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What is a garden?


Chacun à son gout

What could be more natural than for a gardener (or anyone for that matter) to ask: What is a garden? An innocent enough question but it would, perhaps, be foolhardy to try and give an answer. Down the ages horticultural writers have penned hilarious and apposite words on this topic: they could be reproduced here and have us all rolling in the aisles – but let’s actually give this one a go, just for the mental exercise.

From the outset it is not difficult to predict that there will be no simple and precise answer to our question. But this does not mean the question cannot be asked, or that the journey of exploration will be unproductive – it can be a voyage of discovery.  A walk in a garden does not necessarily have a destination, it is the sights along the way that make it worthwhile. But be warned, this article will be hard work, so please be patient: you must roll up your sleeves and work up an intellectual sweat. Only if you are prepared to join with me in making a real effort yourself can you return to your daily routine tired, but happy!

In this article I will go back to first principles by examining the origin of the word ‘garden’, as well as other key plant and garden words, then tackle the problem of definition before, in a second article, delving into the complicated relationship between gardens and meaning – how we explain the relationship between our gardens and what goes on in our minds. As part of this journey we will also be wrestling with horticulture’s most fundamental philosophical question: why is it that humans have, from the time of the first settled societies, placed so much importance on gardens . . . a question about the relationship between gardens and human nature.


The word ‘garden’ is used as both a noun and a verb. Here we are concerned with the noun, although later we will be examining what it is ‘to garden’.

Perhaps we can get some insight into what a garden is by looking at the derivation of the word itself, its etymology. Peering into the distant past we find that the word ‘garden’ is of ancient origin, derived from the Old English ghordos, an Indo-European word for ‘enclosure’ from which we obtain the English words ‘yard’ and ‘orchard’. We can see this common origin in other modern European languages, the German garten, French jardin, and Italian giardino.  But we can step back further in time to the  Old English geard which is derived from Proto-Germanic gardaz, from Proto-Indo-European gÿórdÿos (yard, enclosure, court).  From similar origins we have the Old Frisian garda, Old Saxon gard, gardo, Dutch gaard, Old High German gart (obsolete German Gart), Old Norse (Icelandic , Swedish and Danish gård), Gothic (gards). The old Indo-European root is also the source of the Latin hortus, the Ancient Greek (khórtos), Proto-Slavic gord (Old Church Slavonic, Russian (town)), Lithuanian gardas, Albanian gardh (fence).[1][2]

From a different linguistic route we have the ancient Persian word for ‘enclosure’ as pairidaeza, (pairi-around, daÿza-wall) translated into the Hebrew as pardes, a word encompassing both hunting parks and walled gardens and which, with the translation of the Bible into Greek, became paradeisos from which are derived the English words ‘park’ and, of course, ‘paradise’.[3]

From the etymology of the word ‘garden’ it is clear that, historically at least, it is the idea of enclosure that most closely captures what it is to be a garden, which is not surprising when we consider that early gardens would have needed protection from not only rain, wind, the elements and possibly other people but, more importantly, both wild and domesticated animals. Perhaps today the actual structural barrier as, say, a wall, fence or hedge, is of slightly less importance, although the idea of a garden as a ‘bounded space’ remains relevant.

We get an indication of the many different kinds of early gardens from Latin scholars in the period of the Roman empire and after. From them we have not only the word hortus, garden (and therefore the word ‘horticulture’), but also: hortulus, little garden (the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions both); hortus conclusus, an enclosed or cloistered garden; hortus siccus, a dry garden (a collection of pressed plants or herbarium); hortus academicus, an educational, demonstration, or Botanic garden; hortus amoenus, a beautiful or pleasing garden; hortus amorem a garden for love. A gardener in a medieval monastery was called a hortulanus.

While engaging with linguistics we might consider the origins of a few related words: the Latin Middle Age word herba, meaning a plant of any kind, including trees, is a word derived from herbarius (plants) as opposed to bestiaries (animals, and not to be confused with a bestiarus who was a Roman gladiator who fought animals in the arena). The word ‘botany’ comes from the ancient Greek word βοτάνη meaning ‘pasture’, ‘grass’, or ‘fodder’, although the Greek word itself is derived from βόσκειν ‘to feed or graze’ before being applied in more recent times first to the study of herbs used in medicine and then today to mean, more or less, ‘plant science’. Perhaps the Middle English word wyrt or wort, deserves a mention, familiar in names like Stonewort or liverwort. But I am getting off topic.

