Designed to entertain, inspire, and delight, the world’s finest gardens deserve a place on every itinerary.
Destinations in their own right, the best gardens are more than just collections of plants, they are places that are unafraid to deal with life’s big ideas, created by people who believe that gardens should be places of aesthetic and intellectual provocation and enrichment. There are no dry lessons in botany or history here, just places that are worth the journey, whose magic is still powerful and palpable, that will appeal to the layperson and the connoisseur alike.
1. Skogskyrkogården (Woodland Cemetery), Stockholm, Sweden
In 1994, when the United Nations World Heritage Committee decided to make the Skogskyrkogården a Unesco World Heritage site, it was only the second 20th-century cultural heritage site to be added to the list. It has been described as the most perfect modern landscapes on the planet, and as a place that attempts to make sense of our place in the universe, it is certainly one of the most profound.
A landscape of hills and woodlands and sweeping meadows that is neither a modern landscape cemetery nor a city of the dead, the Skogskyrkogården is a peculiarly Nordic Elysium that represents both the beginning and the end of life and gardening, by subsuming the individual within the monumental, unthreatening simplicity of nature.
2. Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico
Edward James was an Eton- and Oxford-educated multimillionaire, poet and patron of the arts who retreated into the Mexican jungle and made it his home. James went to Mexico in search of a site for a “surreal Eden” that would also serve as a home for his menagerie and orchid collection. By the time he arrived in Xilitla in 1947, James had already played patron to John Betjeman, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.
While exploring the jungle, a companion of James’s went swimming in a pool and, afterwards, as he lay drying in the sunshine, a cloud of blue butterflies descended and covered every inch of his body. James took this as a sign and immediately bought the surrounding 100 hectares, turning 20 of these into a garden that required 50 full-time gardeners just to keep the surrounding jungle at bay. In 1962, a rare jungle frost destroyed James’s entire orchid collection, and from that point on, he worked with a local carpenter on the extraordinary surreal concrete structures that dominate the gardens today.
3. Painshill Park, Surrey, England
Many historic gardens and landscapes feel like just that – history lessons that are easier to appreciate than to love – but Painshill Park still manages to surprise, charm, educate and inspire after more than 240 years.
Created by the Hon Charles Hamilton MP, the 14th child and youngest son of the Earl of Abercorn, Painshill was influenced by the paintings of Poussin and Salvator Rosa, and the Italian landscapes Hamilton had seen while on the Grand Tour. Determined to create a garden that would be fashionable, beautiful and fun, Hamilton embarked on a hugely ambitious garden makeover, using the limited funds from his inheritance, and succeeded in creating one of the most romantic and theatrical of all English 18th-century gardens. Now restored, Painshill includes a great serpentine lake and architectural follies such as a grotto, Gothic temple, Chinese bridge and a hermitage, while eye catchers, carefully framed views and a circular walk continue to weave their magic.
4. Organoponico vivero Alamar, Havana, Cuba
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba’s sugar sales fell to almost zero and its oil imports dried up. The immediate result was an alarming lack of foreign currency, widespread shortages and an absence of basics such as food, fuel, medicine, fertilisers and power. To avert a crisis, every piece of available land in cities such as Havana was cultivated, and a series of urban farms was created using a system of raised beds, recycled materials and volunteer labour. With no fertilisers or pesticides, the only option was to farm organically in order to provide Cubans with essential food, herbs, and medicine.
One of Cuba’s most successful neighbourhood-managed, worker-owned cooperative urban organic farms is the Organoponico vivero Alamar in Havana. Covering about four hectares, it employs almost 150 volunteers and staff. The result is not only a heroic lesson in human ingenuity, but also points to a sustainable future for agriculture in an increasingly urbanised and unsustainable world.
If tastes shift in gardens and architecture like fashion on a catwalk, then Verona’s 16th-century Giardino Giusti is vintage couture that’s waiting for a red carpet revival. The reputation of Italy’s Renaissance gardens has always rested on star performers such as the gardens of the villas Lante and d’Este, but in its heyday, the Giusti garden was equally famous.
