Garden History

Course CodeBHT239
Fee CodeS2
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment

Reasons for Studying Garden History

If you are to get the most enjoyment out of a painting, then some knowledge of painting techniques and styles will assist you. Likewise, to fully appreciate a game of cricket then a basic grounding in the rules and tactics of play is important. In a similar way, it can be argued that in order to fully understand garden design and the role of gardens in today’s world, an appreciation of the evolution of garden history is extremely beneficial.

Hone your garden knowledge

You may know how being in a particular garden makes you feel in terms of being relaxed, stimulated, and so forth, but without understanding what it is about the components and layout of the garden that triggers those feelings, you are likely to lack some insight. Through knowledge of how garden trends have developed over time it is possible to gain a more informed understanding and appreciation of gardens. As with anything in life, the past informs the present.

The history of the garden is also an important adjunct to the history of civilisations around the world. For instance, the ancient Egyptian gardens provide insight into the values, ideals, and beliefs of that society. The first gardens were an extension of religion and were often annexed to temples. They represented man’s perception of an earthly paradise. Water, a scarce resource, was highly valued and was incorporated into these gardens to symbolise the ‘river of life‘. These gardens were owned by the wealthy and water was brought to them by slaves. Gardens at this time were also useful as well as idealistic. They were designed to incorporate a ready supply of fruit and vegetables for their owners. Gardens were typically walled to protect them from marauders and the harshness of the desert to provide sanctuary and shade.

Throughout the course of history gardens have adapted to changes in the social environment, politics, and ideals. In the UK, for example, gardens have been influenced over the centuries by invasions of different races. Gardens from the Roman era introduced vines, chestnuts and topiary. During the Dark Ages, walled monastery gardens provided refuge for monks. These gardens were self-sufficient and supplied food through vegetables, herbs, fruits, and fishponds as well as an area for contemplation and meditation. Saxon gardens are widely regarded as the origin of the cottage garden. The emphasis was on security and it was not until the Tudor period that this emphasis was relaxed and the garden became an extension of the house. The inclusion and exclusion of nature in the garden has vacillated over time. By studying these different fashions and needs, the garden historian is able to understand the significance of gardens and the importance of their design.

In today’s world, as with years gone by, gardens represent man’s attempt to come to terms with his surroundings. These gardens also correspond to ideals and desires and are indicative of the values of our societies today. For city dwellers they are perhaps the only means by which many people can interact with nature and express their creativity. Gardens provide a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, technology, and industry, and afford their owners the opportunity to find equilibrium in their lives. In order for gardens, whether communal or private, to provide satisfaction in the way that gardens from the past did for their owners, it is important to know why certain garden elements were utilised and to either remove them or adapt them to their surroundings to represent the thoughts and ideals of today’s world.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • Review of garden history
    • Reasons for studying garden history
    • Scope and nature of garden conservation today
  2. Development of Private Gardens
    • The historical development of parks and gardens to the present day
    • Key factors such as wealth, status, war, travel and function
    • Influence they have had on styles of gardens and designed landscapes
  3. Development of Public and Commercial Landscapes
    • Parks, Streetscapes, Commercial landscapes
    • The historical development of parks & gardens to the present day
    • Identifying key factors such as wealth, status, war, travel and function
    • The influence they have had on styles of gardens and designed landscapes.
  4. Great Gardens and Gardeners of the World
    • Key individuals such as designers, horticulturists, plant hunters and writers who have influenced horticulture
    • Study of range of gardens and designed landscapes such as landscape parks, botanic gardens, public parks, private gardens etc,
    • Study examples of gardens and designed landscapes associated with individuals and illustrate the association both from historic and contemporary perspectives
  5. People who Influenced Gardens other than Designers
    • Gardeners, Plant Collectors and Writers
    • Key individuals such as designers, horticulturists, plant hunters and writers who have influenced horticulture.
    • Gardens and designed landscapes including landscape parks, botanic gardens, public parks, private gardens etc.
    • Examples of gardens and designed landscapes associated with individuals and illustrate the association both from historic and contemporary perspectives)
  6. Globalisation of Gardens
    • Different garden histories and cultures being adapted and applied in modern gardens
    • Range of gardens and designed landscapes such as landscape parks, botanic gardens, public parks, private gardens etc.
    • Examples of gardens and designed landscapes associated with individuals and illustrate the association both from historic and contemporary perspectives)
  7. Scope and Nature of Modern Garden Conservation
    • The value of gardens and designed landscapes in terms such as education, heritage, leisure, tourism, plant conservation, economy and conservation of skills.
    • Threats to these landscapes
    • Available mitigation measures including legal safeguards
    • Planning policy, planning law and planning bodies.
  8. Role of Organisations in Garden Conservation
    • The role of English Heritage and it’s equivalents in promoting and protecting significant landscapes
    • Register of Parks & Gardens of Special Historic Interest
    • Role of other organisations such as CABE Space, Local authorities, Historic Houses Association, Garden History Society, National Trust, Council for conservation of plants, and private owners of gardens.

