Historical Innovations That Shape Our Gardens

Historical Innovations That Shape Our Gardens

Do you know what guerrilla gardening is or know how lawnmowers were invented? Over the centuries technological and aesthetic innovations, alongside various agricultural trends, have influenced the plants we grow as well as the way we manage them, and have continued to shape our landscapes (and our gardens) well into the twentieth century.

With gardening season kicking off for spring and summer months quickly approach, we’ve gathered a selection of fascinating historical facts from Abigail Willis’s The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations to help your horticultural knowledge flourish.



Like the storm in a petri dish that became the wonder drug penicillin, the Wardian Case was the product of an accidental discovery in a glass jar that would go on to have global significance.

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was a doctor with a passion for botany and natural history. Around 1829, while attempting to raise a hawk moth in a sealed glass bottle, Dr Ward discovered that a grass seed and a fern had germinated in the damp leaf mould in which he had placed the moth chrysalis. The moth having pupated successfully, Ward’s volunteer plants lived on for several years in their enclosed environ­ment, indifferent to seasonal temperature changes, sustained by the cycle of evapora­tion and condensation of water within the jar.

Intrigued, Ward set about experiment­ing in earnest. Assisted by one of the lead­ing nurseries of the day, Loddiges of Hoxton, two ‘Ward’s cases’ were packed with plants and dispatched to Sydney in 1833. Having survived the long voyage, the cases were re­packed with Australian specimens and returned to England where they arrived at Loddiges the following year in ‘the most healthy and vigorous condition’. They had not been watered during the eight-month trip and had withstood temperatures on deck ranging from –7 to 49°C (20 to 120˚F). Dr. Ward’s discovery allowed new plant in­troductions to proliferate across continents and an international plant trade to boom.


A velvet-smooth lawn is the holy grail for many gardeners, so it is fitting that the inspiration for the first lawnmower should have come from the textile industry.

In 1830, Gloucestershire engineer Edwin Beard Budding was the man who spotted that a new-fangled cylinder cross-cutting machine used to trim the nap of woollen cloth could be adapted for grass-shaving duties.

Budding developed his design with John Ferrabee at the Phoenix Iron Works and a patent for their lawnmower, the world’s first, was issued in August 1830, specifying ‘a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass-plats and pleasure grounds.’

Made of cast iron, Budding’s lawnmowers featured a rear roller and gear wheels but were heavy to use. They nonetheless found a ready market (Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens and Oxford colleges were early customers), and when the patents were relaxed in the 1850s competitors were quick to market improved versions. Notable among these was the ‘Silens Messor’, manufactured by Thomas Green of Leeds. This light and easy-to-manoeuvre ‘silent cutter’ used a chain drive as opposed to Budding’s gear drive, and was available in a range of mowing widths, the larger of which could be pulled by horse, pony or donkey. It was still being manufactured into the 1930s.­


Topiary or not topiary, that has been the question for gardeners over the centuries. The art of sculpting evergreen plants dates back to at least the Roman era. Pliny the Elder attributed the invention of topiary to Gaius Marius during the reign of Augustus. First laid out by Guillaume Beaumont in 1694, Levens Hall in Cumbria is reputed to be the world’s oldest surviving topiary garden.


For an occupation usually regarded as sedate, gardening has a surprisingly swashbuckling hinterland. Gardeners have long lusted over exotic plants, and for centuries plant hunters have travelled the globe, braving all kinds of dangers, to procure new specimens – sometimes, as in the case of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804–6 expedition across America for Thomas Jefferson, quite literally charting new territory as they botanised.

The earliest recorded plant-hunting ex­pedition was instigated by the pharaoh Hat­shepsut in 1500 BC and successfully relocat­ed a number of frankincense trees from the African Land of Punt to the queen’s funerary garden. Relief carvings show how the highly prized specimens were transported, root ball and all, to their new home in Egypt.

Empire builders or champions of biodiver­sity (the choice is yours), plant hunters have changed the way our gardens look, from the towering monkey puzzle trees beloved of the Victorians (the first specimens of which came to Britain in 1795 via Archibald Menzies, who retrieved the seeds having been served the cones for dinner in Chile) to the early twenti­eth-century craze for rock gardening inspired by Reginald Farrer’s single-minded quest for alpine plants mountains from near and far.


When the going gets tough, the tough get growing: cultivating food for personal consumption has always been one of the main motivations behind having an allotment. Vegetable plots for gardenless gardeners became commonplace as urbanization increased during the nineteenth century, and fulfilled an important role in food production during the two world wars.

 During the heyday of the British allotment movement during the interwar period, over 1.5 million allotments were ‘Dug for Victory’ when shipping blockades disrupted food im­ports and rationing was imposed. Enthusi­asm for cultivating a patch of rented land the size of a tennis court waned in the UK after World War II, but has increased sharply recently, following food-security scandals and environmental concerns. According to the National Allotment Society, there are currently some 330,000 allotment plots in the UK, with around 100,000 people wait­ing to get their hands on one.

Beacons of independence and self-expression, allotments have evolved into a distinct garden type in which good taste is beside the point and where the make-do-and-mend ethos still thrives. Allotments are gar­dens for the everyman, a place where even the most dyed-in-the-wool urbanite can connect with their inner peasant and enjoy the simple satisfactions of growing food and flowers.


These days, the once-subversive act of gardening other people’s land is civil disobedience at its most civilized – twenty-first-century guerrilla gardeners are more likely to have their own website, have presented a TED talk, or featured in an advertising campaign than they are to have spent a night in the cells for their troubles.

It was not always thus. In spring 1649, in the ferment of the English Civil War, the Dig­gers (a group of radicals who viewed land as a ‘common treasury for all’) made several attempts to farm communally. By 1650 their settlements had been destroyed, but the Dig­gers’ defiant cultivation of common land has resonated down the centuries.

Motives for guerrilla gardening vary. In July 1906 a group of unemployed men started to cultivate a patch of waste ground in East London to show their willingness to work. Their ‘Plaistow Land Grab’ attracted public sympathy but was short-lived: the squatters, who made a point of working full days, were evicted in August (although not before they had planted some Brussels sprouts and dug a 6-metre [20-foot] well).

In the early 1970s, New York City’s il­licit gardening scene played out against the backdrop of that era’s financial crisis. In this landscape of homesteaded properties and po­litical activism, the ‘green guerrillas’ led by Liz Christy cleared and planted a vacant lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston and created what became New York’s first com­munity garden.

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