A Potted History

gravel-garden-mayThe Beth Chatto Gardens

Ruth Martin of the Aldersbrook Horticultural Society has compiled a potted history of the garden. In the third of a series of articles, she guides us from Victorian times to the modern era

The Victorian era was a time of innovation and technological change, the British Empire, travels abroad by plant hunters and the building of glass houses on large country estates and in public gardens led to the cultivation of tender plants and the introduction of many new plants. These were transported safely back from Asia and the Far East in a newly invented Wardian case.

The pre-eminent garden designer of the Victorian period was Charles Barry, who designed very formal gardens with stone balustrades and edges filled with bedding plants. The tender bedding plants were used as carpet bedding in formal beds in the new public parks that were built to give people living in towns the opportunity to breathe fresher air, exercise and play in green spaces.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in people moving to towns for work and the enclosure of land meant country folk lost their right to graze their animals and grow crops on common land. For ordinary people in town and country, allotments were introduced on which they could grow vegetables and flowers. In the Midlands and the North particularly, this saw the beginning of growing specific flowers for competitions, such as auriculas and hyacinths. Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford describes how the majority of cottagers in her village were largely self-sufficient in food, growing vegetables on allotments and in gardens.

Locally, the period from the end of the 19th century to the First World War saw new estates being built like Woodgrange, Aldersbrook and Lakehouse. Gardening and market gardening were significant in the area, and old maps show plant nurseries, market gardens and large glasshouses. The garden design of these houses was planned formally, with square beds or ponds surrounded by paving. The original Aldersbrook Horticultural Society was founded in 1909 with an annual show at St Gabriel’s, monthly lectures and outings.

The Second World War and the Dig for Victory campaign meant every bit of land was cultivated, including allotments on Wanstead Flats. More advice about gardening was made available, and houses built after the war by local authorities, such as pre-fab and council houses, had large gardens. Since the 1970s, gardening has become increasingly popular with improved transport allowing people to visit the gardens of large country houses. The most visited gardens, such as Beth Chatto’s garden near Colchester, were developed by gardeners who really knew and loved their plants. The 21st century has seen a return to more natural ways of gardening, getting rid of insecticides and pesticides, wildlife meadows and growing vegetables in containers.

The Aldersbrook Horticultural Society was re-established in 2018 and meets monthly at Aldersbrook Bowls Club. The group will be hosting a visit to The Beth Chatto Gardens in June. Visit wnstd.com/ahs