To this inventory must be added the Sumerian word for garden which is kiri (noun ki – place, verb – ru, to send forth shoots, buds and blossoms) which is likely the root of the Assyrian kirû (garden, grove or tree plantation) and kirimÿhu (pleasure garden), in turn probably related to the Hebrew kar (pasture, enclosed pasture), karmel (plantation) and kerem (vineyard), all derived from the verb khr, to dig. I mention this last suite of ancient words because they are probably the oldest words we know denoting gardens.[3]

The problem of definition

An enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruit or vegetables
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED)

Any serious critical examination of ideas (and that, surely, is what we are trying to do here) – legal, academic or other – must start by defining its important terms.

The question What is a garden? is seeking either an explanation or definition. A definition seems more formal and restrictive than an explanation which relates more to our general understanding of a word. Be that as it may, our object here is essentially both and, for simplicity, since we are trying to be brief, I will use the word ‘definition’.

Professor of philosophy David Cooper of Durham University in his book A Philosophy of Gardens (2006) sees no reason to define the word ‘garden’ because ‘ . . . nearly every English speaker knows what it means’. After all, discussion can proceed without a definition because the main purpose of a definition is to assist with marginal cases – and atypical gardens need not affect our broad concept of what a garden is. For Professor Cooper any general definition would do, provided it is  ‘. . . capturing reasonably well people’s [sic] everyday implicit knowledge of what gardens are’. However, Professor Cooper then rejects  the SOED definition (given above) as not acceptable because ‘an unenclosed place, full only of trees, shrubs, and grass, might still unquestionably be a garden’.

Now we have a problem. We can perhaps accept the professor’s general point about the limited value of trying to define a garden in precise terms. We can also accept his specific point about the SOED definition, adding the observation that the SOED definition seems to have strangely omitted to mention trees. Maybe this is because historically the original Roman gardens were treeless kitchen gardens.  It is also tempting to reduce the definition to its bare bones and define a garden as a ‘bounded area of cultivated plants’ – but this allows confusion of the plants in gardens with the cultivated crops of agriculture and production horticulture.

All this discussion demonstrates the difficulty of definition. Even so, we have already seen from our etymological analysis the close association of the word ‘garden’ with the notion of ‘enclosure’. To remove this semantic association from our understanding of ‘garden’ is unacceptable. The Professor’s objection to the SOED definition could hardly illustrate more clearly the difficulty of deciding what is typical and atypical and the imprecision of what we mean by ‘implicit knowledge’– and therefore both the need for, and danger of, a definition.

To define a term is to draw attention to its exceptions and therefore its ambiguity: but to not define is to invite confusion and misunderstanding (as we see above). With this in mind I think it is worthwhile pursuing the goal of definition.

Stipulative definition

Ideally a definition is stipulative: it states those conditions which together are both necessary and sufficient to tell us precisely what a garden is. Either a given space is a garden or it is not a garden – no grey areas, no ‘ifs’, or ‘buts’.

Is this possible for the idea of a garden? To make a decision we need to look at borderline cases.

Atypical gardens

Consider the following cases and decide whether you think the word ‘garden’ is appropriate to describe them: a miniature garden scene inside a matchbox, made of artificial materials and called a Zen Garden; an actual Zen garden consisting of rocks and raked pebbles but no plants; a large areas of crops called a market garden; meadow gardens of various kinds where, for example, wild seed is sown into lightly managed land; a block of land that has been enclosed, totally cleared of vegetation, replanted with indigenous stock and then managed by a local authority; an unenclosed totally unmanaged abandoned site which was clearly once a garden; some public parks, reserves, burial grounds and the like; the apparent oxymoron ‘zoological gardens’; indoor collections and aggregations of plants of various kinds; a space of managed plant matter that is tended by a non-human organism, as in the garden galleries of an ant’s nest.

