People tend to ask me lots of practical questions, about plants or landscape installation. Though I know some about those things, my skills are as a trained historian, not a horticulturist or landscape architect.
An architectural historian could recommend construction materials appropriate to the time period, but wouldn't necessarily install the bricks himself; and an art historian could place a work within the wider culture but not necessarily name each pigment. But she'd know where to look up which pigments were used when through time.
It's a bit similar with a garden historian.
So what does a garden historian do?
1. Scholarly work for publication. Just like any historian, we research and publish within our area of expertise--the place of gardens in cultural history. My current areas of scholarly research are the Art Deco garden, the influence of science in English renaissance gardens (I'm also a scientist, weird combination but it works well), and the Greenings, a family of gardeners at the English Georgian court. I was published last year in the Journal of Garden History (yes, there is such a thing!) and hope to be so this year as well.
2. Write the history of a specific historic garden. This involves research at the site regarding what remains of the garden's elements (sometimes using archaeological techniques!), archival research (documents, photographs, letters...), and contextual research (how did the garden fit into the culture of its time? What gardens was it influenced by or did it influence? What fashions/trends did it incorporate? What materials, including plants, were available that may have been used in the garden?)
3. Make recommendations regarding the conservation, or re-creation, of a historic landscape. Depending on the site, this may require a full history to be written, as above, or perhaps just some limited research. It could involve replacing design elements, or recommending plants appropriate to the time period.
4. Provide advice for making a historically-inspired landscape, whether for a historic building or just a history-lover. Over time, I plan for this blog to include simple tips for doing just that.
5. Inspire and participate in the building of new landscapes. I'm not slavishly devoted to 'antique gardens', and am always looking for what is new and beautiful. But I see many modern landscapes that could have been more beautiful, and certainly more meaningful, if someone had taken the time to think about the history of the site, to respect its place in the past and learn from gardens that went before.
The photo, above, is of a seventeenth century fresco documenting the gardens of the Villa Lante in Italy, owned by a cultured (if somewhat debauched) cardinal who was friends with the pope.
Note the diamond-shaped parterre between the two houses...it was copied two hundred years later for a rough and ready oilman at the Villa Philbrook.