What is a Landscape Garden?
“The garden has long been perceived as the highest, most perfect form of all art creations, the one closest to God and bearing the imagery of paradise itself. Indeed, the timeless quote, “One is closest to God in the garden,” has been the splendid pleasure driving countless generations to transform the land into garden. No matter how pleasurable, how physically and spiritually rewarding working the vegetable garden and nurturing the home orchard may be, however, the paradise of gardening is the creation and maintenance of a landscape garden. This is the garden of art, the garden of soul. A landscape garden is a plot of ground made beautiful by the arrangement and careful cultivation of plants. The art is called landscape gardening and its artist and cultivator a landscape gardener. Landscaping one’s home ground is the means by which most Minnesotans become acquainted with at least the fringes of the art of landscape gardening. When they dream of home it is a house in a setting, a setting of lovely trees and shrubs civilized with a carpet of lawn and an arrangement of beautiful flowers.
Landscape gardening is primarily a visual art form. Its beauty is first to be seen, but its purpose is to stimulate thought, to cause to dream, to effect memory, to inspire. The landscape garden is classically to be a place of quiet where the visitor, upon entering, finds a closer communion with the thoughts and feelings of all who have ever gardened this Earth than with the time and troubles of the day.
Although picturesque, the landscape garden is not a painting, it is a performance. Its artist is not a painter but a choreographer arranging not fixed colors and forms on a canvas, but directing exits and entrances of living members of Earth’s realm, plants bearing color and form, lines and textures which, especially in our northland, are constantly changing. Yesterday’s garden as yesterday’s ballet will never again be performed. Yet the skilled landscaper garden artist, by tailoring shrubs and trees to a particular style or by using annual flowers for sweeps of color, can slow change in the garden to give the impression of permanence.
The landscape garden is to be entered, as one enters a cathedral or library. In English literature one “retires” to or “withdraws” into the library, presumably to consult or escape with some thought, some dream, some memory, some inspiration in print. To aid withdrawal there must be border. The gardened place must be defined so the eye and mind cannot wander; so thoughts and dreams cannot be interrupted. With no borders the landscape garden is no garden at all, but a field.
The arrangement of plants is to the landscape gardener what the arrangement of chords is to the pianist. Although it is possible for a novice pianist to find a pleasing chord, one chord does not make a composition. Likewise, a novice gardener may plant a pleasing combination of flowers and shrubbery, but a landscape garden this does not make. “Composers” of the successful landscape garden know their plants. They know plants’ shapes and sizes and how these can be tailored to style. They know plant colors and textures and when and how they change. Garden artists know the sun and shadow of the garden and how to introduce or exclude either. They know plant preferences for shade, soil, and moisture. They gain their knowledge primarily from the experience of working with plants, from years of planting and replacing until the right combination suits the eye.
Not only must the successful landscape garden be designed and planted, it must be given time to mature. Gardens, like people, gain character with age. It may take years, decades before a landscape garden performs its best. Trees cannot yet be manufactured. And the garden must be groomed, regularly tended by caring, experienced hands, the hands of an artist, the hands of a worker. And even when all this is done well, what is achieved is an arrangement of living plants each and all subject to Nature’s mood and dictate, to stand or fall as Nature sees fit. A garden as planned is a garden never achieved.”
I wrote the above essay over twenty years ago when I was Executive Secretary of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. It is also printed in the Home Page here at our website.