Reflections on Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens.
I greatly enjoyed the first episode of the new BBC series Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens, charting the history, design and symbolism of the beautiful and tranquil Islamic garden style. The programme reminded me of how these gardens influenced the design of my own garden when I started planning it five years ago. Having had to content myself with being an armchair gardener up to this point in my life, I now found myself in possession of my own plot, a blank canvass, and had to decide how to make the most of it to create my own dream garden. Aiming to create a piece of Paradise in Camberwell seemed like a good starting point.
As Monty taught us in the programme, the idea of a Paradise garden comes from the ancient Persians, who were themselves influenced by earlier civilisations: the Babylonians (in c. 2,100 BC) described their Divine Paradise in the Epic of Gilgamesh: ‘In this immortal garden stands the Tree…beside a sacred fount the Tree is placed’.
The English word ‘paradise’ itself comes from the Persian word pairidaeza, pairi meaning ‘around’ and daeza meaning ‘wall’. Pairidaezas were walled areas which protected an area of lush growth within. Originally the harsh environment being shut out was the desert, but the idea is just as relevant to us city dwellers, where the garden can serve to shut out the noisy and polluted world outside to create a calming oasis of peace and contemplation, our own piece of paradise.
Monty’s programme took us to the remains of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great’s 6th century BC pairidaeza garden at Pasargardae in Iran and told us how, after Islam had conquered the Persian empire in the 7th century AD, they absorbed the cultural traditions of the Persians, including their enclosed gardens with crossed watercourses and shady fruit trees, and by the 13th century AD had spread them with Islam throughout Egypt, Mediterranean north Africa and into Spain. Like many others, I have visited and been inspired by the beautiful Generalife Gardens of the Alhambra, but it was a trip to the beautiful country of Uzbekistan, which it turns out played a crucial role in the development of Paradise gardens, and their development into the great Mughal gardens of India, which made me fall in love with the exotic romance of Paradise gardens.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Islamic gardens and their predecessors is the consistency in style and design over thousands of years. As Vita Sackville-West says in her 1953 essay on Persian gardens “there is very little else to be said for the Persian gardens, except to say the same thing over and over again”. This consistency in style is perhaps because gardens developed in response to the hostile desert environments in which early civilisations developed, where shade from the sun and shelter from wind were important, and water had to be brought into the garden, stored and distributed around it via channels in order to irrigate the plants.
To this can be added certain universal human responses to the landscape, as for example when we get a feeling of security, comfort, peace, privacy and spiritual well-being from being in an enclosed outdoor space such as under tall foliage, which encourages reflection and contemplation. The prospect-refuge theory suggests that this feeling may be heightened when the prospect is good, yet it affords a safe refuge from potential hazards, for instance (as in Persian gardens) when surveying the garden from a raised pavilion.
In addition, since the dawn of human civilisations the number four has had mystical association with the natural world: for instance the four seasons, four elements (important in Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Persians) and four points on the compass. Christianity and Islam both emphasise these ancient, widespread and universal truths. The Bible states: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from thence it was parted into four heads” and the Prophet Muhammed speaks of four rivers: of water, milk, wine and honey.
Taken together, it is no surprise that the same basic garden design has evolved several times, and remained remarkably consistent over long period of time, surviving many changes in rulers, cultures and religions. Biologists call this convergent evolution: an example is how unrelated dolphins (mammals), sharks (fish) and ichthyosaurs (extinct marine reptiles) all independently evolved a similar form in response to the same physical and biological laws of the marine environment in which they lived as predators. In the same way, paradise gardens are a perfect manifestation of the physical environment, and universal human truths. Paradise is certainly a worthy description.
Unlike European gardens, which historically been used for strolling in (the European climate being considered too cold and wet for sitting out much of the year), Persian gardens were places to rest and observe. As Vita Sackville-West puts it “Persians used their gardens as places of retreat, either for prolonged discussions on philosophy, poetry and metaphysics or for feasting endlessly by the water’s edge” to the accompanying sound of rippling water. In other words they were used as what today’s garden designers would call “outdoor rooms”.
The poetry which flourished in Islamic Persia was rich in garden imagery, much of it linking the garden to paradise. The greatest epic in Persian literature was the Shahnameh which was completed in 1010 by Abū al-Qasem Manṣūr who adopted the name Ferdowsi, meaning the garden, or paradise.
Afrasiab was a mythical hero featuring in the poem, and dating from the time of the first Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. Intriguingly, Afrasiab (or Castle of Afrasiab) is also the name given to the ruined site of the ancient city of Samarkand dating from the same period, in modern-day Uzbekistan.
