Classical Gardens

It’s often said that history repeats itself—so why not in today’s gardens? Gardens are ancient endeavors that stretch back to biblical days of Eden and Babylonian Hanging Gardens. The Chinese, Egyptians and Romans all placed their stamp on the design of the garden. Many of these features may still be employed for stylish and practical use today. The subsequent article demonstrates classical features—design, ornament, structure and plantings—that will give your garden a timeless appeal for the enjoyment of all.

Classical features from the ancient world can be adapted to both formal and rustic style gardens. You may choose to incorporate elements from a specific locale or time period like Medieval Spain or Late Roman Empire or blend ideas from many cultures for a unique classical presentation. When it comes to plantings, you may want to consider plants with a past—not only are they lovely, but they also make great conversation pieces. Tulips, poppies, laurel and ivy—these plantings have much historical significance. But then, herbs have long been important in gardens for their healing and medicinal properties. You may also want to consider antique plants like heirloom roses—Damasks and Gallic varieties for an old-world reflection.

Of course there are many trees, shrubs and flowers that are reminders of the long ago past. Water lilies and lotus flowers might always remind us of the ancient tea gardens of sixteenth century Japan. Egyptian papyrus can easily be grown in today’s water gardens and some of the first writings in the world were written on papyrus. Other plants of historical interest include lilies, narcissus, pomegranate, almond, chrysanthemum and daisy.

When organizing your plantings, consider an old-world design of terraces for sloped landscapes or possibly a medieval maze or labyrinth design. Mazes can be accomplished with tall hedges or even very low growing plants. Hanging gardens are always suggestive of the ancient world and may be modest or ornate in nature. Consider a pergola for a support for your climbing plants and vines. Other old-world features that make excellent supports for a hanging garden include pavilions, arbors, arches and tunnels all festooned with your favorite vines.

Water was a prime consideration for ancient farmers and gardeners alike. Ancient pleasure gardens might boast many water features. The Romans, famed aqueduct builders, employed stylistic water features that are still in vogue today such as fountains and pools. Such features generally depict a classical figure from mythology—water nymphs sporting pottery from whence water descends into a large basing or a Roman goddess like Demeter carved from marble. There is also a Moorish influence that should not be overlooked when designing fountains for patios. Their classical tiled basins are some of the most beautiful. Even a well can be transformed into a truly ancient focal point for your garden.

Oriental water features tend to be more rustic in nature and their aesthetic is to blend them as closely to the natural surroundings as possible. A terraced rock garden might boast a lively cascade that splashes into a koi filled pond. Or, alternatively, rainwater might collect in a dip in large rock or run down a bamboo shoot into a series of small wooden bowls for a simple water effect. Garden ponds are essential for most old-world gardens; consider something highly reflective of the medieval world such as a moat around a gazebo for instance.

The planters for your classical garden should also blend into your design. Choose large urns and stone Medici vases classic appeal. A huge clay storage jar placed beside an ancient gnarled tree makes a fantastic pairing. There are many pots and containers available that have been given a faux classical patina finish that will work very well as old world pottery is not so easy to come by and may be more relevant to a museum than a modern day pleasure garden—in the classical style, thought it may be. It often helps to organize many containers near a water feature, as invasive water plants are easy to maintain this way. Stone vases depicting cherubs or other classical statuettes, funery potholders and jardinieres also make classically pertinent ornaments.

Of course, there is a vast array of garden accessories in the classic style to really bring your garden old-world charm. Birds were frequently caged about ancient Roman pleasure gardens so incorporating ornate cages in your garden, a dovecote and other bird features is highly suggestive of an ancient garden. Lighting might be best employed with simple lanterns or possibly torches. Other relevant ornaments include statues of classical and mythological figures, stone balls, obelisks, sundials, etc…

Stone ornaments will weather well and they are also most reminiscent of the ancient past when artisans chipped away at a rock to reveal their creation. Searching flea markets will possibly allow you to find unique items for your garden. Finally, page through art books of old world paintings for garden and landscape scenes to find more design possibilities.