areas are vital islands of peace and beauty in an often ugly and busy world. Around a quarter of all urban space was taken up by domestic gardens in 5 major UK cities in a 2007 survey [5].

When we build our cities, farms and gardens we have responded to the genius loci with our own cultural overlays. George Seddon’s (1997) “Landprints” [6] comes closest to the task of analyzing how we have combined the genius loci with our culturally determined response to form “a sense of place”. In this case his examples are largely Australian and he discusses the (often inappropriate) European approach to building a life and infrastructure in the strange and unfamiliar world of Western Australia.

Gardens have always been enclosures – but they are “environments” with reflexive boundaries; both keeping things out and keeping things in. The design of the big show gardens of villas and country houses has been changed over time from formal geometric designs reflecting order and reason, through Baroque show pieces with much use of water features, to more naturalistic and romantic designs that “allow nature in”

The “improvements” in landscaped gardens brought about by Lancelot “capability” Brown in the 18th century – he moved entire villages and built hills, woods and lakes to “improve” the view from the main house – became the standard for an entire landscape aesthetic in England.

Gardens can be seen as retreats from a largely constructed and/or dangerous landscape providing safety, beauty and food for the stomach and for the soul. Gardens are also fancies – fantasy landscapes with exotic species – where we mix exotic biodiversities with aesthetic appeal. They are artistic and cultural contrivances: they are philosophical constructs that change the way we see the world and mix unfamiliar ideas. Consider Charles Jencks’ “garden of cosmic speculation” in Scotland with its fractal and post-modern design.

So gardens change, and are changed by, the wider world – reflecting on and influencing wider cultural trends. The 19th century period of global exploration brought a sudden explosion of exotic plants from distant lands and new opportunities for obsessed plant collectors.

In more recent times garden designers like Gertrude Jekyll who, together with architects like Edwin Lutyens, were very influential in the arts and crafts movement [7], designed an entire garden and landscape aesthetic that was widely copied. The wider Garden City movement in the 19th and 20th centuries also built upon these ideas. Nowadays the spectacular gardens of gardeners and plant lovers like the Sackville-Wests at Sissinghurst [8], Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter and the Caetanis at Ninfa draw visitors from all over the world.

David Cooper’s “A philosophy of gardens” [9] reflects on the deeper meaning of gardens and on what we, as gardeners, are actually doing. He asks the question “what does a garden embody”?

Gardens embody both the genius loci and the human expression of a sense of place. If you will excuse the pun gardeners are seeking a “ground” in an uncertain world, but they are working amidst constraints. Anyone who has tried to plant a garden knows that you can’t just plant any old thing anywhere: there has to be a suitable micro-climate, soil and aspect – we are constrained in what we do.

The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote an important essay on the work of the painter Cézanne [10] emphasizing that he was both thinking and painting and epitomised the union of the world and the individual. Cézanne’s work shows an intimate co-dependence and David Cooper uses Cézanne’s portrait of the gardener Vallier to show this. We are neither autonomous nor totally dependent – the garden embodies the co-dependence of human existence and the deep ground of the world.

In the philosophical literature there is a debate about whether gardens are emblematic (where emblematic is equated with representation – has physics envy invaded gardening too?), or whether they are expressive (in the romantic and phenomenological sense). Clearly some of the more “rational” gardens do embody the triumph of reason through geometry and, more recently, fractals; whereas others are a much more personal attempt to express a deeper engagement with the world.

The third person view of received science is that there is no co-dependence, just dominion, “management” and exploitation. A utilitarian “world for us” is set against “a world without us”, whereas phenomenology emphasizes the first person co-dependence and expression.

Martin Heidegger, who influenced Merleau-Ponty, gave a talk entitled “building, dwelling, thinking” in 1951 [11] which has been very influential in architectural circles. Heidegger took the word dwelling back to its roots and showed how it meant “the manner in which we humans are on the earth”. “Man (sic) is insofar as he dwells” and includes cherishing and protecting, tilling the soil and cultivating the vine.

So Heidegger wanted to see building in a broader context than just construction. Building includes growing things and conserving things as well as erecting buildings and Heidegger wanted us to question and to think about this relationship. This is a first person reflection on how we live and dwell on earth.

Gardens exist as philosophical objects which, through harmonisation or contrast, render otherwise unremarked aspects of the larger landscape clearer. A well-designed and situated garden can enrich a sense of place and illuminate hitherto unnoticed aspects of the genius loci. Cézanne is often quoted as saying “the landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness”.

