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A knot garden is exactly what it sounds like–a formal garden laid out to resemble a decorative knot. The concept is known to date back to Elizabethan times and may be even more ancient. Renaissance knot gardens consisted of square compartments planted with different herbs and aromatic plants, however, as gardening developed, knot gardens took on more and more of the formal decorative elements of parterre gardens. Although today’s knot gardens are often based around boxwood parterres or other formally clipped topiary hedges, many knot gardens still have an herbal component as a reminder of Renaissance knot gardens (which were meant to have a culinary medicinal, and even magical purposes).
Here is a little gallery of various pretty knot gardens from around the world (although they mostly seem to be English).
Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life. Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers. In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany. Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.
Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus. Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens. Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees). Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies. Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.
By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished. To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong. Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war. The garden was never finished. Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city. By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins. The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.
Devoted readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a garden post for a while. That’s, um, because my garden is kind of…well…flat. It got hit by triple punches in the form of a tornado, a giant hail storm, and now winter. All that’s left is to plant my bulbs, put my roses to bed, and sadly stare at the little yew bush in the corner until Spring comes again with its ancient magic.
During this cold dead season, gardeners fantasize about spectacular gardens they can never have or even see in person. I personally have been reflecting on parterre gardens and wanted to present a little gallery with pictures of great parterre gardens around the world. Parterre gardens are highly formal gardens which make use of gravel walkways, flat planted beds, and tightly clipped hedges and topiaries to create extremely precise geometric designs. They were created at the end of the16th century by Claude Mollet (ca. 1564 – shortly before 1649), the first gardener for three French kings. The Mollets were a dynasty of exalted gardeners who were much in demand by the French nobility. Claude’s father was chief gardener at the Château d’Anet where young Claude saw formal style Italian herb gardens being planted. He admired the geometric precision of these small geometric her beds or compartimens as they were known in France and wondered if they could be made larger. From this concept sprang a vast world of “embroideries (passements), moresques, arabesques, grotesques, guilloches, rosettes, sunbursts (gloires), escutcheons, coats-of-arms, monograms and emblems (devises)” to quote Jacques Boyceau, another luminary of the early parterre movement.
But enough words! Enjoy this tiny gallery of parterre gardens from around the world as you plan your spring gardens and get ready to pass the long winter.