Gardens may be deliberately designed (as with the ha-ha wall that allowed an unimpeded view of what lay outside the garden) to incorporate the surrounding landscape thereby obscuring any boundaries and blurring the distinction between what is man-made and man-managed and what is nature, maybe also what is ‘wild’ and what is cultivated, in any case removing the sense of enclosure. Is an Aussie suburban quarter-acre block with a neglected shrubbery, overgrown lawn, chipped pottery gnome or two, and a rusting car body still a garden? To suggest otherwise would probably cause offence to its owner as well as defying local common usage of the word ‘garden’, although it should be noted that in Australia, as in Canada and America, the concept of ‘garden’ passes imperceptibly into the concept ‘yard’. In what circumstances might we refer to cemeteries, parks, reserves and other managed public land be called gardens?

There is a further point to be made here – that the meaning of a word is its use. We would do better to look for the way the word is used in everyday living language rather than trying to preserve it museum-like in a dictionary definition. We must certainly address the problem of shifting semantics. Some people might regard the magnificent English landscape style gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ as superb gardens. But place a young person of today, with no training in garden history, in such a place and they might think that the word ‘garden’ is totally inappropriate for such a vast open space. Then we have an example given by Professor Cooper of the Californian garden designer Thomas Church who noted that gardens were becoming more places to ‘live in’ and less places to be ‘looked at’.

These examples of atypical gardens – gardens without plants, gardens without borders, gardens with no management regime, and gardens in name only – persuade us that gardens are so diverse in their content, form, intention, and use that any attempt to restrictively define them in terms of a restricted set of characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to make them all members of the set of objects we call ‘garden’, seems doomed to failure.

Our understanding of the word ‘garden’ is not simple and precise, it is more like a collection of ideas that gather together and, when they reach a critical mass or a family resemblance, most of us are happy to call a garden: it is like a blurry semantic cloud.  In spite of all this it does seem, as Professor Cooper says, that we do have a common understanding of ‘garden’ and that, like good lexicographers we can try and keep our definition up-to-date while paying attention to historical and other usages. We must accept however that we will not be able to provide an absolutely precise stipulative definition we can only address characteristics that are true in most cases.

From what has already been said we can add three further important characteristics of gardens. Firstly, they contain plants (remember we are not concerned with atypical gardens here), secondly they are under human management, and thirdly that the garden is therefore almost always associated with a house or building where that human management is located. Again, we can think of exceptions like garden allotments away from residents but these are the exception.

The idea of a garden as a managed area of land is emphasised by English garden writer Hugh Johnson,[4] although we have noted that gardens are not always primarily aesthetic in intention (more of that later):

What, if anything, do the infinity of different traditional and individual ideas of a garden have in common? They vary so much in purpose, in size, in style and content that not even flowers, or even plants at all, can be said to be essential. In the last analysis there is only one common factor between all gardens, and this is the control of nature by man. Control, that is, for aesthetic reasons. …. The essence is control. Without constant watchful care a garden – any garden – rapidly returns to the state of the country all around it
Johnson 1979

So we have decided that a precise stipulative definition for ‘garden’ is not possible.

Since we can combine the ideas of management and plants by using the word ‘cultivated’ we can now produce a preliminary definition: ‘a garden is a bounded space usually associated with a house and containing cultivated plants’. However, this is very like a lexical definition and we have already decided that we can do better than that.

Precising definition

As serious horticulturists what we are after is a definition that extends the lexical definition by including further information that fleshes out the idea, giving the reader a greater depth of understanding without introducing unnecessary confusion or complication. Definitions like these are called ‘precising’ definitions and that is where we are heading.
Surely this kind of definition has been attempted many times by institutions and people involved in horticulture?

Two of the world’s most respected institutions of gardening and horticulture are the English Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and the (now defunct) American Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium of Cornell University. What do (did) they have to say?

The English RHS have actually avoided producing definitions, perhaps because it appears unnecessary or maybe through the challenge of consensus: in any case the world’s premier horticultural institution is silent on the true nature of its core business. A definition is similarly absent from English seminal works like the Oxford Companion to Gardens (1986) and New Dictionary of Gardening. Understandably authors are wary of the difficulties and pitfalls of such attempts.

