Shakespearean Garden: Recreate an Elizabethan Garden

April 23 is celebrated as William Shakespeare's birthday. What better time to re-create and Elizabethan garden?

| April/May 1995

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.

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