Whether it be for their historical importance, expression of beauty or just sheer whimsy, gardens are important. Modern day gardens are like a work of art, but one that’s ever-changing. They have the potential for perfection but as a living thing, they’re never finished. By contrast, the earliest gardens were pretty functional affairs. Around 10,000 BC open space was enclosed to protect the plants from animals and people looking for food. Over the centuries the idea of a garden was slowly transformed from being purely agricultural to an aesthetic ideal.
As early as 1600 BC wealthy Egyptians created gardens to celebrate beauty. Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his wide Amytis, around a thousand years later. She was missing her mountain home so he had the so-called hanging gardens, actually a series of terraces, created to make her feel better. Then in 400 BC the Persians introduced symmetry as a design element in horticulture, while the Romans contributed water features and fountains, as an expression of their love of water. Chinese and Japanese influences came into play around the 4th century with a focus on Zen minimalism, the ultimate in less is more.
By the 15th and 16th centuries Renaissance gardens reigned supreme. They were at the other end of the scale of decorative opulence with elaborate and sometimes over-the-top designs. More recently, eco-centric and sustainable gardening is being included in the planning of ornamental gardens, mixing function with form.
The same design elements are still in place, but the plants have to earn their keep as well as look good, as shown in the vertical gardens in Milan, Italy.
The Butchart Gardens – Brentwood Bay, British Colombia, Canada
Back in 1904 Robert and Jennie Butchart moved to Vancouver, Canada, and began to mine a limestone quarry in their backyard. As the space emptied out, Jennie envisioned a lush garden in its place. Using only a horse and cart she painstakingly transferred tons of soil into the spent quarry to form the Sunken Garden.
By 1929 they’d added the Japanese, Rose and Italian gardens. Over several more decades their grandson and great grand-children continued to add their own vision to the gardens, including a carousel painted with roses and filled with hand-carved animals.
Now millions of plants from over 900 varieties cover an area of 55 acres. Butchart Gardens are a glorious example of how one woman’s dream a hundred years ago became a stunning reality. Open year round.
Emirgan Park - Emirgan, Istanbul, Turkey
Emirgan Park is world famous for its stunning tulip displays. Every April more than 20 million tulips come into bloom on terraces that cascade down to the Bosphorus.
The area dates back to Byzantine times and became private land in the 1600s. It passed through the hands of several different owners over the centuries, all of whom left their mark. Today, Emirgan covers an area of 117 acres, surrounded by high walls.
Three wooden kösk built at the end of 19th century, named Sari, Pembe and Beyaz, are still in use. The first, the Yellow Pavilion, looks like a giant version of a carved wooden birdcage. The Pink Pavilion is a typical Ottoman house while the White Pavilion is a neo-classical mansion.
Year round, Emirgan provides a peaceful escape from the bustle of the city and the chance to take tea where sultans, pashas and other members of the Ottoman elite used to dine.
Garden of Cosmic Speculation – Dumfries, Scotland
Only open one day a year, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation is a must-see bucket list entry.
Thirty acres of Scottish countryside have been transformed into the fundamentals of modern physics and mathematics, in grass and foliage. Artificial lakes and bridges connect five distinct areas of the garden, each dedicated to a physical realisation of science. Clever use of topiary sculpting and exactingly manicured landscapes gives visual forms to abstract concepts.
There are DNA helix, fractals, that is curves or geometrical figures, too complex to explain string theory and even black holes. It’s the work of architectural theorist Charles Jencks and his wife Maggie Keswick, an expert of Asian garden design. From 1989 to 1995 they met with myriad horticulturalists and scientists, merging art, nature and science, to create this extraordinary garden.
Gardens of Versailles – Versailles, France
The exquisite classic French gardens of Versailles were designed by Andre Le Notre in the 17th century for Louis XIV, known as the Sun King. It took more than 40 years to complete and covers 800 acres of land.
Symmetrical flower beds called parterre are laid out in formal patterns linked by paths. Swathes of sculpted and manicured lawn are interspersed with elaborate fountains featuring gold and bronze statues. Avenues of hedges lead to the Grand Trianon, a palace built for Louis XIV in 1670, to get away from it all with his mistress. The Petit Trianon nestles in a delicately intimate garden.
Chanel your inner Kirsten Dunst in the Hall of Mirrors, where Sophia Coppola’s directed her in Marie Antoinette, then visit the Hamlet built by order of the young queen. The name is misleading. It’s actually a whole model village, completed with thatched roof houses, farmyard and lake. Gardens open year round, palaces closed Mondays.
