Making the garden speak

Making the garden speak

Centuries ago, in 16-century Italy and in Britain, too, gardens had a voice. They were used like paintings or sculptures, as a means of expressing ideas.

In those days every educated person knew the stories of classical mythology, and myths were the source of the universal, visual language used in the garden. Statues of gods and goddesses, fountains, buildings and even plants were the equivalent of words in this new language. String them together and you could spell out messages about philosophy and politics, or even celebrate the achievements of the garden owner.

We forgot all about symbolic language in the garden years ago. Or did we? During the research for my new book, Great Gardens of Britain, I visited two gardens in Scotland that have revived the long-lost idea of garden symbolism in a fascinating and intensely modern way. One, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries and Galloway, is built on a grand scale, while the other, Little Sparta in Lanarkshire, is more compact.

These places demonstrate how we, too, can add another layer of interest and a new kind of significance to our plots, however big or small they may be. We all have our own passions, and this is an opportunity to explore and express them in a novel and exciting way.

Science replaces mythology in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, where Charles Jencks celebrates ideas about the universe and explores new discoveries in science. He says waveforms, such as brain, sound, light and water waves, are one of the fundamental structures of life. In the garden he uses undulating hedges, Chinese bridges and sinuous landforms to illustrate his point.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, poet and artist, took a very different approach at Little Sparta. Here words are everywhere, beautifully cut, carved or painted on plaques, benches, bridges, gates, arches and obelisks. The symbolism combines serious political and historical themes with jokes. In the front garden, for example, a stone set among a group of sycamores is inscribed with the words 'Bring back the birch'. A small birch tree grows immediately behind it. His wit is everywhere.

There's no need to turn your whole garden into a symbolic space, as Jencks and Hamilton Finlay have done. But what about inscribing some words on the garden's existing structures? Or, a little more bravely perhaps, experimenting with pushing the soil on your patch about to create a wonderful landform? But what will it mean? That's for you to decide.

Great Gardens of Britain by Helena Attlee is published by Frances Lincoln. Photographs by Alex Ramsay