Growing up in the Mediterranean and spending vacations on the western, Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula, I learned to appreciate how fresh and fragrant it felt when walking through narrow streets and into some patios as the midday summer hammered with no mercy.
A little shadow, a few plants, and a little moisture from some fountain nearby provided a pleasant microclimate some try to replicate now with swamp coolers and backyard gardens.
Unlike adults and even animals (there were still some left in small farmhouses back then), we would not fall into lethargy after lunch and would skip siesta; the silence would be only interrupted by the sound of a few TV’s tunned in the bicycle racing of the moment: Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España.
When it would be too hot to go on a bike ride, we’d look for a refreshing, cooled-down public spot, and we’d end up under old trees, not far from a fountain, and play cards until the sun was lower. In that afternoon moment, the fragrance of plants would invade the space along with our voices.
We’d then go swimming in one of the natural pools of the nearest creek, and the excursion would always include the taste of some delightful fruit picked from plants or trees in nearby gardens: sometimes a juicy tomato warm with the sun; sometimes a sweet, yellow pear that would easily give way hanging low due to its weight in watery sugar. Gardens were all over, and fruits (figs, different sorts of plums, yellow pears) would fall on the ground around trees, unpicked.
Years after, some of those edible gardens would vanish away with the often-older people still caring for them back then. And, as edible gardens receded, ornamental pots and little flower beds would expand on the narrow streets and inside the patios of houses transformed into second homes, empty most of the year.
Gardens are memory repositories
Prone to balm us with their smell, colors, and seasonal transformation, gardens, and plants —edible plants, kitchen herbs, fruit trees and bushes, ornamental plants, and flowers— often turn into Proustian portals capable of arising all sorts of rich experiences from the past. And according to studies, their evocative attributes could be part of why gardening can improve mental health, focus, and concentration.
Research has found links between bacteria found in rich soils and chemical reactions that help activate brain cells involved in producing serotonin, a neurotransmitter carrying messages between nerve cells that regulate body essential body functions we don’t notice when they work properly but transform our existence when they don’t: mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting, sexual desire. Gardens are also health portals to more mindful lives.
One of the main limitations of modern nomadism or seasonal living is the impossibility of projecting one’s values, hopes, or anxieties in the design and care of a garden.
Zoning can mandate the maintenance of water-dependent lawns in dry areas where grass became the aspirational symbol of civilized, commoditized prosperity. But, as drought becomes pervasive in wide suburban areas, does it make sense to maintain them? Only California has 4 million acres of lawns, a surface four times the State of Delaware, or half a million acres bigger than Connecticut.
Caring for a garden (no matter how small) transforms us
Caring for a garden shows the immediate impact of anybody’s intentionality with their surroundings: in Ancient Greece, a garden reflected the practices and state of mind of its owner. Plato’s Academy was a garden near Athens named after an Attica hero, Akademos; the metaphor linking education to the task of carefully mastering a garden brings us, among other places, to this site acquired by Plato, an olive grove used to make the olive oil filling the amphorae presented to the winners of the Panathenaic winners.
Another garden near Athens owned by Epicurus, was used by the philosopher to explain to his followers his hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle and philosophy. Apart from the city, but not too far, the garden welcomed and sustained many visitors thanks to irrigation canals served by the Eridanus River. Unlike other gardens, we all have seen decay with the last person actively up to a task that requires attention and love for poetic complexity (should we call it “systems thinking”?), the garden of Epicurus survived him since his disciples perceived it as the distillation of their master’s philosophy.
In Greek mythology, the garden of the Hesperides, or Hera’s orchard, had a tree growing golden apples, but also one Apple of Discord that led to the Trojan War.
When does a garden stop being one due to constraints such as lack of human care, size, or other environmental limitations? Bonsais, for example, don’t grow out of species dwarfed for the purpose of miniaturization but are the byproduct of carefully applied, conventional gardening techniques such as pruning, defoliation, root reduction, grafting, etc. We visibly affect our surroundings, and cultivating a garden is our ancestral celebration of this mundane epiphany. In this respect, it takes just one bonsai to make one’s own garden.
“Bonsai” means tray planting: self-enclosed in a pot that limits its growth, these miniature trees imitating their fully grown peers are the closest technique to a portable garden their enthusiasts can think of. If bonsais are to trees and gardens what haikus are to poems and epic sagas written in verse, full-grown gardens represent the values, needs, and aspirations of their promoters. Seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō would use the three-line poem with seventeen syllables (5/7/5) to create some action in a garden, so intensity and expression would cause commotion (as mundane as it could be intense) in the reader:
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
A garden of one’s own
There’s no bad or weak season for a garden, no matter how small and humble, whether it’s ornamental or edible. As a severe drought ravages Europe in the driest summer overall in the last centuries, some gardeners question their plant choices when it comes to reproducing our small, enclosed version of paradise on Earth.
Gardens are planned spaces where we set to master nature and recreate our values in the world surrounding us, but not all gardens are equally suited to the climate, soil, and biodiversity of the place they grow. Gardens soothe us and, when not ornamental, can also feed us or even intoxicate us. Their design can sometimes reflect a tradition, a teaching, or a philosophy, and in some traditions, they are the representation of our most elevated purposes.
