Garden design began with the pools and hanging plants of the Egyptians and Persians. These complex gardens, usually reserved for royalty, gave way to the more popular gardens of Greece and Rome, which the rich uses to hold parties and show off sculptures and rare flowers.
The gardens, like much of Greek wisdom, were preserved by the monasteries, which used similar garden design to grow herbs and decorate their abbeys with flowers. Eventually, the formal garden became a required part of the French, and then the British, manor, while the trend moved away from stonework and focused on wide lawns and precisely trimmed shrubbery. Soon less expensive garden design began cropping up in the yard spaces and near the cottages of others who wished to emulate the more wealthy, leading to the modern, house-by-house idea of the garden.
The Beginning: Egyptian and Persian
The first gardens documented were created by the Egyptians and Persians. The Egyptians preferred to use water in their gardens, creating ornamental ponds that could hold fish or give water to nearby plants. The Persians created complex gardens for their royalty, the most famous of which are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, circa 1000 B.C.
The original Persian carpets were based on their gardens and show the intricacy that some of their creations attained. Garden design in other parts of the Mediterranean centered around towns by the third and fourth century B.C. A particular oasis or town square would often be treated as a communal garden, planted with herbs and various ornamental plants.
Greek and Roman Developments
By the early centuries B.C, the Greeks had taken the Persian concept of garden design and made it more personal. The garden became an entertainment area for rich men and philosophic schools, a place to hold banquets and parties. The pools and hanging plants were combined with wall areas and spots of verdant growth where a particular tree or statue could be accented.
The Romans adopted the Greek idea and made highly structured gardens that were often based on rigid designs. Roman gardens are seen as the first true European gardens, used to accent villa courtyards, control temperatures and provide visual entertainment for guests. Statues, walls, colonnades and other structures were again a vital part of the gardens, which reached their golden age around 50 B.C and continued to be prominent until the decline of the Roman empire.
While the Romans grew herbs in certain parts of their gardens, it was the monks who carried the tradition on and plant herb, vegetable and flower gardens in their monasteries. From about 300 A.D. on, gardens were an important part of monasteries, and by the 800s they were included in the design plans for the new buildings.
This made the monasteries more self-sufficient, gave the monks something to do and provided them with extra produce to sell. As abbeys become more elaborate, gardens became a sign of success and served as a sort of "natural cathedral." This helped garden design make it through some of the darker times of the Middle Ages.
The Formal Gardens of France and Britain
Gardens saw a renaissance in France when the wealthy again had time and money to build them. Several significant design concepts changed in this period, which began in the early 1600s with several notable French families. The garden became an expected part of the landscape located behind the house. There was usually a viewing area, a patio or central area where the owner could welcome guests. Stone structure gave way to elaborate lawns and sculpted shrubs.
A great deal of time was devoted to choosing plants and flowers and caring for them properly so that the garden could become an extension of the grandeur of the owner. These formal garden concepts were taken to Britain by the French and soon became popular practice there as well.
The Spread of Gardens
As garden design became more of both a science and an art form, the use of gardens became widespread among different social levels. Those who could not afford expensive gardens did what they could to grow flowers in their yards, and by the time gardening reached America in the 1700s, the concept of the cottage garden, or the small garden suitable for most homes, was born.