Sunday, October 27, 2013

J'ai détruit mon parterre: a very brief history of European landscape architecture

Mon parterre - before I cut it down
Aerial view of my backyard from Google Maps
A parterre is a formal garden featuring plant beds in a symmetrical pattern with gravel paths in between. The beds are lined with short, clipped hedges, often boxwood.  They became popular during the French Renaissance and were common in Europe until the 1700s.  At that point, people started to favor a more naturalistic look inspired by paintings of ancient Greek ruins.  Yards were made to look wild and natural, and some people actually installed fake ruins and artificially tumble-down hermitages.  For some hilarious and informative discussions of English landscape architecture from that era (as well as discussions of thermodynamics, Lord Byron, Fermat's last theorem, and just about everything else), I refer you to Tom Stoppard's fantastic play Arcadia.

It appears that someone decided to plant a parterre in my backyard.  As you can see from the photos, the backyard contained a rectangular arrangement of low boxwood hedges with gravel paths in between.   Unfortunately, it also appears that someone neglected to water it, so by the time I bought the house, the hedge was largely dead.  The palo verde tree in the center of the parterre was also a pretty weird juxtaposition.  The small piece of California desert as the centerpiece of a Renaissance Europe formal garden was just...weird.

A knot garden is like a parterre, but the beds are specifically planted with herbs.  My parterre had two baby citrus trees and a sprig of sage in the beds around the edges.  Maybe this was a Californiafied knot garden?  Or perhaps the parterre was planted first, and someone later came in and planted the citrus and palo verde trees on top of it.  That seems more likely.

I thought at first that the parterre might have been original to the house.  It kind of seemed like something someone in the 1920s might have done.  A lot of Easterners migrated to California around that time period and brought their Eastern landscaping and construction practices here, despite the fact that the climate doesn't always lend itself well to those practices.  But, one of the hedges still had a plastic tag from the nursery inside it, and I found some receipts in the garage that I think were for boxwood hedges.  I believe the parterre dates from sometime around 2000.

If it had been original, I might have felt bad about tearing it out.  But, original or no, the parterre had to go.  Lawns and water-hungry hedges just don't make sense here in Southern California.  I plan to turn the backyard into a wonderland of drought-tolerant shrubbery, and, with the exception of my citrus trees, anything that requires regular watering is henceforth banned from the yard.  I want my wonderland to be wild and thick, I guess more like the 18th century style inspired by ancient Greek ruins rather than the earlier geometrical Renaissance style.  I might even put in some California "ruins" of my own.  I kind of have my eye on a windmill I saw at an antique store.

So, I had a bunch of friends over for a morning of social destruction (thanks, guys!), and we chopped down all the boxwood hedges and dug out all the roots.  We also trimmed up the rest of the yard, which was badly overgrown.  I kept the palo verde tree, the sage clump, and the baby citrus trees.  I'll redistribute the gravel into a new path through my wonderland of shrubbery.

Speaking of paths, note that hedge mazes evolved out of knot gardens.  If my parterre/knot garden had been a hedge maze, maybe I would have kept it.  Wouldn't you?  But, well, maybe my meandering shrubbery wonderland path can be a bit maze-like. Stay tuned for more gardening updates as this project evolves.
My backyard without the boxwood hedges

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