Capability Brown

When I was a teenager, I worked at the Armstrong Garden Center after school on San Fernando Road in my hometown of Glendale.  I started out as a "water boy" (yes, that’s what my name tag said — somebody has to water all those plants and flowers!) and a general dogs-body (carrying bags of manure to old ladies’ cars, tidying around the store, mowing and weeding the lawn, and tending to the gardens in and around the garden center); being autodidactic by nature, I quickly taught myself the names and taxonomy of the plants, their growth habits, foliage, and flowers, and their tolerances for sunlight and water, which led to my receiving my first-ever promotion:  part-time nurseryman on weekends.  I genuinely loved it, and I trace my interest in ornamental horticulture today back to those days — my first proper job.

I continue to pursue gardening as one of my keenest interests.  It enlivens and animates me — not just the fragrance and beauty of the plants, but the interaction with the soil, the rooting out of weeds and pests, and the patience required for growth.  I am not “outdoorsy” per se, but I enjoy being outdoors.

Gardening was never meant to look pretty in its earliest form.  The oldest known type of horticulture is referred to as forest gardening — early planting was mainly done for practical reasons:  to grow herbs or vegetables, or flowers that were cultivated for religious and medicinal purposes.  Gardens didn’t become a form of creative or aesthetic display until the 13th century CE, due to the emergence of an upper class with leisure time to enjoy them.  That said, the earliest recorded archaeological evidence of an aesthetically designed garden not planted with a practical purpose in mind dates only as far back as the 15th century CE in Egypt; it was based on a garden at Thebes which belonged to a high court official and included the use of many plants, pieces of advice on cultivation, and instructions on sowing, planting, and grafting of trees.

It wasn’t until the following century that the ideas behind gardening changed.  The flourishing of society allowed people increased leisure time; Europeans began to cultivate gardens both for food and for beauty — we begin to see lawns of grass and raised flowerbeds used to decorate the surrounding land. Throughout history, gardens have taken on different roles falling somewhere on a continuum ranging from functional to aesthetic.  The word ‘garden’ itself refers etymologically to an enclosure, and reveals the first use of a garden — farmers who needed to cultivate vegetables either for food or to sell/trade would locate such an enclosed space near their dwelling as these types of plants needed more watering and specialized care; they were probably first enclosed to prevent livestock from eating the plants.  But by the 16th century CE, people started to build walls and raised flowerbeds around their lawns and homes to provide privacy; monasteries planted and tended gardens as a means of seclusion allowing monks to live and meditate separated from "the world.”  During Roman antiquity, ornamental horticulture had reached its pre-medieval peak — Roman gardens were regarded as places of tranquillity, allowing one to seek refuge from the busyness and noise of urban life.  Fast forward to the 16th century and gardens begin to take on the creative form of art when individuals started to have the luxury of time to plan and then manage gardens.  The wealthy classes began to have an interest in horticulture and landscape design — the more elaborate the planning and execution of a garden the better it reflected on the social status of a family, denoting wealth and nobility.

And we begin to see here the development of the two primary types of modern garden and how they each are influenced by a different philosophy of humanity’s relationship with the natural world:  the French Garden and the English Garden.  The jardin à la Française (or "garden in the French manner") drew its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance garden.  King Charles VIII of France decreed the Italian-inspired French Garden to be the exclusive type of formal garden allowed in his country after traveling to Italy in 1495; he gathered Italian artisans and landscape architects to design a French garden after seeing for himself how gardens could represent the ideals and virtues of a moment in time.  The key features of a French Garden would be its symmetrical and orderly arrangement, which evince a bending and taming of nature to conform to humanity’s will.  The most notable example of the French Garden style would be the Gardens of Versailles created by landscape architect André Le Nôtre in the 17th century.  The Gardens of Versailles covered 150,000 hectares of land and showed how peace and order came through humanity ruling over nature.

The Gardens of Versailles

In 1718, an English Garden designer named Stephen Switzer wrote in Ichnografia Rustica that a garden is, “open to all View, to the unbounded Felicities of distant Prospect, and the expansive Volumes of Nature herself.”  He examined the costs of creating and expenses of maintaining a formal garden and called for a better alternative to gardening:  better for individuals and better for society.  This would ultimately transform the gardens of England as many started to appreciate a more natural and relaxed idea of gardening than had been exported from France and gave expression to the view that rather than bend the world to our will, we ought to find ways to appreciate it as it manifests itself and to coexist with it.  Hence, English Gardens are more natural, eschewing strict geometric features, and gave rise to the French Jardins Anglais and the German Englischer Garten.  It was Roy Porter who best captured the essence of English Gardens by stating that the critical enlightening concept was nature itself; English Gardens relied heavily on the nonuniform shapes of trees, seeking to portray the diversity of life and its capability to enthuse bold and creative ideas.  The English Garden was thus rooted (a pun, yes?) in the principle of humanity cooperating with nature.

Lancelot "Capability" Brown

The most notable men behind the designs of English Gardens were William Kent and Lancelot “Capability" Brown.  William Kent was an architect-turned-gardener who was eventually employed by the English royal family of the day to design their palace gardens.  In Kent’s work, one could see undulating trees between serpentine walkways; though he included some straight walks in his designs, sporadic woodland stands out as the central part of the garden.

Capability Brown (left) worked as assistant to William Kent before embarking on his own career as one of the most influential figures in 18th century landscape design.  Brown designed parks and gardens as if they grew organically out of their surroundings without human intervention or management.  He often transformed yards with a belt of trees surrounding the whole estate, a random assignment of trees, serpentine walks with massive lawns, and irregularly shaped lakes with an occasional bridge.  An example of this type of creation can be found at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace

As a good rule of thumb, if you’re looking to plant a garden and want to evoke a specific feeling, remember these basic characteristics.  French Gardens are very geometric; at their center should be some sort of façade and the landscape should emanate outward in an orderly fashion from that.  If, like me, your philosophy of life is to reconcile yourself to the vicissitudes of the world and celebrate its sometimes messy, irregular diversity, you’re after an English Garden — let your plants get a little wild and even unkempt looking.

Dartmoor

Dartmoor, Devon, Southwest England

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