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The Persian Paridaiza

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The Greeks and Romans copied their garden sanctuary concept from the Persians, who copied it from the Egyptians. Persia itself considered itself a sanctuary from the rest of the world. Part of its empire building ideal was to conquer the world by establishing a paradise on earth. History proves that, in practice, the concept didn’t work out that way. Even so, the Persian Empire under Cyrus II and his successor, Darius I, was the first to respect the cultural diversity of its conquered peoples. It was the first great multicultural empire of the world. Persia became a land of gardens and poetry, birthing such mystics as Jami, Rumi, Hafir, and Omar Khayyam, its brilliant poet mathematician.

When Persian invaders discovered Egypt’s walled gardens in the sixth century B.C.E., they carried the idea back home and adapted it to their own park traditions. They learned to transform barren ground into a paradise as an attempt to reclaim a lost paradise where once had existed a harmony. Symmetry sought to restore that sense of balance and harmony within strict, axial lines, if only visually.

The word “paradise” derives from Old Persian pairi-daega for exceptional gardens. Its etymology came to mean a celestial paradise on earth. We think of Eden as fitting that description. Indeed, some scholars would suggest Eden was located in the northern Iranian Zagros Mountains, not Mesopotamia. It’s possible, but so far I’ve not found corroborating evidence to support that assumption.

According to Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus the Great envisioned Persia as a garden holding every sort of plant and flower, and protecting his people within massive walls encircling three sides of the land, with water on the fourth. The highly advanced culture of ancient Persia developed the ability to source and direct water to irrigate this arid land.

“The dry earth was ticking under the sun and the crickets rasped. ‘It’s real godforsaken country,’ said Louis.”

~ John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

The earliest recorded evidence of a Persian garden is the Pasargadae Palace Complex of King Cyrus the Great in 600 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). He built palaces and pavilions, enclosed his gardens within mud brick walls, and lined water channels with stone. Not only did the walls provide protection from sand storms whipping across the desert, it also created a sense of mystery in the space designed for intimacy and contemplation in an otherwise hostile environment.

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In Persian literature, the word “garden” is pardis, derived from paridaiza, a walled garden sanctuary. Beautiful geometrics and shapes exemplify the basic design concept. Thick mud walls enclosed rectangular plots which, in turn, enclosed smaller rectangular or square plots. A perpendicular straight line intersected an axis to create unity and integrity by both water channels and foot paths.

Within the basic design were four garden rooms, known as chahar bagh, all connected by footpaths and water channels set on axes. The intersection of the main longitudinal water course with an axis marked the placement of a pavilion, often with a reflecting pool in front of the entrance. This pavilion was not a gazebo but a residence. Cyrus had two pavilions and two palaces, as shown in the diagram above.

The entrance had an arched lintel building situated on an axis close to the pavilion to create a sense of anticipation. It visually framed the pavilion and the water channel. Often the lintel building served as a reception room for guests .

Water, of course, was essential for irrigating the gardens. Small waterfalls within the main channel, lined in stone, appealed to aesthetic and acoustic sensibilities. Imagine musical trickling fountains falling in graceful arcs like a water ballet.

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Sadly, those mud brick walls of Cyrus’s gardens are mere rubble today, outlining the blueprint of garden room perimeters. Only the remnants of the central aqueduct remains. But this ancient design concept of enclosed gardens lives on in the grand Italian Renaissance estates and classic palace grounds at Versailles, the governor’s Palace gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, and my own backyard herb parterre, albeit without mud walls and stone-lined water channels.





















Ancient Roman Gardens

“By means of our hands we struggle to create a second world within the world of nature.”

~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

Roman gardens began as practical sources of vegetables, herbs, and fruits for the household. Herbs were essential for culinary and medicinal use in the home – basil, bay, celery seed, hyssop, mint, savory, and thyme were the most popular. Later, favorite flowers included damask roses and violets, narcissus and lily and iris bulbs. Wildflowers grew on uncultivated land on the hillsides.

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The Basic Hortus

Three generations before Cicero, farmers like Cato the Elder and Cincinnatus worked their lands with overseers and a few slaves. Every inch of land was devoted to crops, cattle, and making money from farming olives and other produce. The farm houses themselves were functional rather than beautiful, surrounded by productive acres.

The so-called Villa of L. Crassius Tertius is a prime example. Tertius’s villa is a rustic, two-story structure arranged around a monumental peristyle with a double row of Doric columns. Many of the rooms of tamed earth floors were left unplastered. The living quarters were housed on the upper floor while the ground floor rooms were used for manufacturing and storing wine and oil—a clear indication that most imperial villas were working farms or factories. After all, the Roman world was based on agriculture. These larger villas replaced numerous smaller farms where predominant crops were grapes and olive. Hence, the birth of the first global export market in Italy.

