Madhumita talks of her passion, Landscape Gardening. She takes us through the history of gardening. She tells us how her M. Phil studies drew her into gardening. She showcases how she transformed the two terraces of her apartment in Kolkata into a Landscape Garden.
A tailor-made garden, an Eden recreated and brought home by designer gardeners. Landscape design is now affordable for the majority, there being available different packages to suit one’s wallet and space. According to the client’s needs and preferences a gardener now creates spatial and special lay-outs and constructions to create scenery borrowed from wherever the client fancies.
Gardening originated in prehistoric times with families improving their immediate environment, locating and protecting useful trees and vine species and destroying undesirable ones. Later, to add variety, foreign species were selected and incorporated into the gardens.
Ornamental gardening has a long history. It began much before the 18th century when it is said to have been popularised. The earliest mention of a private ornamental garden is the Persian ‘Paradise Garden’ and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; the Persian influence is noted in post Alexander Greece, around 350 B.C in the garden at the Academy of Athens and the garden of Epicurus, where he is said to have relaxed and taught. The best gardens in Europe were said to be the Ptolemy’s gardens at Alexandria. The gardening tradition reached Rome soon and the rich Romans built extensive villa gardens with little water bodies, creating designs and shaded arcades with topiary.
In Europe, gardening as a luxury flourished throughout the Byzantine period of more than 1000 years, from 330 to 1453 AD and reached a climax in France during the rule King Louis XIV, in the late 17th century, the famous Garden à la française, of a classical Baroque style, being designed by the chief gardener at Versailles, André Le Nôtre.
But the peak period of landscape gardening incorporated with landscape architecture was in the 18th century, in England. And the reasons were many. The two revolutions, Agrarian and Industrial, gathering speed since late 17th century, led to plots of land, both urban and rural, to be reworked with. The moneyed aristocrats ventured into the countryside in a bid to acquire land for a planned, profit-earning agriculture. Back home, in the city, they wished to incorporate the woods and the hillsof rural England in their backyards. Accordingly, little hills and lakes were sculpted among manicured fields with blossoming flowers and rose- bushes and thick forest groves. Two people shot to fame during this period. They were William Kent and Lancelot Brown, who were not merely gardeners but landscape architects. Brown, who was initially less popular than Kent, the chief gardener, gained so much of repute that he came to be known as Capability Brown. Posterity still remembers him. He saw a potential, a ‘capability’ in every private plot of land he laid his eyes on and very capably transformed them into designer landscape gardens.
While specialising in 18th century art and literature, during my M. Phil days at the university, I found myself particularly drawn to Landscape Gardening. More so perhaps because I missed the garden I had to leave behind, attached to our house, beside a large pond, in suburban Kolkata, when we had to shift to the city to study in a school there. My convent school boasted of a huge sprawling campus with acres of greenery, a pond, trees, flowering plants and grottos with statues of saints standing in altars made of stone. The gardens there more than made up for my pining for greenery in our new two bedroom flat with two tiny balconies, housing five little pots of very basic plants like Tulsi, Chillies, and decorative leafy houseplants. I stayed on in school, long beyond the school hours, wandering in the garden, sitting by the pond, watching the fish and the tadpoles in there. But this was not destined to last for long. After completing the 11th class and school leaving examinations passed, I had to leave my dream garden, again. College was in the heart of the city and the horticultural gardens were far away.
I found my very own dream garden much later in life. My in-laws’ ancestral property sold after the demise of both the parents, we bought an apartment that though was in the heart of the southern parts of the city, had two exclusive terraces that I immediately knew how to transform. I did not wish to hire a garden designer. I wanted to do it myself. I donned on Capability Brown’s invisible hat and proceeded to show my capability. Pots and soil were brought in, along with the furniture for the rooms. As the carpenters worked within, I worked on the terrace, wearing soil, sweat and mud all over me. Soon there were my green babies all, in rows and tiers, swaying in the breeze, greeting me in the morning, waiting all afternoon for me to return from work, happily nodding as I sat with them in the evening, sipping tea. They flowered and bore fruit. I served lunch and dinner to all with pride, dishes cooked with herbs and vegetables, garden fresh.
And then there were their babies in the pots. These were the wee little delicate plants, soft and pale green, with tender little leaves. And all my small ceramic and glass bowls and some wine glasses too were gone from the kitchen, to be little homes for the little plants. They stood on the window sill, on a peck table beside the sofa, little plants in a little garden. It was a challenge to build a terrarium. I first used a fish bowl that was cracked at the bottom. I put a layer of sand and then some soil. Small plants, saplings and even some wee weeds were planted within and the bare soil that showed was covered with moss. It was a little landscaped garden that I kept gazing at for seven days. The weeds even flowered! Tiny specks of yellow filled the interior of my round glass garden.
Two things, however, were missing in my garden. Rather, two things I missed. My pond of childhood memories and a lawn I fancied. A pond on the sixth floor! My husband ruled out the possibility. I did not reply and called our Man Friday over next day. He was all in one, a carpenter, builder, electrician and even supplier of some of my plants. We discussed, over cups of tea, his sweet, with milk, mine raw, sugarless.
“You’ll work from 10:30 to 6:30. Dada is not to see you or any of your workers, right?”
“Yes. I understand.” And he smiled a naughty conspiratorial smile. Three days later my little pond was made. Cemented with waterproof material, pebbles he had brought on my special request, embedded on to the exterior sides, it looked beautiful.
“Now the soil and the lotus plant, please. Will you?”
He got those all and I got the fish.
“See, how beautiful it looks and no fear of mosquitoes too! They’ll eat up the larvae.” My husband who I had not allowed to go to the terrace on various pretexts, till the ‘misdeed’ was done, did not smile.
“Are you sure there will be no seepage of water?”
I did not sulk. I looked forward to the lotus blossoming and the fish producing babies soon.
The lawn was prepared too, in the same technique and my herbs and leafy vegetables grow there now. I have stopped buying green chillies and coriander leaves. Now, I am waiting for the tomatoes to ripen.
Pix and Text by Author
Professor Dr. Madhumita Ghosh is also a poet and editor. Her poems have been widely published in print, e-books, journals and magazines all over the world. She has authored four poetry books titled For All You Lovely People, Pebbles On The Shore, Flowing with the River and My Poetry My Voice, and also William Blake; A Prophet for Mankind, a critical study on the British poet. Madhumita has presently a novel and a book of short stories are in the pipeline.