Heligan Gardens – Cornwall, England
The history of the Lost Gardens of Heligan reads like a scene from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden."
Opening a nearly rotten door revealed an overgrown tangle of gardens, forgotten for nearly 80 years. The once magnificent gardens were part of the Tremayne family seat for 400 years, but come 1914 the huge team of gardeners was lost to the havoc of World War I. The grand home became cheap flats while magnificent flower beds, trees and herbaceous borders were abandoned to nature.
In 1990, Tim Smit and John Wills, a descendent of the Tremayne’s, found them again and the restoration began. Now you can enjoy plants from Italy and India in the Pleasure Gardens, and marvel at ancient Wollombi Pines from Australia recently planted in the Jungle.
Remember to keep quiet when you follow the woodland pathways or you might wake the Mud Maid and the Grey Lady, the sleeping giants of the estate. Closed Christmas Day.
Jardin Majorelle – Marrakech, Morocco
Once through the gates of Jardin Marjorelle, the clamour, dust and chaos of Marrakech are forgotten. Cool soothing grey greens and a brilliant blue cocoon the garden that wraps around Villa Oasis with an air of quiet, reflective calm.
It’s the work of French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962), who first visited Morocco in 1917. He was seduced by the fabulous Matisse-like colours he saw and spent forty years turning his passion into a reality.
In 1980, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge bought the property, and set about restoring it to Marjorelle’s original vision. It became Saint Laurent’s home and source of creative inspiration.
Pebble garden beds of cacti and succulents reflect the heat of the desert, water flows in elegant fountains and passing breezes catch in lazy palm fronds and whisper through bamboo stands. Open to the public every day of the year, including Islamic religious holidays.
Ajuda Botanical Gardens – Lisbon, Portugal
Just up the hill from Jeronimos Monastery and Belem Tower is a small formal garden often overlooked by sightseers, although it’s been around for 250 years. The Ajuda Botanical Gardens were founded in 1768 with the aim of collecting and studying as many species of plants as possible.
They were designed by Italian botanist Domingos Vandelli and hold up to 5,000 different species of plants, as per his original layout. Built on the Renaissance model of layers, the botanical collection takes up the top tiers. It contains fantastic prehistoric cycads and an enormous dracaena draco, held up with wooden props, takes up one large corner.
Elsewhere peacocks meander through the grounds barking a warning. The lower tier has an ornamental walking garden, fountain and ornate staircase from which it’s possible to look out at the River Tagus.
From here it’s easy to imagine English ships sailing down from Porto with barrels of ruby liquor on board. Closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens – Richmond, London, England
On a day out at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, founded in 1840, a visit to the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse is a must. Temperate House, so named because it houses plants from temperate zones such as Africa, Asia Pacific and the Americas, looks like a wedding cake made of steel and glass.
Recently restored, it was designed by Decimus Burton and first opened to the public in 1863. Many of the plants inside are rare species under threat of extinction in the wild. Half its size but equally glorious is Palm House. When it was under construction in 1844, it was the largest glasshouse ever to be built.
It’s believed the architect borrowed from shipbuilding techniques, and seen from above it looks a lot like an upturned boat. Inside, tropical plants such as African palms, rubber trees, pepper plants and sugar cane brought to England by Victorian adventurers, fill the space. Gardens open daily.
Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden - Chonburi, Thailand
Orchids are everywhere in Thailand so you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the country’s national flower, rather than Ratchaphruek, also known as Indian Laburnum. Both of them are rampantly abundant in the glorious Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Gardens in Pattaya.
The land was bought by Mr. Pisit and Mrs. Nongnooch Tansacha in 1954. They intended it for a fruit plantation but after visiting famous gardens abroad, Mrs. Nongnooch decided to create a tropical paradise of her own. Her inspirations are obvious.
French and Italian design gardens, the Stonehenge circle carved out in greenery, alongside Thai temples, a specialized garden featuring Bromeliads, as well as 650 species of orchid. Nong Nooch isn’t only a haven for plant lovers. The 500 acre garden boasts a Thai culture show, accommodation and a somewhat bizarre display of animals and dinosaurs sculptures dotted throughout. Open year round.
Rock Garden of Chandigarh, India
Traditionally gardens contain trees, flowers or even fruit and vegetables but the Rock Garden of Chandigarh in India is made from trash and stones.
