Victoria Summerley: Discover paradise in a Persian walled garden

Horticulture Studies

Friday 13 May 2011 00:00

I really enjoyed Monty Don's recent BBC television series on Italian gardens, but if he wants inspiration for a follow-up, I'd like to suggest that he looks at Islamic gardens. Any garden historian will tell you what a huge debt we in the West owe to the Muslim ideal of paradise.

This is encapsulated in the design of the Persian chahar bagh. This enclosed garden has a central fountain which flows into four water rills, which represent the four rivers of Paradise. Famous examples include the Garden of Fin in Iran, the Taj Mahal garden in India, and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada – which brought the concept of the paradise garden to the West in the Middle Ages. Even today, many of us in Britain see the walled garden, with its connotations of shelter and repose, filled with scented flowers, delicious fruit and soothing fountains, as the ideal.

In his book, Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition, the American academic Robert Pogue Harrison argues that it also provides a key to understanding Islam in the modern world. "It is difficult for us in the West," he says, "to understand how the religion in whose name so much violence is unleashed... can have peace as its highest ideal. Even more challenging is to fathom how the demand for peacefulness in Islam might be behind the great upheavals. One day we will realise that it is not so much our modern Western values but rather the unconstrained frenzy of the West that offends the very core of Islam in the eyes of the extremists. Where paradise is imagined as a garden of perfect tranquillity, our incurable Western agitation takes on a diabolical quality."

To find world peace and understanding through gardening – now that really would be something.

Malvern – Chelsea without the bling

The Chelsea Flower Show, which opens on 24 May, marks the start of the London social season. For me, however, the Malvern Spring Gardening Show this weekend marks the start of the gardening social season.

Malvern isn't the first gardening show in the UK calendar. However, it's a big one – over 50 acres – with a wide selection of show gardens and a floral marquee where many of the best nurseries exhibit. It's like Chelsea, but without the same levels of cash (gardens at Chelsea can easily cost £250,000), crowds and celebs. People go to Malvern because they like gardening, rather than to be seen. They know a heuchera from a hosta, and quite possibly how to propagate them, too.

There's a big emphasis on learning at Malvern. There is a school gardens competition, judged by the Royal Horticultural Society, the theme of which this year will be "science". Candidates for the Chris Beardshaw Mentoring Scholarship are also taking a scientific approach, designing their gardens around the theme "atom".

Britain boasts some of the best designers in the world, but they need somewhere to make their name. Malvern provides that opportunity – Paul Hervey-Brookes, for example, the 2009 scholarship winner, will be designing the RNIB's garden at Chelsea this year, and he has also designed Malvern's "Garden In Harmony" theatre. This is one of the highlights. The theme this year is biodiversity, so it is hosting a series of talks on anything from bees and butterflies to compost cafes, compered by the garden designer and writer James Alexander-Sinclair. If you think that sounds mind-numbingly earnest, it really isn't – the talks are interspersed with eccentric items by James and his accomplices. Last year, we were treated to a song and dance act performed by James, award-winning garden designer Cleve West and television gardening presenter Joe Swift, written by Joe's dad, the actor Clive Swift. You don't get that kind of thing at Chelsea.

Love your garden, love yourself

Anne Wareham, whose new book The Bad Tempered Gardener has just hit the bookshops, will also be on the platform at Malvern tomorrow. She has a formidable reputation for raising hackles in the sheltered world of gardening, but her most recent comments on the website Crocus struck me as very perceptive. She remarks that women – especially older women – find it difficult to take themselves and their needs seriously, and see keeping the garden looking good simply for their own personal satisfaction as rather narcissistic and self-centred.

Anne's own garden, Veddw in Monmouthshire, is open to the public in June, July and August. Currently, she reports: "The grass needs cutting. The reflecting pool is a seed bed of floating beech mast and dead flies. Various winter shrub deaths remain visible. One of the reasons for these bits of sad neglect is me... in the sense that I don't take my pleasure in the garden as seriously as the visitors' pleasure. If a coach party were coming, all of this would be sorted. But to clear up, mow and fish out dead flies just for me seems self-indulgent, decadent perhaps."

This lack of attention to our own needs must be familiar to many people, not just gardeners. I open my garden for the National Gardens Scheme each year, so like Anne, I have a "deadline" by which to get things into shape. Without it, the place would probably become a wilderness within minutes.

But as Anne says, if you don't open your garden to the public, how do you tackle the problem? Do you make a point of inviting friends round regularly? Or do you take a course in cognitive behavioural therapy and learn to appreciate your own needs? Do tell.

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