The English Garden: History and Meaning (part 2 of 3)

The 19th and 20th centuries brought radical changes to the world of gardens.  The patenting of the lawn mower in 1830 by Edward Budding was an important moment. The amount of labour needed to cut grass grass was reduced as scythe cutting became less prominent; the mower was easier to use than a scythe, cheaper, quicker, and helped make grass popular again (Quest-Ritson 2003). People who owned gardens of all sizes started to use lawn mowers allowing people to cut and shape their own lawns, our obsession with cutting grass may be dated back to this point, a point at which the lawn became  a status symbol (Quest-Ritson 2003).

Over the 20th century Victorian gardens became extinct and the rise and fall of wartime had impacts on people’s ability to do gardening; from 1918-1921 25% of English land changed hands with most buyers being tenant farmers (Quest-Ritson 2003). Rural land underwent gentrification and, importantly, by the 20s and 30s it was usual to plant monoculture of one cultivar in a single bed (Quest-Ritson 2003).

Post-WWII meant a push towards industrial regrowth; the New Towns Act of 1946 meant that houses would be built in new areas and this was complemented by the growth in the use of the car, something which promoted driving over walking (Waymark 2003). The 20th century bought with it a passion for faster transportation and car usage, perceptions and possibilities were sped-up creating increased movement of people, something which works against the idea of the garden which has settlement as a prerequisite (Brown 2000). Designers and producers of garden goods were considering the garden in a way that made sure it allowed people the freedom to do other things, that it would fit within the fast-paced lifestyle  of the 20th century (Brown 2000). Another interesting factor in the development of the 20th century garden has been the growth of high rise buildings and flats which gave rise to a much broader concept of what a garden might be; the balcony garden, the cactus garden, the pot-plant and other smaller-scale plantings and gardens grew out of new spacial settings (Waymark 2003).

Since the 1920s gardening had been seen as a struggle against malevolent foes; insecticide and pesticide were used widely in the 50s and 60s and the use of these products were driven by commercial concerns (Quest-Ritson 2003). Concrete became a widely used garden material after the 1930s and aligned with the ‘D.I.Y’ approach; from the 1960s consumerism also came into the sphere of the garden, regular people expected to be able to achieve a standard of excellence for their small gardens (Brown 2000). Most importantly, garden centres grew from the 1950s onwards, in these new shops the principle of supermarket retailing was applied to gardening. Garden centres allowed people to garden in their own time and provided all a gardeners’ needs under one roof (Quest-Ritson 2003). These shops moved gardening away from the horticultural industry and into the leisure industry; they provided a day out, a place to go in your car for lifestyle needs, “By the 1990s, a successful garden centre would expect no more than 30-35 per cent of its revenue to come from selling plants” (Quest-Ritson 2003, p.244).

A final key factor in the growth of the 21st century vision of the garden came from broadcasting and publishing media. The media influenced gardeners’ desires to buy plants, to create horticultural shows and visit open gardens. Furthermore, a plethora of magazines began in the 80s and 90s and television programmes that conveyed rapid garden makeovers gave rise to the desire for instant effects (Quest-Ritson 2003). For example, plants that were already pre-grown and sold in large containers became popularised and aimed to satiate the desire for immediate impact and consumerist gratification; exotics like Australian tree-ferns would be planted in summer for effect and them abandoned to death in the winter (Quest-Ritson 2003).

The twentieth century brought with it radical changes in western views of the environmentand nature. As the means of production were outsourced to less economically developed regions many western nations, including Britain, awoke to the degradation of their rural and urban landscapes; concepts such as ‘conservation’, ‘environmentalist’ and ‘climate change’ became more prominent (Waymark 2003). As these notions of the environment developed the idea that the garden embodied the process of nature grew and was, I think, an important change.

These are some brief reflections on the history of gardens. From these observations we can better deduce what gardens mean to us, what they symbolise, and it is this symbolism that I will look at in the final and third part of this mini-series of blog posts…


– Brown, J. (2000). The Modern Garden, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

– Quest-Ritson, C. (2003). The English Garden: A Social History, Penguin.

– Waymark, J. (2003). modern garden design: innovation since 1900, Thames & Hudson.


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