The Chinese have been the trailblazers in so many fields, from anatomy to astronomy to architecture and arithmetic and things that begin with other letters too. With this in mind it's not surprising that they are also trailblazers in garden design and implementation.
What's interesting is how the Chinese garden tradition has been absorbed, re-digested, modified and reconstituted in our own Western gardens. From our use of pebbles, rocks and water to some of our favourite plants like many of the citrus, rhododendrons, roses and of course bamboo, little echoes of the Chinese garden tradition have, through time, trickled into our backyards.
To sum up Chinese garden design philosophy in one word, it would have to be "poetic". Each garden has a narrative about the landscape surrounding it, the philosophy of the designer and the motivations of the owner where individual elements are symbols of the natural world.
We've established our own little tradition with Chinese roots - that Kiwi backyard classic the lemon tree. These originated in central Asia and China along with more than a thousand other citrus varieties. The original wild citrus stock is now seen as a national treasure in China and a citrus library has been set up to protect and study the original wild varieties and develop new ones.
Flowers, being an important part of any garden culture are also central to the Chinese garden landscape. Climbing roses and jasmine have been prized for their scaling habits, sweet smell and strong colours, while azaleas, famous for their almost surreal early springtime show, appeal also because of their longevity.
Indeed, in Chinese garden philosophy terms, azaleas represent wisdom. Trees also carry a lot of cultural currency. As populations grew and gardens shrank, representations of trees in the surrounding landscape became the norm and gardeners manipulated, gingko, maple and pine into grotesque weatherbeaten shapes as a way of depicting themes such as resilience and survival of nature against adversity. To keep the often vigorous growth habits of these varieties in check, trimming the roots became necessary and developed into penjing, a more natural predecessor of the Japanese bonsai.
Like the Japanese, Chinese place great importance on the flowering trees such as cherry, plum and magnolia. In New Zealand these flower mainly early in spring and, most years, put on a cracking show. Even though the flowers only last a few weeks the vibrant colours are hard to beat, especially on a scale that a tree provides.
I couldn't in all sincerity write an article on Chinese gardens and not include bamboo. I know many readers who have had a bad experience with bamboo are pretty much rolling their eyes right now but I think bamboo is a wonder plant. It has so many uses, is totally sustainable and has proven to be incredibly versatile. It is also, in the right setting, very beautiful.
A Chinese garden may seem like an ancient curiosity from another world but it's not that hard, with a little imagination, to see its influence on even our most basic gardening experiences.
You only have to go outside and smell the roses to realise that.