Elizabethan Gardens

Gardening was big business in Elizabethan England, as evinced by the plethora of gardening books available at the time. The most popular was Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth, reprinted countless times from the 1570s onwards.

In addition to a bowling green and an artificial mount, very large Elizabethan gardens often included pattened parterres enclosed by a clipped box hedge, paths and walkways of gravel and sand, a fountain, and an ash arbour. More modest city gardens were less about showing off and were used instead for growing essential herbs and food, but even the great Elizabethan houses of the age had a kitchen garden.  Knot gardens were extremely popular with the aristocracy. They required a fair amount of maintenance, but were very pleasing to the eye and afforded somewhere charming to walk at all times of the year. Thomas Hill includes a pattern for a knot in his book: ‘A proper knotte to be cast in the quarter of a Garden, or otherwise, as there is sufficient roomth’:

Knot gardens were best appreciated from above, so they were often placed at the front of the house where they could be viewed from the upper windows. Or the owner might construct a mount or viewing platform.  Francis Bacon built his mount 30 ft high, ‘with three ascents, and alleys, enough for four to walk abreast… and some fine banqueting house, with some chimneys neatly cast, and without too much glass.’ In other words Bacon built a type of flash summer house where he could entertain his guests and admire his gardeners’ immaculate handiwork. Illustrations from the time show the type of garden Bacon may have designed:


Mazes were also popular with the wealthy. The following is an illustration of a maze from 1603:

Hill offers the following advice on choosing a spot for a garden: ‘The best grounde for a Garden, is the same judged to be whiche in the Summer time is neither very drie, nor cleyie, nor sandie and roughe, nor endamaged with gapings, procured by heate of the Sommer. Wherefore the earth whiche in the Summer time is wonte to be dry, either perisheth or loseth all the seedes sowen, and plantes set in it, or yeeldeth those thinne, and weake proving on the ground. If the same [ground is] through wet and dissolved with water, you shall see to have a muche clamminesse and fastnesse. In whiche grounde, if a waterinesse shall exceede, then shall you judge the same disagreable and unfruitefull: if dissolving the earth with water you shall finde the same very clammie or much cleaving to the hande and fingers, as it were waxe, this earth shall you accompte as wholly unprofitable. A garden plotte before all other matters done to it, be very well cleansed of stones.’ He also advises that ‘Garden plottes ought to be placed farre from Barnes, Hay loftes, and Stables,’ and ‘It behoveth to have a well in a Garden, unlesse some running water as either ditche or small river be neere adjoyning: for that a sweete water sprinckled on young Plantes, and Hearbes, giveth a speciall nourishment.’

Layout of a garden was very important. Here is an example of how a fancy garden from this period may have been designed.

B: Trees 10 yards apart
C: Garden Knot
D: Kitchen Garden
E: Bridge
F: Conduit
G: Steps
H: Walks set with great wood
I: Walks set with great wood round orchard
K: Outer fence
L: Outer fence set with stone fruit
M: Mount
N: Still-house
O: Good standing for Bees
P: If the river run under your door and by your mount it will be pleasant.

A more practical and affordable alternative to the maze or knot garden was to have a series of rectangular flower beds, divided by paths. No bed was wider than three feet across to allow easy weeding. The layout and plot of a garden was terribly important, as was strolling thoughtfully between beds. As Hill states: ‘it much availeth in a Garden, to frame seemelye walkes and Alleys, for the delight of the owner, by which hee maye the freelier walke hither and thither in them, and consider throughly all the matters wrought and done in the Garden.’

Gardening tools were remarkably similar to those found in today’s potting shed; dibble, rake, hoe, spade, trowel and watering pot. Below is an illustration of some essential gardening tools from a gardening book from 1620:

Most people lucky enough to have a garden would devote a large section of it to growing herbs and vegetables. The recent imports from abroad meant people could grow peaches, apricots, even lemons and oranges, in addition to the staple lettuces, peas and beans. Fruit trees were a vaulable source of food, and many books survive on the maintenance and cultivation of an orchard. The following illustration shows gardeners hard at working grafting fruit trees:

In addition to growing fruit and vegetables, a herb garden was a vital component of any household, since most common ailments at the time were treated with everyday herbs. Hill recommends the following as essential planting in a new herb garden:

‘You [may] sow fine seedes to have pleasant hearbes that may be kept drie, for the pot or kitchin in the Winter time, and those which yeeld delectable flowers, to beautifie and refresh the house, as the Majorani, French balme, Time, Hysope, Sage, Marigolde, Buglas, Borage, and sundrie others.’

Elizabethan flowers were less formal than those today; the focus was on scent rather than size or beauty.  Arbours had sweet-smelling climbing plants rambling over them, and Lavender and wall flowers were very popular. In spring, daffodowndillies and tulips would make their appearance in abundance. Roses were usually red, white, or striped. The following illustration shows gardeners tending to the climbers on an arbour:

For more on Elizabethan gardens, particularly some entertaining ways to rid the garden of ‘creeping things’ see my post To Delight A Bee. 
Sources: Numerous, including Dodd, Picard, Tames – see Useful Reading for details

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  • April 20, 2012 - 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Wow this is great. When I was growing up in India we used to make these designs out of chalk or rice flour in front of the house. I happened to be looking at knot gardens in search and came across this image and it’s the same one I used to make. I never even knew about this until now. What a remarkable coincidence and really interesting reading. Thank you for posting this.

  • Anonymous
    March 25, 2012 - 10:59 am | Permalink

    I wonder if they knew about hand pollination in those times?

  • October 21, 2010 - 7:32 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid I can’t think of anything which might help. Historic Royal Palaces might have some leads on their website. Otherwise I’d suggest a search on EEBO and Eighteenth Century Collections.

  • Anonymous
    October 20, 2010 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I am studying Banqueting Houses. I wondered if you had come across any information that might be useful?

  • August 20, 2010 - 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Talk about sophisticated garden structures! It says something about how the arts were appreciated during this era. You can sure accomplish a lot with lots of servants and no TV.

  • May 21, 2010 - 10:29 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex

    Thanks for your kind comments. I’ve had a look at your image and confess I haven’t come across it before. It doesn’t look like a 17th century woodcut to me, more likely an 18th or 19th century depiction. Your best bet might be to email Nonsuch and ask someone in the research department if they can let you have the source.

    Good luck with your dissertation! And thanks for visiting the blog.

  • Anonymous
    May 21, 2010 - 8:26 am | Permalink

    Hi there! I really enjoy reading your posts, especially on the Elizabethan garden as I’m currently writing my dissertation on the plasterwork of the period. I was wondering if you might be able to suggest where this image came from, it seems similar to the engravings on your page and I wondered if you’d came across it in your readings? Its of a summer banqueting house, possibly the grove of Diana at the old Nonsuch Palace gardens. I can’t find the book it came from, any help appreciated! Thanks Alex O’Donnell
    http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/NonsuchPalaceGardens.html (its the image in the section The Grove of Diana, near the end of the page)

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