Seven gardens for seven heavens

A Turkish-inspired garden on the Cambridge Fens. Two Turkish passions meet in the late John Drake’s beautiful garden: a love of symmetry and an abundance of wild flowers. Here the garden historian acknowledged his debt to the Turkish ideal of paradise on earth

  • The timber pergolas recall in shape the massive Anatolian 'türbe' in John Drake's Cambridge garden. Photographs by Berrin Torlsan
  • Gladiolus byzantinus, a native of Turkey, adds touches of colour to tall meadow grasses seemingly growing wild. A narrow path leads the eye to more formal 'rooms' beyond. The effect of alternating light and shade is deliberate

For hundreds of years people have been laying out and enjoying gardens. Few stop to think why gardens were ever created and few gardeners have an overall philosophy for their creation. Gardens have been established to impress one’s friends, to grow a range of collected plants, to support a political idea, to establish “taste”, which often leads to fashions, to achieve an architectural extension from the house over the landscape, to create a setting for international events, to educate the public and even to encourage more paying visits to a stately home.

I can think of several more reasons, but my own garden philosophy is composed from several ideals, not least the need to pass on plants in order to save them from extinction. In England I garden in a windswept flat arable landscape denuded of hedges and hedgerow trees. The land was given to my parents as their wedding present, and they built their home, which stood for several years in a cornfield until I made a garden around their house.

In this landscape I wished to create a Paradise on earth, where as many plants as I could maintain would flourish. My student days had taken me to Padua to see Giotto frescoes. Luckily I discovered there the university’s botanic garden, where the circular plan incorporated formal flower beds representing the four known continents, all enclosed by a high circular stone wall. That summer flowers spilled everywhere and the space was a magical oasis from the blinding heat of the Po Valley and the traffic noise.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s painting The Garden of Eden in the Victoria and Albert Museum epitomised for me the ideal of man, animals and birds living in complete harmony with each other. Overlaying a re-creation of the Garden of Eden on a formal geometric layout has been the driving influence throughout my gardening years.

Within a series of enclosed spaces connected by the narrowest of paths, I grow an extensive range of plants, many given to me by friends. In spring the formal layout disappears beneath bursting foliage which romps away until the November frosts. One elderly aunt enquires repeatedly, “When will your garden ever be tidy?” But if plants grow across paths or hang from tree branches, one must duck or step over them. The luxuriant foliage unwittingly forces one to return to the narrow path again and again for guidance.

These outside rooms with hedges for walls, against which roses are planted to imitate furniture, use tree canopies or the sky as elaborate ceilings. Each room has a different planting scheme – Turkish plants, or wild flowers in grass, or formal borders leading to a high-hedged enclosure tightly packed with plants available to gardeners in England before 1660.

My Turkish plants have been collected on my journeys as seeds in the wild, and they grow here among timber structures reminiscent of Seljuk* türbe* (tombs). I have now established Galanthus krasnovii (which I am proud to have rediscovered above Artvin), Cyclamen coum, Muscari armeniacum, tall nepetas and euphorbias among the Rosa ‘Kazanl›k’. Salvia argentea makes a good foil for Arbutus andrachnoides, and Geranium psilostemon grows through wild achilleas with finely cut leaves. The timber structures support Vincetoxicum nigrum, which has the tiniest chocolate-coloured flowers, hungry sweet peas, and a bronze form of Clematis orientalis from which I collected seeds while waiting for a bus in Yusufeli. Helleborus orientalis, with its white flowers, produces fresh green leaves that support stems of the orange Lilium artvinense, which I found on the summer pastures above Barhal. There is a great diversity of plants in Turkey which, if chosen carefully, can create fine displays.

I am constantly amazed at the flora that exists in Turkey, where plants from two adjacent continents meet. It is a botanist’s paradise. Yet Turkish gardeners seldom use plants that grow naturally in their own country. But then where in an English garden would you see wintersweet, lady’s smock, alexanders and corncockle?

Turks from the Anatolian plateau were never flower gardeners. The conditions and climate were too extreme. It was the Ottoman sultans who influenced garden trends from Mehmet II’s time onwards. We know something about Turkish garden philosophy from the French traveller and botanist Pierre Belon, who published Les Observations Singulières et Choses Mémorables in 1555. He recalls:

“The Turks now believe a thousand mad notions that Mohammed has given them to understand. Among other things, they believe that there are seven paradises…and that there are gardens planted with fruit trees, two or three of each kind, and that fountains and beautiful rivers run the length of the palaces, some flowing with pure milk, some with fine honey and others with sweet wine; and in the centre of paradise there is a great tree…whose leaves are of gold and silver…and inside each leaf appears the name of Mohammed after the name of God.”

Mehmet the Conqueror gave orders to plant 30,000 cypresses in a garden at Aynalıkavak. This site was established for the Sultan as a cool waterfront kiosk retreat from Topkapı along the northern shore of the Golden Horn. It lies beneath the Okmeydan (Archery Ground). It was here that vegetables and fruit were grown within the garden’s high walls for the Sultan’s table at Topkap›. A few of the original cypress trees survive, but interestingly Magnolia grandifloras introduced to Turkey in the eighteenth century also grow here – a sign that garden philosophy was accommodating plants from the West. It is vital that these Ottoman gardens are not allowed to disappear. Within their walls lie the clues to Turkish garden history.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I have been asked to advise on the restoration of the garden at Aynalıkavak. Unwittingly I based my own philosophy on recreating a Paradise garden on earth long before reading that the Turkish sultans were intent on an identical philosophy.

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Issue 18, 1999 The Ottoman Riviera
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