A potted history of garden design. 12 styles of outdoor spaces

A potted history of garden design. 12 styles of outdoor spaces

We have been in love with gardens for thousands of years. Gardens have evolved and continue to do so. The history of outdoor design is a story that spans the ages right back to prehistoric times. Details of historic garden design would fill volumes, but for convenience this can be vastly simplified into 12 main categories. Let's take a look...

History, garden history, gardens, design, styles, pleasure, gardening, space

Jungle gardening

The oldest type of gardening in history can be traced back to jungle or forest gardening.  It's fairly obvious, when you think about it. Ancient man would grow food on the edges of sheltered woods and on river banks. Here, the soil was fertile and light levels were good. From early habits of scraping off surface plants and replacing them with edible species, the interest in using the soil increased. Plant species were protected, improved and transplanted. Meanwhile, the less-useful plants were removed. This simple cultivation formed the basis of everything that followed. 

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Pleasure gardens

By the year 10,000BC, people were enclosing their space in order to keep out the unwanted. This included people and animals. History tells us that it first took place in West Asia. Pleasure gardens originated in the Middle East where they were built as refuges from the desert. These gardens were constructed around the notion of water, a resource that was scarce in the surrounding landscape. Persia is famous for its creation of spaces that tried to capture the essence of an earthly paradise. A Persian garden layout would be based on a cross design, with water in the form of fountains and ponds. The four-square pattern was called the charbagh by the Persians. This was an interpretation of Eden with four rivers and four quadrants, representing the world. In fact, this formal layout could be viewed as the basis for all formal garden design in the western world. ‍They were a form of oasis within desert-like surroundings.

Persian garden, Persian, garden, history, irrigation, symmetry Persian, garden history, garden, history, water

Mini Oasis

Adopted by the Islamic world, the notion of a private space filled with abundance and the sound of water, caught the imagination. The mini-oases with their shady trees, enclosed by high walls, became popular throughout the Moorish territories in northern Africa.  Arabs crossed the Straight of Gibraltar in the year 711 and established control over the Iberian Peninsula. At this time, the Spanish Moors re-modelled the ideas of garden design. The surroundings presented more possibilities than the barren deserts of the homeland. Thus the inner, private courtyard remained but more emphasis was placed on the outside land and its possibilities.


The Moorish garden style evolved, using lush vegetation and water to regulate temperatures of the garden and the building. These gardens included plants to provide shade, including pleached trees to create a 'hedge on stilts'. Also, much lush vegetation together with water.

Moorish, garden, design, history, Egypt

Islamic Spain soon became the centre of civilisation. Hillsides were terraced in order to cultivate the land. The connection to the past was still evident in the Islamic palace gardens with its citrus trees, water and lush vegetation. The Islamic garden mimicked agriculture. There was a strong emphasis on irrigation which allowed studies on the effects of growth and temperature. The Moorish garden era was an important stage in the evolution of gardens. The Alhambra Palace Garden in Granada is one of the most visited gardens of the world. It makes you feel cool, just to look at it.

 Alhambra, Islamic Palace, garden design, history, gardens, Spain, Granada


Then came the Italian Renaissance which commenced around the year 1400. The Middle Ages were left behind and there was a thirst for knowledge, leisure and geography, also history. Society began to re-define itself. There was great advancement in art, music, literature and of course, in gardens. Italy was centred at the heart of this movement. The grounds of the great houses of the rich were adorned, making the villas and their gardens into a cohesive space. As can be seen at the Villa Medici at Fiesole, the building and garden also draw on the wider scene of Florence, bringing it into the garden. And so it was that the views outside the garden were incorporated as a vista wherever possible. There's no doubt that the Italian garden movement was created at a time of a 'rediscovery of life' and it remains as a highly influential, classic garden design style today.  ‍The Italian Renaissance garden is ornate, symmetrical and grand. There are sculptures, such as The Apennine Colossus by Giambologna in the gardens of Villa di Pratolino, dating from around 1580, together with lush, green planting. 

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High maintenance

The trend created by the Italian Renaissance spread across Europe to France and England, where formality and embellishment were embraced. The period lasted for many hundreds of years but it came with a tremendous cost in terms of labour. These formal gardens take a considerabe number of people to maintain them. And so began a gradual departure from the high-maintenance aspect of these spaces with their water fountains and symmetry. Designers of the day led followers towards the desire for a more natural beauty.


At the beginning of the 1800s there was a dawning of a romantic era when people embraced the whole concept of 'nature'. This spanned art, literature, philosophy and, of course, the landscape.  People looked towards nature to emulate curves and more natural forms within gardens. England was at the heart of this new movement. Initially led by William Kent, who called himself a 'scenic designer', his understudy became well known as Capability Brown. Rousham House Gardens in Oxfordshire is a fine example.

Roucham House Gardens, William Kent, garden, history, design


Together, they re-modelled large swathes of England. They moved vast areas of earth in order to create lakes. They built follies and impressive bridges in order to create attractive views.  The considerable physical landscaping even created rolling hills and meadows. Picturesque views were the pinnacle of desire, hence, sweeping carriage drives had stopping places that allowed visitors to take in the scenery. Blenheim Palace is one of the most famous of Capability Brown's creations and remains a prime example of the English Romantic Movement. It manages to capture the notion that it is a wild, natural landscape. The gardens seem to blend into the countryside as if they are natural.

