Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace
When we bought our house in South Florida, we inherited what would already be considered a lot of trees by urban standards.
Our midcentury modern house is built in a U shape around a courtyard with a pool, which allows most of the house to have a view of the Caloosahatchee River. (It also means we can watch magnificent sunsets from the pool every night of the year. As you can imagine, we spend most of our free time outside.) The rest of the property I am gradually turning into a series of “garden rooms.” It is long, grueling work under the hot Florida sun, but I think it will be worth it in the end.
All of the trees give the property the structure to accomplish that. We have twenty or so ancient royal palm trees (ancient like they were probably here when Thomas Edison and Henry Ford ruled the Fort Myers social scene) that create a lavish tropical canopy, in addition to dozens of mature plumeria trees and a sprawling royal poinciana tree. Then there are large, tree-like shrubs such as skyflower, firebush, and several mature jatrophas. It’s layer after layer of colorful blooms down here. I am neurotic about gardening organically, too, so our property is generally swarming with butterflies.
Last year, I was hooked on British gardener Monty Don’s television shows, and particularly fell in love with his series on paradise gardens in the Middle East. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of a paradise garden, here is some background (via Wikipedia, because I am feeling kind of lazy this evening):
The paradise garden is a form of garden of Old Iranian origin, specifically Achaemenid which is formal, symmetrical and most often, enclosed. The most traditional form is a rectangular garden split into four quarters with a pond in the center, a four-fold design called chahar bagh (“four gardens”). One of the most important elements of paradise gardens is water with ponds, canals, rills, and fountains all being common features. Scent is an essential element with fruit-bearing trees and flowers selected for their fragrance.
Originally denominated by a single noun denoting “a walled-in compound or garden”, from “pairi” (“around”) and “daeza” or “diz” (“wall”, “brick”, or “shape”), philosopher and historian Xenophon of Athens borrowed the Old Iranian *paridaiza(h), Late Old Iranian *pardēz (Avestan pairidaēza, Old Persian *paridaida, Late Old Persian *pardēd) into Greek as paradeisos. This term is used for the Garden of Eden in Greek translations of the Old Testament.
In Persian, the word pardis means both paradise and garden.
The idea of the enclosed garden is often referred to as the paradise garden because of additional Indo-European connotations of “paradise”.
The oldest Persian garden of which there are records belonged to Cyrus the Great, in his capital at Pasargadae in the province of Fars to the north of Shiraz. It is the oldest intact layout that suggests elements of the paradise garden. Likely planted with cypress, pomegranate, and cherry, the garden had a geometrical plan and stone watercourses. These watercourses formed the principal axis and secondary axes of the main garden at Pasargadae, prefiguring the four-fold design of the chahar bagh. In the Achaemenid Empire, gardens contained fruit trees and flowers, including the lily and rose. In 330 BC Alexander the Great saw the tomb of Cyrus the Great and recorded that it stood in an irrigated grove of trees.
It is believed that the Achaemenid kings built paradise gardens within enclosed royal hunting parks, a tradition inherited from the Assyrians, for whom the ritual lion hunt was a rite that authenticated kingship. The Assyrians in turn had inherited their landscaping techniques from the Babylonians.
In the 5th century, at the time of the invasion of Persia by Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon described a complex of palaces and pavilions belonging to Artaxerxes. This included gardens watered by an aqueduct – the earliest known record of gravity-fed water rills and basins arranged in a geometric system. The Spartan General Lysander who joined Cyrus as a mercenary reported to Xenophon how Persian kings “excelled in not only in war but also in gardening, creating paradeisos” where they collected plants, especially fruit-bearing trees and animals encountered during foreign campaigns.
The four-fold layout was later reinterpreted in Islamic terms by Muslim Arabs after the 7th-century conquest of Persia, becoming associated with the Abrahamic concept of paradise and the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:10 reads, “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.” and the Prophet Muhammad spoke of four rivers: of water, milk, wine and honey.
