Historic Garden Elements and Styles

By Dr Toby Musgrave

My new book, 'The Garden Elements and Styles' is an alphabetically arranged collection of 209 garden elements, features planting and design styles which aims to tell the story of various aspects of garden art and at the same time to be a source of inspiration.

Because each entry had to have a contemporary relevance even if the topic is historical, and all had to be illustrated with extant examples with contemporary and ‘fresh’ (i.e., not over-used) images, I am sure that you can imagine what a tough challenge it was to create the list of entries and make the photographic selection.

But the result, in my opinion at least, is a book of great richness - informative, inspiring and beautiful. And so, it was a bit of a problem, or more accurately a surfeit of choice, when I was asked to write this post and to choose five of my favourite gardens represented within.

Therefore, I have decided to cheat a bit. There are many absolutely gorgeous contemporary, often private, gardens that I think are stunning works of art l - and many are represented. For instance, Windcliff at Indiola by Dan Hinkley, the New Century Garden at Palm Springs by Steve Martino, Jo Wakelin’s garden at Cromwell, New Zealand as well as works by Raymond Jungles, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson and Andrea Cochran, etc.

But since at Learning with Experts I tutor a course entitled The History of Garden Design I thought it would be apposite to choose historic gardens - and these I have selected because they have an interesting story to tell as well as looking lovely. Additionally I have added a couple of historic garden features that have been generally forgotten but may be dusted off and given a contemporary relevance.

Get 20% OFF 'The Garden Elements and Styles' with code THEGARDEN20 - redeemable here

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto.

We tend to think of Japanese gardens only in terms of the Zen-inspired Kare Sansuior dry gardens which are only to be viewed, and forget there are several just stunning larger strolling gardens within which one enjoys a succession of ever-changing but carefully orchestrated views and vista. And although the garden is from the 17th century, many here were inspired by the 11th century classic work of Japanese literature,The Tale of Genji.

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, Japan Picture credit: © Toby Musgrave


The Baroque garden where André Le Nôtre honed his skills. He is better remembered for Versailles, perhaps the ultimate expression of shock-and-awe power-gardening. Yet at Vaux he produced a masterclass in forced perspective and Cartesian geometry all on a scale that is appreciable and human. An über-formal garden but one which one could live with and enjoy.

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy, Seine-et-Marne, France Picture credit: Elxenia

El Novillero

Thomas Church’s masterpiece of Californian Modernism stands on a hilltop near Sonoma. Not only does it enjoy spectacular borrowed landscape toward San Pablo Bay but the garden perfectly captures Church’s maxim that gardens should have no start and no end. The sublime pool within its straight-line geometric frame, the wooden deck up through which rise the trunks of Californian oak, patches of grass and large boulders. Gardens in this climate really are for people!

El Novillero, Sonoma, California, USA Picture credit: © Marion Brenner

Bryan’s Ground

OK - so I am cheating again as this is a contemporary garden but made in deepest Hertfordshire by David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell, Bryan’s Ground is not only about as good as an English garden gets, it is a quintessential example of how the past can inspire the present. Of how contemporary innovations may sympathetically and harmoniously evolve and enhance garden design. Of how new ideas such as biodiversity and conservation may meld seamlessly with garden art.

Bryan’s Ground, Stapleton, Presteigne, Herefordshire, England Picture credit: © Clive Nichols


Another small cheat because as well as having one of my all-time-favourite, and still wholly relevant, garden elements - the sinuous rill running down the middle of the path between deep green clipped laurel - Rousham is overall a big fav. of mine. I so admire the Picturesque works of William Kent - and this is the only unadulterated example to survive. He perfectly transformed the classically-inspired landscape painting of Poussin and Lorraine into 3-D living works of garden art - and filled them with allegorical tales which are fascinating in and of themselves.

Rousham Picture credit: © Toby Musgrave

Features to Revivify.

The Night Garden

The Mehtab Bagh at the Taj Mahal was filled with night-scented plants and in a huge octagonal pool the mausoleum on the other side of the River Yamuna was reflected in moonlight (hence the myth of the ‘Black Taj’). And today given lighting and other effects gardens after dark can become a wonderland- and you get two gardens for (nearly) the price of one.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India Picture credit: Roop Dey


This Baroque element is essentially trellis on steroids, but it is a form of woodwork, either free-standing, covered in climbers or against which Hornbeam is trained and tightly clipped - that could find all sorts of uses in all sorts of styles in a contemporary garden. Restored historical examples may be seen at Hampton Court Palace, Het Loo and Versailles.

The Queen’s Garden at Het Loo, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands Picture credit: Natalia Paklina

Giochi d’acqua

Such water jokes were popular in Italian Renaissance gardens - although their origins are older and date back to early Islamic gardens in Persia. Perfect for warm climates or sunny summer days elsewhere there is planty of scope for improvising and squirting the unsuspecting guest. Another nice take on this is the Water Maze at Hever Castle whet putting your foot wrong, rather than taking the wrong turn gets you a soaking.

Schloss Hellbrunn, Salzburg, Austria Picture credit: irisphoto1

Get 20% OFF 'The Garden Elements and Styles' with code THEGARDEN20 - redeemable here

Dr Toby Musgrave

... Read more

Stay updated

Receive free updates by email including special offers and new courses.

You can unsubscribe at any time


Related posts

Our best selling courses

Awards & Accreditations

  • Royal Horticultural Society - Approved Centre 2023-2024
  • Royal Horticultural Society
  • CPD Accredited (provider 50276)
  • Digital Education Awards 2023 Winner for Digital Health and Wellbeing Learning Product of the Year
  • Digital Education Awards 2023 Winner for Adult Home Learning Product of the Year