In 1957, public servant Nek Chand started to collect industrial and domestic waste. He wasn’t a hoarder, he was an artist. Pieces of twisted metal, broken tiles and other junk, in Nek’s hands, became whimsical sculptures inspired by Indian culture and folklore.
It took authorities 18 years to discover what he’d been doing and by that time his garden, covering 12 acres, was filled with hundreds of his creations. The public were so delighted by the discovery that the garden was saved from demolition.
Chand was given a salary and a workforce of 50 so he could complete what he’d started. Nek Chand died in 2015, aged 90. His secret obsession has become a 25 acre rock garden, with 2000 statues, numerous waterfalls and amphitheatres. Chandigarh garden is open daily.
Royal Botanical Gardens – Sydney, Australia
Originally built on land belonging to the indigenous Gadigal people, the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens opened in 1816 as a scientific endeavor to collect and catalogue Australia’s unique flora. Grand Moreton Bay Figs still dominate the grounds, their huge roots the perfect place for playing hide and seek.
Some of the more than 24,000 known species of Australian native plants are on display in the Rockery. Towering Gymea lilies and nectar rich Grevilleas attract native birds, heady from the scent of wildflowers. Primitive flowering plants, little different than in the time of the dinosaurs, line the shady paths of the Australian Rainforest Garden.
The Cadi Jam Ora garden marks the special relationship of the first people to this land, and explores their encounters with European settlement. Visitors can learn to forage and eat bush food on tours led by descendants of the Gadigal, known as Cadi. Open year round.
Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen- Hannover, Germany
Herrenhausen has four different gardens and two of them, the Grosser and Berggarten, make it unmissable. Grosser was planned as a pleasure garden, and initially fruit was the attraction. However, when Elector Ernst August became Duke in 1679, his wife Electress Sohpie discovered a talent for gardening.
In Grosser, the elegant but sometimes staid atmosphere of formal garden design is turned on its head with rows of bright gold colored statues lined along the hedges. Turning a corner and suddenly seeing them feels like stumbling onto the set of a movie about 1980s excess. Clearly there’s no such thing as too much bling. In the Berggarten, this love of excess and vivid colour is expressed in a lavish collection of exquisite orchids.
Displayed in greenhouses once used to grow mulberry trees to feed silkworms in the royal silk factory in Hamelin, today there are about 3,000 species on display. Open year round.
Ryoan-Ji Temple stone garden – Kyoto, Japan
At first glance the Ryoan-Ji Temple garden appears to be a simple carpet of stone, with a number of large rocks placed at random. However appearances can be deceptive. The size, level and even the height of the walls have all been carefully researched to produce a particular optical experience.
The garden has four secrets in its layout, best discovered through meditating on its design. The pebbles are raked smooth every day and with the garden open 365 days a year, there’s plenty of time to try to work it out. The seemingly abstract scatter of the 15 large rocks is actually based on Zen principles, but even the custodians of the temple are unclear of their meaning.
The exact age of the garden isn’t known either. It’s believed to date from the Muromachi period that ran from the 14th to 16th century, but the individual responsible for its design and execution remains a mystery.
Step Garden at Acros – Fukuoka, Japan
In 1995, architects were grappling with the design of an office block in Fukuoka, Japan, that was going to use up the last green space in the city. Instead of looking to conventional plans, they found inspiration in the step form of ziggurats, and designed a modern day version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Long before the 21st century vertical garden trend, Step Garden opened with 37,000 plants, from 76 varieties, covering all 14 stories. The trees are trimmed the same height as those on street level, giving the illusion of a seamless carpet of green. In total there is 5,400 square meters of foliage. Even though the building is privately owned the public can access the terraces from either of the building’s two entrances, year round.
In keeping with the eco-friendly ethos, smoking is forbidden, even on the observation deck that’s open only on weekends and public holidays.
Waldspirale – Darmstadt, Germany
Nowadays roof gardens are being constructed to provide food, clean air and calm spaces to revive the soul. However the Waldspirale garden, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, was built, well, just because he could.
Hundertwasser is famous for calling straight lines ‘the Devil’s tools’ and the Waldspirale, which translates as the Forest Circle, is a testament to that belief. It’s designed in a U-shape, with a ramp-like roof covered with shrubs, grass and trees. None of the 105 apartments have identically shaped windows and onion shaped domes add to the organic nature of the apartment block. The licorice all sorts color scheme of the building represents layers of soil under the earth.
Waldspirale was erected between 1998 and 2000 but sadly Hundertwasser died in February of that year, a few months before its completion. The interior courtyard is accessible to visitors, but the rooftop is closed to the public.