Figured it’s best to start at the beginning, historically speaking (visited Nov. 2010).
The Museum of Garden History, St. Mary-at-Lambeth, London.
St. Mary-at-Lambeth, now home to the Garden Museum
Not only is this a museum of gardening history but it’s also the final resting place of the Tradescants, John the Elder (1570s-1638) and John the Younger (1608-1662), botanists and gardeners who brought plants and trees to England from Europe, Russia, China, and America. John the Elder worked for the Cecil family at Hatfield House (this house’s history is the original inspiration for the PhD novel), and he even worked for Charles I. When he died, his son took over as the king’s gardener, but John the Younger ended up having to “hide out” in America during the English Civil War, when gardening on a royal scale wasn’t really the in thing, what with the king having lost his head and all…
The garden behind the museum showcases a knot, a popular garden feature in the 16th and 17th centuries. While they’re attractive at the ground level (because it was late autumn, this one was looking a bit raggedy), they were often created to be viewed from the upper stories of the grand houses, a way of continuing the designs inside–on walls, fabrics, furnishings, etc.–into the view outside. They were part of a pleasure garden, indicating the extra space (read: not necessary for food production), money, and labor a landowner had at his disposal.
A knot garden in late autumn.
One vital detail to remember when thinking about gardens is that they are not static: they are made of living things. They grow. And growing things, especially plants, get out of hand. They get leggy. They bolt and go to seed. Weeds invade. Purposely selected plants invade each other’s spaces. Plants overgrow the boundaries. They die off in winter.
There is something significant about knot gardens in that, large or small, they represent one broader goal of gardening: to shape nature to your ideal. Knots are about control, clean lines. They are a way of claiming dominion over a plant’s true nature, of making nature into art.
Gardens are a border between the civilization of the house and the wilds beyond. And within that border are arbitrary borders: the edges of paths, beds for this vegetable and that herb, dividing lines between parterres and allees. Humans lay down a path and say “This, here, is the edge.” But borders are to be crossed, or they are not borders.
A knot is all border, a way of showcasing the gardener’s talents and the plant’s “natural” forms, what it can be trained to do. I imagine that its complexity was taken for granted, not only by visitors to the grand houses but by the homeowners themselves, who expected to be surrounded by beauty. This reminds me of the stories about Versailles (and, likely other royal palaces), where the gardeners came out at night to pick up all of the fallen leaves and blossoms so that the king (we’re talking Louis XIV, of course) would never see death and decay but only a garden in perfection.
But a garden, like anything in nature, is never *perfect*.