Bacon's essays: Of Gardens

Bacon loved gardens and designed the walks at Gray’s Inn himself. It’s another long essay, but to my taste much more interesting than Of Buildings. I can’t buildCoughton Court myself a two-story tower, but I can plant flowers for each season. If you like gardens, I recommend you read the whole thing. I’m just going to do an impressionistic reading here.

“God Almighty planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man…”

That’s the most frequently quoted quote. Like all great thinkers (ahem), Bacon must have loved to walk and think. For that, you need a smooth path and refreshing vistas for eyes worn out with writing and reading by natural light or candle light.

A plant for all seasons

“I do hold it, in the royal ordering of gardens, there ought to be gardens, for all the months in the year; in which severally things of beauty may be then in season.”

Remember that New Year’s Day was January 1st, but the fiscal/customary year began on March 1st. Elizabethans weren’t tuned to quite the same calendar we are, paying vastly more attention to the Catholic/Anglican religious calendar. Also remember that he’s assuming that a head gardener with a staff of under-gardeners and boys will do all the actual work.

At the end of the calendar portion, he adds this caveat: “These particulars are for the climate of London; but my meaning is perceived, that you may have ver perpetuum [a perpetual spring], as the place affords.”

Late-November to mid-January


“[Y]ou must take such things as are green all winter: holly; ivy; bays; juniper; cypress-trees; yew; pine-apple-trees; fir-trees; rosemary; lavender; periwinkle, the white, the purple, and the blue; germander; flags; orange-trees; lemon-trees; and myrtles, if they be stoved; and sweet marjoram, warm set.”

‘Stoved’ must mean kept warm in bad weather with little braziers. Pamper that myrtle!

Mid-January through February

“…the mezereon-tree, which then blossoms; crocus vernus, both the yellow and the grey; primroses; anemones; the early tulippa; hyacinthus orientalis; chamairis; fritellaria.”



Mezereon tree appears to be Daphne mezereum. It puts out pink blossoms on bare stems, like a fruit tree, but it’s poisonous. Fritillaria is an early-blooming bulb, like a downward-hanging tulip. Very pretty!

I’m not finding charmairis, but it must be some kind of iris. They bloom in Feb in Austin and there’s a hundred varieties.

March & April



“For March, there come violets, specially the single blue, which are the earliest; the yellow daffodil; the daisy; the almond-tree in blossom; the peach-tree in blossom; the cornelian-tree in blossom; sweet-briar. In April follow the double white violet; the wallflower; the stock-gilliflower; the cowslip; flower-delices, and lilies of all natures; rosemary-flowers; the tulippa; the double peony; the pale daffodil; the French honeysuckle; the cherry-tree in blossom; the damson and plum-trees in blossom; the white thorn in leaf; the lilac-tree.”

The cornelian-tree is Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry dogwood. South Britain is north of its range, but in a walled orchard against a sunny wall… It has yellow flowers and a nice natural fan shape.

I don’t know what flower-delices are. All I’m getting is some stupid perfume. Gilliflowers are carnations; useful in case you have to rescue someone underwater. Wallflowers are a real thing! Aka erysimum, in nature they grow on cliffs. I love garden walls covered in flowers! I have pix, but not from March or April. Really need to take a trip in the early spring.

May & June

“In May and June come pinks of all sorts, specially the blushpink; roses of all kinds, except the musk, which comes later; honeysuckles; strawberries; bugloss; columbine; the French marigold, flos Africanus; cherry-tree in fruit; ribes; figs in fruit; rasps; vineflowers; lavender in flowers; the blue-meaniesweet satyrian, with the white flower; herba muscaria; lilium convallium; the apple-tree in blossom.”

Flos africanus is a type of marigold. Ribes are a class that includes currants and gooseberries. Vineflowers is vague; all I get are lots of lovely flowering vines. Googling “herba muscaria” gets me lots of versions of this essay! “Muscaria” yields “amanita muscaria,” a pretty but deadly mushroom. I doubt he means that.