Goethe immortalised the Giusti’s towering cypresses in his travel writing, and in the 18th century, the garden was held in such esteem that the Austro-Hungarian emperor allowed the garden’s owners to change their surname from Giusti to Giusti del Giardino. Despite extensive 20th-century renovations, a vague air of melancholy now pervades the garden, hidden as it is behind high walls, hedges and gates, but this only reinforces the sense that by entering you have stumbled on one of the world’s most romantic secret gardens. According to local legend, lovers who manage to find each other in the garden’s labyrinth are destined to stay together (Giardino Giusti, Via Giardino Giusti 2, Verona, 00 39 45 803 40 29).
6. The Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory, Tucson, US
A former car park at the University of Arizona, the Underwood Garden was built for free, depending entirely on donated plants, materials and labour for its construction. This important garden points to a future in which urban landscapes can thrive by using the waste generated by adjacent buildings, an idea that the garden’s designer borrowed from the water recycling system at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Only 30 per cent of the water used by the Underwood Garden comes from harvested rainwater, while almost 50 per cent comes from air-conditioning condensate and the backwash from drinking-water filters. This means that the garden uses almost 83 per cent less tap water than comparable Tucson landscapes, a saving assisted by the use of carefully selected, drought-tolerant native plant species. Everyone with an interest in the sustainable development of the UAE should know and learn to love this garden.
7. Casa Barragán, Mexico City
It is not unusual for a garden to be more famous than its house: England is full of crumbling country piles that are routinely bypassed in favour of their more attractive and better-stocked herbaceous borders. Far rarer is the instance where a garden outshines an aesthetically and historically important house. Rarest of all, however, is the situation where a garden best illustrates a house feted as one of the most beautiful in the world, but such is the case with the external spaces of the home that Mexican architect Luis Barragán designed for himself in 1947.
All the doors and windows at Casa Barragán were positioned to capture just the right views of the garden, sky and streetscape, not the other way round. Most startling of all is Casa Barragán’s roof terrace. Composed exclusively of light, colour, shade and a carefully framed view of the sky, it is a space where nothing has been left to chance, to which nothing need be added and from which nothing can be taken away.
8. Lunuganga, Bentota, Sri Lanka
Lunuganga was Geoffrey Bawa’s home from 1947 to 2003. It was also the inspiration behind his transformation from disaffected lawyer to one of the most celebrated Asian architects of the 20th century. The project to which he always returned, Bawa described Lunuganga as a “garden within a garden” and drew deeply on Sri Lanka’s wider landscape and history for his inspiration.
A “cultivated wilderness”, Lunuganga eschews grand gestures, colourful flowerbeds, and ornate fountains, and succeeds instead in using a subtler palette and details that blur the boundary between the garden and its surroundings. Indeed, many of Bawa’s interventions, such as the cleverly framed and borrowed views of the surrounding landscape, are barely recognisable as such. The result is a fragile, dreamlike garden that feels as if it might vanish into the surrounding countryside at any moment. Since Bawa’s death, a dedicated team of architects and volunteers have worked hard to prevent this, and the Lunuganga Estate now operates as a country house hotel.
9. Miller House and Garden, Columbus, US
Deep in what is now suburban Ohio, hidden at the end of an ordinary residential street, there is an oasis of serenity where time has stopped, and where it is still possible to experience that sense of confidence, plenitude and optimism that came to define Eisenhower-era America.
Described as one of the most significant expressions of 20th-century American Modernism, the Miller House and Garden is a near-perfect ensemble of architecture, landscape and interiors that exemplify a tradition of domestic design that extends back beyond the 16th-century Venetian villas of Palladio all the way to the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius.
Built on the site of a former cornfield, Dan Kiley’s garden hugs Eero Saarinen’s glass-walled house before pinwheeling out into the wider landscape. There are no beginnings, ends or “garden rooms” here. Exercises in the rational use of horizontal planes, balance and proportion, and a masterclass in the manipulation of a single colour – green – have replaced them instead.
10. Little Sparta, Pentland Hills, Scotland
Set against the beautiful Pentland Hills, just to the south of Edinburgh, Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s Little Sparta forces visitors to reconsider what gardens are for, what they can be, what they can mean. Containing more than 270 works of art that meditate on the meaning and history of art, nature, tradition and goodness, Little Sparta sits in a landscape tradition that includes the philosophy of Epicurus, the poetry of Virgil, the paintings of Poussin and Claude-Lorraine and the landscapes of William Shenstone and Kent. That Hamilton-Finlay, an artist, poet and publisher, managed to do all this while creating a garden that is also funny, beautiful and tender, only highlights the achievement.
(c) The Little Sparta Trust
This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi