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Definition: landscape gardening from Philip's Encyclopedia

Arranging gardens for effect. There are two main traditions: the Sino-English, with the apparent informality of nature; and the Franco-Italian, with geometric patterns in which nature is trimmed to art. The second tradition arose in Italy in the Renaissance and is exemplified in André Le Notre's parterres of Versailles. In England, the naturalist style developed in the 18th century, with the work of William Kent, 'Capability' Brown, and Humphrey Repton.

Summary Article: Gardens and Gardening
from International Encyclopedia of Human Geography

Gardens, and ‘the garden’ have been informing metaphors for geographical thought for some time. The garden has been used to represent an ideal environment and culture, or rather pre-cultural, pre-human state in a number of religions. As material artifact, the garden has provided significant conceptual purchase in both regional geography through the twentieth century, and more recently, reactivated anew in cultural geography and geographies of landscape. These shifts have been enmeshed with wider humanities and social science thinking, in social anthropology and environmental writing in ways that have informed human geography, including engagement with ‘black studies’ and ethnicity.

Specifically the garden as landscaped, as landscape, proved an important thread in cultural geography during the 1980s in terms of iconographies of power and including Marxist-influenced reading of cultural geographies. Such contributions were especially strong in British human geography. However, a wider range of iconography of the garden has emerged, problematizing this earlier ‘landscaped’ version of the garden. This includes iconographies such as the cottage garden, the suburban garden, and the allotment. These multiple dimensions have illuminated thinking concerning historical geography as well as cultural geography in particular. Again engaging social and cultural diversity, this provides a range of contexts through which the garden is signified.

However, the more significant development during recent decades has been in the verbalizing of the garden into gardening, cognizant with the increasing human geographical attention to process. This has developed beyond the limits of garden and home, domestic culture, and gendering of the household. Connecting through writing on practice, performance, dwelling, and lay geographies these contributions re-engage the active process of human encounters and conceptualizations of nature as well as the nonhuman. Paradoxically, garden and gardening combine human geographical attention to both powerful iconographies and reinterpretations of the mundane.


The garden has been an informing metaphor for geographical thought for sometime and as an affective material object and gardening as a process in the figuring and refiguring of space. It has represented an ideal environment and culture, a rather pre-cultural, pre-human state in a number of world religions, and continues to reappear in contemporary geographical discussions of the sacred. These leitmotifs of human geography are significantly theorized through ideology, discourse, and power, where ‘the garden’ becomes iconic. Signifying identity as well as status, cultural capital and social difference, as well as social/cultural relations, the garden and ways of gardening emerge as expression. A more complex conceptualization of the garden and gardening emerge in debates concerning consumption, commodification, and identity. In recent decades, the garden as artifact has been increasingly transformed to gardening as practice and as significant in developing critical conceptual approaches to a range of ‘new’ cultural geographies. These shifts and developments accompany the increasing geographical interest in process, practice, and performance. The ‘nature’ dimensions relating to, and perhaps informed by, gardens and gardening emerge in new ways in terms of reconceptualizations of nature where significance and meaning may emerge through practice, and in relation to the nonhuman; and debates concerning the ethical and moral in human geography, including shifting symbolism of the garden and of gardening in relation to war and peace. These developments in human geographies have been enmeshed with wider humanities and social science thinking and beyond these, from art theory and social anthropology to environmental debate.

Garden Iconographies, Materiality, and Sacred Space

The significance of the garden in world religions is pervasive, demonstrating its power to define space. In ancient Mesopotamia and in Muslim traditions, the date palm, material object, was considered the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Ancient summer palaces of China incorporated in their gardens shapes to reflect and to contain cosmological visions, magic powers, and feng shui. The garden, as Eden, symbolized the originary and pre-Fall, pre-cultural, a particular notion of nature. Paradoxically combining reference to such appeals to purity with excuse, or opportunity, for erotic display, Renaissance painting frequently used religious or classical imagery in rendering the garden as idyllic playground, its own version of the garden.

