One of the greatest gardens in the world was built for a concubine.
A Babylonian priest, a couple of Greek historians, Greek Geographer Strabo and Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium all wrote witness accounts of the place.
The gardens were ordered constructed by Nebuchadnezzar II, to please his wife who was awfully homesick. She longed for the lush green mountains of home.
“…Being a Persian by race and longing for the meadows of her mountains,” writes Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, using the old accounts of a far earlier recount; ” [she] asked the king to imitate, through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape of Persia”.
These gardens were made for love, poetry in garden form.
They were raised up on great high stone pillars, and ascended in tiers, each planted with great trees and plants so that it hung down to enchant those strolling along the raised paths.
When all was said and done, this was a garden an insanely rich lovesick husband might design. Siculus says it is a lush garden but also has a fair dose of theatre about it. None of the accounts tell us what they planted. We are left to marvel at Nebuchadnezzar’s amorous derringdo, with no hint of what actually hung there.
To a gardener – even a dormant one such as myself – the plants are the thing, with which to catch the concubine of a King.
Archaeologists have found no evidence the gardens ever existed. Which is strange. And Herodotus, the most contemporary writer to their time, makes no mention of it in his histories.
So some speculate this was just a grand story, an invention. A poetic device, fifty cubits high in a King’s imagination.
The grand gardening gesture is part and parcel of gardening: great Italian rococo affairs with outrageous fountains, or Capability Brown moving whole hills to alter the landscape. I’ve visited privileged garden after privileged garden. It’s all power play.
But the big stuff comes a poor second to one beautiful flower, a surprise on a Summer’s morning.
I love Cornish walls, for in that wet warm climate every crevice is filled with something beautiful. I have tried to bring the wild flowers north with no success. They are happy there, on their perch on damp stone, nodding at the fishing boats in the bay.
Like mermaids, they fade and wither, away from their native land. At school we have been putting seeds in a jam jar with a wet tissue. They sat unmoving for a day or two: and then sent up tiny shoots which delighted my streetwise, edgy charges. The hardest shell is pierced by such small signs.
And ask any gardener what are the most precious moments of the pastime and they will tell you about walking, in the early morning, around a beloved patch of earth, being greeted by new shoots, or buds, or flowers, or fruit.
The new stuff; the surprise plants in unexpected places: it all comes together this Summer, in the most glorious movement around our capital city. It’s called “Pimp Your Pavement.”
This is what you do: find somewhere ugly, and plant things which will grow there.
It’s not the grand gesture of the ornamental garden: rather, it is the Cornish wall act of finding a crevice, or a patch of concrete, and sowing something beautiful, just for the sheer joy of it.
It is one of the mainstays of the very first Chelsea Flower Show Fringe Festival. All round London PYP plantings are happening. They are not targeting whole gardens but barren patches of pavement, the lost crevices of urban life everyone looks past.
It’s edgy. It’s beautiful. It’s almost irresistible. Take a look.
Its values are bursting out all over, and BBC’s Farming Today programme of May 23rd featured Writtal College’s stand, which bucks the posh Chelsea trend by making veg containers out of old doors.
Compost, says PYP, compost and seeds: they rock our world. Writtle Lecturer Simon Watkins told FT’s reporter: “Anyone who wants to transform their community can get involved. In community gardening you’re getting people who literally are guerilla gardening and pimping bus stops, turning up in the middle of the night with a bag of compost and some plants, and doing things like filling the ash trays up and putting plants in them instead, encouraging people to be much more healthy.”
The planstmen and women are taking over the urban landscape. We know what will survive where: we’re gathering the right flowers and veg: and then, beware. No bus stop, no concrete crevice is safe.
It’s time for urbanites to green up.