Shakespearean Garden: Recreate an Elizabethan Garden

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The English gardens of past centuries have long ago disappeared. The passage of time dictates changes, not the least of which are altering styles and fashions. Still, elements of bygone gardens persist, and contemporary herb gardens in particular owe much of their character to the popular designs of sixteenth-­century England.

This period of relative peace and prosperity began with the ascension of Henry Tudor, ending England’s great civil war, the War of the Roses (1455 -1485), and culminated in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). During this time, the need for castle walls and communal fortress towns diminished. With the increased distribution of land, the opportunity arose for the construction of individual homes and gardens. More and more, the gardens of middle- and upperclass Englishmen became places for recreation and enjoyment. The virtually endless introductions of plants from abroad and the publication of the first widely available English gardening books fueled this trend.

This was also the time of the great poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose sonnets and plays are liberally sprinkled with images of flowers and herbs. Although Shakespeare was neither professional botanist nor horticulturist, he is often associated with the gardens of his era. Henry Ellacombe, vicar of Britton and the author of The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare (1896), explains:

His knowledge of plants was simply the knowledge that every man may have who goes through the world with his eyes open to the many beauties of Nature that surround him. . . . He had the great gift of being able to describe what he saw in a way that few others have arrived at: he could communicate to others the pleasure that he felt himself, not by long descriptions, but by a few simple words, a few natural touches, and a few well chosen epithets, which bring the plants and flowers before us in the freshest, and often in a most touching way.

If you are an admirer of Shakespeare, you may want to honor him by re-creating an Elizabethan garden, planted with a selection of herbs and flowers that appear in his works. But what did these gardens look like? Let’s take a walk from an imaginary manor house through its adjoining garden and find out.

A “curious-knotted garden”

The front door of the manor house opens directly onto a broad, grassy terrace that parallels the front of the house. The terrace is edged with an ornate railing and affords a perfect spot from which to view the garden below.

The garden is a large square, 200 feet on a side. A continuous arbor, perhaps of honeysuckle, surrounds the garden. This “thick-pleach’d alley”, as it is called in Much Ado about Nothing (“pleached” meaning “woven or entwined”), acts as a wall to those outside its framework, but to those who stroll along its avenues of intertwined trees and vines, it is a cool and shady walkway.

Stone steps lead down the 8 feet from the terrace to a sand-covered pathway, or forthright, several feet wide that runs perpendicular to the terrace and straight through the center of the garden. A second pathway, intersecting the forthright, cuts the garden into four squares.

Each quarter of the garden is in turn divided into small beds. Most are in geometric shapes, but a few are fashioned into the outlines of lions and dragons. Small pathways lead to and around each bed, creating intricate and symmetrical patterns that delight the eye from the elevated terrace.

Some of the beds are raised a few inches above ground level and are edged with wood, tile, or even the shank bones of sheep. Others are level with the pathways and are edged with short, clipped hedges of hyssop, thyme, savory, germander, or boxwood. Within some of the beds are designs fashioned from intertwined, clipped hedges, creating a “curious-knotted garden”, as one character describes it in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Other beds boast low-growing mazes of santolina. Most beds are filled with flowers and herbs carefully interplanted so that similar colors are not massed together, but are distributed throughout the space.

Large topiaries fashioned from yew or privet dot the garden. At the intersection of some of the small pathways are decorative urns and potted topiaries. Rosemaries assume the shapes of cats and peacocks.

Where the two main pathways intersect, a marble pedestal surmounted by a sundial sits upon a grassy circle. Though stately in appearance, the ped­estal and sundial conceal a practical joke typical of the era. A few turns of a wheel hidden in a nearby arbor send water along a pipe and jetting out through the sundial into the face of an unsuspecting admirer.

Middle- and upperclass Elizabethans spent a great deal of time in their gardens, and gateways cut into the arbor offered access to shady seats or “pleached bowers” in which to rest or pass the day.

“Keep law and form and due proportion”

Don’t despair if you haven’t a plot as large as our imaginary garden. Not all Elizabethan gardens were as large either. You can successfully re-create the same feeling in a much smaller space if you stick to a few simple principles.

First, enclose the garden to give it a sense of privacy and intimacy. “Thick-pleach’d alleys” are wonderful but ­beyond the time and talent, not to mention financial means, of many people. Brick (although it too can be expensive) or stone walls work well and can also serve as the foundation for espaliered trees and shrubs. Traditional plants such as holly, yew, privet, or hawthorn can be shaped into waist- or shoulder-high hedges. A flat trellis supporting fast-growing vines of roses or honeysuckle is a fragrant alternative to a wall or hedge. Entry into your enclosed garden will be given more importance if it is by way of a gate, which may be fancy ironwork or a plain wooden door; the choice depends upon your taste and your pocketbook.

To be Elizabethan, your garden should be square or rectangular and its pattern of beds symmetrical. Pathways, which may be covered with sand, gravel, or a turf made of fragrant carpeting herbs, such as thyme or Roman chamomile, should lead to the beds.

For authenticity, all beds should be edged. Although Shakespeare refers to 170 different plants in his writings, he does not include some of the popular edging plants such as santolina, germander, or dwarf boxwood. If you want your garden to comprise only plants that Shakespeare mentions, use hyssop, savory, thyme, or lavender for edging. The chart on page 47 lists thirty common herbs and flowers that appear in Shakespeare’s works. A complete listing of the plants and their associated quotations (many are referred to more than once) appears in Ellacombe’s book and other works about Shakespearean gardens. Check your local library.

Elizabethan gardens were designed so that there was something of interest throughout the year, be it the patterns of the knots and beds in winter, the flowers and foliage in spring and summer, or the ripening fruit and pods in autumn. Fragrant plants were valued because they could be enjoyed both in the garden and the home. To follow the Elizabethan example, fill your beds with intertwined knots, mazes, topiaries (rosemaries are a good choice), and/or a variety of smaller flowers and herbs, such as primulas, dianthus, calendula, marjoram, oregano, dwarf hyssop, Johnny-jump-ups, burnet, lemon balm, violets, and dwarf savory. Potted plants could include those invasive mints.

Elizabethans also loved to decorate their gardens with fountains, urns, and sundials (squirting ones are not necessary). Carved and painted wooden animals were often mounted on posts. Have fun decorating your own garden, but follow the lead of the two gardeners in King Richard II: within “the compass of [your] pale/Keep law and form and due proportion.” Balance your designs and think symmetrically.

Ideally, you should be able to view the garden from above because the elevation will make the overall design more apparent. In addition to terraces, sixteenth-century gardeners often built mounts, or artificial hillocks, expressly of viewing the garden. Although a mount may not be feasible, you can site the garden so that the view from a nearby deck, gazebo, or house will be equally satisfying.

Many features found in today’s herb gardens–the edged beds, topiaries, knots, and symmetry–are descendants from sixteenth-century England. Of course, the English did not invent them, but they did perfect them during this age of great gardens and great literature.

Jim and Dotti Becker live in Williams, Oregon; their family farm, Goodwin Creek Gardens, specializes in raising herbs, everlasting flowers, and fragrant plants organically. They are coauthors of An Everlasting Garden (Interweave Press, 1994).