History of Gardening – Ancient Times


Ever wondered how we even got around to gardening? Why do we do it for the beauty and some for the nourishment? What trends have occurred in gardening that changed over the years?

In this multi-part series – we will explore what we can find out about gardening. We begin with long ago Ancient Times.

Gardens In The Ancient World

The earliest gardens were grown for practical reasons. People grew herbs or vegetables. However when man became civilized an upper class emerged with the leisure to enjoy purely decorative gardens. They also had servants (or slaves) to do the gardening for them.

Gardens in Ancient Egypt

In the hot and arid climate of ancient Egypt rich people liked to rest in the shade of trees. They created gardens enclosed by walls with trees planted with trees in rows. Sometime the Egyptians planted alternating species. They grew trees like sycamores, date palms, fig trees, nut trees and pomegranate trees. They also grew willows. The Egyptians also grew vineyards. (Although beer was the drink of the common people the rich liked drinking wine).

The Egyptians also grew a wide variety of flowers including roses, poppies, irises, daisies and cornflowers. Egyptians also liked their gardens to have rectangular ponds. Sometimes they were stocked with fish. The Egyptians also liked to grow fragrant trees and shrubs.

The Egyptians believed that the gods liked gardens and so temples usually had gardens by them. In ancient Egypt gardens also had religious significance as different trees were associated with different gods.

However in Egypt there was no strict division between gardens for pleasure and gardens for produce. As well as being beautiful gardens were used to grow fruit and vegetables and to produce wine and olive oil.

“Certain cereals and pulses (legumes) were domesticated in very ancient times.  In about 8000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of the Near and Middle East (present-day Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel), wheats, barley, lentil, pea, bitter vetch, chick-pea, and possibly faba bean, were brought into cultivation by the Neolithic people.  These crops spread from the point of origin.  Archaeological evidence indicates that the wheats, and some of the legumes, had reached Greece by 6000 BC and evidence of their presence within that millennium has been found in the Danube Basin, the Nile valley, and the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan).  Dispersal continued throughout Europe, the crops reaching Britain and Scandinavia in 4,000-2,000 BC.”    – The New Oxford Book of Food Plants  [Vaughan 1997]

Some timelines…

7000 BC

People in Central America cultivate corn and other crops.
People at Tepe Ali Khosh in Iran cultivated ‘Emmer’ and ‘Einkorn’ wheat.   [Baker 1978]
Chatal Huyuk is the largest Neolithic site in the Near East.
Rice cultivation in Yangtze Valley of China.
Apples cultivated in southwestern Asia.

“Of the two thousand or so species in the bulging genus Solanum, about 170 are tuber-bearers.  Of the tuber-bearers, only eight
are routinely cultivated and eaten by people, and most of these have stuck pretty close to home in the Andes of Peru.   Only
one has reached international stardom: S. tuberosum, commonly known as the potato.  The potato probably originated in Peru,
where indications are that it was domesticated over six thousand years ago by high-altitude-dwelling ancestors of the Incas.”
Blue Corn and Square Tomatoes: Unusual Facts about Common Garden Vegetables.  By Rebecca Rupp.  Garden Way
Publishing 1987.

Greek Gardens

The Greeks were not great gardeners. They sometimes planted trees to provide shade around temples and other public places but pleasure gardens were rare. The Greeks did grow flowers but usually in containers.

Although Greek travellers admired the gardens of the east in Greece gardens were usually grown for practical reasons. The Greeks grew orchards, vineyards and vegetable gardens.

Roman Gardens

When they conquered Egypt in 30 BC the Romans introduced eastern ideas about gardening. Rich Romans created gardens next to their palaces and villas. The Romans were masters of the art of topiary. Roman gardens were adorned with statues and sculptures.

Roman gardens were laid out with hedges and vines. They also contained a wide variety of flowers including acanthus, cornflowers and crocus, cyclamen, hyacinth, iris and ivy, lavender, lilies, myrtle, narcissus, poppy, rosemary and violet.

In the towns wealthy Romans built houses around a courtyard. The courtyard usually contained a colonnaded porch, a pool and a fountain as well as beds of flowers.

After the Romans conquered Britain they introduced a number of new plants including roses, leeks, turnips and plums. They may also have introduced cabbages.

Other dates that are of interest to gardeners….

1275 BC

The Torah establishes rules for kosher food.

540 BC

Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Built by slaves and peasants directed by King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Sugar cane grown along the Indus River.

322 BC

Aristotle (384-322)  Greek philosopher and scientist.   Wrote 26 treatises on natural science.
        On Plants, Parts of Animals, On the Soul, Generation, Physics, On the Heavens.
        Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s botanic garden in Athens, and many of Aristotle’s treatises.

There were many books on plants and gardening written by Theophrastus.    One of his books:  De Causis Plantarum.
Theophrastus is considered by some to be the “Father of Botany.”

A large exchange of information began as seeds and plants were traded between Greece and Persia.

550  AD

Domestication of coffee takes place in Arabia until 800.  [Baker 1978]    Coffee drinking was very popular in Arabia.
In the year 2000, coffee imports and exports are second only to oil on the world trade market.


Gardens in Medieval Europe

Gradually order was restored in Europe and by the late 13th century the rich began to grow gardens for pleasure as well as those for medicinal herbs and vegetables.

In the Middle Ages gardens were walled both to protect them from wild animals and to provide seclusion. In the 14th and 15th centuries gardens were planted with lawns sprinkled with fragrant herbs. They had raised flowerbeds and trellises of roses or vines. Gardens also contained fruit trees and sometimes they had turf seats.

In the Middle Ages monasteries grew gardens of medicinal herbs. They also grew orchards and vineyards as well as vegetables. They also grew flowers for their altars. However monastery gardens were not purely functional. They were a place for the monks to relax and enjoy nature.


Next issue, we will explore the history of the Garden in Europe around these times.

We hope to see you then!

Gardening Experts