The earliest gardens were very practical affairs. Plants were valued as food, as medicine and for their magical properties. The first step towards gardening was the gathering of useful plants from the wild in order to cultivate them in plots attached to dwellings.
There was almost certainly nothing that we, if we were transported backwards in time through the centuries, would have recognized as an ornamental garden until the Roman Empire's administrators imported the empire's architecture, building their villas around courtyards planted for pleasure as well as usefulness, with evergreen leaves and scented flowers around a pool or fountain. Their layout may well have influenced the cloistered, courtyard structure of early monasteries; and the fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowering plants imported to Britain by the Romans were given their only chance of survival by members of the religious orders in the relatively safe environment of monastic orchards and walled gardens.
Manorial households began to extend their outdoor territory. There was still a need for protection from the hostile world outside, and gardens were either walled or enclosed by impenetrable hedges or moats, some of which have survived in whole or in part. Within these enclosures were orchards and gardens of symmetrically laid out raised beds of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Medieval gardens, from the fourteenth century onwards, began to be used for pleasure and leisure for the first time. Illuminated manuscripts show ladies and their swains singing and playing lutes on flowery grass banks with a background of trellised fences and arched arbours planted with roses.
It is the buildings surrounding a later garden, like the fifteenth-century chapel and outbuildings at Sheldon Manor in Wiltshire, which conjure up a time when the poem The Romance of the Rose, which Chaucer translated from the French,.
Relative political stability, security and prosperity under the Tudor dynasty encouraged the rich and powerful to build increasingly magnificent houses with elaborate gardens to match. The beneficiaries of the Dissolution of the Monasteries used stone from the buildings that were destroyed to build substantial family houses. Sixteenth-century gardens were laid out in linked, symmetrical enclosures for orchards, herb and vegetable gardens, and knots of clipped hyssop, rue, thyme and santolina. The spaces within were filled with flowers, herbs or, in the case of the more elaborate designs, coloured gravel, crushed brick and coal dust. The knot patterns were designed to be seen from above, either from upper rooms m the house, from a raised walk or terrace, or from an artificial mount which frequently gave views of the surrounding countryside.
The art of topiary which had been fashionable in Roman times was revived, and a positive passion developed for clipping yew, box and other evergreen shrubs into ever more elaborate and fantastical shapes. A practice which continued until the eighteenth- century landscape movement swept away the zoos, chess sets and other eccentric topiary.