Why gardens have gates

An entertaining tall tale explains why gardens have gates. It all started with cave dwellers.

Courtesy of Judy Lowe
According to one tall tale, gardeners have an instinct -- dating back to the cave man age -- to install gates on their gardens.

We know from cave drawings that a Neanderthal male named Unk picked up a basket for gathering berries in July of 9,834 YBP (years before present). Grunting and gesturing to his family, Unk ventured out, leaving the safety of his communal cave.

It was an abundant year for berries, and Unk was quickly filling his basket. Reaching into tall brambles for luscious blackberries, he almost honked the nose of a saber-tooth tiger (Smilodon fatalis) that stood observing Unk’s every move.

A surprise encounter

Unk let out a cry, shot straight into the air, throwing the basket and berries. He came down, back to the tiger, at a hard run. The basket struck the tiger on his large, sensitive nose, bringing tears to its eyes.

Shaking its head, the tiger wiped his eyes with a paw, while Unk hot-footed it into the distance. Eyes cleared, the saber-tooth followed Unk’s rather noticeable scent.

Looking back over his shoulder, Unk ducked into a rocky alcove and picked up a large stick for his last stand. He jumped up and down, screaming at the top of his lungs, waving that big stick.

The tiger paused at the entrance to the tiny canyon, eyes following Unk’s movements. Still smarting from a sore nose, the tiger sat down to watch the antics of the human. Unk finally wore himself out and gave up, sitting to await his fate.

The eye-to-eye standoff went on for some time, and both Unk and the tiger became bored. Unk felt the cool moss beneath him. A small yellow-blooming flower grew just inside the entrance, and Unk picked a petal from the flower to distract him.

A yellow flower 'saves' the day

The tiger got up to leave, and Unk reacted by jumping back and throwing the flower, which hit the tiger on the forehead. To Unk’s amazement, the tiger turned and melted into the bush, shaking its head. As it happened, the tiger had pigged out on boar the day before and had no real interest in Unk’s skin and bones for a meal.

That incident, that moment in time, is now a part of our collective genetic memory. Unk thought that throwing that flower caused the tiger to go away, so he named the yellow flower tiger-bane. (Sabe- tooth tigers are extinct so we now call the flower leopard's-bane).

To protect himself and his family, Unk immediately set about learning to cultivate the flower for protection, bringing the concept of gardening into existence.

He found more sticks like the one used to threaten the tiger and lashed them together, forming a blockage across the entrance to his newly created garden and safe haven. Even when he could not be there, the "keep-away" remained in place.

To this day we feel a sense of serenity and safety in our gardens, and erect gates as a ritual of entrance.


Gene Bush, a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner, gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene here at Diggin' It, click here.

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