Do flowers make a garden?

Must a garden have flowers? Must it have trees and shrubs? Must it have plants at all?

I think most people would say yes. But consider England’s great landscape gardens. Some of those designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the late 1700s had few if any flowers. And what about that masterpiece of garden art, the Ryoan-ji  garden in Kyoto? This garden from the late 1400s contains only sand, rock and small islands of moss.

This image of the Ryoan-ji’s Zen garden is from Wikipedia.
So, is “garden” simply a word to be defined according to our cultural biases, or are there other qualities that define it?

Fifteen stones on white raked gravel make up the Ryoan-ji Zen garden in Kyoto. The composition is stark and, for me, was thought-provoking. Wherever I stood, I could not see all the stones at the same time. What inspired the designer to place the stones in that way? Many people have speculated on this question. Treatises have probably been written about the meaning of the stones and their placement. But whatever its meaning, the garden had a mysterious, almost hypnotic effect on me. And I believe my response was typical.

Claude Cormier’s Blue Stick Garden is far from the Zen-inspired Ryoan-ji, in time, space and purpose. The Blue Stick Garden takes the colour of a plant as its starting point. Shades of blue found in the Himalayan blue poppy, symbol of the Reford Gardens at Metis, appear on three sides of ordinary wooden sticks. On the fourth side, shades of orange derived from the colour of the centre of the poppy deliver a simple and delightfully effective chromatic shock. In 2000, at the inaugural season of the Metis International Garden Festival, the sticks were arranged much as the flower borders of Elsie Reford’s 1920s garden would have been, graduated in height, with the shortest flower/sticks in front and the tallest in the back. The arrangment of the sticks has changed as the piece has traveled from garden to garden, yet each arrangement has harkened back to the spirit of colour and movement embodied by Reford’s Edwardian and Jekyll-inspired borders.

Claude Cormier’s Blue Stick Garden is now installed on the lawn
near Estevan Lodge at the Reford Gardens in Metis, Quebec.
Are these coloured sticks a garden? I say yes, emphatically yes. Cormier’s creation is a contemporary take on ‘garden,’ evoking a period in the history of garden design that continues to shape our notions of what a garden is, or should be. And as a garden made in the opening year of the 21st century, it fulfills a garden’s role of reflecting the ideas of the era in which it is created.Gardens exist within a framework of time and place. The word itself has a history — and that history colours how we think about what a garden is, or can be. Its root comes from the Persian pairidaeza (which has an obvious linguistic connection to our word paradise) and refers to an enclosure.  Historically, this is understandable: when the world ‘outside’ was dangerous, a walled off space ensured safety for the people who lived there and the plants they grew. As the word moved through various languages (Anglo-Saxon geard; Old Norse garör; Middle English gardin, from the French jardin; Old German gart), it retained that sense of an enclosed place.

A garden ‘plot’ from the 2008 garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire.
A witty take on an enclosed space. I wish I could remember the designer’s name.
In medieval times, the walled garden, or hortus conclusus, offered safety. In Edwardian times, the motivation shifted. The walls of a garden were like blindfolds, hiding the unpleasant realities of the world beyond. Contrast that blinkered view with the expansive spirit of 18th century England, where ha-ha walls went underground, hiding themselves to allow an open view onto the world beyond. Or with the change from the enclosed space of an Italian Renaissance gardens to the openness of the gardens less than a hundred years later, when baroque became the rage.
Reverse the question. If flowers, or any type of living plant material, are necessary for a space to be a garden, does their presence necessarily create a garden? If so, why don’t we call a farm field a garden, or a stretch of ‘natural’ woodland?
The difference is intention. A garden is a designed space. Whether it has flowers or not, it has been made for a reason. It is not natural but an artificial construct, shaped with a purpose in mind. Over the years, that purpose has shifted, as cultures and economies have changed. In today’s world we may want to make gardens into soothing retreats or refuges from the cotidian.  But they needn’t be. They needn’t be picturesque, or look natural, or aim to imitate nature. Gardens today can be minimal or maximal. They can be big or small, full of flowers or without a single bloom.

Gardens can be whatever we want them to be.

Traffic jams ahead?
These converging lines appeared on the lake a few years ago.
In winter, when I am bereft of flowers, when shrubs are mostly bare or hidden under snow, I think about these things. I think about the many different types of gardens, and how the names we use for them influence how we think about the space itself. Flower gardens, vegetable gardens, rock gardens, moss gardens. Botanical gardens, zoological gardens, sculpture gardens.
I try to think outside the box — and beyond the cliché — to allow my mind to range freely. I do this in the hope that thinking more freely will lead somewhere: to a garden that is more individual, more peculiar perhaps, but also more particular to me and mine.
I think this is an ambition that many of us share. We want our gardens to reflect something about ourselves, to be personal statements rather than copycat versions of the predictable.
Or am I wrong?