Peristyle Garden

A typical domus romana for an upper-class family like Cicero, on the other hand, enclosed both an atrium, with a shallow basin or pool to catch rainwater from the open roof, and a peristylium, a colonnaded courtyard for a garden of herbs and flowers, particularly roses, with fountains, small statues, topiaries, reflecting pools sometimes stocked with goldfish, sculpture, and benches for sitting to enjoy the view on sunny days.

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Only the front door of townhouses faced the street. All windows faced inward. One entered through a vestibule into the atrium, the centerpiece of the house. The courtyard beyond stretched between two wings of private family rooms, ending in a focal point: marble statue or a bench against a back wall painted with frescoes, for example. Both the atrium and the courtyard garden were open to the sky for fresh air to circulate among the cloisters and the rooms during hot Mediterranean summers.

Villa Gardens

Cicero’s letters give us a much clearer picture of ancient Roman villas than most history books. He describes his Tusculum Villa where he withdrew to his library and gardens, only a day’s travel from Rome. Like typical Roman houses, his domus romana enclosed both an atrium, with a shallow basin to catch rainwater, and a peristylium, a peristyle courtyard for a garden of herbs and flowers, particularly roses, with marble fountains, small statues of gods, a sundial, and benches for sitting to enjoy the view on sunny days. Cicero’s personal library opened onto such a garden.

The site of Cicero’s family villa, Arpinum, on the northern border of the Volscian Territory, is where the elderly Cicero reassembled the battered remains of his libraries, hoping the scrolls would be more secure than in Rome.

“If you have a garden in your library, you will want for nothing.”  ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tiberius, emperor during the Apostle Paul’s lifetime, built his country estate, Villa Tiberio near Sperlonga, a beach resort between Rome and Naples. A natural grotto formed a banquet hall graced with marble statuary of mythical scenes from Homerian epics. Later, he retired to Villa Jovis constructed by his immediate predecessor, Augustus, on the Isle of Capri, offshore from Naples. It remains standing today.

More elaborate imperial villas featured frescoes in brilliant reds and golds on the walls facing the garden, usually depicting birds and flowers and trees. Box and ilex topiaries were pruned into animal or geometric shapes, and low hedges of yew and box surrounded various beds of plants. Some villa estates even included riding grounds separate from the main house, such as Pliny the Younger’s Tuscan estate with avenues of pathways lined with cypress trees.

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Villa Poppaea in the Roman town of Oplontis served as the main residence for Nero’s wife when she was not in Rome. A grand residence dating from the middle of the 1st century B.C.E., it had been enlarged during Imperial times and was undergoing restoration work at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. The villa housed at least a dozen gardens, including a peristyle garden in the original portion of the villa where archaeologists have found a fountain, a sundial, and even the remains of a rake, a hoe, and a hook. Another enclosed garden on the grounds featured wall paintings of plants and birds, and depressions in the corners where fruit trees had grown. Two other courtyard gardens also featured wall paintings.

Classic Italian Garden

The Renaissance Era added form to function, beauty to bounty, embellishments like marble statues and balustrades, terra cotta pedestals for statuary, and fountains of spraying water in sunlight. Topiaries and hedges clipped from box and ilex formed green architecture to provide framed views through terraced gardens and vistas of the countryside beyond tall cypresses and pines. The landscape became a balance of cultivated greenery and natural forest, called a boschetto.

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What we consider the classic Italian garden structure is exemplified by the Villa de Castello of the 16th-century Florentine Medicis. Axial organization linked separate gardens, a design concept incorporated at the Palace at Versailles in Paris and later at the Governor’s Mansion in Colonial Williamsburg. As breathtaking as these old villa gardens are to visit, they appear too grand for many of us today, unless we’ve been blessed with spacious acreage and financial resources. Yet, backyard gardeners like me can learn a thing or two about design and structure and apply those lessons to a smaller scale. Statuary and water features on a small courtyard, for example, a bench at one end of an herb garden enclosed by boxwood, an allee between a double row of trees or an interlaced arbor of vines—all easily are adaptable in today’s ornamental pleasure gardens.

In my own backyard garden, I have adapted several of these elements. What would have been a hortus in ancient times has evolved into an English-style garden of roses, peonies, iris, cat mint, veronicas, lilacs, dogwoods and a magnolia. A low box hedge encloses an axial herb garden with four parterres, a center sundial on a pedestal, and a bench arbor against the back wall.

Italian elements grace the courtyard: a yew hedge on one side, an Italianate wall fountain, urns and planters of Boston ferns and geraniums, table lanterns, black wrought iron seating and glass-topped tables. A pair of pillars supporting large urns flank the exit into a rosarium featuring an armillary.

