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Victorian Gardens

Garden design, like many other aspects of life, is subject to changing fads and fashions, often driven by changes in technology and in social trends.

Audley End House
Audley End House - Victorian Walled Garden

Nowhere is this more true than in the Victorian era, where many garden features that we now think of as typically Victorian can be traced back to changes in society - and give us a fascinating insight into the period through the gardens of the time.

We are particularly lucky in Britain, as many Victorian gardens have either survived, or have been re-created, and you can visit and enjoy them today. 

The Victorian Kitchen Garden

One of the most iconic types of garden from the Victorian period is the kitchen garden.

Helmsley Walled Garden - The Kitchen Garden
Helmsley Walled Garden - The Kitchen Garden

As the name suggests, kitchen gardens existed to grow food and produce for consumption by the household.

West Dean Gardens Cabbages
West Dean Gardens - Cabbages

Some kitchen gardens were merely vegetable plots, growing basic native produce, such as lettuces, cabbages, peas and beans that would thrive in the British climate.

Often an area would be set aside as a herb garden so that the cook could add a little flair and flavour to the dishes being prepared.

Other kitchen gardens were altogether more ambitious: Although not exclusive to the Victorian period, many walled gardens were created at this time, with the (usually brick) walls creating a micro-climate which could be a few degrees warmer than an open garden. This sheltered area enabled more delicate plants to thrive, and allowed for a more varied menu.

West Dean Gardens Pear Espalier
West Dean Gardens - Pear Espalier

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses

Some kitchen gardens could be quite large - depending on the size of the household they belonged to. As a rule of thumb, an acre of kitchen garden was expected to provide food for 12 people.

Kitchen gardens for well-to-do households would often feature cold frames, and even glass houses.

These would allow the cultivation of a much wider range of produce, including figs, grapes and nectarines, and even allow plants to be grown outside their usual season.

The ability to serve guests with summer dishes in the winter was an impressive social talking point in an era before the electric refrigeration and food imports by air-freight that we enjoy today.

Audley End House
Audley End House - Victorian Glass Houses Displaying Produce

Such is the enduring interest in the Victorian Kitchen Garden, that the BBC broadcast a 13 part television series of the same name in the 1980s. The series followed the re-creation of an authentic working Kitchen Garden from a derelict site at Chilton Foleat.

You can still enjoy the series on DVD and through accompanying books, though sadly the garden itself is no longer maintained.

You can enjoy the beautiful Kitchen Garden at

Audley End:  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/

Victorian Walled Gardens

Although many kitchen gardens are walled, it would be a mistake to think that all walled gardens were created exclusively for produce.

West Dean Gardens Walled Garden
West Dean Gardens - Walled Garden

Many walled gardens contain beautiful displays of flowers cultivated for their aesthetic value.

The sheltered microclimate provided by garden walls was not enough to allow all species to thrive, so a few walled gardens were built with heated walls! This was achieved by making a wall hollow, so that a fire could be lit, with openings on the garden-side to direct the heat towards the plants, and a flue at the top for the smoke.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses

Sadly a lot of walled gardens have fallen into disrepair, as they can be very labour-intensive to maintain - but there are still many excellent examples that you can see throughout the country.

Impact of Travel

In the Victorian Era the British Empire was at its peak, and Britain was the most successful trading nation in the world. Thousands of Britons travelled overseas to administer the empire, and British trading companies also sent their employees around the world on business.

With Britain's global perspective, and improved transport by land and sea, overseas leisure travel started to become increasingly popular in the higher echelons of society.

Tatton Park Japanese Garden Tea House
Tatton Park - Japanese Garden Tea House

Keen gardeners were inspired by the plants they saw on their travels, and often brought specimens back to Britain when they returned.

The rockery became a feature of Victorian gardens, as it was ideal for displaying alpines, and plants from mountainous regions.

Doddington Place Rock Gardens
Doddington Place - Rock Gardens

Some delicate specimens such as orchids were unsuited to the British climate, but could either be planted in walled gardens, or if more warmth was required, in the popular glasshouses.

Helmsley Walled Garden - The Orchid House
Helmsley Walled Garden - The Orchid House

Returning tourists also brought back increasingly colourful flowers, which were planted in formal beds to form bright, cheerful displays of colour.

Even specimens of non-native trees were brought back to be planted in Britain, and several arboretums which you can still visit and enjoy today were created by Victorian specimen hunters.

Audley End House
Audley End House - Brightly Coloured Flowers

Italian-style gardens were also popular during the early Victorian period, no doubt inspired by gardens their creators had enjoyed in Italy. 

You'll find a superb walled garden at:

Helmsley Walled Garden: http://www.helmsleywalledgarden.org.uk/

Victorian Terrace Gardens

Many of these Italian-style gardens were created on terraces behind the large house, and separated from the rest of the gardens with stone balustrades.

