If one wants to understand the real significance of the English garden to British identity, all one needs to do is peruse through the 628-page Blue Guide Gardens of England. This outlines, in great detail, the country’s many elaborate gardens and their histories. As evidenced by the size of the guide book, gardens are quite common in England. But the British people’s sense of appreciation for landscape and its history, on the other hand, is far from common.
Every British country features at least three or four major gardens. And it does not stop in England. The love of the English style of gardening has even made its way “across the pond,” and indeed, all over the world.
Why? English gardening is a landscaping style that has certainly survived the 20-odd centuries of different rulers, trials, and tribulations–not to mention gardening trends. This is, in part, because English gardening has always managed to adapt to the styles and preferences of the times, from its more structured ancient geometric beginnings to today’s looser styles which incorporate a more natural landscape. Fortunately for gardening enthusiasts, examples from almost every period of English gardening exist throughout the country–and indeed, the world, today.
Some of the first “English” gardens were not really English at all. In fact, they were actually planted by the Romans in the the 1st century AD. They started these early gardens when they invaded and eventually conquered England, and they brought with them many plants and vegetables from their home land including vine grapes, sweet chestnut trees, and garlic.
The hall mark trait of these early Roman gardens is that they were extremely geometric in style. One outstanding example still exists in England at the Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex. Landscape architects have successfully reconstructed part of this early Roman garden.
The symmetrical gardening style of the Romans is readily apparent as you stroll through Fishbourne. Formal box hedges on either side are balanced by gravelled walks in the center of the gardens. In true Roman style, small crevices are scattered throughout the gardens. At one time, they might have featured statues, urns, garden seats, or other accents.
Even during the earliest English gardens, there was a bit of room for informality and a definite practical aspect to the gardens. As is the case in Fishbourne, the formal garden blends nicely into a landscaped patch of lawn. Roman cooks (and, of course, today’s chefs) could reap the bounties of Fishbourne’s working kitchen garden. Today, gardeners still harvest many of the same crops that the Roman gardeners did, including cabbage, radishes, and cucumbers.
Today, the British are known for their beautiful gardens, but they did not always deem gardening to be important throughout history. Gardening historians, in fact, know precious little about English gardens during Anglo-Saxon times.