Gardening: Designs of history

By Justin Newcombe

Justin Newcombe says you, too, could have a garden worthy of royalty.

Hampton Court's golden age began in 1689. Photo / Thinkstock
Hampton Court's golden age began in 1689. Photo / Thinkstock

Queen's Birthday is a celebration of Elizabeth II, Queen of England. I know there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing over whether Her Majesty is an institution worthy of our celebration but whatever your view, the British royal family is one of the most significant dynasties of recent times. Theirs is a rich history (written by themselves, of course) handed down in fable, song, text, painting, sculpture - well everything, really. From gunshot to gumdrops there's the royal this, that and the other. Gardens have played a big part in what could be described now as a giant brand.

The British, particularly the English, have always valued an independence from continental Europe and the resulting insulation incubated many cultural idiosyncrasies.

One of these is the baroque garden of Hampton Court. The golden age of Hampton Court was during the reign of King William and his wife Mary from 1689. They created this homage to their wealth and power with the help of Christopher Wren. Open lawns with a strong "imposed" geography set the tone but many fountains and wide, pebbled paths also featured.

Shady alleys were introduced and an old orchard was transformed into a "wilderness area", a forerunner to the archetypal English landscape garden, which would echo through time, around the world, hand in hand with Britain's domination of more than half the planet.

You may never have a pleasure garden on this scale, but the basic premise is still the same: a balancing act between control (human) and the natural world. A garden designed in this way is a kind of battleground. Depending on the influence of the time, different elements come to the fore. English baroque style was designed to describe man's conquest over nature. Gardens designed 200 years later in the height of romanticism had an altogether different emphasis. This was a more outward-looking period, where science was asking some important questions and the old order was under attack from natural order. Sometimes romantic gardens had minimal lawns, with the most radical having the landscape garden approaching the house - as seen in the rise of the English cottage garden.

So what does that mean for you this weekend as you don the wellies and shuffle out into winter's frigid clasp? No matter what kind of garden you want to establish, the basic tenets haven't changed much. Control and domination rule the street front and the natural order rules the back. The rest is just a gradient from one to the other. If you follow that rather simplified recipe you'll end up with a high-impact front garden with minimal plant varieties, strong lines and a robust sense of design.

As you move through the property this tight control can slowly unwind into a more casual living area: patio, pool, lawn and so on. These areas usually don't have the municipal impact of the street front but are typically more interesting, with the back part of the garden becoming what used to be referred to as the landscape garden.

This basic recipe has established and re-established itself through time with the modern emphasis being on privacy. It will work well if you've got a postage stamp or you want somewhere larger to take the corgies for a trot.

- NZ Herald

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