A Potted History of Gardens

Journalist and Blue Badge guide Marc Zakian looks at the story of British horticulture, from the Romans to the Olympics.

The Romans were Britain’s first pleasure gardeners. They settled on this island of fertile soil and ample rain and filled it with exotic new species from across their empire.

Sussex was once home to a magnificent garden. Rich in sumptuous flower beds, with vines arching across pergolas, fragrant roses, clipped geometric box hedges and rows of terracotta pots shaded by cypresses. Fishbourne sounds like a perfect English garden, but it was planted nearly 2000 years ago by the Romans. The Romans were Britain’s first pleasure gardeners. They settled on this island of fertile soil and ample rain and filled it with exotic new species from across their empire: juniper and box for hedges; roses, rosemary and lavender to make perfumes and colourful flowers such as crocus and pansy.


Both men and women worked in Roman gardens. These skilled plantsmen fertilised with manure and lime, killed bugs with vinegar pest spray and fumigated flies by burning dung pellets. They used pruning hooks, rakes, hoes, shears and sickles – tools that would find a place in any modern gardener’s shed. Within half a century, the Romans transformed the muddy, monotone Iron Age landscape with dashes of colour, a multitude of ornamental gardens and swathes of colourful new trees.



The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons brought 400 years of Romano-British horticulture to an end. A garden was a place to grow fruit and vegetables and the new ruling elite had no time for plants they could not eat or use for cures or crafts.

These practical plantsmen left us legacy of English names we still use today:

Teasel – used to ‘tease up’ (raise) the nap on new cloth.

Daisy – the ‘day’s eye’ that opens when the sun rises.

Hazel – from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘head dress’.

Broom Plant – used for sweeping, the origin of the name of the household brush.

Fox Glove – from ‘fox’s glove’. Used as a medicinal purge.

Cow-slip – possibly from Old English for cow dung, where the plant often grows.



While the Anglo-Saxons ploughed for profit not pleasure, one part of England was, literally, blooming.

By the Middle Ages monasteries controlled a quarter of English land. Monks were expected to grow all their own food and their huge estates extended way beyond the main buildings – one example being Covent Garden, once farming fields for Westminster Abbey’s convent.

The great monastic orders exchanged seeds and plants across Europe. The cooking pear, known as a Warden, was imported from France to a Bedfordshire Abbey. There is a story that 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, brought a fig tree to Ely, which was planted in an orchard that stands today. The most important monastic garden was the cloister. At its centre was a lawn, mown to flat perfection. The monks at Norwich Abbey had to hire mole catchers to keep the grass both holy and un-holy.



Medieval castles contained neither space nor place for the verdant arts. But as military fortresses were replaced by residential palaces, formal gardens became an essential element on the aristocratic estate. Renaissance inspired gardens during the Tudor period were extravagant show pieces; resplendent with sundials, heraldic beasts, arbours, fountains and artful topiary – potent symbols of power, status and refined taste.

The centrepiece was the knot garden, with its interwoven design marked out by box, ivy, rosemary and thyme. As nobles paraded around the knots, their clothes would brush against the plants, sending out perfumed odours – an Elizabethan air freshener, much needed at a time bathing had fallen out of fashion.



The early 1600s saw the rise of the ‘florist’. These were not shop keepers, but skilled experts who cultivated plants for their beauty. They developed many of today’s popular flowers, such as carnations and anemones. Flower frenzies made the florists fortunes, with crazes at various times for tulips, carnations, dahlias and hybrid tea roses.

In England the great gardener of the era was John Tradescant, who was paid an astonishing £50 a year (£200,000 in modern money) to create the park at Hatfield House. Tradescant was Britain’s first plant hunter, travelling into Arctic Russia and down to Algiers in North Africa, where he avoided capture by Barbary pirates. He kept his botanic and natural history collection in a large house in Lambeth named The Ark. When he opened it to the public –charging 6d to view – it became England’s first public museum.



The guiding principle of the English 17th century garden was symmetry and order. Classical facades of great palaces were matched by geometric formal landscaping, featuring ornate carpets of floral designs, walls of clipped hedges, carefully-coloured gravel paths, and rows of statues and fountains.

Ham House in London was the first estate where house and garden were conceived together. It was the vision of Elisabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, an educated and shrewd woman who somehow maintained friendships with both Oliver Cromwell and his exiled enemy, the future King Charles II. When Charles was restored to thethrone, he granted the duchess a pension of £800 (£10m in modern money) that she used to remodel her estate.

The main feature of Ham House garden is a series of eight large plats or lawns. To modern eyes these seem rather plain, but lawns were cut by hand and a park on this scale could only be maintained by a small army of gardeners. Only a solitary formal 17th century garden has survived changing horticultural fashions. Levens Hall in Cumbria was laid out in 1692 – through fate and a lack of money, some 300 years later the original garden still remains.



In the 1700s the clipped order of the great English garden was swept away. Two northerners were the principal protagonists in these changes: William Kent, a carpenter’s son from Bridlington in Yorkshire and Lancelot Brown, a village boy from Northumberland, son of an estate rent collector and a chambermaid. Both left school by 16; both went on to be feted by kings, dukes and aristocrats. Kent was an ebullient, portly Yorkshireman who revolutionised garden architecture. Taking his cue from pastoral paintings, he created the ‘English landscape garden’, doing away with the formality of the regimented European parks that had dominated the previous century.

