After 200 years of gardens, what does the future hold?

The British love affair with backyards has seen fashions change radically in the past two centuries. Now, however, climate change may exert a new and powerful influence.Terry Kirby reports

in Victorian and Edwardian days, gardens were peaceful vistas; green lawns surrounded by flowerbeds, disturbed only by the click of a croquet ball, the tinkle of water or the buzz of the lawnmower.

By the start of the 21st century, this idyllic vision had been transformed into "outdoor rooms" where we spent our leisure time. There are decked spaces for barbecues, fountains are known as water features and flowers have become distinctly passé.

But how will the garden of the future look? The issue of climate change raises big questions: will we have too much water or too little to sustain our traditional lawns and roses? And will figs and grapes take over from blackberries and plums? Then there is environmental sustainability, a factor undreamt of by those of previous generations who plundered the world for plants, then dug up peat bogs to nurture them.

To answer some of these questions the Royal Horticultural Society, which has been chaperoning Britain's love affair with the garden for 200 years, has created seven gardens showing the trends at work over that time.

The "Gardens Through Time" project, constructed at the RHS's Harlow Carr site near Harrogate in North Yorkshire, shows that gardening has never been fixed in some turn-of-the-century suburban prototype, but has constantly adapted and changed, from the ornate landscaping of the Regency period to the present desire for decking and stones via the Victorian passion for such things as monkey-puzzle trees. The gardens are to be the subject of a BBC series to be shown this autumn.

"These seven gardens are a living encyclopedia of gardening history over 200 years," said Matthew Wilson, curator of Harlow Carr. "They show how gardening styles have changed as a consequence of technology, plant introductions, social changes and personal taste."

The idea of the modern domestic garden began during the Regency period, depicted in the first of the RHS gardens. The influence of the great landscape gardeners, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, set the fashion for features including paths, designed so two ladies could walk side by side, immaculate lawns, raised flower beds, with edges to protect them from croquet balls, and hidden follies for picnics and romantic trysts.

In the 19th century, the industrial revolution and Victorian empire-building influenced garden style. Industrialists paid plant hunters to bring home exotics from distant parts of the world for the gardens of the estates they created with their new wealth. This was the society that created such places as the now-restored Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, just one of many similar enterprises in that county, favoured for its warm and wet climate.

The South American monkey-puzzle tree, now found in many domestic and public gardens, was typical of the plant brought back during this era. "Prized by the Victorians for its strange appearance, its potential size may not have been foreseen, rather like the leylandii cypress that has become so popular today," Mr Wilson said.

Glasshouses, helped by the abolition of the glass tax in 1845, potting sheds, pagodas and rockeries also date from the Victorian era, as do the first lawnmowers. They were made in 1832 by Edwin Budding, who based them on a machine used in cloth mills to remove the nap of newly woven fabric.

As wealth increased, so did the ambitions of the gardeners. The third of the RHS gardens shows that, by the end of the century, the kitchen garden had become a dominant feature, providing fruit and vegetables to feed the groaning tables of large Victorian families.

Dinner parties were held in conservatories filled with exotic ferns and orchids. At the grand houses, glasshouses were being used to grow melons and grapes.

The key plant of the era was the rhododendron, first brought back from the Himalayas by Joseph Hooker in 1851 and triggering a nationwide craze. "A garden full of rhododendrons was a mark of social respectability," the RHS said. "It was said the nouveaux riche in search of a country residence would make sure the soil was suitable for rhododendrons before buying an estate."

In some areas, the profusion of rhododendrons has threatened to overwhelm native species. At this time, the garden gnome was first seen by the Victorians as a tasteful addition to the garden. They originated in Nuremberg, Germany, as good-luck tokens for miners. Made from earthenware or terracotta, the best ones were often up to three feet high, and expensive. They stayed in fashion until cheaper, smaller gnomes made of concrete were produced in the 20th century.

As the fourth garden illustrates, by the Edwardian period, the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement showed a swing from formal bedding systems to a more rural style. The architect Edwin Lutyens created sunken pools full of water lilies, surrounded by flagstone paths, lush flower borders and full of urns, vases and sundials. "The ultimate garden ornament of the era would have been a large, decorative urn, containing a clipped box shrub in an unusual shape," Mr Wilson said.

In the First World War, gardeners and handymen left the great estates to fight, many never to return. The Government encouraged people to grow food instead of flowers. After the war, the lack of young men and higher costs meant many large gardens were sold: one quarter of England changed hands between 1918 and 1921.

By the 1950s, the subject of the fifth garden, the nation was anxious to shake off the austerity of the 1930s and 1940s. During the Second World War, many gardens had been turned into vegetable patches as a result of the Dig for Victory campaign and were now ripe for redevelopment.

The lawn returned to prominence too, helped by better lawnmowers and, from the mid-1960s by the Flymo, the first lightweight plastic machine. This was also the beginning of the era of new chemical weed-killers, DDT insecticides and peat-based composts, all used to create the perfect lawns and flower beds of Fifties suburbia.

In the 1970s, the newly fashionable concrete and standardised bricks were flooring countless patios for housing the children's swings or barbecues. Pergolas, used to train ornamental vines and plants like clematis, became popular again. And multi-purpose garden centres began to replace traditional nurseries.

At the end of the decade came the environmental movement, challenging the automatic use of chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides. The growing interest in self-sufficiency was reflected in the hit sit-com, The Good Life.

But what next? Many of these earlier themes remain relevant and the seventh garden, created by designer of the moment Diarmuid Gavin, shows how glass, stainless steel and concrete can be used in attractive modern ways to create paths, decking, furniture and outdoor buildings, used as studies or playrooms, never potting sheds. New styles of planting combine ideas of "wild" and woodland areas with what is known as "prairie planting" in which grasses and perennials are mixed.

The garden of the future, Mr Wilson said, is likely to have designer furniture, in-built sound systems, fibre-optic lighting and patio heaters, enabling it to be used much more extensively. As climate change intensifies, the RHS warns that traditional plants such as ferns, mosses and alpines, plus some trees, including beech and willow, will struggle to survive in dry conditions, and pests and fungi which attack plants such as yew and box, will thrive in warm winters. Much-loved native flowers, including snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, could all suffer.

But vines, citrus fruits, olives, apricots and figs will become common in southern England, the RHS forecasts. At the same time, plants such as cherries and blackberries, which need cold winters, could shrivel in the south, but thrive in the north of England.

Guy Barter, head of horticultural advisory services for the society, said gardeners will have to continue to change and adapt. "The two greatest challenges are climate change and sustainability, which can present tests for gardeners.

For instance, there are very severe implications at present for the trade in large specimen plants, such as ferns, which come from places including Italy and Holland. Can we justify the trade in these as opposed to locally produced plants?"

Mr Barter is pessimistic about lawns. "They are an icon of Western civilisation. But in parts of the South-east, it is going to be increasingly difficult to keep them green because of the lack of rain." Coarser, drought-resistant grasses will become more popular, he predicts. At the same time, he warned, wetter winters will increase the propensity for waterlogged areas, because run-off capacity diminishes as we pave rear gardens and gravel front ones for car parking. "We are getting too little water when we want it and too much when we don't." Gardeners will have to invest in raised beds, choose plants resistant to damp and think more about water run-off.

He added: "At the same time we have to think about recycling and conservation and the use of organic fertilisers and pesticides. But many people are confused about these issues and there is a great need for them to be better informed."

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