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The evolution of the garden

The evolution of the garden

Learn about the British garden's fascinating history and how it will likely look like in the future

One of the perennial delights of spring is watching a garden burst into life. But in admiring their beauty we often forget that each plant has its own story to tell and that the gardens we enjoy today are the product of centuries of scientific discoveries and intrepid journeys, with a fair bit of wheeling and dealing thrown in too. 


The Museum of the Home's Gardens through Time exhibition shows the garden's evolution

Details of the earliest British gardens are sketchy, save for the formal planting of Roman villas, the kitchen gardens of monasteries, and the castle courtyards of the middle ages. From the 16th century, it’s easier to pick up the threads of the garden’s evolution, and the Museum of the Home has woven them into in its Gardens through Time exhibition, created in the ground of former almshouses in Hoxton, East London. 

Tudor beginnings


Tudor knot gardens were inspired by intricate emboridery and carvings popular at the time. Photo credit: August Schwerdfeger

The journey begins in the museum’s Tudor knot garden, its low hedging of cotton lavender and germander planted in symmetrical patterns inspired by the intricate embroidery and carvings popular at the time. Other common features of Tudor gardens were rose-covered arbours providing shade and a private space, and the chamomile seat, where you could relax on a cushion of the springy herb and run your fingers through the tendrils, releasing its delicate scent. “It probably helped with courting as people would have been a bit smelly in those days,” says head gardener, Heather Stevens.    

"Thomas Fairchild carefully dusted pollen from a sweet William onto the stigma of a carnation with a feather. The result of his experiment, ‘Fairchild’s mule’, was the first artificially-produced hybrid plant to be recorded"

Coincidentally, Hoxton was the setting of one of history’s most significant horticultural developments. In the summer of 1716, local nurseryman Thomas Fairchild carefully dusted pollen from a sweet William onto the stigma of a carnation with a feather. The result of his experiment, ‘Fairchild’s mule’, was the first artificially-produced hybrid plant to be recorded. But only God was permitted to tamper with nature and, greatly troubled by his creation, he claimed it happened by accident. It wasn’t until a century later that hybridisation became acceptable practice and today most plants are a result of the process. Fairchild eased his guilt by leaving money to fund an annual sermon on the ‘wonderful works of God in the natural world’, to be preached at his local church, St Leonard’s in Shoreditch. The ‘Vegetable Sermon’ is still delivered to this day.  

Georgian gardens


Rhododendruns from the Himalayas were in high demand, but botanists struggled to keep samples alive on the journey home. Photo credit: Himalaya Trekking Pvt. Ltd

Most early town gardens were functional spaces in which to grow food, medicinal plants and herbs, and do the laundry, explains Heather. But from Georgian times they took on a more ornamental character as well as being status symbols. “Plants were expensive and people often only had one of the most prized species, which would be planted with a lot of space around it so it could be admired.” 

Foreign plant species were sought after and travellers had been bringing them back from abroad since late Tudor times. But by the beginning of the 19th century, we were entering the era of the professional plant hunter. Wealthy garden enthusiasts craved more exotic species – camelias from China, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, begonias from Brazil – and botanists were paid to undertake hazardous collecting missions to the far corners of the globe.

"Plants were expensive and people often only had one of the most prized species, which would be planted with a lot of space around it so it could be admired"

One of the most successful was David Douglas who, sponsored by the Horticultural Society of London, travelled to North America and Hawaii and introduced over 240 species including the Douglas fir. His journals tell of the hardships he endured: snow blindness, being caught in a whirlpool for an hour after his canoe capsized, groping through thick forests and falling down ravines. He finally ran out of luck at the age of only 35, when he fell into a pit trap and was gored to death by its occupant, an enraged bull.  

These adventurers must have been heartbroken when around 90 per cent of the specimens they had collected died during the long journey home. But a solution was around the corner.

Farfetched flora


Nathanial Ward. accidentally stumbled upon a method for keeping flora specimens alive on long journeys back to England

In 1829, a London medical doctor and keen botanist, Nathanial Ward, placed a moth pupa in a sealed glass bottle and was waiting to watch it hatch when he noticed meadow grass and a fern sprouting from the soil inside. It led to his invention of the Wardian Case, a sealed glass container in which plant hunters could transport tender young plants across the world, protected from the elements and watered by condensation. 

“Victorians suddenly had this incredible variety of plants to play with, and commercial nurseries were busy hybridising them so they were hardier for everyday use,” says garden historian Advolly Richmond. “The middle classes began to move to the suburbs of towns and cities and, when it came to new money, the hallmark of a gentleman was having a showy garden.”  

But increasing commercial opportunities meant more plant hunters more exploitation of other countries’ natural resources, she adds. “It was about money and competing financial interests. These dedicated plant hunters were a law unto themselves. They were often loners, misfits and quite ruthless and there are some appalling stories in their journals. They’d find an exquisite orchid, fill baskets and baskets and then destroy the habitat so their competitors, who were hot on their trail, couldn’t get their share.” Cultivars of rare, exotic plants went straight to the auction house, sometimes fetching more than 1,000 guineas. 

Wild gardening


Horiculturists such as Vita Sackville West and Gertrude Jekyll are responsible for the chaotic cottage gardens we still love today

A feature of many Victorian gardens was tightly packed ‘carpet bedding’, resembling the brightly-coloured floral carpets popular in the home. But towards the end of the period there emerged a trend for a more natural or ‘wild’ garden, partly influenced by the rustic and romantic ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. It was also during this time that notable female horticulturists, such as Vita Sackville West and Gertrude Jekyll, made their mark. “Jekyll’s later influences came from little roadside cottages with wisteria growing above the door and all these self-seeding plants like foxgloves, hollyhocks and sweet peas. We still love those cottage gardens with their romantic and slightly chaotic feel,” says Advolly. 

Gardening for the future


The Museum of the Home's green roof grows plants that need little water and thrive in sparse soil, in preparation for a warmer future

Now, with so many plant varieties and other materials on offer at the local garden centre, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to our green spaces. But the final garden at the Museum of the Home is a reminder that we won’t always have that luxury. Rather than reflecting the past, it’s a garden designed for the uncertainties of the future: a green roof packed with succulents and Mediterranean-style plants that need little water and thrive in sparse soil. 

"In the future, gardens on the ground will need to be designed to use much less water"

“Green roofs help keep buildings cool, absorb rainfall, and provide a wildlife habitat where there would otherwise be bare concrete,” says its designer, green infrastructure specialist Dusty Gedge. He estimates that there are now around 2.5 million square metres green roof, mainly in large cities, across the UK. “It’s about climate change adaptation for the urban environment as well as access to green space for city dwellers. We can’t be irrigating all the time so we need planting that thrives in dry spells and that also benefits biodiversity.”  

And in the future, gardens on the ground will need to be designed to use much less water too, he adds. “They can still be full of beautiful plants, just not lots of roses or privets and expanses of lawn, those things that we normally associate with the traditional English garden. Now, what each of us does in our individual gardens is part of the story of climate change adaptation. We all have that responsibility.”  

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