As I begin to put my garden to bed for the Winter my thoughts are never far from its reawakening in the Spring. A typical read for me on a snowy winter day usually has something to do with gardening. “Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination” (Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897) that spurs a gardener to come up with new designs and combinations every year.
My inspiration comes from a little known monastic garden at the University of Perugia that I visited with my Umbrian friends, Luca and Luigi. The garden houses a collection of plants which are of scientific value because they contain DNA that allows for the study of ancient genetic lines. Historically the garden is reminiscent of a Hortus conclusis, a garden surrounded by a wall in which medicinal herbs and edible plants were grown. Located on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the University garden (Orto Botanico dell’Università di Perugia) was meant to be “symbolic” in that the placement of certain plants was based on religious and cultural customs and conventions reflecting myths and beliefs typical of the period.
The first part of the garden is elliptically shaped like an egg and surrounded by water features representing the rivers of the Garden of Eden. A succession of symbolic plantings and trees create a pathway to renewal and healing with medicinal plants for treatment, hygiene and nutrition meticulously labeled with common plant names used during the middle ages. The arrangement of semi-circular open-air seating , the Theatrum, was once used by the monks to distribute food and medicinals to the city’s needy.
Designing a garden where every plant is meant to nourish the mind, body and spirit within a confined space is a little like creating a metaphoric garden of Eden. Something I can exercise my imagination on over the next few months.