A Brief History of The Garden

Explore the cultural meaning behind these green spaces

We may think of gardens as peaceful places today – the perfect spot for dozing on a lazy afternoon – but their history is more complex. In fact, it was the humble garden that first encouraged humans to make the great leap from roaming hunter-gatherers to settled farmers around 10,000 years ago, as jungle plots gave way to fenced enclosures and crops. The whole history of humanity is tied up with gardening, meaning that these spaces have changed dramatically over time and across cultures. We take a closer look.

The biblical garden

The Garden of Eden has been an obsession for western artists for centuries. Perhaps one of the best-known depictions comes from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-1505). Here, life before the Fall is shown on the left-hand screen as a serene paradise, while in the main central panel we get a glimpse of what happens when humans are left to their own devices (clue: it’s sinful). Free will makes for an orgy of indulgence, but there are consequences, as shown in the far right panel’s hellscape of fire and monstrous demons.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (From the collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The only Wonder of the Ancient World that we don’t have an exact modern day location for are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They were probably not in the city of Babylon at all (close to modern day Baghdad) but are more likely to have been miles north in Nineveh (near Iraq’s Turkish border). What’s more, they may not have been conventional gardens either, but rather a many-stepped palace with greenery growing on the roofs. This was quite a feat in the arid climate of ancient Mesopotamia and it’s thought the gardens were irrigated by an early version of Archimedes' Screw, which allows the transportation of water uphill. The fact that they were written about by several classical authors means that they almost certainly existed, but we may never know what they really looked like.

Arc Reco Seven Wonders 1 Colussus of Rhodes Hanging Gardens of Babylon Mausoleum Artemesia (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The Persian garden


Formal gardens were elevated to an art form in Islamic culture, refined for centuries under the Persian Empire. Known as chahar bagh, these walled spaces tended to follow a strict plan that fanned out from a central fountain. It was at this central point that four rivers or watercourses met, representing the four rivers of paradise. You can still find exquisite examples of chahar bagh across former Persian domains, from Granada to Iran, but perhaps the best-known example is the Taj Mahal in India. Persian rugs were often decorated with the same geometric chahar bagh layout, providing a portable piece of paradise for elites to lounge on.

A Ruler in a Garden Pavilion Surrounded by Courtiers and Attendants (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

The Japanese garden

Another cultural tradition that turned gardens into an otherworldly experience came from the Far East. Japan’s nihon teien don't follow the same geometric patterns as the Persian chahar bagh, but they still encode a huge amount of information about Japanese culture.

Blending natural elements such as weathered rocks and bubbling streams with manmade pagodas and bridges, these formal gardens seem haphazard, but are in fact governed by Zen philosophy. The temple garden shown here was found in the foothills of Kyoto and shows the meandering layout of a classic nihon teien, combining religious buildings with places of contemplation.

Five Hundred Arhats by Itō Jakuchū (From the collection of National Gallery of Victoria)

The Baroque garden

Before the Baroque period, European gardens had retained echoes of their working roots, with herb beds and wild flower borders. Versailles changed all this. The grand project of France’s Sun King Louis XIV turned the European garden into a display of power and politics, with sweeping grand avenues, huge feats of engineering and intricate geometric planting all designed to show the owner’s mastery over nature.

The King’s landscape architect André Le Nôtre referenced classical and Renaissance gardens in his design for Versailles, but pumped everything to a scale never before seen on the continent. This was gardening as theatre, forcing everyone who entered to become an actor in the owner’s personal play.

View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles by Pierre Patel (From the collection of Palace of Versailles)

Reclaiming wilderness


Centuries of horticultural formality took their toll on a European audience and by the early 20th century, artists were yearning for a return to the wilderness. This desire can be seen in Henri Rousseau’s masterpiece The Dream (1910), where a reclining nude awakes in a lush tropical jungle. Rousseau never actually visited the tropics but was inspired by visits to Paris’s various zoos, museums and hot houses, allowing him to imagine a world returned to nature.

These urges were also expressing themselves at the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, with the founding of the National Park Service in the USA in 1916. We like to think of the mighty expanse of Yellowstone and Yosemite as unbridled nature, but they are, in fact, carefully managed environments: gardens on a scale the Sun King could only dream of.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau (From the collection of MoMA)
Words by Jonathan Openshaw
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