A History of Gardening

By Tim Lambert

Gardening In The Ancient World

The earliest gardens were grown for practical reasons. People grew herbs or vegetables. However, when man became civilized an upper class emerged with the leisure to enjoy purely decorative gardens. They also had servants (or slaves) to do the gardening for them.

Gardening in Ancient Egypt

In the hot and arid climate of ancient Egypt, rich people liked to rest in the shade of trees. They created gardens enclosed by walls with trees planted with trees in rows. Sometimes the Egyptians planted alternating species. They grew trees like sycamores, date palms, fig trees, nut trees, and pomegranate trees. They also grew willows. The Egyptians also grew vineyards. (Although beer was the drink of the common people the rich liked drinking wine).

The Egyptians also grew a wide variety of flowers including roses, poppies, irises, daisies, and cornflowers. Egyptians also liked their gardens to have rectangular ponds. Sometimes they were stocked with fish. The Egyptians also liked to grow fragrant trees and shrubs.

The Egyptians believed that the gods liked gardens and so temples usually had gardens by them. In ancient Egypt gardens also had religious significance as different trees were associated with different gods. However, in Egypt, there was no strict division between gardens for pleasure and gardens for produce. As well as being beautiful gardens were used to grow fruit and vegetables and to produce wine and olive oil.

Gardening in Ancient Iraq n In the ancient world beautiful gardens were created in what is now Iraq. The Assyrians came from Iraq and in the period 900 BC – 612 BC, they ruled a great empire in the Middle East. Like the Egyptians upper-class Assyrians enjoyed gardens. They created large hunting parks but they also made pleasure gardens irrigated by water canals. The Assyrians planted trees such as palms and cypresses. Like the Egyptians, they planted the trees in rows, sometimes alternating species. They also created ponds and they cultivated vines and some flowers.

When the Assyrian Empire was destroyed in 612 the city-state of Babylon created another huge empire. King Nebuchadnezzar is supposed to have built the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. According to tradition his wife Amyitis missed the mountainous terrain of her homeland so the king built a stepped terrace garden for her. Man-powered pumps watered it. (Probably a chain pump). At any rate, the Babylonians liked formal gardens. They enjoyed the shade of trees planted in straight lines.

In 539 the Babylonian Empire was destroyed by the Persians who created yet another great empire. The Persians were superb gardeners. They built underground aqueducts to bring water to their gardens without it evaporating on the way. These were called qanats. Like the earlier civilizations, the Persians grew fruit trees and fragrant shrubs and flowers. Their gardens also contained pools, fountains, and watercourses or rills.

Greek Gardening

The Greeks were not great gardeners. They sometimes planted trees to provide shade around temples and other public places but pleasure gardens were rare. The Greeks did grow flowers but usually in containers. Although Greek travelers admired the gardens of the east in Greece gardens were usually grown for practical reasons. The Greeks grew orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens.

Roman Gardening n When they conquered Egypt in 30 BC the Romans introduced Eastern ideas about gardening. Rich Romans created gardens next to their palaces and villas. The Romans were masters of the art of topiary. Roman gardens were adorned with statues and sculptures. Roman gardens were laid out with hedges and vines. They also contained a wide variety of flowers including acanthus, cornflowers and crocus, cyclamen, hyacinth, iris and ivy, lavender, lilies, myrtle, narcissus, poppy, rosemary, and violet.

In the towns, wealthy Romans built houses around a courtyard. The courtyard usually contained a colonnaded porch, a pool, and a fountain as well as beds of flowers. After the Romans conquered Britain they introduced a number of new plants including roses, leeks, turnips, and plums. They may also have introduced cabbages.

Gardening In The Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome gardening declined in Western Europe. However, the church still made some gardens for growing herbs (e.g. for medicines), and some flowers were grown to decorate church altars.

Islamic Gardening

Meanwhile, in the 7th century, the Arabs created a huge empire. When they conquered Persia they took over many Persian ideas about gardens. Islamic gardens were surrounded by walls and very often they were divided into 4 by watercourses. In the center was a pool or pavilion. Islamic gardens also contained rills and fountains and they were decorated with mosaics and glazed tiles. Rows of plane or cypress were planted for shade. The Arabs also grew fruit trees.

In the early 8th century the Arabs conquered Spain. The Moors as they were called, grew ash, laurel, hazel, walnut, poplar, willow, and elm. They also grew orange and lemon trees as well as dates, figs, almonds, apricots, apples, pears, quinces, plums, and peaches. They also grew a wide variety of flowers including roses, hollyhocks, narcissus, violets, wallflowers, and lilies.

Gardening in Medieval Europe

Gradually order was restored in Europe and by the late 13th century the rich began to grow gardens for pleasure as well as those for medicinal herbs and vegetables.

In the Middle Ages gardens were walled both to protect them from wild animals and to provide seclusion. In the 14th and 15th centuries, gardens were planted with lawns sprinkled with fragrant herbs. They had raised flowerbeds and trellises of roses or vines. Gardens also contained fruit trees and sometimes they had turf seats.

In the Middle Ages monasteries grew gardens of medicinal herbs. They also grew orchards and vineyards as well as vegetables. They also grew flowers for their altars. However, monastery gardens were not purely functional. They were a place for the monks to relax and enjoy nature.

16th and 17th Century Gardening

In the 16th century, there was a revival of the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome. Ideas about gardening changed, influenced by classical ideas. In the 16th and 17th centuries symmetry, proportion, and balance became important. Very often gardens were laid out with a central axis leading down from the house with several cross axes forming a grid pattern. The garden was divided into parts by hedges. In the 16th and 17th centuries, flowerbeds were often laid out in squares, separated by gravel paths.

