Where do gardens come from?

Memory, I say.

For me, the idea of a garden comes from early memories. Over time, cultural and historical overlays may influence garden preferences, but my memories of early childhood have always seemed to trump “learned” things.

I think the word that best expresses this connection to memory is atmosphere. (Nostalgia runs a close second, and I’d probably choose that word if it weren’t for overuse and loss of meaning. However, it is helpful to look to its origin. Thus, from Wikipedia:  “The term nostalgia describes a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning ‘homecoming’, a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning ‘pain, ache’, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.”)

The word atmosphere encompasses much of that, or it can. But it has a broader meaning, one harder to define, more than memory.

Last weekend, I visited my hometown of Canton, Mississippi. I was subsumed in a sea of nostalgia, trying to revive memories of the past, and realizing yet again that you can’t go home again.

But my visit to this house, Wohlden, built about 1828, did recall a clear memory of how it looked back in the 1960s, with a more extensive garden, simple box parterres and hedges, some topiary box, but all very much in decline and disrepair even then.


Though cleaned up a bit, the box mostly removed, the “garden” of Wohlden still exerts a strong reach into the past. Weathered concrete entrance posts and balls, ancient trees, a relaxed interweaving of closed and open spaces, and the house itself create an atmosphere that evokes much of the culture of the antebellum American South (the poverty and social ills of the present-day town are no where to be seen here), a culture of wealth and self-imposed nobility, good manners, strict protocols, care for precious relationships, precious possessions.


A place for reverie, for half-dreaming, a forest domesticated for small town living, a place of refuge, of pleasure. Call it a sense of place.


My present garden, in a clearing in the woods of western New Jersey, is very different in detail and style from this Mississippi garden, if it be a garden. But on a sunny afternoon, particularly near twilight, both gardens have much to say to each other.

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25 thoughts on “Where do gardens come from?

  1. Yes, James, atmosphere seeps into us unbidden, especially when we are young.
    My brother, my sister and I all fell in love with the golden, bare hills of South Australia with their occasional abandoned stone farm-house, as our parents drove us through there annually, when we were children. It was only much later, as adults, we confided to one another how much it all meant. There’s not necessarily any reason why.
    Impressions go some way to making us seek what seems to have been lost, or always in close range, but never entirely possessed.
    I still yearn for those hills, as you must still yearn for the landscape of Canton.

  2. You say it better than I, Faisal. “Impressions go some way to making us seek what seems to have been lost, or always in close range, but never entirely possessed.” “There’s not necessarily any reason why.” I try to recreate something that never really existed and in that process, perhaps create something new in the interstices between remembered past and present.

  3. That’s interesting, James.

    I wonder in an opposite sense about the ways in which gardens, gardening and aesthetic appreciation are class-encoded. One thinks of arguments (John Barrell’s book on the ideology of landscape) that the creation of the “view” was the aesthetic cover for the aristocratic assault on common land in the 18th C (enclosure movement).

    I suppose, though I haven’t seen it argued, the great 19th and 20th century elevation of romantic gardening as an art in ineluctably intertwined with class struggle and anxiety. Think of Austen and all the discussions of shrubbery and wildernesses. Perhaps as a gardener, then, I am nostalgic for the Pemberley I wish I had?

    1. Ross, I haven’t read John Barrell’s book but I thank you for yet another recommendation. I’ll get it.

      Don’t most gardens, at least those that try to achieve something more than the merely decorative or utilitarian, and perhaps even those–thinking of the expensive “outdoor kitchens” we see appearing in some upper crust suburbs–reflect class difference, even struggle, in some ways. Gardens are expensive and mostly limited to those with the financial means to afford them. Yes, Jane Austin and all those shrubberies. I always wondered what kind of garden that vague word might refer to. I imagine shrubberies can conceal a lot of things.

      1. Hello Emily,

        I would look at his “The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840” Here is the blurb:
        It is generally agreed that in the early eighteenth century people began to be interested in landscape as something to have a ‘taste’ for; that they saw landscape through the eyes of the great painters, and that later pictures, poetry and landscape gardening all reflect that taste. […] This 1972 text brings ‘taste’ into contact with the social and economic bases of life.