More secularly, the garden became a signifier of Englishness, generally conservative and redolent of organic rural values. It was used and understood to symbolize English identity and its contribution to global civilization during the English country house period of the last three centuries. Such design power sustained into the twentieth century, during which gradually a more mechanized engagement with modernity was developed, symbolizing a new iconography of progress that became increasingly widespread across Europe. Sometimes echoing this European version, the garden as yard in North America displayed status; idealistically combined individuality with community at the front: family and home values at the rear. Persistent return to the sacred dimensions of what the garden signifies is prevalent in photography, art and literature; gardens as sacred spaces were depicted in cultures diversely across the world and in the geographies of world religions. A particular version of nature as perfected by cultivation's civilizing imprint pervades such models, but there can be also a more relational vision where the garden is used to represent a more relational mix with culture and human action, including a mixture of control and liberation.

The Garden, Ideology, Discourse, and Power

As the Italian Renaissance garden, later copied but refigured in English garden design, was set aside as apart from the world, its iconography was also significantly deployed in the pursuit of power by wealthy landowners. Particular components of layout and design, iconographic in themselves of a particular version of high culture; of orderly adaptation of nature; and their security and private character open only to select guests ensured their role in display of importance to those permitted to view them, as they became associated with the ordered leisure time of the upper class. They were used to confer status. Beyond their boundaries these significant garden spaces emitted their power through their associated delimitation of boundaries, and clearances of ordinary inhabitants in their wake, to provide more space and cleanse [sic] the view. This iconography was affirmed through a very visual manner – in their physical design and visual consumption. Thus the garden played a political discourse of class and its appropriated culture. This was the garden as landscaped for purpose. The focus upon the garden in these ways helped progress critical discourse in cultural, humanistic geographies and drew attention to the compound of vision, space, and power. These features combined with critical reappraisals of art, especially painting, and its deployment in garden design, to which they were often prototypes. Paintings as objectification of discourse played a symbiotic role with the objectification of discourse in the garden. While holding on to notions of the sacred even if formalized culturally, these gardens, like the paintings, also served as opportunity for erotic display, for example, in sculpture, often drawing upon classical motifs.

A wider range of iconography of the garden has more recently emerged, problematizing earlier versions of landscaped garden to reveal new geographies. These formal gardens have been identified as key influences on everyday contemporary gardens. However, these interpretations may be reductive as other influences deserve note. Such gardens include: the garden as necessitous to feed the household and at the same time provide sensory delight; and the iconography of individuals’ small, mixed, and cottage gardens, community gardens known variously worldwide as allotments, vacant lot gardens, kleinegarten, or petits jardins. The latter may be considered ‘compensatory’ for the absence or lack of either a garden space adjacent to the home, as rented rather than owned, or ‘replacing’ larger cultivable spaces following its appropriation (enclosure of common lands, urbanization). Moreover, they may be considered gardens of particular social and cultural opportunity.

Together, these more avuncular spaces provide distinctive examples of the vernacular that combine cultural context with a distinctive iconography: the mixed use and unselfconscious layout of small parcels of land to sustain the household; and the plot of land usually separate, or distant, from the house. More broadly the the vernacular character of household garden spaces speaks of distinctive identities, values, meanings, and attitudes. Their design and outward appearance can make a narration of complex social and cultural influence and projection, everyday production and popular imagery.

Each of these ‘mundane’ gardens and their work produces distinctive ground for interpreting space and culture; and present a complexity of significance, context, and action in their geographies. They contain their own character of nature, sacred identity, and political discourse. In Cuba, the garden has become resonant of political struggle, holding onto Cuban identity and subverting trade embargoes. In Berlin, New York, Russia, and Britain the community garden is significant in the politics of land, development, and identity.

Garden, Gardening, and Cultural Identity

Acknowledging the complexity and diversity of the garden, especially in contemporary modernity, continues to be a focus of geography and across the humanities and social sciences as well as depictive of landscape in artwork, in increasingly diverse ways. For example, the garden has been a focus of debate concerning gender, the domestic and ‘the home’, and ethnicity.

Class underlined the distinction of the landscaped garden across Europe and its colonies, notably India. In the twenty-first century, class remains significant, demonstrated in the use and deployment of distinctive design, plants grown, and evidence of display.

Gardens bear distinctive forms of ethnic identity. In their design and in plants grown, ethnic identity can be conferred. Caribbean and Bangladeshi gardens in England, for example, contain once-exotic crops only just becoming popular and commonplace in once more-temperate gardens. In Oslo, Norway, allotments can be geographically separated according to Turkish growers with high-intensity clear-ground food cultivation and a Norwegian middle-class white population more intent on decorative planting, with accompanying cultural–political tensions.

