A Brief History of English Garden Design

The English Garden, distinguished and unique in design, beautiful quaint cottage gardens with rambling roses, herbaceous borders to formal manicured lawns with linear hedging and topiary bringing shape and structure. The great British garden we all know and love has a fascinating history dating back centuries. Here, we delve a little into how it has transformed over time.


Gardens became fundamental in British life in the Middle Ages. Kitchen and herb gardens provided food and medicine for Monasteries, cultivating herbs in precisely ordered raised rectangular beds. Weaved thin branches created fencing to separate areas of the garden, whilst trellis arbours ensured privacy providing shade. Early monastic gardens adopted the style of grand Roman villas with colonnaded courtyards.  Enclosed square courtyards known as Cloister gardens were contemplative spaces at the heart of monastic life.  Water features like fountains or wells would be located centrally, with maybe a seated area for reading or meditation. Medieval castles occasionally made room for courtyard gardens with raised flower beds and paths running through. Turf seating built against a wall with flowers planted in the grass provided a resting space to appreciate nature whilst natural high mounds or mounts gave views over the castle walls. In the later Medieval period, manor house gardens favoured large green expanses of manicured lawn surrounded by hedges or fencing. Traditional English games such as bowls or tennis took place on the lawn.


Tudor gardens were influenced by the renaissance of Italy. Greater uniformity of design created a sense of harmony and line of proportion which had been missing from the Medieval period. Gardens mirrored the alignment of the house alongside architectural features such as banqueting houses. For the first time since the Roman time, sundials featured and became popular. It might well have been thanks to Henry VIII, as he was particularly enamoured! One of the most prominent contributions to Tudor Times were Knot Gardens, intricate geometric patterns of box hedges filled with flowers, hedges or herbs. They were designed to be enjoyed from above and reflected the tapestries of the time weaving shapes and bringing the outside into the garden.


The Stuarts were heavily influenced by the French and the fashion for formal garden design.  Parterres replaced Tudor Knot Gardens, plant beds filled with flowers and plants formed in symmetrical patterns separated and connected by paths. It was in this period, that Avenues were born. Long wide expanses of pathways from the house into woods and parks beyond. Fountains and elaborate water displays brought large and small expanses of water to life, animating the formal layout. Topiary added a touch of fun as hedges were brought to life by creating a multitude of shapes and animals.

English Landscape Gardens – Georgian

Linear, formal gardens were no more, instead Georgian gardens brought curving and meandering paths and landscaping. Rounded lakes reflecting the surrounding landscape replaced rectangular ponds, and the garden became much more open. Hedgerows and fences, formal walks and raised beds were replaced with grass parkland, brought right up to the entrances of houses. The ha-ha was created as an invisible boundary which helped keep livestock away from the house whilst also allowing surrounding parkland to become part of the garden scheme. This natural style evolved into the “landscape garden” which changed the course of English gardening and architectural style.


The age of the industrial revolution saw the gardening boom, seen as a backlash against the industrial world. Formal gardens were keen to showcase the latest plant species as plant collecting became the new craze. Beautiful massed beds of flowers were filled with bright exotic colours and intricate designs from all over the world. Parterres became fashionable once more, filled with bright resplendent tropical species.  A profusion of public gardens and green spaces aimed at bringing culture to the masses were perfect homes for the latest technologically advanced glasshouses helped to grow and showcase exotic plants, whilst the exterior designs became more elaborate.  Towards the end of the Victorian period, gardens started to become less formal favouring a more natural style. The introduction of rockeries embodied the Victorian passion for travel to mountainous regions, plant collecting and gardening. Created with a mix of artificial and natural rock, it reflected the growing trend for a more rugged natural style of gardening which was becoming more appreciated towards the end of the Victorian era.


Gertrude Jekyll was arguably the most influential English gardener of the 20th Century. With a passion for understanding beauty in the natural landscape, she showcased how to plan gardens using colour schemes and introduced herbaceous borders.  Expanding on the traditional English cottage gardens popular in 1890, Gertrude used an abundance of plants densely filling spaces in the garden, trellises and walls were adorned with beautiful ornamental climbers.  21st Century gardens today, large or small, each have their own unique design inspired by many influences over the years.  What unites all, is the fondness for creating beautiful spaces of our own and the joy it gives to create green growing gardens of our own for generations to come.