A Potted History

Screenshot-2022-01-13-at-15.04.44A medieval herber

Ruth Martin of the Aldersbrook Horticultural Society has compiled a potted history of the garden. In the first of a series of articles, she guides us from ancient civilisations to the medieval period

Gardens have existed for thousands of years – the gardens of the ancient civilisations influenced gardens in the West. Egyptian gardens were centred around pools where lotus flowers and papyrus grew, surrounded by beds of poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds shaded by palms, figs, vines and pomegranates. The paradise gardens of Persia included formally laid orchard trees, planes and cypresses.

In ancient Islamic culture, symmetrical layouts of gardens were used, divided into quadrants, by rills representing the four rivers flowing from paradise: water, milk, honey and wine. Roman gardens were influenced by the Greeks – and were an integral part of the house surrounded by columned walks, including pools and fountains. Mosaics, trellis and frescos were common features and the architectural plants used are familiar to us today – clipped hedges and elaborate topiary made of laurel, bay and box with flowering plants of roses, lilies and myrtle.

During the medieval period (800–1500), the influence of Persian gardens and designs spread around Europe. England was culturally and politically part of Europe; Roman designs also influenced English gardens. Medieval gardens belonging to the wealthy consisted of three types: the herber, the orchard and the pleasure park. Royalty and nobility would have all three areas, covering some 15 acres, the more moderately well-off would have two, covering two to five acres, and the town bourgeoisie and lesser manors would have the herber of under an acre.

The herber consisted of a lawn, herbs and flowers, with trees at the edge of the lawn to provide some shade. There would be turf seats, arbours, trellis works and fountains. The orchard contained fruit trees and walks and the pleasure park or little park was bounded by palisades. At the centre, was a timber-framed garden building, as well as ponds for fish and waterfowl.

At this time, however, the majority of the population lived in squalid hovels made of wood frames with wattle and daub, leaky thatch, damp walls and wet floors, and if they owned animals, they would share the space. The slightly better-off villagers lived in marginally better houses, with separate barns for their animals. Gardening as we know it did not exist; the land around the hovel was used to grow vegetables to feed any animals and themselves. They had a diet of cabbages, kale, leeks, onions and turnips supplemented by any game they could trap. Fruit was also grown – apples, pears, plums and cherries. Some cottagers attempted to cheer up their garden by collecting plants from the wild and planting them amongst the vegetables. The cottage garden was born.

Ruth will be giving a presentation on the history of the garden at Aldersbrook Bowls Club on 8 March from 7.30pm (visitors: £5). Visit wnstd.com/ahs