Harewood Terrace
Harewood House - Victorian Terrace

Design and planting of the increasingly popular terrace gardens was usually of a formal style, with symmetrical beds separated by gravel paths or areas of lawn.

Tatton Park Italian Garden
Tatton Park - Italian Garden

Statues or stone fountains often featured as centre-pieces to create a focal point for the design, and topiary trees or low hedges were often incorporated in the designs.

Harewood Terrace
Harewood House - Victorian Terrace

Victorian terrace gardens often featured brightly coloured plants and flowers for maximum visual impact - as bright floral displays were particularly popular in the early part of Victoria's reign.

Audley End House
Audley End House - Bright Floral Display

Several stately homes still have terrace gardens you can enjoy.  Two of the very best are:

Harewood House:  http://harewood.org/

Tatton Park:  http://www.tattonpark.org.uk/home.aspx

The Lawnmower

Although we now think of a beautifully tended green lawn as an essential part of any garden, until Victorian times, things were very different:

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, a grass lawn would only have been found on the estates of the aristocracy. Not only was it extravagant to set aside land from food production, but the management of a lawn was incredibly labour intensive, as it had to be cut with a scythe.

Tatton Park Formal Gardens
Tatton Park - Formal Gardens

Once again we see that Victorian gardens reflect the new technology made possible by the continuing industrial revolution: In 1830, Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud in Gloucestershire, invented the first lawnmower after being inspired by a cloth trimming machine he saw in a local weaving mill.

Once Budding's patents had lapsed in the 1850s, many manufacturers started offering lawnmowers, and neatly-cropped lawns started to become a popular feature of Victorian gardens.

East Ruston Old Vicarage Greenhouse
East Ruston Old Vicarage - Victorian Greenhouse

Victorian Glasshouses

Until the Victorian era, glasshouses were a rarity, as glass was expensive and heavily taxed - so glasshouses and conservatories had been beyond the means of even relatively wealthy families.

In Victoria's reign, Joseph Paxton designed large and impressive glasshouses for the Victorian "super-rich", and these were a way of underlining their wealth and social status.

Wentworth Castle Gardens Conservatory
Wentworth Castle Gardens - Victorian Conservatory

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses

During this period, the slightly less wealthy, and even middle class families aspired to owning a glasshouse of their own.

The Victorian entrepreneurial spirit soon found ways to meet this demand.

New plainer designs were created, and the mass production of many of the components required for glasshouses (eg bricks, glass, cast iron and even paint) meant that they could be constructed at a more reasonable cost.

In 1845 the glass tax was repealed, and in 1851 the window tax was also abolished, making glasshouses more affordable and thus stimulating demand.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses Door Handle
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses Door Handle

In addition to full-size glasshouses, cold frames became popular, as they could provide many of the benefits of a glasshouse at much lower cost.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Cold Frame
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Cold Frame

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses

Taking all these factors into account, it's easy to see why the popularity of glasshouses and cold frames surged during Victorian times.

There are some excellent places to see Victorian glasshouses, including:

West Dean Gardens:  https://www.westdean.org.uk/gardens

East Ruston Old Vicarage:  http://www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk/pages/view/564/home.htm

Wentworth Castle Gardens:  http://www.wentworthcastle.org/

Victorian Wild and Natural Gardens

Towards the end of the Victorian period there was a trend away from formal gardens, towards a more natural or wild style, including woodland-style gardens.

Tatton Park
Tatton Park - Woodland Garden With Daffodils

William Robinson who also helped to popularise the English Cottage Garden and the herbaceous or "mixed" border was an advocate of a less formal style of planting.

Harewood Terrace Border
Harewood House - Victorian Terrace Border

He also introduced the use of alpine plants in rockeries, and the idea of sowing large natural looking drifts of perennials in woodland and meadow areas - an idea which remains popular today.

Doddington Place Rock Gardens
Doddington Place - Rock Gardens

At Doddington Place Gardens in Kent they have recently restored their superb Rock Garden (which in fact dates from Edwardian times) - it's well worth a visit:



The rapid changes in society and technology that took place in Victorian times as the industrial revolution continued, had a profound impact on the gardens of the time.

West Dean Gardens
West Dean Gardens - Aerial View

Many of the features we now think of as "typically Victorian" such as walled gardens, glasshouses, lawns, terraces and rockeries can be traced back to these factors.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouses
West Dean Gardens - Victorian Glasshouses

The Victorian garden is a fascinating example of the link between a changing society and the gardens it creates.

There are many beautiful Victorian gardens around Britain that you can visit - including the ones pictured on this page, so why not go and see for yourself?


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