16th-century gardens were adorned with sculptures, fountains, and topiary. Often they also contained water jokes (unsuspecting visitors were sprayed with jets of water). Water organs played music or imitated bird songs. Gardens also often contained grottoes (cave-like buildings). Furthermore, knot gardens were popular. Intricate patterns like knots were made by planting lines of box and herbs like lavender.

Furthermore, in the 16th and 17th centuries, hedge mazes were very popular in Europe. Also in the 16th and 17th centuries, many new plants were introduced into Europe including tulips, marigolds, and sunflowers. The horse chestnut was also introduced into Europe in the 16th century. Potatoes and tomatoes were also introduced into Europe at that time.

A recreated 17th century herb garden in Petersfield, Hampshire

18th Century Gardening

In the early 18th century many people rebelled against formal gardens and preferred a more ‘natural’ style. However in the 18th century gardens often contained shrubberies, grottoes, pavilions, bridges, and follies such as mock temples.

Two of the most famous gardeners of the 18th century were William Kent (1685-1748) and Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738). In 1731 William Kent was employed to redesign a garden at Chiswick. He also created a garden at Rousham, which still exists much as he designed it.

The most famous gardener of the 18th century was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Kent and Bridgeman mixed formal and informal elements in their gardens but Capability Brown adopted a completely informal style. He wanted to ‘improve’ nature not rework it. Brown sought to remove the ‘roughness’ of a landscape and perfect it but afterward, it should be almost indistinguishable from a landscape created entirely by nature.

After Brown came the famous gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818). He first became a gardener in 1788 and even within his lifetime, a reaction began against the informal landscaping style towards more formal gardens.

Meanwhile, in 1725 the Society of Gardeners was founded in England. In London, public gardens were created – although you had to pay to view them. However, in the 18th century, pleasure gardens were still only for the upper class and the middle classes. If poor people had a garden they had to use it for growing herbs or vegetables. They had neither the time nor the money to grow plants for pleasure.

Meanwhile in the North American colonies life was, at first, rough but by the end of the 17th century, the wealthy began to create pleasure gardens. However, the Americans preferred more formal gardens.

19th Century Gardening

In 1804 the Horticultural Society was formed. (It became a royal society in 1861).

In 1829 Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward accidentally discovered that if plants were kept sealed under glass they formed their own micro-climate. During the day the plants transpired water. At night it condensed on the glass and fell onto the soil where it was reabsorbed by the plants. Creating sealed micro-climates made it much easier to transport plants around the world.

Many new plants were introduced into Europe in the 19th century including the monkey puzzle or Chile pine. Then, in 1830 Edwin Beard Budding (1796-1846) invented the lawnmower. In the 19th century, gardeners began to build large greenhouses or conservatories to provide plants with both heat and light. The largest was Crystal Palace, which was built in 1851 by Joseph Paxton (1806-1865). (Paxton was one of the great gardeners of the 19th century although he was also an engineer and architect).

In the 19th century, as well as well-trimmed lawns, massed or carpet bedding of flowers became popular. There were other changes. In the 19th century, the middle class grew in numbers and wealth. As well as great estate gardens attached to suburban villas became important. A new style of garden evolved called gardenesque, which displayed a wide variety of plants in a limited space.

Many 19th century gardens also had rock gardens. They were only invented at the end of the 18th century but they became popular in the 19th century.

In the early 19th century the most famous gardener was John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843). Loudon led a return to geometric gardens when he published his book Remarks on Laying out Public Gardens and Promenades in 1835. Loudon also wrote a book for middle-class gardeners, The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion in 1838. His wife Jane Loudon (1807-1858) also wrote books including The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden and Instructions in Gardening for Ladies.

Slightly later the famous gardener Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) introduced the Italian style into England. It was a return to geometric gardens and it proved to be popular.

In the 19th century, Chinese-style gardens were also popular. In the late 19th century some gardeners tried to imitate Japanese gardens.

Meanwhile, in the late 19th century a more natural style of gardening became fashionable led by the famous gardener William Robinson (1838-1935). He published his ideas in The Wild Garden in 1870. Robinson advocated planting a mixture of trees and shrubs, perennials, and bulbs.

Furthermore in the 19th century towns and cities boomed in size. Workers were herded together in cramped and unsanitary houses but in the latter half of the 19th century, local authorities began creating public parks for them.

20th Century Gardening

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, some gardeners were influenced by the arts and crafts movement. Its followers fled the industrial revolution and mass production had led to a decline in taste. They yearned for a past age of individual craftsmen. Influenced by the movement some gardeners had an idealized view of old-fashioned cottage gardens. They designed gardens with trellises of flowers, neat hedges, and old-fashioned English flowers.

In the early 20th century Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) became a famous gardener and she designed many gardens. Sir Edward Lutyens (1869-1944) sometimes worked with Jekyll. Other famous gardeners of the 20th century were Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984), Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997), and Russell Page (1906-1985) who wrote an influential book The Education of a Gardener. Other famous gardeners were Harold Peto (1854-1933) and Lawrence Johnston (1871-1958).

In the 20th century, there was a new movement in architecture and gardening called modernism. The modernists rejected copying old styles of gardening and advocated starting afresh using modern materials. Modernists liked gardens to be ‘uncluttered’.

In 1926 a German engineer called Andreas Stihl developed the chain saw and in 1963 the first hover mower went on sale.

In the 20th century as incomes rose gardening became a popular hobby. Meanwhile, the Garden History Society was founded in 1965 and the Museum of Garden History opened in London in 1977.

A modern garden in Brighton

Last revised 2024