What defines a correct backyard? | Gardening recommendation

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ÖOne of the most common rumors I hear in horticulture is that something is not a “real garden”. As a botanist researching our cultural relationship with plants and a designer who designed gardens for the Chelsea Flower Show, I have yet to say exactly what this term actually means. To get it right, let’s take a closer look at this.

In some definitions, a garden is a piece of land adjoining a house where plants can be grown. But that view would exclude anything that is not domestic habitation – from every allotment garden in the country to some of the most famous botanical gardens in the world. Even if we gloss over the “house” part, as other definitions do, we still have the default of a garden as “property”. Does that mean that roof gardens – like Singapore’s spectacular sky parks, where palm-filled rainforests are lifted into the clouds – don’t count? If it’s not gardens, then it’s not the living walls that hang on the sides of buildings that are popping up in cities around the world. What about miniature gardens where entire landscapes are scaled down in bowls, glass terrariums, and even closed tanks? Absolutely no land – often not even soil – is involved in these, so maybe they are not “gardens” in the truest sense of the word?

Small but nice: a terrarium. Photo: Nicholas Eveleigh / Alamy

Do gardens even have to contain plants? I would be tempted to say yes, until one comes to the centuries-old zen gravel gardens of Japan or the modernist wonders of the water and the architectural concrete of the Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx, one of the most famous garden designers in the world of the 20th century. Where do we draw the line?

Perhaps the best way to answer this is to go beyond definitions of the term in the English language, which inevitably come with some linguistic and cultural bias, and look at examples of gardens from history to see what they are all have in common. While most horticultural texts tell you that the concept of the garden as a landscape exclusively for enjoyment and not for food production can be traced back to the Middle East, this only applies to the western style of gardening. In reality, like agriculture, the concept of ornamental horticulture seems to have originated independently of disconnected civilizations. From the floating gardens of the Aztecs in the middle of a huge lake to the manicured miniature landscapes of rocks and rivers created in ancient China to the ritual ornamental plants carefully selected by indigenous peoples from Papua New Guinea to New Zealand seems almost universal.

What they have in common is that they are stylized landscapes that – whether we know it or not – depict nature as we “should” imagine it. In fact, I would argue that gardens are probably the best barometer of how a culture sees nature and human place in it: the physical embodiment of what the world “should” look like around us. The wonderful thing, of course, is that this is entirely in the eyes of their creators.

So what is a “real” garden? Anything you want – and anyone who tells you otherwise simply reveals how little they know about gardens.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek