It is commonplace to think about the garden as an environment consisting essentially of plant elements, be they trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants or turf.
This perception derives from an image of the garden sedimented in our imagination and that was formed mostly during the 19th century, when the models of the landscape garden, commonly known as the English garden, imposed themselves in our country and marked the historic gardens and large public parks of that period.
The attention to garden plants as a key element in the arrangement of green areas has found further impetus with botanical collecting, which during the same century has established itself strongly throughout Europe.
Even today, the search for unusual plants and the curiosity for the latest botanical inventions put on the market are of great interest to a wide audience of passionate gardening lovers.
The fairs and events related to flowers nursery are increasingly numerous and popular, such as the ‘Mostra Orticola’, an event organized by Orticola of Lombardy and cured by Filippo Pizzoni, which is held every year at the ‘Indro Montanelli’ Public Gardens in Milan, or the ‘Murabilia’ fair in Lucca, or other professional trade fair events that attract an increasingly audience of non-experts, like the ‘My Plant & Garden’ in Milan and the ‘Flormart’ in Padua.
So the recent historical legacy behind us, the proposal by the trade press of purely naturalistic garden models and the increasing offer of events related to garden plants, mean that the public’s attention is almost totally focused on the plants.
Plants in the garden
It is clear that plants play a decisive role in the garden.
Unless we push towards extreme visions in which abstractionism prevails, of which the best known example is the Japanese Zen garden in its kare-sansui version, plants are the essence of the garden as well as furnishings are an essential element in the house.
The furniture and objects that complete a home have the crucial function of giving a soul to an architectural work, humanizing the design idea that would remain aseptic and inanimate without any element related to practical life.
A building becomes a house only by virtue of the fact that it is inhabited by people. And the tangible sign of living is given by the objects that testify the daily life that takes place within the walls of the home.
The furnishing elements are then an expression of an intrinsic aesthetic value, they are design elements that carry in themselves the idea of a domestic environment that you want to create.
In the same way, plants make the garden a living and changing world, evolving during the day and the alternation of the seasons, witness to the passage of time and to the natural cycles of death and rebirth.
Plants are the first actors in the interaction between garden, environment and man.
With their growth and mutation over the course of the year, they make the garden always different and in relation to the environment that surrounds them.
By being a living element, they create the prerequisite for a profound dialogue between man and nature, for a relationship made of understanding and care, emotion and surprise.
Finally, the plants are in themselves beautiful, arouse admiration and constitute an element of interest regardless of any other evaluation of the structure of the garden itself.
It is very important to know how to choose garden plants: it is one of the main tasks of the green designer who, in this function, makes good use of the support of the nurserymen involved in the project.
The plants must obviously be chosen on the basis of their botanical characteristics and adaptability to the place where they will be planted.
The old adage of ‘choosing the right plant for the right place’ is as trivial as it is relevant: one would be surprised to see how often the problems encountered in the management of the garden derive precisely from having chosen the wrong plant for the place or for the use that we require of it.
But in addition to assessing whether or not the plant is suitable for the climate and microclimate of the place, the exposure, the type of soil and the amount of water available, one must always consider the role of the plant in the garden project.
In fact, plants must be chosen according to the type of environment to which you want to give life and the type of emotion you want to transmit.
Characteristics such as the period and type of flowering, most of all the size when they rich the ripe age and their posture, are fundamental aspects on the basis of which the type of plant to be inserted in a certain position of the garden must be chosen.
These attributes are the most relevant to make trees and shrubs an expressive medium used by garden designers to realize the conceived idea of garden.
The plants are a ‘key construction element’ for the garden, and what makes it a living and exciting place.
Types of garden
The great fascination exerted by the naturalist garden model is perhaps to be found precisely in this sense of harmony and freedom of which plants are the privileged means of expression.
In the same way it is the immutable fixity inherent in the formal garden as it appears to us, that is, without the flowers and the more ephemeral elements that populate it, to make such model less attractive, ‘admirable but not very exciting’ for a modern observer, as Russel Page said.
Surely a limitation of the classical garden is constituted by the fact that we no longer understand the thought that underlies its formal structure, be it the neo-platonic concept of the Italian Renaissance garden or the image of cartesian rationality dominant over nature as expressed by the French garden.
Without the understanding of the symbols and allegories of which the garden was made through, messages that spoke clearly and directly to contemporary people but that remain distant from our way of thinking, its structure and its elements inevitably appear artificial if not repetitive and monotonous.
The revival of formal models that are always the same and the poor relationship with the context in which the garden is located and with the ‘genius loci’, contribute to making the formal garden unattractive if compared to the naturalist one.
The close relationship of the garden with its context and the use of a truly free nature are elements already present in the Roman garden as well as in the Oriental one, and they were reintroduced in the modern age precisely by the landscape garden that still embodies them.
But this is not the determining element for the disinterest that arouses in us the spectacle of a boxwood parterre compared to the attraction of a mixed border typical of the cottage garden.
The lack of emotion that can be transmitted to us by the formal garden is largely due to the incompleteness of the appearance of the classical gardens that have come down to us, or the lack of flowering plants that helped to give these gardens the sense of wonder and amazement of which they were certainly not lacking.
However, it would be a mistake to think that the classic model has nothing to tell us.
The lesson we must draw from it is that of the organic relationship between landscape architecture and building architecture, expressions of the same art but declined in the use of different materials.
This is the lesson taken up by some of the great masters of the landscape of the twentieth century such as Dan Kiley or Fernando Caruncho, and theorized at the beginning of the 20th century by the Jugendstil (the artistic expressions of Art Nouveau in Germany and Switzerland) with the concept of total work.
