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Garden design through the ages

The Garden House in the Pleasure Grounds at Osterley Park and House, Middlesex
The Garden House in the Pleasure Grounds at Osterley Park and House | © National Trust Images/Hannah Burton

From the self-sufficient gardens of the medieval period through to the low-maintenance, ornamental gardens of the 20th century, the fashions of each period in history greatly influenced garden design. Explore notable features of garden design during different periods in our history and discover where you can find examples of each at the places we care for.

Medieval gardens

(Middle Ages to 1500)

Medieval garden style was dominated by monasteries and manor houses. Herbs were grown for medicine and gardens were an important food source.

Medieval features to look out for

  • Gardens enclosed with wattle fences or quickthorn hedges

  • Trellis walkways and arbours providing shade and privacy

  • Raised beds to prevent plants becoming waterlogged

  • Grass treated as a flowery mead, planted with low growing wild flowers

  • Turf seats usually built against a wall with flowers planted in the grass

  • Physic gardens with regimented beds of medicinal herbs

  • Orchards providing apples for the kitchen and for making cider

  • Fishponds and stew ponds (where fish were purged of muddy water before cooking) to ensure a regular supply of protein during the many fast days of the Christian calendar

  • Dovecotes to provide pigeons for the kitchen, feathers for cushions and dung for fertilizing the garden

  • Pleasances, or ornamental parks for recreation, relaxation and sport

Examples of medieval garden design

The Kitchen Garden at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex, in April
The Kitchen Garden at Alfriston Clergy House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex

This rare 14th-century thatched and timber-framed Wealden ‘hall house’ was the first building to be acquired by the National Trust in 1896. The idyllic garden was laid out in the 1920s by the then tenant Sir Robert Witt to evoke a medieval garden. Here you’ll see old-fashioned roses, topiary, a potager for vegetables, a herb garden and an orchard.

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Tudor gardens

(1485 to 1603)

The influence of the Renaissance left its mark on the gardens of the Tudors, seen in the inclusion of architectural features. The most recognised feature from this period is the knot garden.

Tudor features to look out for

  • Knot gardens, geometric beds edged with a low hedge of box or other shrubs

  • Flowers such as violets, marigolds, and the rose cultivated not only for their beauty but for flavouring sweets and desserts

  • Mounts (artificial hills) to provide views of the garden and the landscape beyond

  • Banqueting houses to provide an intimate room for enjoying desserts and for entertainment

  • Fountains and automated water features to animate the garden, reflecting an interest in hydraulics

  • Deer parks to provide meat for the household as well as being a symbol of wealth and status

  • Symbolic devices and ornaments such as poles topped with colourful heraldic animals and labyrinths associated with religious or mythological significance

Examples of Tudor garden design

Herbaceous borders in summer at Godolphin, Cornwall
Herbaceous borders in summer at Godolphin | © National Trust Images/Hilary Daniel

Godolphin, Cornwall

Centuries of neglect meant that the 16th-century garden of this romantic old house remained virtually unchanged. As such, it's considered one of the most important of its kind in Europe and today we’re carrying out major conservation work to ensure its preservation.

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Stuart Gardens

(1600 to early 1700s)

Gardens grew larger during the Stuart period as the influence of French and Dutch formal gardens brought features such as long avenues, terraces and topiary.

Stuart features to look out for

  • Formal layout influenced by the great gardens of France

  • Terraces controlling the irregular natural landscape

  • Parterres evolved from the Tudor knots

  • Avenues, an expression of welcome as well as status

  • Canals reflecting the fashion for all things Dutch at the end of the 17th century

  • Fountains and extravagant water displays to animate the gardens

  • Topiary, an expression of the ultimate control over nature

  • Woody places for intrigue and exercise

Examples of Stuart garden design

The topiary garden at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire
The topiary garden at Chastleton House | © National Trust Images/Peter Greenway

Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Built between 1607 and 1612, the garden at Chastleton House retains its Jacobean layout, divided into compartments according to use. Even some Jacobean planting has survived, particularly a mulberry tree and the Restoration Oak, which was planted in honour of Charles II. Most impressive of all, however, is the circle of mysterious topiary shapes in the Best Garden.

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Georgian gardens

(1714 to 1830)

Gardens and parks merged into one during the 18th century to create a British style that would influence gardens across Europe. Many of the gardens we look after have features inspired by the European Grand Tour, which was popular in the Georgian period.

Georgian features to look out for

  • Informal layout designed as a classical Arcadia

  • Lakes created to reflect the landscape as well as for recreation

  • Cascades to add drama and animation

  • Temples, grottos and follies which doubled up as tea-rooms and viewing towers

  • Clumps and shelterbelts to provide shelter and privacy to the park

  • Shrubberies planted with newly introduced exotics from abroad

  • The ha-ha, an invisible boundary to keep livestock away from the house

  • Circuit walks taking you on a tour around the park

Examples of Georgian garden design

The lead statue of Bacchus in front of the Temple of Piety at Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire
Statue of Bacchus in front of the Temple of Piety at Studley Royal Water Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Studley Royal Water Garden, Yorkshire

Studley Royal is one of the least-altered Georgian gardens in England. Begun in the early 18th century, this water garden transitions between the formal areas and the naturalistic park by using geometry in the shape of the Half Moon Pond, the canal and the avenues. Due it its importance, Studley Royal Water Garden has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

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Victorian gardens

(1837 to 1901)

Exotic plants from around the world were brought home to gardens by Victorian collectors. The bright new colours were displayed in more formal garden styles during this period.

Victorian features to look out for

  • Plant collections gathered from all corners of the world

  • Arboretums to display collections of trees on a large scale

  • Flower beds in bright colours

  • Walled kitchen gardens using advanced technology to produce ever increasing ranges of fruits and vegetables

  • Advances in glasshouse technology enabling the most tender of plants to be cultivated at home

  • Rockeries inspired by expeditions to mountainous regions

  • Wild gardens, which were a backlash against the industrial world

Examples of Victorian garden design

The Parterre at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, at sunrise
Sunrise over the Parterre at Waddesdon Manor | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

You may be forgiven for thinking you're in France when you arrive at Waddesdon as it was built by the Rothschild banking family in the 1880s in the style of a French chateau. It remains one of the best high-Victorian gardens in Britain, famous for its collection of specimen trees and its impressive formal parterres.

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20th-century gardens

Colour themed gardens reigned during this time and, as a backlash against the hardships of two world wars, gardens became increasingly ornamental and low maintenance, culminating in the 1970s craze for conifers and grasses.

However, as the century came to a close, the garden style became more relaxed with a new fashion for prairie planting and an interest in wildflower meadows, while many have rediscovered the joys of kitchen gardening and self-sufficiency.

20th-century features to look out for

  • Garden rooms to divide the garden into different themes

  • Cottage gardening, looking back to a less industrial age

  • Woodland gardens

  • Colour-coordinated borders influenced by artists such as Gertrude Jekyll

  • Perfect lawns thanks to improved lawnmower machinery and chemicals

  • Bedding as a direct result of the commercialisation of the nursery trade

  • Naturalistic prairie planting

  • Rose gardens as popular as ever

Examples of 20th-century garden design

Herbaceous planting in the Terrace Garden at Castle Drogo, Devon
The Terrace Garden at Castle Drogo | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Castle Drogo, Devon

This 20th-century castle, perched high on Dartmoor, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the most famous architects of the day. Crisply trimmed architectural yew hedges reflect the austere building style of the castle. These, in turn, heighten the surprise of the exuberant herbaceous garden, with beds of various colours and textures flanking paths that form an Indian motif.

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