By John Rowe
The earliest 'English' garden that we know of was planted by the Romans in the 1st century AD at the Roman Palace at Fishbourne in the English county of Sussex. It has been reconstructed in part and is still considered to be sophisticated, even today, with it's symmetrical formal planting of low box hedges, gravel walkways and high hedges with small niches for holding urns, statues and garden benches. The garden near the house is green, landscaped and leads down to the waterside and there is also a separate Kitchen garden for the supply of fruit and vegetables. The Romans are also thought to have brought roses to Britain.
Nothing is known about Anglo-Saxon gardens. Possibly because the warlike Anglo-Saxons were too busy else where.
In Medieval times the greatest gardens in England belonged to the monasteries, particularly those of the
Benedictines, who did not live off the charity of the local people. They tried to be self-sufficient and were primarily devoted to their own needs, creating fish ponds, grape arbors, kitchen gardens for vegetables, herb gardens for medicines and a patch devoted to flowers for the altar. Gardening to them was never seen as manual labor but as an activity to 'calm troubled souls', as it for many today. Even Medieval castles sometimes made room for small 'Courtyard' gardens with raised beds and turf seats for the ladies to sit, sew and admire the view.
In the late Medieval period, castles gave way to fortified manors and the garden became a simple green space surrounded by fences or hedges on which games of bowls and tennis were played. Then came the Tudors who were influenced by the Italian garden style. They loved proportion and harmony of line and for the first time since the Romans, statues and sundials became popular. The Elizabethan Age (mid to late 16th Century) was famous for its Knot gardens; intricate patterns of small box hedges filled with flowers, herbs and shrubs. The most famous of these is at Hampton Court Palace, the famously haunted Thames-side home to many English and British monarchs from Henry VIII onwards.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Seventeenth Century saw the Stuarts Kings (and Queens) following the French style of formal garden. Broad avenues swept away from the house with ornamental arrangements of flower beds at either side. The mania for bulbs reached its peak in 1637, when a single bulb would change hands for ten times the annual salary of a skilled artisan, the most prized bulbs being those of the multi-colored tulip. Water features also became popular around this time.
In the 18th century formality gave way to a far more natural look around the stately homes of England. Paths curved and wandered, lines were no longer straight, ponds lost their geometric shapes and became elegant lakes, trees were planted in clusters and the garden opened up, landscape gardening had arrived. The most famous landscape gardener of that time and a name that everyone knows, was Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, who's nickname came from his habit of telling prospective clients that their gardens had 'Great Capabilities'. He designed over 170 gardens surrounding the greatest country houses and estates in Britain and many of them can still be seen today. He was at one point accused of 'encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and shapeless pools and lakes'. Russel Page, who was a contemporary of Brown's and who's garden design was much more formal, once said that 'he hoped he died before Capability Brown so that he could see heaven before it was improved'.
With the Victorian era the pendulum swung again to massed beds of exotic colored flowers, intricate designs and greenhouses. They also brought 'culture to the masses' with public parks and beautifully laid out gardens.
The 'English garden' many strive to achieve is usually modeled after the gardens of the early 20th century designed by Gertrude Jeckyll, many were created to surround the beautiful 'cottages' designed by her friend the celebrated architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. Gertrude Jeckyll designed over 400 gardens, using color and texture in a new way, but these were not small, intimate spaces the title 'cottage garden' implies. True cottage gardens were tiny spaces devoted to the kitchen, filled with fruit, vegetables and herbs which frequently had to co-exist with some form of livestock. Flowers were something of an afterthought, but as it became less and less necessary to grow our own food, flowers took over, so now for most people the garden is an area purely designed for pleasure.
Today, we all have the opportunity to build a garden, whether it's on an apartment balcony, several acres surrounding our home, or just a small back yard. New varieties of old plants allow us to build idealized English gardens in smaller spaces, so that any garden can be a riot of color, texture and fragrance, a safe haven from the cares of a troubled world.
John Rowe The Yankee Gardener