And my library is just inside glass doors that I leave open in summer as tribute to la casa aperta.  Cicero would smile, I’m sure.








In A Monastery Herb Garden

DISCLAIMER. In this story describing basic medicinal herbs cultivated in Medieval monastery gardens, I purpose is NOT to recommend any do-it-yourself treatments. Rather, it’s an invitation to stroll these gardens in your imagination and learn a bit of garden history in the process. Otherwise, enjoy!

Invitation to the Garden

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In A Monastery Herb Garden

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How well the skillful gardener grew

Of flow’r and herbs this dial new,

Where from above the milder sun

Does through a fragrant zodiac run;

And as it works, th’industrious bee

Computes its time as well as we.

How could such sweet and wholesome hours

Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

                        ~ from “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell

While I’m immersed in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, I sometimes dream I’m the prioress strolling the cloistered monastery gardens with rosary beads and breviary in hand, following the Liturgy of the Hours — an imaginary escape from my working world. The monastic gardens of the Middle Ages, however, were the working world of monks and nuns. Food production was the sole livelihood of cloistered religious communities.

Entwined with culinary plots were infirmary herb gardens to provide medicinal herbs. Saint Benedict of Nursia (b. 480 A.D. d. 547 A.D.), who founded Monte Cassino in 529 A.D., taught that “before all things, and above all things, special care must be taken of the sick.”

A monastery’s infirmary herb garden dedicated to medicinal herbs was based on the theory that the body has four “humours” relative to the four elements: air, fire, earth, water. An imbalance of these four humors causes illness in the body. Herbs of medicinal properties restored the balance when applied topically or ingested in carefully prescribed doses.

Nine herbs that would have been grown and cultivated in a monastic infirmary garden, such as the imaginary one at Follett’s imaginary Knightsbridge Priory or Benedict’s

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monastery in Italy, are the sages and other herbaceous plants with healing properties. I have a few of these in my own little herb plot.

  1. Salvia officinalis was used by the Romans for both culinary and medicinal purposes, the latter to cleanse the body of venom and pestilence. The word “sage” comes from the Lain salveo meaing “I am well.” Sage certainly retains a place in my garden for seasoning poultry and bread stuffing with onions and celery. A tea from boiling water poured over sage leaves make a viable but strong-tasting remedy for nasal congestion, as well as for coughs.
  2. Salvia sclarea (Clary sage) is a biennial with purple-blue flower spikes that attract honey-bees. It’s main use was as an eyewash made by infusing the sweet-scented leaves in cool water. A similar plant is Salvia verbenaca which I grow for its ornamental height in my perennial beds.
  3. Stachys officinalis (Betony) was popular for curing “whatever ails ye” such as fear and anxiety, since its properties as a nervine has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system. Betony produces thick spikes of purple-lavender flowers.
  4. Symphytum officinalis (Comfrey a/k/a Boneset or Knitbone) is an emollient made into a poultice for sprains, swellings, bruises, cuts, boils, abscesses, et cetera, thus in high demand in a monastic infirmary.
  5. Ruta graveolens (Rue) was once used in holy water for exorcisms. In today’s herb gardens, rue is used as a repellant against Japanese beetles, yet it attracts butterfly species. Its not so pleasant scent is rather pungent, leading credence to Shakespeare’s “rue the day” idiom, meaning “regret the day . . .”
  6. Hysoppus officinalis (Hyssop) is a delightful herb with tiny blue flowers running up the full length of its spikes. With biblical connotations, it long has been used for cleaning sacred places. “Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Ps. 51:1). “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it into the lamb’s blood . . .” (Exodus 12:12). Some churches use a bunch of hyssop instead of an aspergillum to sprinkle holy water onto the congregation. The name Hyssop derives from the Greek; Hyssopas of Dioscorides was named from a holy herb used for cleansing sacred spaces. Medicinally, hyssop was brewed into a tea, mixed with horehound, or sometimes boiled into a soup, for asthma and for clearing chest phlegm.
  7. Chamaemelum nobile (Chamomile or Camomile) is the herb from which Old Mrs. Rabbit infused a tea and fed to Peter Rabbit after his foray into Mr. McGregor’s Garden. I say better to bed with a tummy ache than into a pie for the McGregors’ supper! Chamomile is known for treating digestive disorders as well as for calming nerves. It’s cultivation derives from ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. The low-growing carpet-like plants bear tiny white daisy flowers with yellow centers.
  8. Cuminum cyminum (Cumin), along with dill and mint, is native to the Middle East, as far as India, and are mentioned in Matthew 23:23. Crusaders during the Middle Ages brought back these herbs and spices with them when they returned to Europe and Britain. Mentioned in Isaiah’s poetic Parable of the Farmer (28:24-28), cumin seeds were used in monastic infirmaries to make ointment for skin ailments.
  9. Anethum graveolens (Dill) is listed among three herbs that were tithed, in Matthew 23:23; the other two were cumin and mint. The English word “dill” derives from Anglo-Saxon “dillo” meaning to lull. As a stimulant, the pungent dill induces the expulsion of intestinal gas. As a culinary herb, it is sprinkled on sliced cucumbers and stuffed deviled eggs as well as for pickling. In the garden, the caterpillar of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly feeds on the leaves and creates its chrysalis on the stems.

Although these mine basic medicinal herbs were paramount, the monastic gardens included such culinary herbs as sweet bay, sweet myrtle, rosemary, common sage, thyme, and winter savory. Red roses symbolized religious devotion to the blood of Christ and the martyrs. White roses represented the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sweet violets symbolized true humility.

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Mount Vernon’s Walled Gardens

Our obsession with the perfect lawn is nothing new. Two centuries before the suburbs of the post-war 1950s, George Washington designed his west “sea of green” — a large grass plot surrounded by a carriage road of crushed oyster shells. We walked along the right hand side, hoping to avoid crowds of tourists lined along the left road, not realizing that was the only way to get inside the house. After all, it was the house we had come to see and imagine ourselves visiting my childhood hero. We wandered the grounds instead, invited ourselves to sit in one of a row of Windsor chairs on the east piazza overlooking the Potomac, breathed the rarified air of an April afternoon.

Washington’s landscape design reflects his personal sense of decorum and measured self-awareness as a  heroic classical  hero, a virtual Cincinnatus of his own time. The original Mansion House Farm, as he called it, began as a more rigid design following the English gardens of geometric forms, axially symmetrical, filled with clipped topiary — embodying royal prerogatives of the Tories — as I described in a previous blog about Colonial Williamsburg.

What visitors to Mount Vernon may view today is the second phase begun in 1774 and continued until 1789 for both house and grounds. Washington patterned his working farm after the scientific agriculture of the Enlightenment era. Over time, the farm developed into a completely self-sufficient 7,600-acre plantation of five farms. More manageable for today’s walking tourists is the 500-acre home farm or, as Washington referred to it, the “Mansion House Farm.”

The landscape was a symbolic return to unadorned nature with looser edges, less like the enclosed parterres of Colonial Williamsburg gardens. Yet, form must follow function. Herbs and vegetables still must be planted in easily accessible rows, with segments partitioned by narrow walks of crushed oyster shells. Mount Vernon’s Upper and Lower gardens demonstrate this point.


“. . . a neat flower garden laid out in squares, and boxed with great precision. Along the north wall of this garden is a plain greenhouse.” ~ Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796


Latrobe is referring to the brick conservatory or orangery on the north side of the Upper Garden, warmed by a hot flue system in the floor. During the winters, Washington kept (as do Mount Vernon’s gardeners today) tropical plants such as key lime, lemon and, orange trees from three to five feet high, as well as palms, and a banana tree, then wheeled them outdoors for summer decoration.

Washington grafted his own fruit trees. Eighteen different varieties of pears were espaliered against the south wall. Most of the cider apples were grown in the attached vineyard enclosure or out in the orchards.

Low boxwood edges square parterres of vegetables and herbs in an informal layout. One such square contains “flower knots” of germander in a bed of crushed oyster shells. His herb list included both culinary and medicinal plants: basil, rosemary, parsley, sage, dill, chives, lavender, small bay trees, Cayan pepper from the West Indies, digitalis or foxglove, not to mention the mint and roses that Martha Washington distilled into “waters.” Pungent bay leaves freshened stale air in a room when boiling water was poured over them as they lay on a red-hot fire shovel in the fireplace.


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No oyster shell paths here in this English-style potager. A wide grass lane dissects the two halves of the Lower Garden, and the narrow access paths among plots are “paved” in grass, as well. Here is where Washington’s workers — usually indentured Europeans — followed time-honored gardening techniques, laid out beds for convenience and growth, not according to some artful aesthetic.

Brick walls enclose this sloping lower garden to help maintain the best microclimate for early vegetables and tender fruit such as peaches and nectarines, cherries and plums, along with figs, most notably the Brown Turkey figs. A pointed coping along the top of the brick walls keeps moisture from rains seeping down into the mortar joints.

This garden plot probably had been established first back in Washington’s father’s day. The south-facing slope below the bowling green catches the best sunlight and provides ample drainage. Straw mulch keeps the weeds at bay. Nearby stables render plenty of fertilizer. One of the corner octagons houses the seed house storing collected seed for the following spring’s planting. All the plants here are ones Washington had recorded in his notes and on lists.


Washington often called this area “my Little garden” or “my Botanick garden” where he spent most of his time gardening on his own.  Attached to the east end of the Upper Garden, this enclosure illustrates Washington the Enlightenment man of scientific experiment. He liked to try plants too tender for the Virginia Piedmont climate, such as seeds of “Pride-of-Barbados” (Caesalpina pulcherrima), a sort of flower fence. He experimented with nuts such as pecans and hickory.

Today, the Vineyard Enclosure is restored according to the most recent archaeological and documentary evidence.


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Like Monticello and the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon is a living museum. Visitors can spot a few workers among the rows, although none are in period dress, sadly, just as the docents inside the Mansion itself are not in costume.

Mount Vernon is open for tours from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Check the website for one-day admission tickets and prices. 

For further reading:

  • Washington's Gardens at Mount Vernon
  • The General in the Garden: George Washington's Landscape at Mount Vernon
















































































































































































Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

Mile after mile we drive on winding narrow roads cut deep like ditches through virgin woods. Wild dogwood and southern redbud bloom among tall pines. We pass battlefields prominent in both wars, the War for American Independence and the War Between the States.

This is Albermarle County, in the Virginia Piedmont region where Thomas Jefferson established Monticello. We have eschewed major highways for backcountry travel because, after all, this is a tour of early American history in situ rather than from books or films. These now paved ditch-like roads follow the old Indian trails, cut deep to avoid detection by enemy armies in the old wars.

On our winding road this spring day, we pass many old mansions and farmhouses, several obviously antebellum or possibly even pre-Revolutionary era, most early 19th century. I see, in the far distance across acres of meadow, what appears to be Montpelier, James Madison’s estate. My romantic notions convince me it could be.

Shortly before we reach Monticello, we stop in a woodland area for lunch at Michie Tavern (c. 1784) where black-eyed peas and fresh cornbread are served on original pewter dishes.

The word “Monticello” means “Little Mountain” in Italian. This was Thomas Jefferson’s private world where he retreated with his family, his farm, his books and scientific experiments. The landscape itself was his agricultural workhouse; the gardens were his experimental laboratory for the study of natural history – horticulture and how natural elements of weather and even insects affected plant life in the Piedmont. He kept meticulous, “maddeningly” methodical records in a Weather Memorandum Book and his personal garden journal, dated 1767-1824. Published in 1944 as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, these records became a singular source for researchers in early horticulture; it is available for purchase at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants or online from http://www.monticelloshop.com.

Beds of spring tulips are prominent the day we visit the estate. Each variety of tulip is showcased in its own ten-foot bed within borders along winding walks. Unlike Williamsburg’s enclosed cottage gardens, all the beds are open to the Piedmont landscape and, thus, to the vagaries of a Virginia weather system.

I am most impressed by the two acres of working gardens carefully laid out according to Jefferson’s original design, including rows of both herbs and vegetables. Rather than sculptured squares of private gardens as at Colonial Williamsburg, Jefferson terraced a thousand-foot-long rectangle on the southeastern slope, a ferme ornée amalgam of a working farm with its pictorial and bucolic scenes, including a brick “folly” or garden pavilion.

Within the ferme ornée, Jefferson positioned the north-south arrangement of rows so that each plant receives an equal amount of sunlight hours daily. There he experimented with more than 300 varieties of vegetables cultivated from seed from around the world in order to select only the best variety of vegetable. Interspersed among rows of vegetables he planted nearly two dozen different culinary and medicinal herbs ranging from basil and borage to valerian and winter savory.

At the west end of the long walk, arbors of rough-hewn posts and crossbeams, made from forked limbs of black locust trees, support pole beans in white, scarlet, crimson, purple. He included 46 bean varieties and 25 types of English peas! In fact, Jefferson encouraged friendly competition among his neighbors as to who could harvest the first English pea of the season. The winner hosted a community dinner where each guest could sample one teaspoon of peas contributed from each gardener. I don’t think we have to guess who won!

Summer brings other native plants such as Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemose) and Virginia bluebells among cultivated perennials, historic roses, and iris.

Monticello is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. The gardens and grounds are available for walking tours from April to October. Be sure to stop in at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants where you may purchase packets of heirloom seeds. Or order online at http://www.monticelloshop.com/farm-garden-seeds.html.

