Magazine of the Museum of Garden History, 2005

The Celts had their holy groves but gardens, like so much else, really came to Britain with the Romans, holding out against the British cold. In the small Romano-British towns many houses had enclosed atria with fountains and plants, while large villas were surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens, herb plots and orchards – bringing pear, cherry, walnut and mulberry trees and vines.

The Saxons too had orchards and vineyards, and the occasional turf maze, and from the ninth century Christian monks brought new gardening ways. Monasteries grew vegetables for food, herbs for medicine, flowers for wreaths and church decorations, and their account books even include lists of tools, from wheelbarrows to dibblers. Our first images of a secular, cherished space , however, where people take their ease from the stresses of life, are the gardens within the walls of Norman castles, or enclosed by moats, illustrated in the margins of manuscripts, celebrated by poets. These were small enclosed squares, with seats turfed with grass, small lawns studded with wild flowers, all surrounded by rose and honey-suckle covered trellis. By the twelfth century we have accounts of gardens across the country, owned by citizens as well as courtiers and monks (Thomas a Beckett is said to have planted the first fig-tree in 1140).

In the early modern period, a more settled peace and a steadily growing economy based on trade led to the building of new country houses and manor houses, grand and small. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1563 was followed by huge land-grants to loyal followers of Henry VIII, and the construction of fine new stately homes: to go with these, the plan for almost every new house included a specially designed garden. The estates included a park and the forest for hunting – a touch of wilderness and informality – but the private garden itself was a courtly, artificial, intricate space. This was the great age of the ‘pleached alley’ (like the one in Much Ado About Nothing) where fruit trees and small trees and shrubs like privet and hawthorn were wrought into arches and walk-ways to provide shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. Wooden arbours were covered with roses and jasmine, and the garden provided little private corners, becoming mysterious and sexy, with places for plotting and corners for flirting.

Even in smaller gardens, wild flowers were brought in from the fields – cowslip, violet, primroses and daisies – while ‘exotic’ plants brought over from Europe, such as peonies and marigolds, pansies and hollyhocks, wallflowers and lilies had long been settled residents. Roses were given pride of place: the single, semi-wild red and white, and the wonderful damask and musk. Gardens were places to seek health and scent became increasingly important. And beyond the enclosed flower garden, space was used for play – for bowling greens, and meadows with statues and ponds, and mounds with spiral paths and seats to see the view, or an outside banqueting hall if the owner was rich.

English gardens in the Renaissance were dramatically affected by ideas from the Continent, both classical and contemporary and gradually the garden embellishments grew more sophisticated. In Elizabeth’s reign conduits and fountains were introduced; and with them came terraces, staircases and summer houses. The love of intricate design flourished especially in the knot gardens, first copied from Italy, via Holland, at the start of the sixteenth century. Within the interlacing patterns of thyme, rosemary and hyssop and later of low box hedges flowers were grown for summer colour, but the Elizabethans sought variety all the year round, using coloured earth and sand, coal dust and brick dust in their intricate. Even more elaborate was the topiary, clipped from slow-growing yew into amazing shapes: armed men, castles, birds, cones and balls and hedges with niches for statues and mirrors. Supreme among these was the maze, with hedges as high as a man.

Ordinary smallholders had no truck with lavish topiary and statuary, apart from small ‘bowers’ and knot-gardens for herbs. Flowers were vital for honey, vegetables for food and hedges for security, kept low so that women could throw their sheets over them to dry. The booming trade and exploration of the seventeenth century led to another stage of transformation and to the work of the great pioneers like the Tradescants, father and son. The tulip and other new bulbs reached Britain, via the Netherlands from Turkey, and new trees and plants- maple and plane, phlox, lupins and asters, potatoes and tomatoes – came not only from Europe, but from Russia, North Africa and the Americas. In the walled gardens of country houses flowers began to threaten vegetable plots and had to be found a space of their own – the flower garden – and as smallholders got hold of new seeds, the cottage garden began to develop.


In Cromwell’s Commonwealth luxurious gardening and exotic plants were frowned upon but the Restoration brought them back. Radiating avenues of limes were cut into the Hampton Court Parks for Charles II; a generation later for William and Mary, Wren designed a formal garden there, adding a long gravel walk lined with tubs of orange trees, brought under cover in winter. Gentlemen across the country copied William’s ‘Dutch manner’. A typical country house at the end of the seventeenth century had a big iron gate opening into a grassy forecourt, enclosed with hedges or grill-work fences, with a wide walk up the middle. At the back was a terrace, with a basin and a fountain, leading onto complicated patterned flower-beds, and trees planted in formation.

But it was all too formal. By the time Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening was published in 1726, such gardens were beginning to be thought stiff,’ stuffed up’ and busy. The British love of ‘liberty’ began to chafe against continental absolutism and mathematical forms. The ‘natural’ now became the vogue. This was a real revolution in taste, breaking the pattern of centuries. Satirists and cartoonists made fun of the old topiary; garden designers went for curling rococo lines, ‘serpentine walks’, winding lakes. The models now were not continental gardens but the glowing landscapes of art, especially Poussin and Claud Lorrain. We are in the age of great designers – Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Capability Brown – the age of the sunken ha-ha rather than the fence; of the lawn rolling on into parkland, meadows and carefully arranged copses, the age of statues, follies and classical temples – laying claim to the classic as well as the picturesque.