Every garden tells a story, and we can notice when somebody leaves a place, temporarily or for good, as we observe the effects of a recent lack of care in a decaying garden. They also conceal their caretaker’s personality, with plants chosen for their beauty, their fragrance, or their utility in the kitchen or in the apothecarium. Journalist and writer Michael Pollan, for example, has transformed his gardening interest along with the topics covered by his essays: from the kitchen garden briefly depicted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his book about taking more wholesome food back at the table, to his current “intoxicating garden,” one, as he puts it, more similar to those found before the industrial revolution, “less concerned with the beauty of plants than with their spooky powers: whether to heal or poison, they could change us in some way, whether in body or in mind.”
Mastered for survival, then for beauty, gardens have preserved their multi-faceted nature across history: their allegorical force resonates along with the etymology of words such as garden and Eden, and their relation with plant domestication and urbanization in the areas that hosted the emergence of human civilizations, such as the Fertile Crescent between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in current-day Irak.
The name Eden derives from the Akkadian “edinnu,” which comes from the sumerian “edin” (plain, steppe); its Indo-European root is related to the Aramaic root meaning “fertile, well-watered.” Conversely, the word “paradise,” from the Greek “parádeisos” through the Latin “paradisus,” derived from the Proto-Iranian “paradaijah,” or walled enclosure. Our beloved word paradise evolved from the name given to walled enclosures used for, among other things, gardening.
As the Old Iranian word morphed into the Akkadian pardesu, it was used to name the walled gardens of the Persian Empire, and took a similar meaning in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew. In Hebrew, “pardesan” and “gan” meaning garden. In Europe, the Old French “jardin” had a Frankish/Germanic origin (gardan, which had also entered vulgar Latin as “gardinus”), meaning kitchen garden, orchard, palace grounds, or enclosed garden.
After the Muslim expansion through the Middle East, Northern Africa, and into the Iberian Peninsula, the construction of enclosed, well-watered garden would evolve into authentic hydraulic marvels such as the highly sophisticated 13th-century gardens of the Alhambra palace in Granada. The buildings surrounding the courtyards are cooled down all year round by channels where running water feed strategically located fountains. Water had to come from two rivers down in the valley, so the Nasrid rulers of Granada commissioned a hydraulic structure of large pools and cisterns connected through pipes.
Back at the beginning of written culture in Western Eurasia, the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh depicts events that could have inspired entire Old Testament passages, such as the Deluge. Conversely, the Mesopotamian flood-myth, associated with river floods in the gigantic basin then shared by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and hence their agrarian fertility, isn’t the only recurrent story emanating from the Fertile Crescent.
The Garden of Eden is another founding myth of our culture, depicting a time of abundance and innocence prior to the conflicts that would fester within humanity ever since the fall from that primordial state. To the Mesopotamians, the garden hosted a king guarding the tree of life, an archetype of sacred trees that has echoes in many religious traditions; in the Old Testament, Adam and Eve walk around the garden before falling from grace. Gardens also remind us of the loss of innocence and a painful expulsion from paradise.
We never left Nineveh
While the Eden of Genesis seems to be in Mesopotamia, in Ezekiel that same paradise seems to be located in modern-day Lebanon and echoes a Phoenician myth associated with a sanctuary of the gods in the area’s mountains. Be that as it may, there’s a persistence in the collective unconscious about the fall from Eden that resonates across the ages as if we were a part of The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch’s Dalí-esque deposition of the transition from Eden into indulgence, and finally a barren hellscape.
Sumerian and Akkadian cultures in Mesopotamia could have built the real-life models of biblical myths, such as the Babel tower and the Garden of Eden.
Contemporary culture hardly imagines Jerwan, in the Iraqi desert north of the city of Mosul, as the birthplace of the most impressive gardens of antiquity. When archeologists discovered a pile of limestone blocks in the area, each half a meter (1.6 feet) across, they first considered the remains of a ziggurat. But one inscription by Sennacherib, an Assyrian ruler who lived almost three millennia ago, hints at the structure’s original purpose:
“[I am] Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria. For a long distance from the river Hazur to the meadows of Nineveh I caused a canal to be dug. Over deep-cut ravines I constructed an aqueduct of white limestone. These waters I caused to flow over it.”
The majestic bed of limestone foundations is the only remaining of a giant project: an artificial water channel that transported water from the mountains and across the desert to the city of Nineveh. The transported water fed impressive hanging gardens, orchards, grain fields and vines with “every type of fruit,” as well as spices and olive trees.
Idealizing our relationship with nature
But two generations after, Sennacherib’s grandson, Ashurbanipal, transformed most of the edible gardens into the most impressive and elaborated ornamental gardens the world had ever seen, turning the city into one giant oasis, soon to be destroyed.
As it happened with the buried remains of the city of Troy, rediscovered by German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1863, the gardens of Nineveh became a mythical legend, to be rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century.
Whether the hanging gardens of Nineveh were the gardens of Babylon or not, they keep feeding our imagination and were the earliest civilization-scale structure ever built resembling a self-sustained city-state, so similar to the definition of “arcology” by architect Paolo Soleri that they seem to equally belong to the distant past and to a foreseeable future in which we will need counteract extreme weather conditions.
As Michael Pollan reminds us, we will always go to our little enclosed piece of paradise-on-earth to idealize our relationship with nature, though we are learning to synchronize the garden with its surroundings.
Native plants, and edible ones, can also bring beauty and inspire us with its benefits: they can be an invitation to practice introspection, they help our mood and other body functions that rely heavily on neurotransmitters, and they become an ecosystem capable of lowering the temperature around us.
If we combine edible and ornamental plants with a few local species of plants, bushes, or trees, our garden will attract native species such as pollinators and beneficial insects, and other animals that keep pests at bay.