For further reading:

Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 1944

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2002 (113-157)

Dining at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2005 (55-63)

Virginia Wildflowers: A Natural History Gallery of Wildflowers and Mushrooms, at https://virginiawildflowers.org/



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The quintessential example of Early American gardens is the historic district of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia’s Tidewater region. A benign climate and rich fertile contribute to a prodigious assortment of herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, even small orchards. My first visit ten years ago gave me the impression I had walked right into the pages of The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg – the proverbial dream come true for me.

I peered over picket fences, entered black iron gates, strolled narrow paths set in brick patterns of running bond or herringbone among meticulously restored gardens behind individual garden gates. I watched costumed children play inside one fenced back garden of one of the “middling class” houses. One little girl flew up into the air on an old-fashioned swing hung from a large tree branch.

Twenty-years after the first British settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607, English colonists founded Williamsburg on high ground between the James and York rivers. By the 1700s, merchants and tradespeople had established villages and towns and thriving commerce serving outlying farms and plantations. Each “middling class” householder cultivated his own self-sustaining food supply in utilitarian potages – back-door kitchen gardens.

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The colonial woman provided plants not only for foods but also flavorings, medicines, and chemicals. Madder and woad were used to dye fabrics, and basil and sage flavored meats. Yarrow, angelica, feverfew and valerian are old English herbs used in treating common physical ailments or aiding in childbirth. Southernwood and pennyroyal were insect repellents; tansy planted outside the back door repelled ants from crawling inside.

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Only later as personal leisure increased among the upper classes did the colonists begin to incorporate “pleasure gardens” into the landscape, purely for the delight in formal landscapes they, or their ancestors, had left behind in England. To them, a garden was nature tamed, trimmed, and enclosed by human intervention with the natural landscape. They brought seeds and bulbs with them in order to establish a version of their old gardens back home


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A balanced geometric symmetry within enclosed spaces characterizes the parterre, as in John Blair’s garden, show above. This Dutch design comes from the era of William of Orange and Queen Mary during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In colonial gardens, the design comprises what’s termed a “quincunx” – that is, an arrangement of four squares or rectangles with a fifth area in the center where all the crosswalks connect. It is meant to be viewed from upstairs windows or balconies, or by geese flying overhead on their way south for winter.

Narrow paths of bricks or crushed shells of clams and oysters from Chesapeake Bay separate the parterres by an axis with crosswalks, rather like the British Union Jack. The usual brick pattern used was running bond, sometimes a herringbone configuration. Broken brick edge shell paths to keep the pieces from washing into the garden beds.


Colonial Williamsburg

Along with geometry, choice of plant material and enclosure comprise the other design elements. Spring tulips and summer flowers and roses fill each section. In fact, “tulipomania” – a craze for Dutch tulips – reached its apex in the 1630s and then spread to England with William and Mary. From there, the Virginia colonists brought bulbs and introduced a mania for tulips in Williamsburg.

Herbs may or may not have been incorporated into pleasure gardens; if not, they were planted in a separate quincunx. John Blair did combine them in his.

Shrubbery accents the corners. Boxwood hedges, sometimes wood picket fences, enclosed each garden. Brick walls, on the other hand, with their distinctively curved roof-shaped top edging protecting the mortar from seeping moisture during the rainy seasons, enclose the grounds of the Governor’s Palace and Bruton Parish Church (established 1674) in Williamsburg.

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The Governor’s Palace

When Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood arrived in Williamsburg, he thought gardens should be grand, especially surrounding the Governor’s Palace. He wanted it to look like a palatial European estate. He enclosed formal gardens with boxwood hedges, as King William, himself, favored clipped boxwood, the sempervirens Suffrusticosa. Likewise, he ordered shrubbery clipped and sheared into gumdrop or ball shapes, and yaupon holly in thick columns.

Governor's Palace

Today, in spring, the palace gardens feature stately rows of red and yellow, sometimes pink and burgundy, tulips. Blue and white Delph porcelain tulipierres and finger vases, handcrafted to showcase short stems of tulips, decorate mantels and tabletops

John Blair House

The John Blair House features a prominent fragrance garden not just to look pretty but also to be used to create scents for perfumes, sachets (“sweet bags’), incense, potpourri, insect repellants, lavender for keeping linens fresh, et cetera. Mr. Blair laid his brick paths in running bond between diamond-shaped beds of flowers and herbs. He enclosed the whole in boxwood hedges. I thought this one of the prettiest of the small private gardens as I viewed it from over a white board fence, just outside one of the hedges.

Blair Garden

Behind the house stands a small orchard of peaches, apples, and sour cherries. Clipped American beeches surround the orchard. An assortment of fragrant herbs grows in a small kitchen dooryard garden.

John Custis Tenement

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John Custis, a prominent citizen and landowner, owned The Custis Tenement. This is the John Custis, by the way, whose daughter-in-law Martha Dandridge Custis, as a widow, married George Washington.