The Bailey Hortorium had this to say:

‘In its historical significance a garden is a plant-growing area of small or limited dimensions, usually enclosed and connected with a residence. Ornamental subjects, fruits and vegetables for household use, and plantings constituting part of the setting for a home or building are the essential components of it, and gardening is the rearing, establishing and maintenance of the plants and care of the area devoted to them.’
Hortus Third (1976) p. 494

This definition adds little to what we have already discovered, but it does raise the issue of garden ‘significance’ which raises the possibility of a whole host of garden ‘significances’.

Key garden criteria

As we work on a precising definition it becomes evident that we need to find the best possible criteria, categories or ‘headings’ under which to organise our information. We need a taxonomy of garden characteristics, and because the concept of garden is complex it seems we can organise these categories in many ways.

Earlier it was mentioned that Professor Cooper showed little interest in a dictionary definition. This was partly because dictionary definitions tended to describe gardens in purely physical terms. Professor Cooper’s was much more interested in what we are trying to do with our gardens and how we respond to them, their significance … he wanted to explore what gardens mean to us. Professor Cooper has given us a very useful distinction. On the one hand all gardens consist of an arrangement of physical objects in space (it is this aspect that is emphasised by dictionary definitions and brief garden descriptions). But, on the other hand, there is another aspect to gardens and that is what goes on in our minds in relation to these physical objects distributed in space: our intentions when we laid out the garden, how we feel when we look at it, our memories and perceptions and so on, the affect of gardens. This is an important aspect of gardens that we must take into account in any definition and we shall explore this idea in article two, but for the time being

For the purposes of definition we want to keep our terms and categories as simple and accessible as possible without compromising our intentions: as gardeners we want a definition that is practical. So, for simplicity we can refer to the ‘distribution of the physical objects of the garden in space’ as its ‘structure’ and the ‘various mental processes that make up the garden’s meaning’ as its ‘function’, while acknowledging that there may not be a perfect congruence with our everyday use of these words.

Let’s ‘unpack’ what we mean by ‘structure’ in more detail so that we can extend our definition, making it more informative and maybe even more precise.

Garden categories

Physical structures

How are we to categorise the various physical components of a garden? What we are after here is a set of the simplest and most precise categories that neatly and simply classify the physical objects we might encounter in a garden.  One such breakdown distinguishes between ‘hard’ elements like paths, buildings, sculptures, and fences and ‘soft’ elements like plants. Though we can group kinds of plants in many ways one relatively simple taxonomy breaks them up into trees, shrubs and herbs, with maybe an emphasis on flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts.

Form, content and use

Greater or lesser attention is given to the arrangement of these hard and soft elements in space, the garden ‘form’, and this will depends to large extent on what the garden is used for, which is an aspect of garden ‘meaning’.

Let’s now summarise where what we have achieved so far because already we have made considerable headway. Firstly, it is maintained that for clarity any term requires explanation or definition and that attempting definition is worthwhile.  Secondly, it has been acknowledged that if we are to define what it is to be a garden then the definition must be a general definition, we cannot be concerned with all the minor exceptions which, though interesting and informative, would unduly complicate matters. Accepting this point we can also accept the self-evident fact that gardens are bounded spaces containing plants under human control or management.

‘A garden is a bounded space usually associated with a residence and containing cultivated plants. It consists of hard and soft landscape elements, the plants, such as trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits, herbs or vegetables’.

The physical components of gardens help us explain what it is to be a garden, but no list can be comprehensive for many reasons including: some components may be important for a particular time and place but hardly found in other contexts; concepts and terms differ between countries with different nuances of meaning; the sheer diversity of gardens make a definitive list impossible; garden objects vary, they evolve over time, and they may occur in a multitude of variations. Where would you find such a list?
The following is simply an aide memoire for those few people seeking such a list.

Fork, hoe, rake, shears, spade, trowel
Flower bed, pavilion, pergola, trellis, turf seat,

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... etymology


... stipulative definition

...... atypical gardens

... precising definition



Gareden ecosystem
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