In one place in the poem, the garden of the daughter of the ruler Afrasiyab is described:
It is a spot beyond imagination
Delightful to the heart, where roses bloom,
And sparkling fountains murmur – where the earth
Is rich with many-coloured flowers; and musk
Floats on the gentle breezes, hyacinths
And lilies add their perfume – golden fruits
Weigh down the branches of the lofty trees…
The gardens, then, were multi-sensory experiences, long before “sensory gardens” became a thing. Taste was represented by the fruits grown there, as well as rose water which would have flavoured sweets and pastries. Sound was provided by birdsong, the rustling of wind in the trees, and the sound of water (gardens were usually built on slopes so that rushing, gurgling or splashing water channels and riffles could be achieved). And smell was of course provided by the deliciously scented selection of plants grown, above all the rose.
Inspiration for my own garden from the Paradise gardens of Persia and Islam.
How then to distil the essence of Paradise into our garden? My aim was to use the various elements of Paradise gardens to inform the design, rather than to faithfully recreate a garden in the Islamic style. I decided that I needed to incorporate the following features:
- Divide the rectangular space into two square “rooms”, each further divided in fours.
- Each “room” enclosed by pergolas, walls or fences (though I do enjoy chatting to our neighbour and exchanging gardening tips and plants, over the garden wall, so a little compromise was needed here).
- Create a covered raised area (our version of a pavilion) at the sunniest end of the garden, with a bench and table for sitting, relaxing and eating (and perhaps even reciting poetry and discussing metaphysics!), from which you can survey the whole garden, fronted by a square, central pool with a bubbling fountain.
- Trees, not too large for the garden, but large enough to provide a canopy and dappled shade.
- In the spirit of the Moghul gardens, where exotic plants were introduced into the traditional char bagh, create beds for our collection of unusual and exotic plants.
- Like the courtyard gardens of Marrakesh, to cram in as many plants as possible by making full use of vertical space, carefully pruning trees shrubs to provide several canopy layers and make full use of the understorey planting space.
- Fill the garden with Persian-inspired plants, with an emphasis on fruit and scented plants.
I eventually settled on the following design:
For a thorough list of plants recommended for creating a Persian/Islamic inspired garden in a UK climate, based on plants mentioned in the Quran, medieval plant lists, travellers descriptions, Islamic miniature paintings and poetry, I recommend Emma Clark’s excellent book The Art of the Islamic Garden. A selection of the plants I settled on in order to give our garden a flavour of Paradise is as follows:
- Fan-trained fig (Ficus carica ‘Rouge de Bordeaux’)
- Fan-trained peach (Prunus persica ‘Rochester’)
- Grape (Vitis vinifera ‘Seyval Blamc’ and ‘Madeleine Angevine’)
The garden next door has a large orange tree in it, grown from a pip by the previous owner, which thrives unprotected outdoors and produces many (rather pithy) oranges. This has encouraged me to try planting citrus outdoors. The clementine Citrus reticulata ‘Fine’ is doing well, as is Yuzu (Citrus junos), although it is growing slowly and the snails seem to have a passion for the bark. Citrus auranticum (Seville orange) is supposedly one of the hardest of the Citrus, but mine hasn’t fared so well, though it’s still alive it doesn’t seem to grow much. I also have Citrus limon ‘Four Seasons’ which I’ve over wintered in the greenhouse until it grow too large and has spent this winter outdoors, without much ill-effect, so I might try planting it out in the spring.
- Albizia julbrissin, Persian silk tree, which I have been growing from seed since 2012. It is now over 2m tall but yet to flower.
- Musa sikkimensis
The shrub most associated with Persian/Islamic gardens is the rose, such that in Persian the word rose and flower are synonymous. Old roses are the most suited to a modern take on a Paradise garden, especially those from the damascene and gallica groups, both of which originated in the Near East. The flowers are subtly beautiful and strongly scented and many have evocative names such as Ispahan, Rose de Resht and Omar Khayyam. Unfortunately though, they only have a short flowering season, so for our small garden where every plant must earn its keep I opted for two of the repeat-flowering old roses from the portland rose group, which were developed from a cross between (amongst others) Rosa gallica var. officianalis and Rosa damascena var. semperflorens, which is unusual in being a damascene rose with some repeat-flowering. Comte de Chambord and Jacques Cartier are similar, with a very rich pink colour and a powerful Damask Rose fragrance which travels well and fills the garden with the scent of rose water. I also grow the noisette climbing rose Lamarque, which I cannot recommend highly enough: it is vigorous with lush, disease-resistant foliage which sets off the creamy flowers with pale lemon centres to perfection. Best of all is the delicious scent which stops you in your tracks and keeps you coming back for another hit.
Sitting out in the garden on my birthday, on a balmy summer’s evening last year, the garden certainly felt close to Paradise.