Garden Figments

The History of Garden Design

The first evidence of ornamental gardens can be seen in Egyptian tomb paintings. An example of this can be found in the British Museum. It is a fragment from the tomb of Negamun and is dated around 1350BC. It shows an ornamental pool with fish, birds and lotus flowers edged with papyrus. Palms, fig trees and other bushes surround it. It suggests that the garden was not just used for functional purposes but also for pleasure. 

The Romans brought ornamental gardens to Britain. Roman gardens shared characteristics of contemporary gardens. The garden was a refuge from busy life where peace and tranquillity was valued. Statues with religious and symbolic meaning were integral. Horticultural methods, seeds and plants were widely shared throughout the Roman Empire. After the Romans withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century the Roman gardens all but disappeared.

Medieval Times

During the Dark Ages people cultivated plants out of necessity providing food and medicines. This time of conflict and poverty took gardens back to their agricultural roots. There is little evidence of ornamental gardening during this time. 

Christianity played a major role in gardens of the middle ages. Most gardens were part of monasteries and these gardens were split into several areas for different functions. For example the kitchen garden supplied fruit and vegetables for meals allowing the monks to be self-sufficient. 

As gardens became more and more important in medieval life they started to be appreciated as places of leisure. There started to become a demand for expert gardeners to work in manor houses. These gardeners were well educated and held in high regard.

After the Norman invasion in 1066 British horticulture started to be influenced by Europe. Travellers brought back plants and seeds along with ideas for new garden designs. Although the gardens of the wealthy were inspired by continental influences the poor looked to the monks for their inspiration. Peasants had small, fenced gardens attached to their homes where they grew vegetables and edible plants with a scattering of wild flowers. 

Tudor and Stewart Times

When Henry VIII separated Britain from the Catholic Church he instructed Thomas Cromwell to implement the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This proved to be the end of monastery gardens and the horticultural expertise of the monks was lost.

The Renaissance movement was sweeping across Europe eventually reaching Britain in the 15th century. The movement was inspired by a renewed admiration for the art, literature and architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome. Gardens were designed to harmonise with the architecture of the building.

Gardens were formal with symmetrical designs and simple geometric shapes. Structure was provided by hard features such as paths, walls and statues along with soft features such as hedges and topiary.  Knot gardens, created using low hedges, were also popular at this time and Mazes were a garden feature for Elizabethan times.

Wealthy gentry of the era created elaborate gardens based on the latest fashions to demonstrate their wealth, knowledge and status.

This was a time of exploration and famous explorers such as Walter Raleigh and Frances Drake brought many new plant species back to Britain. Also for the first time wealthy men financed plant hunting expeditions to faraway places. The Tradescants, a father and son, played an important role in bringing back new species to Britain. They started a nursery in Lambeth where many new plants were cultivated.    

Georgian Times

The early part of the period saw the beginning of the ‘English Landscape’ movement. Formal gardens were replaced by designs that were inspired by nature. The inspiration for this came from the ‘Grand Tour’ which was where affluent young men embarked on long trips to Europe to learn about culture, art and the landscape of ancient Greece and Italy.

A key figure of this time was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1715 - 1783). He believed in extending the landscape up to the walls of the house. This often involved large earth moving projects where lakes and hills were created and the natural contours of the landscape changed. Gardens designed by him include Hampton Court, Stowe, Stourhead and Claremont.

At the end of the 18th Century the ‘Picturesque’ movement evolved. One of the key figures of this movement was the Reverend William Gilpin. It was the opposite of the English Landscape era with rugged and wild replacing smooth and rolling. This concept was based on the Italian word for ‘in the manner of a painting’.

The Georgian period saw Captain Cook circumnavigate the globe and plants were imported from five continents. The number of plants cultivated in Britain increased from 1000 to 5000.

Victorian Times

The Victorian era was a time of change. Britain became industrialised bringing prosperity to its people. Britain moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, manufacturing society. It was a time of invention with Edwin Budding’s new lawnmower allowing people to have manicured lawns.

