The English Garden: History and Meaning (part 3 of 3)

Having briefly looked at how the English garden has developed over time I would like to consider just what the garden means.

The garden is many different things to many different people and the further you delve into it the clearer it becomes that the garden symbolises and represents deeply held personal beliefs and worldviews. Go and attempt to alter or mess with any gardener’s personal plot of land and you will see just how emotionally involved people are. The garden is often the closest link to the natural world people have and the way they attempt to shape it highlights aspects of their character. As one gardener and allotmenter I interviewed the other day told me, the garden is an extension of herself.

The garden is both natural and designed, it is able to represent the rural and the city, and yet may be considered neither of these things. Gardens are often a product of city thinking and are a retreat from the urban landscape into ‘nature’ (Pugh 1988). They represent what society thinks nature should look like; they are constantly changing and dynamic (Francis and Hester 1990). Gardens are shaped by interactions between biophysical factors such as soil type, climate, weather, and the such, as well as cultural factors of the people who create and utilise them; they are both social and natural (Waymark 2003 and Quest-Ritson 2003).

In earlier times, as Solnit (2001) has suggested, the predominance of the formal garden had hinted that an imposed human order was needed to improve upon the chaos that was perceived in nature; over the 18th century, however, formality in English gardens lessened reflecting the growth of alternative views of nature. The older, enclosed gardens served to pronounce the danger of the external world and nature’s chaos but as the walls that enclosed those spaces disappeared and the outside world began to merge with the inner garden it seems that gardens came to reflect the notion that there is, in fact, an order in nature, an order which is present in society too (Solnit 2001). This view of the garden was perhaps stimulated by the growth of the scientific paradigm which sought to evince the order of the patterns of the universe.

Gardens have been analysed in a more politically radical way by Pugh (1998). He suggests that gardens are psychological sites, of both pleasure and loss, but that their overriding condition is that they are fenced and cultivated, that they are tangible symbols of property. He suggests, therefore, that gardeners and those who enjoy gardens sit within a social structure that dictates all that is prohibited and permitted, resulting in the garden becoming a repression of nature. Gardens are humans’ reconstructions of what nature should be and are produced through accumulated wealth and commercialisation. Whether you would agree with such a view or not it is interesting to take such a stance with respect to the humble concept of a garden. I think it is hard to contend with Pugh’s point that the garden is a symbol of nature and because it is steeped in so much social symbolism it can serve to remove us from a direct relationship with nature into a relationship mediated by our own very specific construction of it.

Some final thoughts on gardens:

– Today, gardens cost very little, especially compared to houses, and owners or tenants can radically alter the space to their own desires without financial risks allowing for expression and creativity (Grampp 1990).

– Gardens contain the spirits of the past and they go through waxing and waning of periods of use and abandon, they illustrate how we have attempted to adapt nature to our desires over the past and into the present (Francis and Hester 1990).

– Gardens reflect human aesthetics that “rarely correspond to ecological principles” (Dawson 1990, p.142). Consider weeds, for example, many weedy species are good for encouraging insects which, in turn, encourage birds and yet people do not like to let their lawns become weedy. Very little weedy habitat is ever allowed in human gardens, and human landscapes in general (Dawson 1990).

– Gardens help us remove ourselves from other aspects of the world, but they are bordered and therefore provide a paradox in that they attempt to represent that which they shut off (Pugh 1988).


– Dawson, K. (1990) Nature in the Urban Garden, In  Francis, M., and Hester Jr., T. (Eds.), The Meaning of Gardens, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts:London, England.

– Eds. Francis, M., and Hester Jr., T. (1990). The Meaning of Gardens, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts:London, England.

– Grampp, C. (1990) Social Meanings of Residential Gardens, In Francis, M., and Hester Jr., T. (Eds.) The Meaning of Gardens, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts:London, England.

– Pugh, S. (1988). garden – nature – language, Manchester University Press.

– Quest-Ritson, C. (2003). The English Garden: A Social History, Penguin.

– Solnit, R. (2001). WOnderlust: A History of Walking, Verso.

– Waymark, J. (2003). modern garden design: innovation since 1900, Thames & Hudson.


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