Gender, household, and familial relations linked with ideas of the domestic, the home, emerge in geographies of the garden. Gendering in the garden, curiously stereotyped by men growing food and women flowers [or by men for ‘the wife’], includes also ways in which the articulation of garden and indoor space are constituted in gendered ideas of the domestic, expressed in the use, design, apportionment, and demarcation of activity and distribution of labor. During the nineteenth century, gardening was familiarly and habitually part of women's work in the domestic division of labor among both working-class households and where land work as small-scale farming was done by men. More recently, the wider evolution of garden from space essential to the welfare of the family/household to spaces of display has made this domestic, gendered relationship more complex and nuanced, and potentially contested. It is possible too that age and generation can be distinguished in the way in which these elements are distributed.

However, the garden and ethnicity and other social divisions and distinctions are not merely significant in terms of different, distinctive ways of cultivation but in terms of values and gardening as process. Social and cultural identity and distinctiveness remain just as significant in the practice of gardening as in the garden as idea and object.

Consumption, Commodification, and the Identity Process

The study of space in terms of consumption has prompted and been informed by work on commercialization on the character of participation in gardening and what the garden means in contemporary culture. Attention has been drawn to the increasing importance of commodification of the garden. The garden has become objectified as a commodity underlined and contextualized by its commercial, marketing imagery, open to manipulation as material culture. In this way the garden arguably becomes narrowed to its purpose in status-making – particular styles of garden and plants, planting, and cultivation an exercise in achievement. Garden objects, as plants, furniture, and design contextualized, are given value and meaning through the construction of style in the commodity – monetary value, fashion, and the act of purchase conferring significance, cultural identity, and status. Such extension of the garden connects notions of domesticity and the increasing significance of the home in ‘commodity culture’. Commodification of the garden and gardening is accompanied by more widely mediated cultures in specialist gardening and gardens, and more popular magazines and other literature, through the global spread of television ‘garden-makeover’ programs, as well as both more earnest and more stylized bespoken garden information. Thus the garden and gardening are transformed along commercialized and stylized discourses, transplanting significance and materiality from other more popular and everyday impulses.

However, this emphasis on commodification in consumption may deliver an over-reductive discourse. Consumption includes refiguring of the value of commodities, and their reworking in relation to the individual's life, and its intersubjective territory. In this more active process of the consumer doing work, constituting meaning and value with the purchased objects and ideas, individuals may engage these prefigured values associated with purchased products in their own ways, through their own lives, and identities confer their own values and meanings.

Moreover, there is a significant current in gardening and in the use and signification of gardening that derives its significance from intersubjective and cooperative practice. Gardening is familiarly, still in the twenty-first century, an act of friendship and communality; informal networks of knowledge and practice; and of sharing ideas and informal, cooperative, soft competition. Competition as evidenced in flower shows can be highly competitive but not always so. Ideas on garden design, what to grow, and how to grow can be shared and convivial, partly informed by the garden media and commercial seduction, but refigured socially and culturally. Communal networks through gardening practice convey further social and collaborative practical ontology.

Practicing gardens includes garden visits possibly to encounter demonstrations of ‘high culture’ (such as landscaped gardens typical of much of Europe and their transplants in North America and elsewhere) and everyday gardens often included in locally available ‘gardens open to the public’ schemes. Such may be regarded as exemplars of stylization and accompaniments to commodification. Yet, this may not necessarily be so. Their respective significance may be considered as exercises in sightseeing and in relation to exploring identities, rediscovering individual or shared, local and national histories and heritages, and in complementing leisure interests in gardening.

Gardens emerge from these discourses as both private and public. Familiarly, the front garden, at the front of the house is on view to the public anytime as a site for display. The back garden is a back space concealed from wider observation and surveillance. However, the back garden may be also the site of significant social intercourse, barbecue, and relaxed intersubjectivity where friends are invited. The front garden may play a similar role in sociality as the site where gardening combines meeting people passing by on the street.

The community garden is significantly a public and a private space; a site of public encounter and private reflection. Typically situated among anywhere between 20 and 100 small garden plots, often rigidly gridded in orderly delivery of land ownership, these spaces may profer relative isolation in their opportunity for individuality in cultivation, wider practice, and relaxation. However, they are frequently also open to collective view among other plot holders; and they may offer view from surrounding areas. While they continue a heritage of domestic relations (traditionally a male exercise, less so today), the informality of community gardens and their location outside notions of domestic space and bespoken designer mediation make their opportunity for alternative, even subversive design and cultivation possible. Thus, these small spaces are characterized by an often makeshift opportunity as a distinctive self-expression, a vernacular landscape, and as an allotment aesthetic.