I note with interest the rise of a literature in recent years that provides us with poetic and evocative accounts of what it is to dwell and to think about the world in which we live. I think for example of J.A. Baker’s “The Peregrine” [12] and Robert Macfarlane’s “Wild places” [13] and “The old ways” [14].

It is particularly interesting that this writing has developed in the UK, a country that has largely destroyed the ecology and biodiversity of its urban and agricultural lands and, at the same time, has embraced gardening with such enthusiasm. (Could there be a link, I wonder?) J.A. Baker’s “The Peregrine” talks about species of birds that are now rarely seen: all lost in the last 50-60 years

The strong relationship of art and gardens in Merleau-Ponty’s writing does not arise by chance [15]. Both influence and help us reflect on how we live and how we see the world. Robert Macfarlane (2004: 56) [16] for example noted that in paintings of landscapes the earth itself has been pressed into service to express itself. Gardening and cultivation are virtues and part of the sense of responsibility for what is gifted to us. They are much more than sources of produce: they also feed the soul.

A recent book from Royal Academy in London documents an exhibition on “Painting the modern garden” [17] – showing gardens as works of art that stimulated painting through their beauty, and the way both changed the way we see the world and were themselves changed by it. You only have to look at Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny and his paintings of the water lilies there to see that paintings and gardens really are philosophical objects.

So one of the important roles of building and tending gardens lies in their ability to help us think about what it means to dwell on earth – in the fullest sense of that word. Gardens provide us with islands of beauty that help us to reflect on what it means to be co-dependent with Nature on this planet, both practically and spiritually.

Gardens are therefore a form of infrastructure quite unlike any other that we build. They cause us to reflect on where and how we dwell on earth. Would that our construction of buildings, and of transport, water and energy systems gave us the same stimulus – and this was Heidegger’s primary message in his lecture. Too much of our infrastructure denies any co-dependence: indeed its purpose is, as far as possible, to eliminate it.

To go back to the quote from Voltaire’s Candide: should we not therefore both “tend” and “attend to” our gardens?

[1] Popularized by Tim Smit’s work on the lost gardens of Heligan and on the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. See Smit, T. (1997) The lost gardens of Heligan, Gollancz

[2] See for example: Tom Turner’s magisterial series of books on the history and design of gardens in Asia, Europe and Britain for Routledge (2011, 2011, 2013); Kirsty McLeod (2011) The best gardens in Italy, Frances Lincoln Limited; or Monty Don & Derry Moore (2011) Great gardens of Italy, Quadrille. The literature of a similar ilk is vast.

[3] Robin Lane Fox (2013) Thoughtful gardening, Particular books

[4] Alva Noë (2015) Strange tools: art and human nature. Hill and Wang, New York

[5] Alison Loram et al. (2007) Urban domestic gardens (X): the extent and structure of the resource in five major UK cities. Landscape Ecology, 22, 601-615

[6] George Seddon (1997) Landprints: reflections on place and landscape, Cambridge

[7] Judith Tankard and Martin Wood (2015) Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood, Pimpernell; Sarah Rutherford (2013) The arts and crafts garden, Shire Library.

[8] Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven (2014) Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst, Virago

[9] David E. Cooper (2006) A philosophy of gardens. Oxford.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) Cezanne’s doubt. p. 61, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: philosophy and painting, (1993), Ed Galen Johnson, Northwestern Uni Press, Evanston

[11] Martin Heidegger (1951) Building, Dwelling, Thinking. P. 141-160, in Heidegger, M. (1971) Poetry, language, thought. Trans., Albert Hofstadter, Harper and Row.

[12] J.A. Baker (2011) The peregrine: the hill of summer & diaries: the complete works of J.A. Baker. Introduction by Mark Cocker and edited by John Fanshawe, Collins

[13] Robert Macfarlane (2007) Wild places. Granta

[14] Robert Macfarlane (2012) The old ways: a journey on foot. Hamish Hamilton, Penguin

[15] Daniel Guentchev (2010) The role of painting in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. American Society for Aesthetics Graduate E-journal, 2:2, 5p.

[16] Robert Macfarlane (2004) Mountains of the mind: a history of a fascination.Granta

[17] Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Painting the modern garden: Monet to Matisse.Royal Academy, London

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