Blenheim Palace Gardens, Oxfordshire, garden, history Blenheim Palace Gardens, Capability Brown, garden design, history

The new movement reached America, where city parks became desirable. The people were beginning to respect nature and wanted to create places for people to go in order to enjoy it. People wanted parks! In New York there was a public competition for the design of a new public place called Central Park. In 1858 the winner was announced: Frederick Law Olmsted. It was he who coined the term 'landscape architect' and Central Park has since become one of the best known parks in the world.  Surrounded by a densely built environment, Central Park emulates nature and it a fine example of Modernism.

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English Landscape Style

Capability Brown is an important character in garden history. This garden designer worked on the vistas that many people perceive as being the ‘natural landscapes’ of England. Lancelot Brown used groupings of trees and hidden fences. He landscaped the ground to create meadows, woods, rolling hills and beautiful vistas. His lakes and serpentine rivers are world famous. Landscape architects across the world refer to him as the father of their profession. Born some 300 years' ago, he is known as the father of the English Landscape Style. 

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Many of Brown’s magnificent landscapes remain today, including Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth Place, Hyde Park and Warwick Castle. Down in the South East, there’s Compton Place, near Eastbourne; Ashburnham Place, near Battle; Sheffield Park near Uckfield; Brightling Park, near Robertsbridge; Chilham Castle near Canterbury and there are many more – around 250 in total.

What trees did Capability Brown favour? He planted thousands, if not millions, and these included the magnificent cedar of Lebanon, oaks and many more native tree species. Eye catching follies, wonderful bridges, ‘gothic’ temples and lake-filled valleys are trademarks of a man who swept away many formal knot gardens of the previous era.

Oriental gardens

Meanwhile, entirely separate styles of gardens were evident in China and Japan. These were countries that were not following world trends.  People embraced nature as a form of religion and the style of gardens was in tune with the natural world.  The culture of the country, known as Japanese 'Shinto' focused on the elements of the universe and sky, sun, sea, animals and planets were always revered. This 'worship of nature' expanded into Zen Buddhism and both life and landscape were embraced almost as a 'god'.  Gardens in Japan were all about worship, energy and inner peace. These were gardens that mimicked the natural landscape including mountains and rivers.

Japanese garden, history, garden, design, Japan

Chinese gardens were always important to the culture of the land. For more than 3000 years they  were places for nobility to enjoy hunting and to enjoy fruit and vegetables. Chinese gardens tended to recreate the larger natural landscapes, but in miniature. They contained ornate buildings such as pavilions, but also decorative rocks and a strong focus on water. These enclosed spaces would have winding paths in order to create different viewpoints.  People used these gardens every day for social or solitary contemplation. An authentic Chinese garden would incorporate no less than 17 elements including individual sections. There were rocks; water; trees; plants; sculpture; borrowed scenery; chimes; incense burners and more. Also known as 'poetic gardens', they provided a form of 'utopia for the mind'. 

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Victorian gardens

After the re-modelling of the countryside in the capable hands of Lancelot Brown, Britain experienced further design trends. The Victorian era is known for its colourful displays of brash annual planting. ‍The Victorian carpet bedding schemes are instantly recognisable.

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Arts and Crafts

Then the highly acclaimed Arts & Crafts movement which emerged in the early 1900s. This linked architecture with garden layout. The architect designing a property would also design the garden to match. As a protest against mass-production it would include traditional craftsmanship such as detailed stonework, stone-flagged terraces, dry stone walls, paths and charming 'outside rooms', each with its own character. John Ruskin and William Morris were two famous names of the day. They built an atmosphere that is unique. The gardens used natural materials including topiary, hedges, pleached lime trees, orchards, roses and romance, all giving way to the landscape beyond.  Sissinghurst Castle in Cranbrook, Kent, is one of the most famous examples

. Arts and Craft, garden, history, design, rooms

Abstract and Post-Modernism styles of garden design

Both abstract and post-modernism followed the Arts & Crafts movement out into the garden. Designers promoted the idea that form should follow function, or 'less is more'. People experimented with gardens, using different materials and interesting geometric designs. This included the use of concrete and steel and bright colours. Gardens were quite different from anything seen previously.  Outdoor spaces of this style might incorporate reflective surfaces which created illusions and it was very much about 'surprise'. Abstract moved from gallery walls into 3D gardens and anything seemed possible.  

Abstract style, garden design, history

And now?

But where are we now in the continuous march through history? What styles will we eventually associate with the present era? Many would say that environmental and ‘green’ issues have built themselves into the 21st Century considerations for garden style and awareness. The increasing popularity of garden shows such as RHS Chelsea have shaped the desire for contemporary design. Green roofs and rainwater harvesting; swales and naturalistic planting are more popular than ever before. Art and garden features are desirable additions. The desire for leisure, comfort and style is a major priority for homeowners who are comparatively wealthier than ever before. Green walls is just one recent trend during an era when the 'greening up' of buildings has become important to people looking to reduce the 'urban heat island effect'. Who knows where things will go next. Modern materials and a restricted palette of planting are also highly 'on-trend'. watch and see what happens next.

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