Lillium convallium sounds like a spell in Harry Potter, used to cover people all over with flowers, like the Beatles did the Blue Meanie. OK, now I really want a picture of that, instead of a nice bugloss, which is an upright stem with many small purple flowers clustered along it. (This is from the movie, The Yellow Submarine, in case you didn’t know. A great cartoon flick!)

July & August

musk_melon“In July come gilliflowers of all varieties; musk-roses; the lime-tree in blossom; early pears and plums in fruit; jennetings, codlins. In August come plums of all sorts in fruit; pears; apricocks; berberries; filberds; musk-melons; monks-hoods, of all colors.” 

Musk melon looks like what a Texan would call a honeydew. (“Honey, dew you?”) If ‘burberries’ are ‘barberries,’ I would put them in the winter. Not sure about that one.

September to mid-November


“In September come grapes; apples; poppies of all colors; peaches; melocotones; nectarines; cornelians; wardens; quinces. In October and the beginning of November come services; medlars; bullaces; roses cut or removed to come late; hollyhocks; and such like.”

Melocotones are peaches! You thought they were an eighties nightclub act. Web says, from the Spanish, but my Spanish calls a peach ‘durazno.’  Bullace is a variety of plum.

Medlars are sort of apple-like fruits, mentioned in literature a fair bit. They ripen after a frost, which is pretty unlikely in London in the autumn, even in Bacon’s day, when it was a bit cooler.

Perfume the air

“And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight, than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air.”


Viola cultivars

Right now I’ve got beebrush and kidneywood turning my backyard into a vanilla factory. Love it! And Bacon’s right, it’s such a sweet pleasure to catch a fragrance on the breeze, and turn your head and wonder where it’s coming from.

First we work through the ones that aren’t so great.

“Roses, damask and red, are fast flowers of their smells; so that you may walk by a whole row of them, and find nothing of their sweetness; yea though it be in a moming’s dew. Bays likewise yield no smell as they grow. Rosemary little; nor sweet marjoram.”

On to the good stuff.

“That which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet, specially the white double violet, which comes twice a year; about the middle of April, and about Bartholomew-tide.”

That’s 24 August, for the heathen among us. I warned you about their calendar! Now he ranks the rest of the fragrant plants, with the detail of a man who noticed small things.

rose vine

Rose overtaking a tree

“Next to that is the musk-rose. Then the strawberry-leaves dying, which yield a most excellent cordial smell. Then the flower of vines; it is a little dust, like the dust of a bent, which grows upon the cluster in the first coming forth. Then sweet-briar. Then wall-flowers, which are very delightful to be set under a parlor or lower chamber window. Then pinks and gilliflowers, especially the matted pink and clove gilliflower. Then the flowers of the lime-tree. Then the honeysuckles, so they be somewhat afar off. Of beanflowers I speak not, because they are field flowers.”

I remember walking across a field in Greece that was full of wild thyme. Delicious!

“But those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild-thyme, and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.”

Construction matters

“[T]he contents ought not well to be under thirty acres of ground; and to be divided into three parts; a green in the entrance; a heath or desert in the going forth; and the main garden in the midst; besides alleys on both sides. And I like well that four acres of ground be assigned to the green; six to the heath; four and four to either side; and twelve to the main garden.”

Hm, 30 acres… the original campus of the University of Texas occupies 40 acres. For perspective, or the total lack of same, Audley End’s famous parks and gardens occupy 100 acres. Capability Brown designed the park, a century and a half after this essay.

“….nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn…” Unless you’re the one doing the shearing! But he has a point. One of things I love about England are the layers upon layers of shades of green, based on the green, green grass.

“But because the alley will be long, and, in great heat of the year or day, you ought not to buy the shade in the garden, by going in the sun through the green, therefore you are, of either side the green, to plant a covert alley upon carpenter’s work, about twelve foot in height, by which you may go in shade into the garden.”


Ham House

OK, no idea what that means, can’t visualize it. All the hedges I’ve seen (and I am true hedge-o-phile) are made entirely of plants. No carpenter’s work in there. Although the gardens in the older houses, like Shakespeare’s New Place, do have quite a bit of carpentry, in the form of arbors and lattices for espaliering plants.

