The craft and science of gardening developed out of the herbalist’s profession, while its art was closely connected with the adornment of architecture, and perhaps with the adornment or garlanding of the human body. All these were practised in the early civilized communities such as those of Greece and Rome.

But even in Britain, at the time of the Roman invasion, the natives decorated themselves with woad, the dye (later replaced by indigo) that was prepared from the leaves of hatis tinctoria, almost certainly an introduced plant.

When the Romans came to Britain they brought their gardening knowledge and a number of their plants with them. Later the Anglo-Saxons, with their continental origins, must have cultivated many plants that were not native.


More important, however, were the great religious orders that came with William the Conqueror. Their learned members brought with them a botanical and herbal knowledge and a tradition which dated back to Aristotle and his successor. Theophrastus, who lived three centuries before Christ.

A great deal of this knowledge was good practical sense concerning the use of herbs for ill-health. Even in Tudor times, such plants as were not cultivated for food, and even flowers like the rose, were grown primarily for the amelioration of illness and distempers of every kind.

The cultivation of plants and the craft of the gardener were undoubtedly developed and spread over the British Isles by the monks. Most monasteries had their Herbarium or herb garden, in the charge of a monk, who would employ lay workmen. These, if at all intelligent, would absorb some of the monk’s theoretical and practical knowledge, and in turn disseminate it. Pot-herbs and vegetables such as leeks, carrots, garlic and onions, which were not treated as field crops (as were peas and beans) were also grown. The monasteries also planted orchards and, in the few places where the situation and climate were suitable, vineyards.

Nothing is known of the techniques of these early medieval gardeners, though the monasteries’ account books show that small payments were made for soil, for the labour of hoeing, planting, and the gathering of crops, and quite frequently for leather gloves.

Something of the gardeners’ appearance is known from the Church itself. In Canterbury Cathedral there is a fine window, made about 1127, showing Adam scantily dressed and using a spade. The spade is of wood, having a pointed blade shod with iron. In Lincoln there is a later carving of a gardener, now well dressed in a cape, though still barefooted, using a wide-ended spade also shod with iron. Other carvings show men very roughly clothed using heavy hoe-like instruments and picks.


There were also royal gardens and those belonging to the nobles, which contained choice fruit. Kent was already producing cherries and apples for the London market. In the 14th century there were the ‘neat house’ gardens, situated where Pimlico now stands, making good use of the neat’s (cattle) dung from the neighbouring cattle sheds.

But gardening and the gardener were really of little consequence in medieval Britain compared with the Continent, and the Customs House records of the period show that great quantities of vegetables and fruit were imported.

With the coming of the Tudors, gardening increased. A detailed account exists of the great garden begun at Thornbury Castle in 1511 by the Duke of Buckingham, referring to ‘many roses and other pleasures’, for plants were no longer purely utilitarian and medicinal. Other accounts tell something of the grandiose gardening activities of Cardinal Wolsey at Hampton Court, and of the smaller garden of Sir Thomas More at Chelsea, which was probably more of a plantsman’s garden.


During the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII, a new and probably important influence on horticulture was the arrival of the first refugees from religious persecution on the Continent. They came at different periods and were of different nationalities, Flemings, Walloons and French. Although it is well known that their skill in various crafts contributed to the industrial development of Britain, their effect on horticulture must also have been considerable. They settled particularly in East Anglia and south-east England, where they specialized in vegetable culture for the London market.

By now the gardeners and the garden artificers were men of skill, though little is known of their methods. Other French and Dutch experts came in addition to the refugees, and by 1548 there were established seedsmen and nurserymen. What was probably the first book on gardening to appear in England was published in 1568, but this was largely a literary work and no more than a translation of older continental literature put together to make a ‘briefe and pleasaunt treatyse’ by a journalist, Thomas Hill, who clearly sensed the growing interest in the subject.


The success of Gerard’s Herball in 1597 clearly indicates the increasing number of gardeners and their interest in gardening. At the same time there emerged that most important type of gardener, now called a ‘plantsman’, the man interested above all in the successful cultivation of plants, particularly new, rare and interesting kinds, who was then and for a long time after called ‘a curious gardener’. To this type of man was due the increased variety of plants grown and the great improvement in methods of cultivation.

Half-way through the reign of Elizabeth I, William Harrison, then Dean of Windsor, wrote with every authority, ‘If you look at our gardens . . . how wonderful is their beauty increased not only with flowers . . . but also with rare and medicinal herbs sought up in the land these forty years’. The emphasis is now on beauty rather than on medicinal plants.

Gardens on the grand scale were made famous by Elizabethans such as Sir Christopher Hatton and Lord Burleigh. At Beddington, in Surrey, Sir Francis Carew was growing oranges successfully, and in August 1599 he was able to pluck ripe cherries a month or more beyond their due season, to present to his Queen on her visit to his garden. The skill of his gardeners had delayed their ripening until the great day.

There was now a rapidly increasing class of smaller householders with a modest garden. From Thomas Tusser’s contained in doggerel much practical advice on gardening, and from other sources, it is clear that women, too, were taking an increasing part in gardening.

The herb and flower gardens were the wife’s province; the orchard (very important in Elizabethan times) and vegetable garden, the walls and fences, and often the moat (by now a fish-pond) were the responsibility of the husband.

When James I came to the throne, a number of great houses were completed that had gardens of such grandeur as was previously unknown. A notable example was the Earl of Salisbury’s Hatfield House in Hertfordshire (the gardens are today very different from the original design). It was the skill of his celebrated gardener JohnTradescant that led to the successful cultivation, often for the first time in England, of many plants acquired from continental nurseries.

Tradescant was typical of the new and growing body of professional gardeners employed by the enterprising new aristocracy. William Coys of North Okington in Essex, a ‘curious’ amateur of the same period, was one of the first of many country gentlemen gardener-botanists to whom so much is owed. Though the yucca had been grown in England for some years, Coys was the first to bring it to flower. He was also one of the first successful cultivators of the persimmon, the sweet potato and the common potato. The little ivy-leaved toad flax, now common and almost a weed in much of the British Isles, was first cultivated in his garden as a rarity from Spain.

Fortunately a number of these country gentlemen gardener-botanists kept records of the plants they grew, and bequeathed valuable knowledge to the gardener of today.

05. September 2013 by admin
Categories: Gardening History, Plant Biology, Top Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on HISTORY OF GARDENING


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