Gardening as Embodied Practice and Performative Process

In both a distinctive departure and yet bearing traces of earlier garden discourses in human geography and related fields, more recently, the idea of the garden has become reactivated anew in cultural geographies and geographies of embodied practice and performance. The garden has been verbalized into gardening, cognizant with the increasing geographical attention to process and subjectivities. Through writing on practice, performance, dwelling, and lay geographies, these contributions reengage the active process of human encounters; the reworking of cultural context and refiguring of geographies, and conceptualizations of nature as well as the non-human.

Moving somewhat beyond the visually geared interpretations of the garden as iconography, new cultural geographies of gardening articulate the importance of practice, in consideration of so-called nonrepresentational geographies, in acknowledgment of the complex and nuanced iteration between embodied practice and contextual representations. Phenomenologically encountering the world and its spaces bodily subjectively and intersubjectively, multisensually, and expressively, the world becomes perceived through both feet as well as eyes. Practice is enlarged through a consideration of performance: ritualistic, stylized, encountered in a life journey of exploration as well as self-identification in performativities, with potential to ‘hold on’ and to ‘go further’ in one‘s life through mentally reflexive embodied encounters and interplay with memory.

Gardening participates in a making of lay geography, temporal, complex, and contingent. It holds the potential of difference, of becoming, incompletely constrained by context and prefigured iconography and significance. Gardening holds potential for creativity, rather than merely mundane continuity and confinement in available garden categorizations. Objects encountered, made or responded to, in gardening may be significant in the ways in which doing gardening may be felt to be important. Objects convey their material culture in ways that may bear prefigured significance. Individuals may negotiate and reconstitute these prefigurations in the process. Gardening is thus a bodily process of active reflexivity.

This process may include a component of well-being through physical activity, mental stimulation and reflection, and particular rhythms. Private and community gardens can be used as therapeutic schemes for offenders and the mentally ill. Arguably working with and alongside plants may confer an open experience of relational care. Yet, countering idealization, garden space may be used and valued very differently. It may be the location of storage, accumulation of domestic materials, including the discarded, where no interior space is available, and gardening a chore of simply keeping tidy, a site for coping or the expression of not coping with life.

Gardening may offer opportunity for attention to physical matter of material culture – and nature – in a more visceral way. The practiced lay geographies of gardening provide an example of practical ontologies, constituting and negotiating identities relationally with the formally prefigured identities of cultural contexts. Furthermore it may offer opportunities for relational ontologies with nature that circumvent the formal ontologies of nature as idealised, set apart, pre-cultural. Thus nature may be constituted through gardening and its embodied, visceral performance with imagination, metaphor, and fleshy materiality that are familiarly encountered in garden practice.

Back to Nature and Beyond

The garden emerges historically in powerful iconographies of purity, cosmology, religion, and the sacred; a moralistic existence of the pre-Fall; and the pre-cultural. It was the garden not wilderness that signified perfection. It represented a particular contract of pre-cultural, pre-human perfection through cultivation that combined a complex discourse concerning human–nature relations. This powerful story persists in world religions, and nonreligious beliefs, even in contemporary artwork, with distinctive moral and ethical import. Over the last century, the reemergence of a more ecologically sensitive and aware discourse repositions this thinking. With reference to the garden as more-than-private space, as generic symbolization of human–nature relations, a revaluation of ethical responsibility emerges. Gardening can offer opportunity for ethically sustainable practices and nature relations, yet not exclusively. The last 100 years of experience suggests its equal opportunity to affect an ethics of control and exploitation even at a domestic level. Recent discussion includes the relation between gardening as a human-directed act, and the ways in which the nonhuman, plants, and their growth interact and influence human activity and reflection. The nonhuman is conceptualized as deserving ethical respect. Wilderness accompanies this garden vision as a softening of technocratic, modernized, mechanical domination. Gardening and the garden familiarly involve negotiations of threads of control, domination, and power; liberation and enabling, soft management; cooperation; and active relation and respect.