“For the ordering of the ground, within the great hedge, I leave it to variety of device; advising nevertheless, that whatsoever form you cast it into, first, it be not too busy, or full of work. Wherein I, for my part, do not like images cut out in juniper or other garden stuff; they be for children.”

Not a fan of the topiary! Everybody else likes them, I suspect.

“Little low hedges, round, like welts, with some pretty pyramids, I like well.”


baddesley clinton

Baddesley Clinton. In case you were thinking about putting in a moat.

“For fountains, they are a great beauty and refreshment; but pools mar all, and make the garden unwholesome, and full of flies and frogs.”

He’s not wrong about that. Come farther south, and you get mosquitoes. The frogs can’t eat all of them.

“Fountains I intend to be of two natures: the one that sprinkleth or spouteth water; the other a fair receipt of water, of some thirty or forty foot square, but without fish, or slime, or mud.”

Yah. 30-foot-square cistern, basically, kept sparkling clean at all times. Those were the days.

Coughton Court

Coughton Court

“the main matter is so to convey the water, as it never stay, either in the bowls or in the cistern; that the water be never by rest discolored, green or red or the like; or gather any mossiness or putrefaction. Besides that, it is to be cleansed every day by the hand. Also some steps up to it, and some fine pavement about it, doth well.”

“But the main point is the same which we mentioned in the former kind of fountain; which is, that the water be in perpetual motion, fed by a water higher than the pool, and delivered into it by fair spouts, and then discharged away under ground, by some equality of bores…”

It’s all a lot trickier without water running under pressure, isn’t it?



The natural wildness

When Bacon says, “desert,” he doesn’t mean the Sahara. He would have read about such a bizarre expanse, but never seen the like. He meant “untended.”

“For the heath, which was the third part of our plot, I wish it to be framed, as much as may be, to a natural wildness. Trees I would have none in it, but some thickets made only of sweet-briar and honeysuckle, and some wild vine amongst; and the ground set with violets, strawberries, and primroses. For these are sweet, and prosper in the shade. “

No trees! What kind of a natural wildness is that?


Texas in the spring

“And these to be in the heath, here and there, not in any order. I like also little heaps, in the nature of mole-hills (such as are in wild heaths), to be set, some with wild thyme; some with pinks; some with germander, that gives a good flower to the eye; some with periwinkle; some with violets; some with strawberries; some with cowslips; some with daisies; some with red roses; some with lilium convallium; some with sweet-williams red; some with bear’s-foot: and the like low flowers, being withal sweet and sightly.”

He seems to want basically a lumpy garden. It might be nice to gaze upon from a window, I guess. Or you could skip the mole-hills and plant a nice wildflower field. Those are all the rage in central Texas. 

Coughton Court

Coughton Court

“For the side grounds, you are to fill them with variety of alleys, private, to give a full shade, some of them, wheresoever the sun be. You are to frame some of them, likewise, for shelter, that when the wind blows sharp you may walk as in a gallery. And those alleys must be likewise hedged at both ends, to keep out the wind; and these closer alleys must be ever finely gravelled, and no grass, because of going wet.”

Instructions to improve the walking experience. Very sensible.

“For the main garden, I do not deny, but there should be some fair alleys ranged on both sides, with fruit-trees; and some pretty tufts of fruit-trees; and arbors with seats, set in some decent order; but these to be by no means set too thick; but to leave the main garden so as it be not close, but the air open and free. For as for shade, I would have you rest upon the alleys of the side grounds, there to walk, if you be disposed, in the heat of the year or day; but to make account, that the main garden is for the more temperate parts of the year; and in the heat of summer, for the morning and the evening, or overcast days.”

He’s got it covered, all seasons and all weathers.

“For aviaries, I like them not, except they be of that largeness as they may be turfed, and have living plants and bushes set in them; that the birds may have more scope, and natural nestling, and that no foulness appear in the floor of the aviary.”

Nowadays, we make an effort to plant flowering shrubs, perennials, and grasses that attract and provide habitat for native birds and butterflies, My yard had more birds when I was more consistent about the bird baths. Get past all this construction and I’ll get that rolling again. Love my mockingbirds above all native creatures!

We’ll finish with a drawing of the Walks Bacon designed for Gray’s Inn. So symmetrical!



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