The garden is a synthesis of art, nature and way of life:
- Art as an expression of human creativity.
- Nature because it is inevitably linked to the environment in which it is located and expressed through the use of natural means.
- Way of life as its structure is in relation to the fruition that is made of it, and its raison d’être consists in being lived by people because ‘Gardens are for people’ , taking up the lesson of Thomas Church,.
The garden space is thought of as an enlargement of the living space, nature and plants are a means of expression of architectural ideas.
The green is thus treated as a material to be used architecturally in the definition of the volume of the gardens, but always in tune with a landscaped if not naturalistic conception of the plants. We must strongly reject any type of coercive intervention against the plant elements, which must be left free to express themselves within the space we have organized.
The garden is therefore a space built by man and for man, and its plants are an indispensable element of ‘construction’ and at the same time a privileged tool of communication and empathy between man and garden.
The elements of the garden
Just because it is a built and non-natural space, the garden consists of several elements in addition to plants and grassy expanses.
Among the most important elements there is certainly water.
Since the beginning, the presence of water has characterized the very idea of a garden.
The model of the Persian ‘paradise’ with its scheme divided in four parts and with the water channels starting from the central point of the garden to symbolize the four rivers that depart from Eden to give life to the entire cosmos, has influenced the Roman and Arab gardens and, through these models, the whole classical garden from the ‘500 onwards, up to the huge bodies of water at Versailles.
Not to mention how water, given its strong symbolic value, is the very constituent element of the Chinese and Japanese gardens together with the rocks.
The landscape garden was strongly influenced by the oriental model and the informal use of water that was made here. In the naturalist garden the presence of water has therefore found a freer interpretation in the form of a river, stream or waterfall.
Water can therefore be declined in many different forms, even in the modern garden.
Of particular importance in the aesthetic definition of our green space are the garden fountains.
The fountains allow you to insert the water element into the garden in a dynamic way: it is water in motion that enchants us with its flow, with the reflections which it generates and with the sound of its roar. Even in small spaces where you cannot have a canal or a stream, the fountain allows you to achieve similar effects in a much more concentrated space and without dispelling the water.
Water saving is an essential factor in designing contemporary gardens and fountains; reusing the same water allows it to be introduced into the contemporary garden while minimizing waste.
We should not think of the classic fountain, redundant and with a baroque or neoclassical taste.
The fountain is a sculpture animated by the liquid element.
If understood in this way, having a modern shape and built with the most varied materials, it can become an element of great value in the garden, capable of creating entire realms around it and indelibly marking the atmosphere of the place.
A second element of fundamental importance is the stone, and everything in the garden is built with such material.
Together with the freshness of the plant elements and the incorporeity of the water, stone constitutes the third element of a triad in constant dialogue. The relationship and proportions between the vegetal surface, the reflective surface of water and the material surface of stone have been the millennial basis for the creation of every garden.
An element built in the garden does not necessarily require to resort to cemented works or extensive waterproofing of the natural environment. A dry stone staircase, components of a walkway made of ‘opus incertum’, paths covered with simple gravel or even a seat of natural stone carved by nature over the centuries, underline the intervention of man in shaping his environment without doing violence to nature.
A built element is the most obvious sign of the fact that the garden is a human environment, an extension for living outside.
The transformation of nature into a garden cannot disregard the more or less marked presence of the buil elements.
A dry stone staircase, elements of a walkway made of ‘opus incertum’, paths covered with simple gravel or even a seat of natural stone carved by nature over the centuries, make tangible the intervention of man in shaping his environment without doing violence to nature.
The built element is the most obvious sign of the fact that the garden is a human environment, an extension of living outside.
The transformation of nature into a garden cannot be separated from the presence, more or less marked, of the work built.
Finally, the crucial importance of light cannot be overlooked.
The lighting of the garden is essential to enhance its appearance at any time of the day.
The light allows you to experience the garden even at night, giving life to suggestive and exciting fruition experiences.
Walking in the garden illuminated by a glow that simulates the moonlight, with soft and indefinite reflections, is like walking through a place substantially transformed with respect to the day, a world that reveals parts of itself that are kept deeply hidden under the sunlight.
The lighting of the garden allows us to double its life and to multiply the ways of using the space we create.
However, it must be a type of lighting that does not isolate the garden from its context and in particular, does not break the relationship between the garden and the celestial vault.
It must always be possible to admire the starry sky by sitting at night in the garden, in an experience that can be further enriched by the pleasant smell of plants such as jasmine or honeysuckle.
All the senses are amplified at night. Without the distraction of the surrounding environment the whole garden will seem even more alive and present around us.
Artificial lighting also makes it possible to avoid that ‘sinking into darkness’ that dehumanizes the garden and returns it to the unknown and wild nature, to the black impenetrable space.
The light avoids the disturbing feeling of being observed by ‘something’ hidden in the darkness, an ancestral reflection of the fears experienced by humanity when nature was still an hostile and threatening presence.
The lighting of the garden allows us to insert other signs of man’s project into the natural environment.
For example, outdoor lamps are fundamental elements for the definition of the visual impact of our garden.
When we want light to be present not only in its instrumental function, but also as a piece of furniture, we can resort to lighting design bodies which contribute to create the type of environment and atmosphere we want.
The fundamental elements of the garden are therefore plants, water, stone and light.
The modernised revival of these elements that have always been considered as constitutive of nature, makes it possible to create large contemporary gardens.