DON RAKOW: Hello, my name is Don Rakow. I'm the director of Cornell Plantations and a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell. And I'd like to welcome you to a short history of English garden design.
Little is known about northern European gardening before the rise of classical Rome. Remains of prehistoric enclosures and study of ancient plants and pollen give us only a general picture. Evidence from the first century BC onward is much richer. Archaeological digs provide an invaluable treasury of garden objects, wall paintings, and extant structures. And herbals, [? treaties, ?] poetry, and other literature contain abundant references to gardens.
This garden culture, known best from Italy, France, and Spain, was exported to far-off Britain. Romans attached great symbolic importance to many objects in their culture. And plants, too, were associated with the gods and deities that governed daily life. Venus, for example, was the protectress of gardens. And her plant is the Myrtle.
Plants were used for rituals, food, and medicine. And we see in Roman literature the early distinction, commonly made today, between purely ornamental plants-- derisively referred to by conservatives as luxurious-- and plants used for utilitarian purposes. In fact, most gardens of the aristocracy celebrated the many forms of hybridized, clipped, and espaliered plants developed in this period.
The most popular architectural style of this period in the Mediterranean was the townhouse or villa, in which the buildings that comprised the living units of the home surrounded an inner courtyard adorned with some formal combination of plants, fountains, and pools. One enjoyed the garden by strolling around it, looking into the center rather than walking through it. No cross-plan gardens have yet been found from the Roman period.
At Fishbourne Roman Villa in Sussex, the architectural plan was imported in its pure form, complete with mosaic work, stucco, and wall paintings, requiring skills previously unknown in Britain. However, the architectural evidence shows that it may not have suited the British climate. It was transformed into a more localized form of corridor villa after the first generation of ownership. The courtyards were closed off and filled with debris, preserving garden features for future archaeologists.
Four types of gardens may be seen at Fishbourne-- the grand, Paris-style garden, with formal beds of plants and trees set into improved soils; smaller, Paris-style courtyards in the surrounding architecture; the kitchen garden, which was adjacent to the cooking ovens; and around the villa, a large garden or a park which may have been more naturalistic in design. More fragmentary remains of gardens, slightly later in date, have been found at Frocester Court and Chedworth Roman Villa, both in Gloucestershire.
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Americans have traditionally looked to the British for direction on landscape design and plant selection. Notable British landscape designers such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, William Gilpin, and Gertrude Jekyll have left a legacy not only in England but across the ocean also. If these people and subjects intrigue you, I invite you to accompany me on a virtual tour of English garden design that starts back in the days of the Roman occupation and progresses to the eclectic gardens of today. Throughout, you will learn about how people, wars, inventions, and global exploration affected changing tastes and styles over the past millenium.
This video is part 1 of 5 in the A Brief History of English Garden Design series.