Nature's effect on and through performance and signification in gardening can be significant too. Distinct hybridities of practice, feeling, and possibility emerge through the multiple interplay of human and nonhuman actants. Nature can be constituted through doing; through relationships built and imagined with the materiality and felt experience of the nonhuman. Thus gardening is not static, but its action and meaning constituted in the process of its doing. This process includes a practiced relationship with nature and wilderness – a negotiated control and cooperation.

Moral geographies can pervade thinking on the garden and gardening in terms of their association of correct ethical use, appropriate display, and iconography: the landscaped garden of the wealthy landowner and the painted landscape; the ordered domestic garden; and the owner-authorized tidy rented plot. Because of the semiotic depth of gardening, these moral judgments and conflicts persist. Gardening is familiarly linked with reverie; sacred significance, and poetics. Poetics of gardening include reference to gardens’ iconography and emerge through action. Poetics can be conferred in art, literature, and formal design. It can also emerge through performance, practice, and human–nonhuman relationality.

The garden, and gardening, may be interpreted as a foundational trope of fixity – originary human civilization in settlement and continuity. Yet, this is only one version. Gardening, in its processual and potentially performative modes, can offer an exploration of life – identity and creativity, memory and possibilities – in perpetual contingency and active refiguring as well as an imagined permanence.

The iconographic power of the garden to signify peace as well as practical and poetic possibility in providing nourishment, offering exercises of beauty, and expression of hope has been rendered in gardens made in war-time, in war zones of extreme social, political, economic, and cultural conditions made in, for example, Warsaw and other ghettos during World War II; in prisoner of war and civilian internment camps; the recent Gulf Wars; and behind the trenches, by soldiers, during World War I, as both humanized landscapes and experience. Again the garden metaphor and materiality of performance is echoed in similar ways in the cemetery, where the significance of the garden and gardening the cemetery and graveyard are given acute significance in the working of memory.

See also

Body, The; Landscape; Nature.

Further reading
  • Alfrey, N. and Daniels, S. (2005). Exhibition catalogue The Garden. London: Tate Gallery.
  • Chevalier, S. From woollen carpet to grass carpet: Bridging home and garden in an English suburb Miller, D. Material Culture: Why Some Things Matter 1998 Routledge London 26-46.
  • D. Cosgrove; S. Daniels The Iconography of Landscape 1988 Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Crouch, D. Performances and constitutions of natures: A consideration of the performance of lay geographies B. Szerszynski; W. Heim; C. Waterton Nature Performed 2003 Blackwell Oxford 15-30.
  • Crouch, D. Spacing, performance and becoming: Tangles in the mundane Environment and Planning A 35 2003 1948-1960.
  • Crouch, D. Gardening as a construction of landscape U. Shneider; J. Wolshke-Bulmahn Gegen den Strom 2004 University of Hannover Hannover 57-72.
  • D. Crouch; C. Ward The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture 1988 Faber and Faber London [5th edn., revised 2007, Nottingham: Five Leaves Press.].
  • D. Francis; L. Kellaher; G. Neophytou The Secret Cemetery 2005 Berg Oxford.
  • G. Groening; U. Shneider Design versus leisure: Social implications of functionalist design in urban private gardens of the twentieth century Crouch, D. Leisure/Tourism Geographies 1999 Routledge London 149-163.
  • Hitchings, R. At home with someone non-human Home Cultures 1 2005 169-186.
  • Helphand, K. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime 2006 Trinity University Press San Antonio, TX.
  • Ingold, T. Culture on the ground: The world perceived through the feet Journal of Material Culture 9 3 2004 315-340.
  • Jackson, J.B. Sense of Place/Time 1994 Yale University Press New Haven, CT pp 119–134.
  • O. Jones; P. Cloke Tree Cultures: The Place of Trees and Trees in Their Place 2001 Berg Oxford.
  • Lee, R. Shelter from the storm? Geographies of regard in worlds of horticultural consumption and production Geoforum 31 2 2000 137-157.
  • Longhurst, R. Plots, plants and paradoxes: Contemporary domestic gardens in Aotearoa/New Zealand Social and Cultural Geography 7 4 2007 581-593.
  • Westmacott, R. The gardens of Afro-Americans in the rural south J.D. Hunt; J. Wolshke-Bulmahn The Vernacular Garden: Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture 14 1993 Dumbarton Oaks Washington, DC 77-105.
  • Whatmore, S. Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures and Spaces 2002 Sage London.
  • David Crouch
    University of Derby, Derby, UK
    Copyright © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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