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.

When Were Private Gardens First Introduced?

Private gardens were once only the domain of the wealthy. Over the course of time improved living conditions and personal wealth have meant that most people in developed countries are able to access to their own piece of paradise.

The earliest known gardens date back to ancient Egypt. These gardens, known as oasis gardens, belonged to prosperous individuals who employed slaves to bring water and maintain their gardens. They were walled to provide protection from roaming animals and intruders as well as shade from the stark desert sun. Walls were usually constructed from granite or mud brick and shade provided by pergolas, arbours or trellis. The garden served as a source of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs for the household and included vines, pomegranates, and imported fruit trees. Water was the central theme out of both necessity and its symbolic expression of the ‘river of life’. Ponds containing fish were incorporated and larger gardens often contained rectangular tanks which could be used for be fishing and boating. In-ground plantings were geometric with flowering plants in terracotta pots displayed more casually.

This same theme involving water was embedded into Arabian, Persian, and Indian Mogul gardens. As time progressed it also became an integral theme of the classical Greek and Roman gardens and was spread into Western Europe and Moorish Spain. In each case the water theme comprised a rectangular tank or canals, gardens were enclosed for protection, and each side of the central water feature consisted of formal plantings to represent the ideal of the oasis.      

The Persian garden contained four canals symbolising the four ‘rivers of paradise’. These canals form a cross at the centre and again were enclosed by walls. There were also sometimes canals running along the insides of the walls. The corners contained the fruits and flowers to signify the oasis. These gardens continued to flourish in Persia through to the sixteenth century. Blue tiles were used to line the canals and often mass plantings were used in the parterres between the canals. Trees held their own special symbolism with cypress trees representing eternity and almonds representing rebirth during the spring. The design of these gardens is still found in many Islamic art forms, notably the Persian carpet.

As a variation on this theme, the Mogul gardens of India used canals to represent the ‘four rivers of life’. They built gardens in the regions that they invaded, not as direct copies, but in accordance with the prevailing climatic and landscape conditions. Prior to the influence of the Persian garden theme, the Indians had already had their own influence on the Sino-Japanese gardens up to the sixth century where they had left a legacy of temple gardens. These were largely informal creations which made use of hills, trees, and lotus covered ponds.

Sino-Japanese Gardens

China developed its own form of garden as far back as the Han Dynasty of 140-87 BC. At this time gardens were informal and represented a place to contemplate and relax. Garden paths tended to meander and bridges were often steep so that they encouraged people to bide their time and absorb the changing views each step of the way. The Chinese revered the natural landscape and their gardens were simple interpretations of nature’s great beauty. A few boulders may be placed together in a way which called on the individual to use their imagination to create the rest of the picture in terms of mountains.   

When the influence of Chinese gardens imposed itself upon Japan the underlying principles remained the same, but it became more clearly defined. The inclusion of the tea ceremony did not occur until the sixteenth century. This ceremony is designed as a means of withdrawing from the stressors of the outside world so as to encourage relaxation and philosophical and aesthetic contemplation. The Buddhist’s view of the garden is one where the gardener becomes part of nature. Rather than contemplate where to place a plant, they will think along the lines of ‘I am this plant, now where would I like to be’.

Whilst Japanese gardens are borne of traditions and symbolism, they are nevertheless exceedingly well composed. The designs typically entail groups of three, five, or seven, hills which relate to one another in terms of size and shape, and a tall upright guardian stone. Two of the most significant design principles are the use of contrast between dynamic and passive forms, and the use of prostrate, recumbent, and upright forms. Specific rock shapes are used for these groups. Rocks are also given particular names to signify their role in the garden design. As well as the guardian, others include the waiting stone, the mist-enveloped, and the clear moon shadow.   

Three distinct types of gardens emerged from these compositions, namely:

  • Hill and water, or lake and island garden: In these gardens a complete landscape is presented containing hills and a pond or lake with islands. Rocks are arranged in the foreground.
  • Dry garden: These gardens contain hills but not water which is signified by the use of stones.
  • Flat garden: These are typically quite simple gardens which can be used in the smallest of spaces. The ground is covered with sand or gravel which is raked into a pattern. The entire composition may only include three forms, such as a bamboo (upright form), lantern (recumbent form), and flat rock (prostrate form). 

