Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gardening with Babylon

Begonias, cosmos and clematis mingling around our deck.
Hail, the Ides of May. That is the official last frost date in these parts, signaling the beginning of planting season in New Jersey. Restless gardeners will be buying seeds and plants, breaking out their gardening gloves, reconnecting the garden hose and generally getting ready to play in the dirt.

Up until a few years ago, I was in charge of all landscaping on our property—which amounts to .33 of an acre minus a house and a tree-covered grade in the back yard. The remaining 25 feet or so offers a manageable space for minimalist gardening. In recent years, I have enlisted the help of my husband. Being the one with superior arm strength, he digs the holes. Being the one who does not mind getting dirty, I do the planting. We both go to the nursery to pick out plants. Unfortunately, our choices are rather limited.

First, our property is nearly all shaded, which rules out the majority of flowers that exist on this planet. Then there is the drooling area wildlife, who hungrily view our garden as their personal salad bar. Thus, we are shunted to a paltry list of shade-loving, putrid-tasting plants.

But enough about us. Here is a brief history of gardening. Special thanks to Tim Lambert, a major source for historical dates:
  • The earliest gardens were grown for practical reasons. People were hungry; they grew food. With civilization, came the obnoxious formation of the upper classes who had the leisure to enjoy purely decorative gardens. That's because they had servants (or slaves) to do the gardening for them
  • In the hot and arid climate of ancient Egypt, rich people liked to rest in the shade of trees. They created gardens enclosed by walls with trees planted in rows. They also grew vineyards. Much like today, beer was the drink of the common people, but the rich liked their wine
  • The Egyptians believed that the gods also liked a nicely tilled flower bed, so temples had gardens. Planting the right thing was important. Gods were quite picky. Different trees were associated with different gods
“When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.”—anonymous
  • The Assyrians came from Iraq and in the period 900 BC to 612 BC they ruled a great empire in the Middle East. Upper-class Assyrians enjoyed pleasure gardens irrigated by water canals. They also created large hunting parks. (In case you are not familiar with the Assyrians, they invented locks and keys,  the sexagesimal system of time we use, paved roads, the first postal system, the first use of iron, the first magnifying glasses, the first libraries, the first university, the first plumbing and flush toilets, the first electric batteries, the first guitars, the first aqueducts and the first arch. Naturally, being the cultural center of antiquity, they were invaded and destroyed)
  • When the Assyrian Empire was obliterated in 612, the city-state of Babylon created another huge empire. King Nebuchadnezzar built the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. According to tradition, his wife, Amyitis, missed the mountainous terrain of her homeland so the king brought the mountain to her by building a stepped terrace garden. Man-powered pumps watered it. (Even then, women could be high maintenance)
  • Why can't  my husband do this for me? Drawing courtesy of  Juan RA de Lara Sieder.

  • In 539, the Babylonian Empire was destroyed by the Persians who created yet another great empire. When they were not wiping out other civilizations, the Persians were superb gardeners. They built underground aqueducts to bring water to their gardens without it evaporating on the way
  • While they were good at just about everything else, the Greeks were not great gardeners. They sometimes planted a few trees to provide shade around temples and other public places but pleasure gardens were rare. Much like New Yorkers, when the Greeks did grow flowers, it was usually in containers. Actual gardens were reserved for practical reasons—generally orchards, vineyards and vegetable gardens
  • When the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, they picked up some eastern ideas about gardening. Rich Romans created gardens next to their palaces and villas. They were masters of the art of topiary. Their gardens contained a wide variety of flowers and were adorned with statues and sculptures
  • After the fall of Rome, gardening (along with just about everything else) declined in Western Europe. However, the church still maintained some gardens of medicinal herbs and of flowers to decorate the church altars
"Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable; with the possible exception of a moose singing ‘Embraceable You’ in spats." —Woody Allen
  • Meanwhile in the 7th century, the Arabs busily created their huge empire. When they conquered Persia, they took over many Persian ideas about gardens. Islamic gardens were surrounded by walls and very often they were divided into four sections by watercourses. In the center was a pool or pavilion. Fountains were decorated with mosaics and glazed tiles
  • Gradually order was restored in Europe and by the late 13th century the rich were back to cultivating gardens for pleasure, medicinal herbs and vegetables. Gardens were walled both to protect them from wild animals and to provide seclusion
  • 14th and 15th century gardens had lawns sprinkled with fragrant herbs. They featured raised flowerbeds, trellises of roses or vines, fruit trees and sometimes they had turf seats
Just is case you were wondering, this is a turf seat.
  • Renaissance gardens were adorned with sculptures, fountains and topiary. Often they also contained water jokes (unsuspecting visitors were sprayed with jets of water; perhaps the precursor of the squirting lapel flower). Water organs played music or imitated bird song. Gardens also often contained grottoes (cave-like buildings) and hedge mazes 
  • In the early 18th century many people rebelled against formal gardens and preferred a more natural style. Gardens often contained shrubberies, grottoes, pavilions, bridges and follies such as mock temples
  • Meanwhile in the North American colonies life was, at first, tough but by the end of the 17th century the wealthy were at it, once more, creating pleasure gardens. Americans preferred more formal gardens than their European counterparts
  • In 1830, Edwin Beard Budding (1796-1846) invented the lawn mower, which would become the bane of many a teenage boy
  • In the 19th century gardeners began to build large greenhouses or conservatories (so Colonel Mustard would have a place to hang out). Well-trimmed lawns with beds of flowers became popular. Rock gardens were invented at the end of the 18th century but they became popular in the 19th century. Also the rage was Chinese- and Japanese-style gardens
  • In 1926, a German engineer called Andreas Stihl developed the chain saw (for which horror fans everywhere are eternally grateful)
And that brings us back to today—the Ides of May. A fateful day when we have just finished planting this year's garden. It is colorful. It is tranquil. The question that naturally follows, dear Brutus, is: What will kill it? Possible candidates include deer, hedgehogs, rabbits, too little sun/shade, lack of watering, our lawn service, locusts and/or some other unspeakable act of God.

No rush. We have an entire summer to find out.


  1. Interesting, some kind of story class with gardening... unusual but thanks was kind of interesting to know the real origin of things that you like.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You are most welcome. The superb picture was drawn by an artist in Spain. If you click on his name, you can go to his site.

  4. Great stuff. good luck with your gardening.
    Here's my blog about medieval gardening:

    1. Thank you, Erec. I visited your blog, found it quite interesting and joined it.