In 1725, Mr. Custis wrote of “a pretty little garden in which I take more satisfaction than in anything [else] in this world.” Personally, I echo his sentiment as I enjoy my own version of a colonial pleasure garden from my arbor bench, or if I climb onto the bathroom counter and look down from the little window, especially in April and May and June.


Colonial Williamsburg's Benjamin Powell House

Colonial Williamsburg today is an interactive, living-history museum with costumed docents and interpreters on site. Located on 300 acres  From hands-on activities to guided tours of original 18th-century buildings to an unmatched folk-art collection, there’s something for everyone at Colonial Williamsburg. Open for public tours daily from 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.



Herb Garden: Part One

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Usually by now, I have cleared out my herb garden of winter leaf mulch and readied the soil for adding annual herbs to the returning perennials such as sage and thyme, but not this year. The calendar says it’s mid-April, but the trees flap their hands and insist it’s still March as icy winds sweep down from the Cascade Mountains.

Nonetheless, saucer magnolias bloom all over town and tulips bob their red heads. My grape hyacinths have laid a blue carpet before the front gate. Violets spring up among heart-shaped leaves edging the front porch and the brick paths of the herb garden.

Herb gardens began some five thousand years ago among Chinese physicians. Over the centuries, herb cultivation spread to Egypt, Greece, and Italy. For medicinal purposes, Hippocrates cultivated herbaceous plants found in the Mediterranean area. Roman matriarchs designed and established kitchen gardens; Cicero’s wife comes to mind. In Medieval times, European monks and nuns concocted herbal remedies from plants in their walled gardens. In fact, these monastery gardens may have been the precursor of what the French later laid out in parterres — symmetrical beds within large rectangles, with paths running between the beds for easy access to the herbs. (More about these ancient gardens in a future post.

My own little herb garden began as a potager,  a kitchen garden similar to the photo shown at the top. It was laid out in a 20 ft. x 12 ft. rectangle extending from the patio on the east side of our house. After my husband rented a rototiller to dig up the ground, we both were astonished to find numerous chunks of construction debris that had been buried rather than hauled away when the neighborhood was developed back in the ’60s. The clay-like dirt had to be amended with loads of top soil mixed with peat moss and vermiculite. Only then could we purchase a variety of vegetables, both plants and seeds, and get them into the ground.

Many were the spring nights we rushed outside, after listening to late news dew frost reports, to cover tender plants with white paper “hot caps” we bought from hardware stores. Those nightly scrambles were worth the trouble. There was nothing sweeter than dining alfresco, right beside the little garden, eating fresh turnip greens growing at our feet! Brussels sprouts didn’t do so well, however; they turned moldy. Bibb lettuce was lovely, but carrots ended up short and stubby. Common green beans and tomatoes, on the other hand, thrived abundantly. I invited two little girls from next door to help me pick surplus beans and gave them half of the harvest to take home. In turn, their mother gave me a recipe for beans and tomatoes slow-cooked with a ham hock — another delightful supper outside by the garden.

After wearing out all my paper hot caps, I gave up growing vegetables and, instead, dedicated the plot to herbs. I designed a simple parterre and bordered it with a low hedge of English boxwood on three sides. Another neighbor told me about old bricks from demolished buildings downtown, so I collected a couple of dozen for a crosswalk to intersect the quadrants.

In the center, I placed a large clay pot planted first with a small nondescript rose bush (it didn’t survive the winter), then a bushy rosemary (it didn’t survive winter, either), finally a little bay tree (which did survive, three winters, before succumbing). I “settled” for a pedestal with a sundial, and it still marks the hours of thyme planted at its base.

To accent each quadrant, I added Old Roses. Two reverted to root stock but the other two, grown on their own roots, continue to thrive and bloom in May and June after nearly four decades.

Since herb gardens should feature a place to sit, we bought a simple concrete bench from one of the local garden centers, and placed it against the bare east wall of the house, overlooking the herb garden to the lawns and perennial beds beyond. How lovely to lean back against sun-warmed wood with my prayer book and a mug of tea before beginning my day!

A few years later, we moved the bench to another garden area and installed a white wood bench arbor in its place. Honeysuckle tangled with a climbing New Dawn (c. 1930) clamors over the top. Finches build their nests up there. English ivy covers the once bare walls.

Italian parsley, French sorrel, French thyme, blue sage, chives, and marjoram return every April or May. Rosemary in a pot comes out after a winter on the kitchen windowsill. I add annuals such as chervil, dill, and summer savory. Basil goes into the ground later, May or June, depending upon late frost warnings.  Even so, if a late chill doesn’t blacken the leaves, earwigs will chew them down to the stems.