This time the continent imitated Britain and not the other way around: Marie Antoinette and others had jardins anglais. But in these new schemes, flowers were relegated to second place – trees and water reigned supreme – except in farmhouse, cottage and walled kitchen garden. Humphrey Repton brought the flowers back, clothing the nakedness of the new parks, and by the close of the century, more people understood the scientific needs of horticulture – creating different environments for different species – rock gardens and bog gardens, shrubberies and heaths. Aristocratic collectors grew imported species like pineapples in their new heated pits and glasshouses and the royal gardens at Kew were developed from the 1760s. New plants that arrived in this century included rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias, laburnum; asters, dahlias, days lilies; weeping willows and tulip poplars. At the same time, however, many farmers were worried about the introduction of new species like Goldenrod which might spread like ‘accursed weeds’, so gardening was not without controversy. And the ‘picturesque’ was mocked by young satirists, who saw the arbours and lakes imitated in the new villas of professional classes as a typical sign of nouveau riche vulgarity, while romantic taste, influenced particularly by the novels of Sir Walter Scott led to a rash of Gothic summerhouses and rustic shelters.

In 1804, the Royal Horticultural society was founded. As explorers and botanists travelled the world and the British Empire expanded, so plants arrived from Africa and India, China and Victorian magnates built conservatories and greenhouses to show off strange plants, like the night-blooming Cereus. The leading vogue in design, however, was to throw out the landscape mood and return to the grand geometric style, with carpets of brilliant bedding. For the upper and middle classes, cheap labour meant they could indulge in labour-intensive gardening, especially raising and planting out the brilliant new annuals like lobelia, salvia, verbenas, geraniums, pelargonium, cannas and begonias. The intricate designed and geometric beds were soon brought into the municipal parks, established in many towns from the 1830s, and as the suburbs spread, so householders adopted this style, favouring a brightly coloured bed in the middle of a lawn, and adding flourishes like shell-embedded paths, crazy paving – and gnomes.

A reaction against stiff bedding was inevitable and in 1883 this was spurred by William Robinson’s influential book, The English Flower Garden. Robinson and fellow writers like Gertrude Jekyll suggested that shrubs and flowers should be blended informally and naturalistically, and the emphasis shifted from annuals to hardy perennials and herbaceous borders planted in masses, backed by high walls or thick hedges. In other parts of the garden, the natural took over, with bulbs and primroses planted in drifts beneath trees, instead of in neat rows. Azaleas and rhododendrons were planted in groups; gunnera took over boggy patches; gentians and alpines climbed over huge rock gardens.

Foreign models still shaped ‘British’ gardens and from the 1860s many took their lead from China and Japan with lakes and bridges, willows and pebbles and bamboo. But most of the grand houses preferred the Jekyll style, with wide borders, climbing roses and bulb-filled meadows. Jekyll was not a solitary female pioneer: the Edwardian era saw the arrival of the ‘lady gardener’ and the passion for indoor flower arrangements. In the town, too, people struggled to create gardens, despite the smoke. Gardening societies mushroomed, shows of chrysanthemums took place in city parks and prizes were given for window-boxes.. In Whitechapel in 1906, over 50,0000 people visited the two-week ‘Country in Town’ exhibition.

Vegetables, however, were still important. The allotment movement began in 1887; and many people grew vegetables and fruit in their own gardens and small back yards, while in the first World War of 1914-18 as well as the second, everyone was involved in ‘Digging for Victory’. Between the wars the coming of the motor car made garden visiting became a new pastime; the National Gardens Scheme was started in 1927 and BBC gardening programmes began in 1934, After 1945 Several fine gardens grew to fruition, including Sissinghurst and Hidcote with their ‘garden Rooms’, and Great Dixter, planned by Nathaniel Lloyd and nurtured by his son Christopher. But perhaps the most lovingly created gardens of this time were those in the suburbs – long, sprawling patches behind mock-Tudor houses: French windows, lawn, flowers, trellis, fruit trees, vegetable plot, shed, fruit bushes, greenhouse… bliss!

Gardening was a key feature of post-war revival, promoting the idea of a better, healthier Britain. From the 1960s on journalism and gardening books, and programmes like Gardener’s Question Time and Gardener’s World encouraged a new generation to take to the soil. Then came the era of the garden centre and the impact of containers, foliar feeding, grow-bags and easy-maintenance planting. Recent years have seen more emphasis on the garden as an extension of the house, with its patio and barbecue, but however much we may mock garden make-overs, with their pebbles and decorative grasses, decking and water-features, there is no doubt that the British are still as passionate about their gardens as their ancestors were, and far more knowledgeable. There is a romantic spirit abroad, an openness to new ideas, whether it be inspired by artists like Derek Jarman at Dungeness or Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta, the vistas of prairie planting, the exotic gardens of Africa or the Caribbean or the ecological garden haven for wild-life – allowing the nettles back in. And with the climate change that is forecast perhaps we shall soon have Mediterranean gardens again, taking us back to where this whole story began, when the Romans brought their skill, and a touch of the sun, to our misty, temperate islands.