Gardening politics through the centuries

Here's one I've actually visited—Montecute
Here’s one I’ve actually visited—Montecute

Thanks to a couple of fascinating new releases from Frances Lincoln, Katie Campbell’s British Gardens in Time and George Plumptre’s The English Country House Garden, I’ve beginning to add some dimensions to my starry-eyed reverence for the great English gardens. The reverence is still there, but now it’s accompanied by a little bit of understanding. Mainly I’m understanding that the creators of these living masterpieces—many of them, anyway—were ruled by strong and occasionally bizarre obsessions—and that how you gardened—just like today—told people a lot about who you were. I already knew, though really did not appreciate, what a huge effort it was, and still is, for private owners or organizations like the National Trust to restore and maintain these properties, many of which had almost completely been obliterated before they were rescued and reconstructed.

Some of the more intriguing bits:

• Stowe, one of the great landscape gardens of the 18th century, is filled with political allegory as well as “naturalistic” vistas. Among the ornamental temples and monuments scattered about the place, some represented ancient virtue (the Greeks) and some modern political vice, including one which pointedly ridicules the prime minister of the day, Robert Walpole.

• One of the great Victorian gardens, Biddulph Grange, is filled with exotic specimens collected from all over the planet, but its owner, although he attempted to chart the evolution of the world through geology and plants, was a creationist and even disapproved of hybrid plants.

• Landscape gardening was not kind to anything that got into the way of its large, sweeping gestures. Entire villages were removed by Capability Brown, if they got in the way of a design. The idyllic naturalistic landscape was thought to evoke the concept of liberty, but, as always, the question was whose.

• Visitors to such sites as Lullingstone castle or Scampston Hall will find plenty of the new as well as the traditional, including Piet Oudolf’s walled garden at Scampston and Hart Dyke’s World Garden at Lullingstone.

You may remember this avenue from Sense and Sensibility.
You may remember this avenue from Sense and Sensibility.

The books are perfect for the winter armchair or for anyone planning a tour—especially if you’d prefer to go on your own rather than take one of the many packaged offerings. I had not heard of many of the properties described here, and they inspire one to look beyond the usual round of Sissinghust, Hidcote, and Great Dixter.

Previous articleConfessions of a Garden Conservancy Open Day Volunteer
Next articleThe Monsters Among Us
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. The owner of Biddulph Grange had something in common with rose breeder Walter Lammerts: creationism.

    Never could quite make breeding and creationism dovetail…

  2. Very interesting article – thank you. Another book that may be of interest to you is Garden Ornament by Gertrude Jekyll – amazing lady who worked closely with the superb architect Edward Lutyens. My copy is a reprint by Antique Collectors Club ISBN 0 907462 16 2 reprinted 1994. The original was printed in 1918!

    Keep on with your rants please.

    Kind regards
    Chris B Dorset UK

  3. Gardening politics in England are still very much alive. The National Trust, owner of many of the finest historic houses and gardens in the country, recently refused a major donation. Sir Roy Strong, former head of The National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum and a prominent historian and public figure, offered to donate his garden, The Laskett, to The National Trust — along with an endowment to maintain it. But The Nat’l Trust turned the offer down, saying the garden didn’t meet its criteria of historic significance or excellence of contemporary design. Possibly. Or possibly, as others suggest, it was Sir Roy’s personality that led to the refusal.

  4. My personal favorite (partly because of its place in 20th century history – is Blenheim Palace. The grounds and gardens, also by Capability Brown, are quite lovely – – and they have several things for the little ones (and those that are young at heart) including a miniature train, a butterfly house, a hedge maze, and giant chess.


Comments are closed.