        If I recall correctly one of his examples is Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews — who sit, contentedly, in a pastoral landscape with a distant view. Barrell (I think) argued that this “view” is the visualization of their (boundless) property, created through the enclosure of common land and the demolition of hamlets (whose presence imperiled the “natural purity” of the view as well as their ownership). Paradoxically, our delight in a natural landscape without marks of culture is the aesthetic reflection of a bourgeois obsession with ownership (the Andrews were not aristocrats, rather their fortunes were made through factory ownership in England as well as the colonies). One might well argue that Oudolf’s apparent erasure of the typical characteristics of a garden (the border, the line, etc) continues this coded aesthetic practice. Central Park serves as another good example.

  4. Your lovely post makes me nostalgic at this very moment, although nostalgic for what garden or atmosphere I can’t identify. The concept of memory in gardens is one that intrigues me. I hope you write more on the subject.

        1. Simon Schama wrote a book Landscape and Memory that might be of interest. But anything by W.G. Sebald would be far more compelling, I’d wager.

  5. Our gardens reflect who we are, I think. So they do reflect our social class and attitudes – easy to read for contemporaries. Need – or invite – interpretation, I guess, after time has passed. Wasn’t a wilderness actually quite restrained ?

    1. Certainly they reflect who we are, but I think historical and cultural influences are important. The 18th century distaste for mountain scenery, for example, underwent a dramatic change in the Romantic period. I suppose we’re all influenced by our time and culture, but those are external influences. Wilderness restrained? I think in the sense it’s the most “conservative” approach to the garden.

      1. I meant this: “Coffin, in his book on the English Garden, notes that the word wilderness “can be very misleading to nature lovers brought up in the picturesque tradition and familiar with the American public park system for whom the wilderness is an untouched nature of irregularity and disorder.” Coffin suggests that in English gardens of the 17th and 18th Centuries “the wilderness was probably related to the traditional garden labyrinth or maze, although it was actually the English descendant of the Italian bosco and the French bosquet.” These garden features were usually symmetrical, with trees planted in ranks, and with paths either radiating from a point or forming geometric shapes.” http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/sleepwood.html

        All this worthy of larger discussion, as ever!

        1. I see. An entirely different sense of wilderness from what I was thinking. I can see now that Piet Oudolf’s garden at the southern tip of Manhattan, The Battery Bosque, falls into this tradition. I’ll find interesting reading on this subject.

          1. I believe that the Wildernesse at St. John’s Cambridge remains unaltered from its installation by Capability Brown — one example I’ve seen. It is a turf maze through planted groves of specimen trees.

          2. hi Ross,
            thanks for all the interesting comments and reading suggestions….I, too, have been in the wilderness at St John’s Oxford recently…I will have to take a closer look at my photos from that visit and scrutinize.

  6. Memory shapes who we are, and that is reflected in our gardens. I grew up in Virginia and now use as many southern plants as my Quebec climate will tolerate. In other ways, some of which I probably don’t even recognize, the landscape of the Blue Ridge mountains, where my grandparents farmed, influences my design choices. As for issues of class, Charles Quest-Ritson has written about this (a bit tediously, I’m afraid) in relation to English gardens. I don’t know the book by John Barrell. Are you referring to The Spirit of Despotism?

    1. Pat, you remind me I come from a long line of both southern, and earlier, northern farmers. Interesting that I should have a garden that requires care and maintenance more in the form of farming than traditional gardening.

  7. nostalgia was invented for Swiss mercenaries – there’s a link for me to my NON-mercenary Swiss husband now with his roots firmly planted in South Africa. My garden nostalgia from Switzerland? A blue Himalayan poppy, not something to plant here, but a vivid memory! In the botanical garden of Zurich I met our Lithops, carefully nurtured in a microclimate under glass – and came to my own garden prepared to revel in South African plants. With Faisal I have childhood memories of long journeys across country. To spend school holidays with my sister in Riversdale. As we crossed the last hill, that Riversdale smell of garlic buchu – now has pride of place as I enter Paradise and Roses. It’s garlic that delights me, even more than the fragrant roses.

    1. Diana, I have a small pot of lithops on my window sill. A tiny piece of South Africa (metaphorically speaking). Now I have to look up garlic buchu. I have no idea what it is, as is the case with many of your South African plants.

  8. Despite years in New York and New Jersey, the tone of this post exposes your southern heritage, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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