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Book of the Month

May 2001

The Gardener's Labyrinth 

London: 1594

Sp Coll Ferguson Ah-e.34

The May book of the month is an Elizabethan book on gardening. Compiled by Thomas Hill, it contains ‘instructions for the choice of seedes, apt times for sowing, setting, planting, and watering, and the vessels and instrumentes serving to that use and purpose' and sets forth ‘diuers herbers, knots and mazes, cunningly handled for the beautifying of gardens'.


Thomas Hill was an astrologer who also worked for the booksellers as a compiler and translator. In addition to gardening books, he produced works on the interpretation of dreams, astrology, arithmetic and physiognomy. On the title-page here, he plays on his name by calling himself 'Didymus Mountain'.

Hill was responsible for the first gardening book to be printed in England. This work, A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise, teaching how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden first appeared in 1563. Aimed at owners of small manor houses, it proved to be so popular that  it was reprinted in seven subsequent editions under the title The profitable arte of gardening. Our book, The Gardeners Labyrinth, was also a bestseller which went through several editions. First published in 1577, the copy displayed here is a later version, published in 1594 by Adam Islip. 

Although Hill's work has been criticised for being derivative, he did not in fact claim to be original: his gardening advice was 'gathered oute of all the principallest aucthors' or 'gathered out of the best approved writers'. Despite this, his own knowledge of the subject and his love of gardening are obvious and make the book, as he hoped 'not only pleasaunt to be read, but also right necessari to be knowne'. As Rosemary Verey has commented, in perusing The Gardener's Labyrinth, 'you feel you are stepping into an Elizabethan garden with the sun shining, the bees flying and the gardeners at work digging the raised beds.'

A large part of the appeal of this book lies in its illustrations. They are valuable for their detail of the small Elizabethan garden and are especially interesting for their depiction of people working in their gardens. The picture shown to the right is from the chapter describing the 'forme of the disposing the quarters into beddes, and apt borders about, with the sowing, choice and defence of the seedes, and weeding of the beddes'. 

By the sixteenth century, gardening had become a national passion. Elizabeth I encouraged noblemen to build country houses and many London merchants retired to the country. Consequently, there was a considerable market for books on gardening and husbandry. Small, illustrated books such as this were sold relatively cheaply at a price within the reach of many people. Full of common sense, they advise on caring for bees, cultivating flowers, fruits, and vegetables, as well as describing methods for watering the garden, fencing it, and laying out paths. 

page 25: sowing, seeding and weeding

page 12 (part 2): uses for the distilled water of colewort

The Gardener's Labyrinth also describes the 'phisicke benefit of ech herb, plant, and floure, with the vertues of the distilled waters of euery of them'. Sniffing the distilled water of colewort, for example, is said to aid child birth, while borage 'removeth melancholie.'

excerpt from the table of physical operations

But as well as demonstrating the uses of plants grown in the kitchen garden, this book also encourages the cultivation of the flower, or pleasure, garden.

Flower gardening, in fact, developed into a popular art in this period. With an increase in travel to the continent, new roots and seeds from both the New and Old Worlds were enthusiastically tried out, while fresh design  ideas were imported from France, Italy and Holland. A typical Elizabethan garden would be laid out strictly in connection with the house. The house would occupy the centre of the design: the kitchen garden would be situated on the service side of house, an orchard would be found on another side, while the ornamental flower garden would usually be situated on the south side of the house in order to get the full benefit of the sun; it was also recommended that the chief rooms of the house should have a view of the garden. A terrace from which the garden could be surveyed would usually be incorporated in front of the house; flights of steps and broad, straight walks connected the parts of the garden to the house; smaller walks traversed the different sections of the garden, which might include grass plots, topiary, fountains, shaded alleys, mazes or knotted beds. 

page 80: plan for a knot garden

Decorative knot gardens were an accepted part of even the smallest manor house. These were laid out in inventive geometric or abstract designs. Representations of animals, coats or arms and heraldic devices were also popular. The complicated  patterns were outlined by using low, close-growing plants such as hyssop, germander, marjoram, savory, thyme, juniper, yew, dwarf box and lavender. The beds inside the margins would be planted with ornamental flowers or filled with variously coloured earths. These 'knotted' gardens became so elaborate that they were later made solely for the patterns they could provide.

title-page: part 2

The walks which crossed a typical garden are clearly depicted in the two illustrations below. There is an overall impression of symmetrically balanced squares and rectangles, features which echo the use of horizontal lines intercepted by perpendicular ones in contemporary architecture. The common use of walls and fences to enclose sections of garden is also displayed.

page 51: watering by troughs

The method of  irrigating an enclosed garden of raised beds by means of a pump and wooden troughs is shown above, while overhead irrigation is depicted below. Both illustrations help to explain the methods described in the chapter on 'The commended times for watring of the garden beddes, and what maner of watre ought necessarily be used to plants, with the later inventions of diverse vessels aptest for this purpose'.

page 53: watering by tubs

Hill dedicated The Gardener's Labyrinth  to William Cecil (1520-1598), the Tudor statesman and diplomat.  Cecil is said to have spent enormous sums on the buildings and gardens of his various houses, and his gardens were justly celebrated over Europe. The garden of one of his residences, Theobalds, was in the charge of John Gerard, the renowned author of the 'herbal'. Cecil's nephew, Francis Bacon, lived near by and Bacon possibly had Theobalds in mind when he wrote his essay on gardens in which he describes gardening as 'the purest of human pleasures.'

Other editions of the Gardener's Labyrinth: 1586 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-y.27; 1608 Sp Coll Hunterian M.7.30; 1651-1652 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-y.29 & Al-y.30.
Other books by Thomas Hill: A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise teachying how to dress,
sowe, and set a garden
[London: 1563?] Sp Coll Ferguson Af-e.58; The proffitable arte of gardening, now the third tyme set fourth London: 1568 Sp Coll Ferguson Af-f.59; The profitable arte of gardening, now the thirde time set forth London: 1574 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-y.9; The profitable art of gardening London: 1593 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-y.21; The arte of gardening London: 1608 Sp Coll Ferguson Ah-d.25.

Some other gardening books:  John Parkinson Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris. Or a garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permit to be noursed up; with a kitchen garden of all manner of herbes, rootes, and fruits, for meate or sause used with us, and an orchard of all sorte of fruitbearing trees and shrubbes fit for our land together with the right orderinge planting and preserving of them and their uses and vertues ... London: 1629 Sp Coll Bh7-d.11; Gervase Markham The English husbandman ... The first part contayning the knowledge of husbandly duties ... The second part containing the art of planting, grafting, and gardening London: 1635 Sp Coll Euing Add.1; Gervase Markham The country house-wives garden, containing rules for herbs, and seeds. Together, with the husbandry of bees. London: 1648 Sp Coll Ferguson Ah-a.2

For an introduction to early books on gardening, see: Ellen C. Eyler Early English gardens and garden books Agriculture JG4 1963-E and Rosemary Verey's essay 'English gardening books' in ed. John Harris The garden: a celebration of one thousand years of British gardening Agriculture JG6 1979-G.


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Julie Coleman May 2001