Sometimes these three distinct styles are combined in one large ‘stroll’ garden. Each design has an underlying theme of man’s relationship with nature. Even the positioning of plants is as meticulously controlled as that of the rocks. Bonsai plants are used and replaced if they become too large. Recumbent plants such as azaleas and dwarf conifers are popular, as are upright bamboos and wind ravaged pines. Texture is paramount in design and moss is used to highlight rounded forms and contrast with the rough textures of rocks. Although these gardens developed as a means of idealising nature they always relate to the surrounding buildings.

Hispano-Arabic Gardens

Over the course of time, the gardens of Spain have developed from the sophisticated influences of France in the North and the simplistic ideals of the Middle East in the South. The invasions of nomadic desert people in the south east resulted in a mingling of cultures and philosophies which produced the famous gardens of Alhambra and Generaliffe in Granada. The Islamic stronghold here was the last to be re-conquered by Western Europe due to the surrounding mountainous terrain.

When the Arabs invaded in the eighth century they found patio gardens which were a remnant of French influence and a descendent of the Roman atrium and prior to that, the mediaeval cloister. These gardens were enclosed, contained a focal point such as a fountain, and had patterned paving. Plants were chosen to complement this basic design. Walls were usually a pale colour or white to accentuate the glossy leaves of fruit trees or climbers such as jasmine. Terracotta pots containing plants were placed around the patio and these may have been painted to blend in with the prevailing colour scheme. Colour schemes were chosen to invoke feelings of calm and relaxation. The patio garden is very much an outside room.

The nomadic settlers had an accord with nature as well as a tremendous respect for water which was a scant resource in the desert. As such, they built aqueducts to bring water from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The tradition of the oasis garden with its geometric patterns was loosened by including views of mountains, hills and orchards. It is this combination of the central water theme and views of the countryside which define the Moorish gardens of Spain. These gardens were ‘gloriettas’ or private paradises but which permit a view of the world, or larger paradise outside. The garden was a place for solitude and contemplation. Larger gardens afforded the peaceful passage from one area of contemplation to the next. Colour was very important and if it was provided by the plantings then tiles would be in subtle shades. In other cases the tiles might be more vibrant. The use of tiles developed because grass would not grow well as a floor covering in the climate of southern Spain. Throughout Granada this legacy of tiling remains in the patio gardens.

Italian Gardens

Italian gardens developed through Greek influence back in the Roman times. At this time the garden was designed to serve the spirit of man and was not for food or hunting, nor did was it to service the gods. However, the Greeks themselves had incorporated ideas from other civilisations, particularly Persia and India, following the excursions of Alexander the Great.  As such Roman gardens of the time represented an accumulation of different styles and directly mimicked those of the Greeks. Although various elements such as topiary, fountains, sculptures, and canals were present, the Romans had not developed their own style.

When Italian gardens re-emerged at the beginning of the fifteenth century during the Renaissance all these elements were reorganised and new relationships between them emerged. Terraces, which had been a necessity due to the hilly countryside, became open air rooms united with buildings. Steps, which were also viewed previously as a requirement, were given more prominence and became more fanciful and deliberate as a means of uniting terraces. The garden became a more three dimensional and sculptural fusion of vertical and horizontal levels. Tall Cyprus trees and hedges were used to add shade. Statues and sculptures were given pride of place. There was a coming together of all the arts to influence garden design.
The design of these Italian gardens is generally quite simplistic. There would be a main vista from the house down the terraces and each terrace would include other vistas spreading laterally along them. However, there may be significant variation in the presentation of each terrace where there may be a break with uniformity by the more random planting of trees. The plantings are used to link the garden with the surrounding countryside. They are typically well-proportioned and blend in with the nearby buildings and terraced olive groves. The use of vivid flowers was done sparingly to contrast with the use of stone, dark evergreen plants, white statues, blue sky, and water.                  

Following the Renaissance, Baroque gardens lost much of the affinity between man and nature and were conceived more as showpieces rather than places for relaxation and contemplation.


Who Will This Course Benefit?

Some people take this course simply because they have a passion for garden history. For many others though, there are very practical reasons for studying garden history:

If you work in gardening, this course can broaden and deepen your understanding of the industry you work in. It can give you a perspective on where you might go in the future, by understanding where the industry has been in the past. Gardening is an industry driven by trends and fashions, just as much as clothing or art. Gardens are designed to meet artistic or aesthetic criteria as much as anything else. There have been times when it has been fashionable to create landscapes that are very formal, and other times when informality has dominated. Understanding how times change can help a garden designer know how gardens can become dated or timeless according to how they are designed.

Clients all have different priorities. The professional gardener though needs to understand and advise their client with a full and proper appreciation of what is possible and the long term implications of decisions made. They can only do this with a proper appreciation of garden history.



Click box below on left hand side - follow instructions.




More from ACS