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A Brief History Of Gardens In Containers

Aug 17, 2007
Gardening in pots and other containers is apparently as old as civilization, for the practice can be traced to the very early use of medicinal and edible plants. In time, pot gardening developed to a high degree, and there are numerous records which reveal its importance in China, India, Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. Since ancient days, it has been particularly enjoyed in countries with hot, dry summers and low annual rainfall.

In tracing the history of pot gardening, we can go to paintings from the Middle Period in Egypt to see formal gardens with "beds marked out in squares like a chessboard." In one illustration of a garden at El-Bersheh, there is a long "row of pot plants, an early example of ornament that became common later on."

In Greece and Rome
In Greece, the so-called Adonis garden marked the beginning of pot gardening there. In midsummer, when Athenian women celebrated the Festival of Adonis, they placed around the statue of Adonis earthen pots filled with soil in which they sowed fennel and lettuce as well as wheat and barley. As time went on, the simple pagan custom became a children's game and boys who, "sowed quick-growing seeds in great pots," were delighted "when the green began to show." In the writings of Theophras-tus, too, there are references to pot gardening.

In Imperial Rome, the court of Domitian at the Palatine was "adorned with flowers just as the Assyrians plant them on the roofs in honour of Adonis" and Domi-tian's palace was decorated with tubs placed all around the roof of the pillared court, a practice adopted later in Pompeii. Boxes for growing plants were also placed on roofs.

Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Though medicinal and edible plants were favored in the gardens of the Middle Ages, they were also ornamented with pot plants. Exotics were frequently planted in containers to make them "objects of beauty," and gardeners practiced "the curious custom of placing pots and growing flowers on beds already planted with flowers," particularly carnations, which were favorites.

During the Renaissance in Italy and later in France, England, and elsewhere, pot plants became common garden features. In Spain, in a sense, pot gardening came into its own in the gardens of Spain. Under the Moors, life in Spain was Oriental. The gardens, with their fountains and ornamental flower pots, were open living-rooms. Similar outdoor living areas developed in Portugal, which was also occupied by the Moors.

From the time of the Renaissance, when the Italian style of gardening was adopted in northern Europe, potted plants and decorative urns were important. When Versailles set the fashion for the rest of Europe, its fabulous gardens, with their tubbed orange trees and elegant urns, were also copied.

Through Germany and Holland
In Germany, there was a strong trend toward pot gardening. According to a sketch of the seventeenth-century garden of Christopher Peller in Nurenberg, urns and pots were lavishly scattered about. Around the beds, "there are lower stone borders with ornamental pots set on them: these contain plants of many kinds, with orange-trees and other costly foreign plants that have to pass the winter in a hothouse."

In the Orient
Pot plants were always much used in the East, especially in Chinese gardens, where the emphasis is on pines, foliage plants, and decorated vessels. Commonly grown in vases and containers were dwarf trees, "a main occupation of Chinese gardeners." In China, and elsewhere in eastern countries, the houses adjoin courts, which are given character with "flowering trees and shrubs, or pot plants, which are liked still more."

In early as well as advanced cultures, growing plants in containers has been a universal practice, a symbol of man's innate love and need for growing things. Wherever soil was lacking or the climate was unfavorable, containers made it possible to enjoy the beauty and inspiration of plants. Today, the practice continues to grow, ever changing to fit the needs of the time.
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