Communication also improved and articles on horticulture were available to the masses. John Loudon (1783 – 1843) was an influential writer of this time. He gave gardening tips to the wealthy middle classes and suggested a ‘breathing zone’ for cities that later became the green belt.

John Loudon was instrumental in the ‘Gardenesque’ movement which involved abstract shapes with non-native and exotic plants. The plants were planted individually and were intended to look artificial. He believed that landscapes should be designed to reflect art and not imitate nature. 

Loudon also designed many of the public parks which became popular over this period. He used broad leaved trees and plants instead of evergreens. Elaborate designs of carpet bedding were common.

The Allotment Act of 1887 allowed the public to rent land at a reasonable rate which meant more people were able to grow plants.

One of the most famous Victorian gardeners was Sir Joseph Paxton (1803 –1865). He was head gardener at Chatsworth House and designed the new glasshouse in 1841. This was later to inspire him to design Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. 

Edwardian Times

The Industrial Revolution had left Britain with a growing urban and suburban landscape. Edwardians wanted to bring the countryside into their gardens. The style involved informal planting within a structured layout. Paths and pergolas were popular with ponds and sunken gardens being desired additions.

One of the most influential garden designers of this period was Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) who designed more than 350 gardens. She was famous for her herbaceous borders which grouped plants in individual colours. For example her ‘gold’ border consisted of plants in shades of yellow and orange. Her partnership with the architect Sir Edwin Lutyen led to many successful projects including her own house Munstead Woods.

Jekyll and Lutyen embraced the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement within their designs. The Arts and Crafts movement was started by William Morris who wanted to see a return to local, hand crafted products instead of the mass produced items which had become popular during the Industrial Revolution.

20th Century War Time

During World War I it became impossible to sustain the lavish gardens of the pre war era. There was no option but for people to develop low maintenance gardens.

World War II brought shortages in food resulting in all available land being used for growing vegetables including the Royal Parks. Mr Middleton, the first gardening media celebrity, launched the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in 1940.

20th Century Post War Time

After the war ‘Modernism’ became the fashion. Modernism used abstract shapes, concrete, glass and low maintenance plants. Britain was now being influenced by America and Thomas Church’s urban garden style was born.

The idea of using the garden as an ‘outdoor room’ for entertaining was popularised by John Brooks in the 1970’s with the barbecue becoming a must have garden feature.  

In the latter part of the 20th Century home ownership was at its peak and people had more disposable income. Television programs such as ‘Groundforce’ with Alan Titchmarsh made gardening a popular outdoor hobby and people spent their weekends at the Garden Centre. Garden Centres widened their product profile to include garden furniture, ornaments, water features and a variety of hard landscaping products.   

21st Century

With an increasing selection of hard landscaping materials and plants to chose from garden designs are varied. 

Outdoor living has become even more popular with the summer period being extended by the use of patio heaters. Garden buildings are no longer just sheds or greenhouses but offices and playhouses.

Concern for the environment has led to an increase in organic gardening and the use of recycled materials. Climate change has increased the use of drought resistant plants in the South of the country with irrigation systems becoming more and more popular.

The increase in demand for organic food has started a new trend for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs taking us back to a time when kitchen gardens were popular.



HITCHMOUGH. W. 2005. Arts and Crafts Gardens. UK: V&A Publications.

HOBHOUSE P. 2004. Plants in Garden History. UK: Pavilion.

HOBHOUSE P. 2002. The Story of Gardening. UK: Dorling Kindersley.

JENNINGS. A. 2005. Tudor and Stewart Gardens. UK: English Heritage.

JENNINGS. A. 2005. Georgian Gardens. UK: English Heritage.

JENNINGS. A. 2005. Victorian Gardens. UK: English Heritage.

JENNINGS. A. 2004. Medieval Gardens. UK: English Heritage.

JENNINGS. A. 2005. Edwardian Gardens. UK: English Heritage.

STRONG. R. 1998. The Renaissance Garden in England. UK: Thames & Hudson.

WAYMARK. J. 2003. Modern Garden Design: Innovation since 1900 UK: Thames & Hudson


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