Gardens as a source of pleasure have historically been the reserve of the elite. While ordinary folk kept their outdoor spaces for food production, the privileged classes of every civilisation have always obsessed over green spaces built for indulgent leisure time. Tomb paintings in Egypt dating back to the 16th century depict ornamental gardens filled with lotus pools and symmetrical rows of trees. Both Aristotle and Epicurus bequeathed their well-established gardens to disciples. King Sennacherib of Assyria took the city garden concept to its zenith, installing a 50-kilometre water system and filling it with plants and animals from all over the Assyrian Empire, including lions. From the tightly composed Zen gardens of ancient Japan to the slightly wild and chaotic English cottage garden, domestic green spaces are an essential part of architecture and design.
It’s only in the modern era that ordinary folk were able to shift their outdoor spaces from food production to fun. Now, the world’s obsession with gardens and gardening has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry with Saturdays spent at the garden centre becoming a cultural norm. And there’s good reason. Spending time in and caring for gardens and other green spaces improves physical and mental health, reduces stress, improves heart function, lowers anxiety and helps with diabetes, asthma and migraines.
Most of us could rattle off the names of at least three famous gardens if asked. No doubt the list would include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Gardens of Versailles, Kew Gardens or Monet’s iris-filled garden in Giverny. Here in Ibiza, Blakstad Design Consultants create gardens based on the plants of the Mediterranean. Conscientious of water usage and also committed to finding plants that complement each other not only aesthetically but also biologically, our gardens are filled with a variety of species. You can read more about our Mediterranean landscape designs here, here and here.
But for the purpose of this post, we want to explore some of the lesser-known gardens of the world, away from the structured opulence of Versailles and the crowds at Giverny. Here are four green spaces off the beaten track where you can find inspiration, peace and maybe a few giggles.
Jardines del Doctor Pla i Armengol – Barcelona
Not far from the more famous Park Güell, these gardens were closed to the public for decades. The house and grounds were once the headquarters for the Instituto Ravetllat-Pla, which Pla i Armengol ran with a veterinarian colleague, eventually developing essential therapies in the fight against tuberculosis. The novecentista-style house and gardens were designed by Adolfo Florensa and finished in 1930. Covering 36,718 square metres, the grounds are brimming with a biodiversity rarely seen in a bustling metropolitan city.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation – Dumfriesshire, Scotland
You can only visit one day of the year and only over five hours. And don’t expect much in the way of biodiversity. This remarkable garden was built by landscape architect and theorist Charles Jencks as a way to explore scientific and mathematic concepts such as black holes, fractals and distortion. A cascade tells the story of the universe from the big bang and twisting DNA helixes are made from grassy knolls. Lakes, staircases, bridges and zigzag terraces add to the sense of wonder and humour, which was one of Jencks guiding principles in the creation.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan – Mevagissey, Cornwall
Home of the Mud Maid and the Giant’s Head, this magical slice of green was once part of the Tremayne family estate. The gardens were neglected and forgotten after World War 1, overgrown with brambles and weeds the house was eventually sold off and converted into apartments, but the garden remained hidden. The discovery of a rotting wooden door set into the bricks of one of the walled gardens revealed what was once a magnificent estate. Rehabilitated throughout the 1990s, The Lost Gardens of Heligan contain colossal rhododendrons and camellias along with lakes, vegetable gardens, Italian gardens, an area called the Jungle and a full calendar of activities as well as the aforementioned tenants – the Mud Maid and Giant’s Head.
Saihō-ji – Kyoto
Japanese temple gardens are renowned for their peace and tranquillity and their deep spiritual meanings. Gyōki, a Buddhist priest during the Nara period, built Saihō-ji temple to honour Amitābha Buddha. Its famous moss gardens are arranged in a circular pattern that centres on a golden pond which is shaped like the Chinese character for heart. Until the late 1970s, the gardens were accessible without prior appointment, but the toll of visitors soon brought the custodians to a unique way of controlling footfall. Reservations must be made via letter that includes a self-addressed return postcard and upon arriving, visitors must engage in an activity such as meditation, copying sutras in ink or chanting. It is well worth the effort and your contribution is added to the pagoda in which the monks pray daily.