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Painting of a woman lying in a field of wildflowers.

The Paradox Of Wild English Gardens


The charming contraction in the creation of English cottage gardens.

Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.

-Walt Whitman

Since times remote humans have wanted – and to certain extent have achieved – the delimitation and transformation of the great garden of nature, to give form to its branches, cut its leaves and guide them in a specific direction. That desire to manipulate and “recreate” the natural world that surrounds us — the same principle behind the ancient art of bonsai – finds an obvious contradiction in the creation of wild English gardens, or cottage gardens.

Gardening in England is an ancient tradition that has gone through different stages and trends. In the 18th century, for example, what became known as “English gardens” replaced the geometric and structured French gardens of the 17th century that had attempted to imitate the spaces of the royal house of Versailles – perfectly clipped mazes and carpets of flowers, decorated with fountains and statues. The English garden was the reflection of the idealization of pastoral nature, subsequently influenced by the English Romantic movement; gardens with large grassy areas, clumps of trees isolated like colonies and imitations of caves, Greek temples, ponds and a spirit that could be considered wilder than what was common in continental Europe.

Toward the end of the 19th century a new English garden style emerged known as the English cottage garden. These beautiful spaces that normally surrounded a country house or cottage had existed for centuries but it was not until that time that they became a trend in garden design and their characteristics were defined and refined.

English cottage gardens imply a delicate contradiction of being a garden, a space delimitated and designed by humans that pretends to be a wild garden – with all the implicit contradictions of the concept. They normally include orchards, gardens of aromatic herbs, flowerbeds and, sometimes, beehives. The plants are dense but pruned and occupy small spaces, flooding the garden. Their inhabitants – a mixture of edible plants, herbs and ornamental shrubs – fill the spaces where there are no straight lines, where it appears that nature did all the work. Roses, daisies, violets, geraniums, Chinese hibiscus, marigolds and other herbs that invade this jumbled space that could appear wild but is perfectly designed.

Helen Leach, in her book Cultivating Myths, states that the cottage garden represents the image of an idealized and definitively fictitious world that is located somewhere in England’s past and is a fantastical land, like many other creations inspired in Romantic concepts of what nature is. Leach says the idea of the space does inspire a kind of gardening that, beyond the use of specific plants, is characterized by its way of combining and distributing the plants, a unique feature of these overcrowded gardens.

English cottage gardens portray what English poet Alexander Pope once called the “amiable simplicity of unadorned nature”; they represent an effort to sculpt the natural world, conserving what is assumed are characteristics of wild and pristine nature, a type of beautiful controlled chaos, a disorganized organization and a wild world completely controlled and discreetly ordered: a garden that appears to have been taken over by the plants that inhabit it.

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