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. Town houses had flower gardens in front of the windows, "very probably on wide balconies, which were attached to each story 'so that every day the eyes might feast on this copy of a garden, as though it were the work of nature.' " Boxes for growing plants were also attached to windows of Roman houses. Pliny, the Elder, in the first century, described the "mimic gardens" in the windows of Rome, and how they brought the country to the town.
Boxes for growing plants were also placed on roofs. Seneca wrote that on the high towers of Pompeii, "they planted fruit-trees and shrubberies, with roots where their tops ought to be." It was in Pompeii, too, that "a small nursery was discovered with a whole array of painted pots, presumably for raising seed or cuttings." Byzantine emperors likewise favored rooftop gardening, and a poem on Justinian I describes a little house that had "a balcony-garden with a lovely view of the sea."
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. On a roof garden in Verona, plants in square tubs, including cypresses, were arranged around geometric beds. Many of the famed Italian villa gardens introduced decorative pots and urns with oranges, lemons, oleanders, and sweet bay, a practice that continues today. At Villa D'Este at Tivoli pots adorned the broad walls, and there were urns filled with plants of many kinds. Hundreds of container plants were also used at Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati, where the stairs were "gay with oranges in pots." At Isola Bella, the fascinating terraced grdens, with their numerous pot plants, never fail to delight visitors today.
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 Nurenherg, 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."
A garden of the same date belonging to Johannes Schwindt, a burgomaster of Frankfort, comprised an enclosure "made of green lattice-work with pillars, windows, and gates," with pots of flowering plants at the windows and on benches.
A visitor to Holland in 1812, described a typical planting at the village of Broek: "The gardens in front of their houses are just as wonderful to look at. You can find everything there except nature . . . trees ... no longer look like trees so clipped are their tops." Areas between flower beds "are filled with colored glass beads, shells, stones, and pots in all manners of colors."
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.
IN EUROPE TODAY
American visitors to the Old World are invariably impressed by the exuberant displays of container plants around homes, in gardens and parks, and in front of public buildings and places of business. In Lisbon, with its narrow, winding streets, where there is hardly a trickle of sunlight, windowsills and tiny balconies are filled with potted plants. Often, they must compete with clothes hung out to dry. I recall one small balcony that contained numerous pot plants, several pieces of laundry, six song birds in cages, and three shouting green parrots attached to their perches by chains.
Throughout Portugal, containers range from tin cans, clay and decorated glazed pots at entranceways and in small patios, to large cast-stone urns and pots in elegant, formal gardens, like that of the Queluz Palace outside Lisbon. In the moister north, pot plants are seen less frequently than in the hot and dry south, which has a more typically Mediterranean climate. The countless pot plants around fountains and pools in the Moorish gardens at the Alhambra and Generaliffe Palaces in Granada are unforgettable. At Generaliffe, they are arranged so precisely and symetrically along the long, narrow canals that they are almost as diverting as the numberless fountains that leap and splash in these gardens where water in its myriad forms plays so important a part. Along the narrow streets of Seville and other Spanish cities, geraniums and climbing roses grow through the intricate lacework of little balconies. Patios, surrounded by high walls, are crammed with potted geraniums, stocks, lemons, oranges, boxwood, sweet bay, jasmines, and Swedish myrtle. Even more, steps are lined with pots of all sizes and descriptions and the tops of walls, also favorite places, resemble miniature gardens.
Italian and Greek Uses
The Italian garden would be incomplete without pot plants. In the terraced gardens of La Mortola in Venti-miglia and Borremeo Castle on Iseo Bello in Lake Mag-giore, in the extensive Boboli Gardens in Florence, and in other villa gardens throughout Italy, handsomely designed hand-wrought clay pots are important aspects of the designs. Lemons and oranges, oleanders, gardenias, and geraniums are grown in them. Around the bay of Naples and along the Italian Riviera, fiery red and pink ivy-leaved geraniums cascade from balconies. In sooty, industrial Milan, Virginia creeper and wisteria vines dominate large boxes on the balconies of new apartment houses. In Sicily, under conditions of poverty and limited space, pot plants still are in evidence, often on shelves suspended on walls or over the doors of one-room houses.
Greece, with its hot, dry summers, is equally a country of gardens and open courtyards of pot plants. In tin cans, whitewashed or painted yellow, pink, or blue to match the house, the Greeks grow their beloved carnations, stocks, gardenias, geraniums, jasmines, and particularly basil, the pungent Indian herb used for flavoring. When immigrants came to America earlier in the century, they brought with them the practice of growing basil and fragrant flowering plants in tins and other makeshift containers.
In Greece, as in Spain, patios and terraces express a way of life. For many, they afford the only place to grow such favorites as aspidistra, elephant's ear, clivia, monstera, ruscus, China asters, cosmos, and marguerites. Modern suburban gardens, with facilities for watering, have fewer pots; but balconies are packed with them. In Ellinicon, a small village in the Peloponnesus, the fragrant white-flowering August lily (Hosta plantaginea), known also as Corfu lily, is everybody's cherished possession, even supplanting basil.
Through France and Scandinavia
The south of France, with its warm climate, follows the pattern of Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. In the north, including Paris, pots, often of house plants, rest on windowsills and adorn courtyards. In formal chateaux and palace gardens, tubbed sweet bay, oleander, and orange and lemon trees are common, along with ornamental urns, introduced for architectural effect. Window boxes, with geraniums and tuberous begonias, predominate in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
In Scandinavia, there are large plant containers in public squares and on broad sidewalks, in fact, wherever they do not interfere with pedestrian traffic. In front of City Hall in the heart of Copenhagen, great concrete containers with geraniums and other summer flowers are grouped among the benches where people sit in the sun. These modern containers can be seen in the parks and squares of Stockholm and other Scandinavian cities. Shaped like inverted bells, they are planted with colorful tulips and azaleas in the spring, geraniums and white and yellow marguerites in the summer, and chrysanthemums in the fall.
In the Low Countries and Britain
In the cities and gardens of Belgium and Holland, there is not the rich display of other countries, though tubbed sweet bay, oleander, hydrangea, pomegranate, and such tropicals as palms and rubber plants, command attention in old gardens and public parks.In Amsterdam, shallow square and rectangular containers, resembling enormous pans, enliven sidewalks, with their masses of tulips and other spring bulbs. Raised in flats, the bulbs are placed close together for dramatic effect. In Amsterdam in May there are groups of concrete containers with yellow-flowering cytisus or broom.
London, Dublin, and Edinburgh have window boxes and urns that decorate banks, department stores, public buildings, and offices. Azaleas and other spring flowers are followed by hydrangeas and geraniums in the summer and chrysanthemums in the autumn. Plant boxes are often placed on top of department store marquees. These are also a familiar sight in Paris.
Attractive container plants, like the tubs of agapanthus around the pools at Hampton Court, highlight walks, steps, terraces, verandas, walls, balustrades, and summer houses of English gardens. In Ireland, many pot plants grace the windows of thatch-roofed cottages. The favorites are geraniums and oxalis, a three-leafed plant that suggests the beloved shamrock.
But it is in southern Europe that pot plants are used with extravagant profusion and gay abandon. Along walls or balustrades, next to splashing pools and fountains, around courtyard entrances, or balconies and rooftops, on steps and stairs, along walks and paths, on patios and terraces, beside doorways and on top of low or high walls, they are scattered with carefree casualness befitting the climate, the tradition, and especially the way of life.
In all these countries, with their centuries of experience, we can find ideas to adapt to our own climate, styles of architecture, and manner of gardening. The multitude of containers and plants offer many possibilities for adding architectural accent and introducing a distinctive kind of garden beauty.