By the 13th century the gardens had spread with Islam throughout Egypt, Mediterranean North Africa, and into Spain. This style of garden came into India during the 16th century in the reign of Prince Babur, the first Emperor of the Mughal Empire. Most Mughal gardens came to have a tomb or pavilion in the centre, the most famous of which is the Taj Mahal although with the decline of the Mughal Empire and British colonial rule, the original garden has been substantially changed.
The essential plan of a paradise garden is a four-fold layout (charbagh) with a pond or fountain in the centre. Later designs incorporated a pavilion or mausoleum when they began to develop into elaborate status symbols. The rectangular or rectilinear design is typically quartered by water channels made using the ancient qanat system.
An important and common feature is the elaborate use of water, often in canals, ponds, or rills, sometimes in fountains, and less often in waterfalls. This created the soothing sound of running water and also had the practical purpose of cooling the air.
Aromatic flowers and fruit-bearing trees are quintessential elements. The ground where the flora were planted was sunken or the walkways raised so that passers-by would be able to easily pluck fresh fruit as they walked throughout the garden. olive, fig, date, and pomegranate were ubiquitous and symbolically important. Orange trees arrived from India via the Silk Road by the 11th century and were incorporated for their fragrance and the beauty of their flowers.
While I am not particularly fond of perfectly symmetrical gardens – they are delightful to visit, but boring to live around – the idea of an irrigated grove of trees spoke to my heart. The partial shade from trees is also essential for more tender blooming plants to survive in a tropical climate, so it’s a functional idea too. And that’s how I came to decide on turning the beds I have carved out of our yard into a small orchard of tropical fruit trees surrounded by lots of flowering plants. (Before you ask – yes, we have the space for all of this.)
On top of all the trees I have listed above as coming with the property, we also have:
- an entire fence line of passion fruit vines;
- a key lime tree;
- a lychee tree; and
- an avocado tree.
To add to those, I have now purchased:
- a Barbados cherry tree;
- a Glenn mango tree;
- a papaya tree;
- male and female kiwi vines;
- an American Beauty dragonfruit cactus (its fruit is dark pink on the inside, not white);
- several Grand Nain and dwarf cavendish banana trees; and
- several pineapple plants.
I am planning to find tangerine and lemon trees, and maybe another lime tree. Online nurseries cannot ship citrus fruit to Florida residents, however, as part of the regulations to protect our agriculture industry. (It was the same where I grew up in California. In fact, when I was a kid, we used to have to go through border checks where they would seize any produce you had in the car.) I’m going to have to find some way to get those bad boys in the back of my SUV, I guess.
I also bought a jacaranda tree to plant in the front yard because I thought its purple flowers would provide stunning contrast with the orange royal poinciana tree. I am trying to keep all the fruit trees in the backyard because fruit pirates are a real thing in South Florida. No kidding – there are people who will back up a truck to your property when you are not home, break out ladders, and steal all of the fruit off of fruit trees. I guess they turn around and sell it on the mango black market or something. Heaven knows we will have plenty of fruit to share, however – I just don’t like the idea of strangers feeling comfortable coming onto our property without permission.
In fact, we donate our key limes to a neighborhood pool in the spring. Our next-door neighbor is gifted at making key lime pies, and brings fresh homemade pies to everyone made from fruit he gathers from folks’ yards for Easter.
With the sauna-like weather down here, it is easy to get by living on seafood and fruit and vegetables. I am toying with the idea of doing rows of raised beds in a side yard that we do not use much, which gets full sun. The climate makes it easy to grow vegetables of one sort or another year-round. But after watching the direct sun melt many of my flowers, I have been discouraged until now. I recently learned, however, that many Florida vegetable gardeners use sun shades that provide some specific percentage of shade. I might experiment with that after I have the rest of the gardens mostly constructed. I like the idea of being able to grow strange and unusual vegetables for meals, things one would never find in the produce department.
I guess we will see….