At London’s Chiswick House, Kent ripped out the formal groves, replacing them with a grand lawn, a winding river, a ’ruin’ and ‘rustic forest’. A Stowe, he used hundreds of labourer to create a ‘classical’ landscape of lakes, hills and temples and a Wiltshire ‘River Styx’. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown worked on a similarly epic scale. Nothing stood in his way. The nickname came from his custom of viewing an estate, announcing that it had ‘capability’ for improvement and then persuading the owner to move lawns, mature trees and even entire villages. At Longleat, Brown transformed a canal into a stream; at Chatsworth House, he flattened hills to create a view of the river; at Blenheim Palace, he dammed a waterway to flood the valley and create a lake that covered Vanbrugh’s great stone bridge; at Milton, a village of worker’s cottages was demolished to free the panorama – the reluctant inhabitants transplanted to new dwellings.


The 1800s was the era of the public park. Gardens were seen as a moralising force that would improve the manners of the lower classes and discourage drunkenness and social unrest. In 1835, when London’s Regent’s Park stopped charging an admission fee – imposed to keep out the lower classes – it became the country’s first public park. Others followed, including Victoria Park, built to reduce the death rate in London’s East End.

In Merseyside, Birkenhead Park opened in 1847. The first civic park in the world, it offered sports grounds, boating lakes and bandstands, with visitors forbidden from gambling or swearing. The municipal park boom led to the creation of 27,000 public parks in Britain. Birkenhead Park was designed by Joseph Paxton – a farmer’s son with little schooling who became a celebrated gardener, engineer, publisher and parliamentarian.

Paxton began work as a garden boy, but was soon put in charge of the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Chatsworth House where he designed and built glasshouses. This led to a commission to design the Crystal Palace for Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851 – a remarkable 20-acre glasshouse constructed from 4,500 tons of iron and 293,000 panes of glass. Yet it took 2,000 men just eight months to build.


Victorian gardeners were swept up in the bedding craze; afashion followed for flower beds featuring flamboyant designs of vibrant squares, lozenges, swirls and curls. Patriotic schemes in red, white and blue were especially popular. Known as carpet beds, they were filled with geranium, hollyhocks, chrysanthemum, dahlias, hyacinths, irises and peonies – flashes of colour that lit up residential back yards and suburban streets.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were the cornerstoneof the Victorian plant boom. Much of this was the legacy of the adventurer, landowner and botanist Joseph Banks who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour – the most daring voyage of discovery of modern times. Celebrated as a hero on his return in 1771, he brought back 1,300 new species of plants.

Banks built a hothouse at Kew for specimens that had suffered during the long sea voyages – ‘our Kew Hospital’, as he called it. Whenever a consignment arrived, he instructed the head gardener not to move anything before he became ‘acquainted with the plants’.

Fortunes could be made by discovering new flora for cultivation. Explorers crossed the planet in search of new plants and many notable names were drowned, killed by bears or cut down by malaria or yellow fever in pursuit of novelty or the rarest of blooms. But the risks were worth it. Newcomers included magnolia and hydrangea from Asia, pelargonium from South Africa and the strange monkey puzzle tree from Chile that sold for £5 – as much as a Victorian maid’s annual salary.



As the Industrial Revolution progressed, cities grew ever larger and more polluted. People lamented the loss of the rural idyll, a bygone bucolic world of the farm or cottage garden with old fashioned borders of mixed shrubs and herbs.

Gertrude Jekyll turned this nostalgia into a new style of English garden. Born into London gentry, Jekyll was a boisterous lady with her hair in a bun who started work as an artist – but in her 40s failing eyesight led to her to garden design. She established a partnership with the architect Edwin Lutyens and together they created some 400 gardens.

Jekyll rejected patterned carpet beds, preferring a series of garden ‘rooms’. She reintroduced the herbaceous border, planting hardy flowers in drifts and sweeping groups with restricted colour palates. Her most celebrated project is Hestercombe in Somerset. It’s extraordinary to consider that she never actually visited the garden, but drafted her designs with an artist’s eye and sent them off to be planted. Jekyll’s ideas have endured and her influence is as powerful today as it was during her lifetime.



The outbreak of the First World War had a devastating effect on British gardens. The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall are testimony to this crisis. Before the war, the house employed 22 gardeners, only eight of them survived the war to return to work. The gardens declined and became ‘lost’.

Life at Heligan was interrupted again during the Second World War, when it became a billet for American soldiers – one of many thousands of gardens and parks commandeered for the war effort. London’s Hyde Park was dug up for vegetable allotments as the country was urged to ‘Dig for Victory’. The public grew some three million tons of food to feed the war-torn nation.



From post-war to post-crash austerity, in recent times opportunities for new public parks and gardens might have appeared limited. But as our cities grow, green space has become an increasingly essential part of our local and national heritage. In 2001, a derelict and polluted clay pit in Cornwall was redeveloped. Domed biomes with microclimates were built where visitors can experience a tropical rainforest and a Mediterranean garden. Outside is a plant collection where this year they have planted 40 redwood trees to establish a future forest.

Since it opened, 15 million people have visited the Eden Project, Cornwall. Like the great Victorian public education institutions, it tells the story of botany, science and nature – but through the modern perspective of energy conservation and climate change. And to the east of London, an even more challenging project emerged as part of the 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is Britain’s largest and most ambitious urban green space of modern times – transforming a polluted, toxic, post-industrial wasteland into a sustainable and environmentally green public amenity.

At its heart is a 240-acre park, the largest in Europe for 150 years. Planted with 6,700 mature trees and 3,000 wetland plants (to help clean the polluted River Lea), the park reflects the historic traditions of English garden design with its sweeping landscape vistas and Jekyll-esque drifts of planting. The ecology responds to the challenges of climate warming and flood risk; it is both inspired by the past and looking to the future.

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