By mid-summer, my herb garden resembles a rambling Cotswold cottage plot rather than a more formal French parterre, but I don’t mind. I enjoy the exuberance. Bushy lemon balm borders the brick walks after taking over the early spring violets. They emit a delightful lemony scent when my legs brush against their soft leaves. I love to snip a sprig and add, along with a thin slice of lemon or lime, to summer drinks from ginger ale to lemonade, white wine to even cold water on warm summer days and nights.

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Watch for future posts featuring Colonial American Herb Gardens, Medieval Herb Gardens, Persian Garden Design.




Another April Story

“Iowa City: Early April” ~ a poem by Robert Hass

This morning a cat—bright orange—pawing at the one patch of new grass in the sand-and tanbark-colored leaves.
And last night the sapphire of the raccoon’s eyes in the beam of the flashlight.
He was climbing a tree beside the house, trying to get onto the porch, I think, for a wad of oatmeal
Simmered in cider from the bottom of the pan we’d left out for the birds.
And earlier a burnished, somewhat dazed woodchuck, his coat gleaming with spring,
Loping toward his burrow in the roots of a tree among the drying winter’s litter
Of old leaves on the floor of the woods, when I went out to get the New York Times.
And male cardinals whistling back and forth—sireeep, sreeep, sreeep—
Sets of three sweet full notes, weaving into and out of each other like the triplet rhymes in medieval poetry,
And the higher, purer notes of the tufted titmice among them,
High in the trees where they were catching what they could of the early sun.
And a doe and two yearlings, picking their way along the worrying path they’d made through the gully, their coats the color of the forest floor,
Stopped just at the roots of the great chestnut where the woodchuck’s burrow was,
Froze, and the doe looked back over her shoulder at me for a long moment, and leapt forward,
Her young following, and bounded with that almost mincing precision in the landing of each hoof
Up the gully, over it, and out of sight. So that I remembered
Dreaming last night that a deer walked into the house while I was writing at the kitchen table,
Came in the glass door from the garden, looked at me with a stilled defiant terror, like a thing with no choices,
And, neck bobbing in that fragile-seeming, almost mechanical mix of arrest and liquid motion, came to the table
And snatched a slice of apple, and stood, and then quietened, and to my surprise did not leave again.
And those little captains, the chickadees, swift to the feeder and swift away.
And the squirrels with their smoke-plume tails trailing digging in the leaves to bury or find buried—
I’m told they don’t remember where they put things, that it’s an activity of incessant discovery—
Nuts, tree-fall proteins, whatever they forage from around the house of our leavings,
And the flameheaded woodpecker at the suet with his black-and-white ladderback elegant fierceness—
They take sunflower seeds and stash them in the rough ridges of the tree’s bark
Where the beaks of the smoke-and-steel blue nuthatches can’t quite get at them—
Though the nuthatches sometimes seem to get them as they con the trees methodically for spiders’ eggs or some other overwintering insect’s intricately packaged lump of futurity
Got from its body before the cold came on.
And the little bat in the kitchen lightwell—
When I climbed on a chair to remove the sheet of wimpled plastic and let it loose,
It flew straight into my face and I toppled to the floor, chair under me,
And it flared down the hall and did what seemed a frantic reconnoiter of the windowed, high-walled living room.
And lit on a brass firelog where it looked like a brown and ash
grey teenaged suede glove with Mephistophelean dreams,
And then, spurt of black sperm, up, out the window, and into the twilight woods.
All this life going on about my life, or living a life about all this life going on,
Being a creature, whatever my drama of the moment, at the edge of the raccoon’s world—
He froze in my flashlight beam and looked down, no affect, just looked,
The ringtail curled and flared to make him look bigger and not to be messed with—
I was thinking he couldn’t know how charming his comic-book robber’s mask was to me,
That his experience of his being and mine of his and his of mine were things entirely apart,
Though there were between us, probably, energies of shrewd and respectful tact, based on curiosity and fear—
I knew about his talons whatever he knew about me—
And as for my experience of myself, it comes and goes, I’m not sure it’s any one thing, as my experience of these creatures is not,
And I know I am often too far from it or too near, glad to be rid of it which is why it was such a happiness,
The bright orange of the cat, and the first pool of green grass-leaves in early April, and the birdsong—that orange and that green not colors you’d set next to one another in the human scheme.
And the crows’ calls, even before you open your eyes, at sunup.
“Iowa City: Early April” from Sun Under Wood: New Poems by Robert Hass, Copyright (c) 1996 by Robert Hass. Used by Permission of HarperCollins Publishers
Source: Sun Under Wood ( HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1996 )
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