What is a Garden?

Versailles
Versailles

I have been pondering this question for a long while now.  What is a garden?  Not  “what are gardens for?” the question posed and answered so eloquently by Rory Stuart in his recent book, What Are Gardens For?  but much more fundamental. How is a garden defined?  or What is the definition of garden?

It is not as simple an answer as one would think, or I would like.  Being traditionally educated I, naturally, turned to the dictionary for a definition. Being a contemporary household, I do not have a print dictionary and so turned to Dictionary.com online.  For one word, garden, there are a number of definitions:

  1. a plot of ground, usually near a house, where flowers, shrubs,  vegetables, fruits or herbs are cultivated.
  2. a piece of ground or other space, commonly with ornamental plants, trees, etc, used as a park or other public recreation area
  3.  a fertile and delightful spot or region.
  4. North American  a large public hall: Madison Square Garden

Four definitions, all very different. I was not satisfied. But, since it was Sunday and the library was closed and so I could not seek a second opinion in print, I further pursued my search on the internet. Wikipedia was next. If I could not find a satisfactory definition, perhaps my answer lay within the etymology. It did not.

Wikipedia says:

The etymology of the word gardening refers to enclosure: it is from Middle English gardin, from Anglo-French gardin, jardin, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German gard,gart, an enclosure or compound, as inStuttgart.. The words yard, court, and Latin hortus (meaning “garden,” hence horticulture and orchard), are cognates—all referring to an enclosed space.[4]The term “garden” in British English refers to a small enclosed area of land, usually adjoining a building.[5] This would be referred to as a yard in American English.

I now know a little more about the etymology of gardening, but am no closer to a definition of garden.  Is there no definitive definition? Is a garden an enclosed space near a house where plants are cultivated, and a public recreation area, and a whole region and Madison Square? Can it be all these things? I am asking for your  help on this question. Please help me ponder.  Have a think and then tell me:  how do you define garden?

27 thoughts on “What is a Garden?

  1. I don’t think you’ll get any better definition than the four you found. Gardens have so many different purposes and meanings in different times and cultures that we can’t sum it up in one short definition much beyond those you already found. I think Rory Stuart’s book comes as close as anyone can get, which is to evaluate some gardens, then send us out to experience many gardens on our own.

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    1. Yes, it may be true that the 4 definitions are solid ones, they definitely cover most, if not all, possibilities. I want to pursue the question a little longer with more reading and definitions from different cultures and times.

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  2. When I think of a garden I think simply, so forgive me ahead of time for the simplicity of my response. A garden is any place where effort has been made to grow and nourish plant life in a way that we can be a part of that environment – by nature a garden implies a relationship between the land and humans. For myself I add that it is also a place to take pleasure from the efforts of another person who has connected with the land to create beauty in some form or another.

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  3. I’ve thought a lot about this too – and one day came at the question another way round. I was thinking about how we don’t really know what megaliths and stone circles were for.

    But maybe they were like gardens – everybody kind of knew without ever defining their function. So, if someone said, ‘I’m going to build a circle and it’ll be like this…’ people would engage and be interested, but never say ‘why?’…

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    1. Yes, quite possibly, quite probably gardens evolved without anyone asking why or what. But I am asking now. After all, people have been asking what megaliths and stone circles were for for a very long time now. And the world is a titter with the news this week that Stonehenge was built as a complete circle, built on a natural landform that just happened to be on a solar axis. Maybe with an inquiry, the definition(s) of garden will become clearer.

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  4. This is a most thought provoking article and reminds me of those discussions at university, always in the small hours, about the definition of God (after all, how we could we get at the meaning of God without a definition?).

    Since I cannot see how a garden can exist without having experienced love, I suggest something along the lines of “ a loved, or formerly loved, place where flowers or shrubs have been planted”.

    Of course, less serious possibilities exist: sailboats for example have been defined as things which now or formerly floated into which the owner poured large amounts of money, mostly without any regret. My own garden, not in the USA, is much loved and is left mostly in a natural state (weeds and all). I suppose some might say the grassed portion of it of it is merely “land”, but the area with flowers and shrubs, at times overgrown but periodically cut back, weeded and mulched, is always splendid with its backdrop of a small cove and moored sailboats, and is “always a garden to me” (thanks Billy Joel).

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    1. Hi Fred,
      as usual, your comment is well thought out and well written. I hadn’t entertained the idea that my question “What is a Garden?” is similar to questions posed by intellectually curious college students, but I can see how it can be viewed that way. The idea that a garden is love is a powerful idea. I will put that idea at the top of the list. Your garden outside the USA sounds delightful. If a garden can give joy without much maintenance, it is a successful garden.

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      1. I do like Donna’s notion that a garden is whatever a gardener decides it is. While circular it incorporates the possibility that a garden can be, well, almost anything one can imagine.

        I also love her use of the word “bliss” which so much reminds me of childhood – not in fact because it was always blissful (though it mostly was), but because of the Bliss variety of potato which my mother always preferred. That makes me wonder if many plants, flowers and vegetables have names with positive connotations, although of course there must also be a few with, likely deserved, negative ones (like “Deadly Nightshade”).

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      2. Your observation that plants may have names with positive, or negative, connotations is an interesting one. I will pay attention to names of plants more closely from herein out. If I establish a connection between positive, or negative, names of plants, I will write a blog post about it. Thanks for the idea!

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  5. interesting question Amy, I always think of the word “garden’ the way I think of the word “family”. it means something different to each and every person you encounter, and all are right and appropriate especially when the answer comes form the heart ❤

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  6. Hmmm, so thought provoking. A garden is initially defined by the Gardener… as the master plan is laid and the plants are planted and cared for. And then something magical happens as the sun shines and the flowers bloom and the birds and the bees and the butterflies grace the garden with their presence. This alone adds immeasurable value to the garden… now it becomes a treasure, a bit of Heaven on earth.

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    1. So true, Carolyn. There is magic in the garden! Thanks for taking the time to comment. The idea that the garden is initially defined by the gardener is an interesting one, worth more thought.

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  7. That’s a tough one to answer. I think the emphasis on an enclosed space reflects the historic origins of gardens, but today only refers to a subset of gardens. I guess for me a garden is an enclosed space with plants and hardscape organized for human enjoyment – be that contemplation, promenading, etc.

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    1. I think of gardens as contained spaces, if not enclosed space. Your definition of “a garden is an enclosed space with plants and hardscape organized for human enjoyment” is intriguing. How do we then define enclosed space? Are the Millennium Gardens in Chicago enclosed space? They are defined space, but enclosed? You’re closer to those gardens then I am, what do you say?

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    1. Yes, this is the trend I am seeing in the comments to my question, that the definition of “garden” is based on personal experience. I am going to keep pursuing this question because I am not satisfied I have an answer yet. I believe there could be a universal definition of ‘garden’, and yet the experience is individual.

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