Before the Roman occupation of Britain early civilizations and people on the continent had grown a wide range of crops, almost certainly much more than in the British Isles, a situation that was changed by the Norman Conquest in 1066 (see Medieval gardens 450-1100 CE and Medieval gardens 1100-1500 CE). Simple commercial nurseries existed in England from at least the twelfth century when they were known as ‘impyards’ (named after the grafts which were known as ‘imps’). This was a limited trade in utilitarian plants – agricultural seed, vegetables and fruit trees – and then later, in the 13th century trade based on the surplus produce of great estates and monastic gardens. By the end of the 14th century fruit and some vegetables were being grown in Edinburgh which, by 1771 could boast 32 market gardens, rising to about 65 by 1812.
The first commercial nurseries in a modern sense began trading in the 16th century at about the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541) which was probably no coincidence since it was in monasteries that most of the vegetable, fruit and herb gardening was done.
In 1605 a horticultural guild-like system was established when a royal Charter was granted to both the Company of Gardeners (with scrapbooks dating back to 1345) and the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers (whose records go back to 1292) and although this marked a significant turning point in Britain’s nursery industry the number of nurseries were slow to pick up. Harrison’s Description of England (1577) declares:
Such herbes, fruits & roots also, as grow yeerelie out of the ground, of seed, haue been verie plentifull in this land in the time of the first Edward, and after his daies: but in processe of time they grew also to be neglected, so that from Henrie the fourth till the latter end of Henrie the seuenth, & beginning of Henrie the eight, there was little or no vse of them in England, but they remained either vnknown, or supposed as food more meet for hogs & sauage beasts to feed vpon, than mankind
By the time of Henry VIII the range of fruit and vegetables had increased with imports from the continent.
However, the few known businesses of the 17th century ‘became after 1700 a widening flood, and after 1800 a torrent’.
Towards the end of the 16th century the number of small cottages increased and many had small plots for vegetables which were previously mainly grown in the gardens of the wealthy landowners. Harrison’s Description of England (1577) describes the use of vegetables as follows:
Whereas in my time their vse is not onlie resumed among the poore commons, – I meane of melons, pompions [pumpkins], gourds, cucumbers, radishes, skirets, parsneps, carrets, cabbages, naeuewes [rape], turneps, and all kinds of salad herbes, – but also fed vpon as deintie dishes at tables of delicate merchants, gentlemen, and the nobilitie, who make for their prouision yearelie for new feeds out of strange countries, from whence they haue them aboundantlie
Vegetables were now being imported from the continent and these included onions from Flanders and salad vegetables from Holland while home-grown fruit was apparently plentiful in spite of the only recent introduction of new fruit varieties, Kent acting a the country’s orchard having suitable climate and soils while being within striking distance of London‘s markets. Apples were always the most widely grown fruit being used for eating, cooking and cider although pears and perry were also popular.
By the 1620s plant collections and gardens were well established among the major religious orders, merchants, royalty, apothecaries and physicians, aristocrats. We now see the emergence of large-scale nursery businesses, often family-owned, notably Pierre Morin and the Morin family nurseries (c. 1575-1650) in Paris whose first printed catalogue appeared in 1651 (although his brother Rene had published one earlier in 1621), the Tradescants, younger and older, in London (c. 1600-1670), Tranquillo Ramauli in Rome, and the Dutch painter and nurseryman Emanuel Sweert (1552–1612) renowned for his Florilegium Amplissimum et Selectissimum (1612).
Plant selection took hold as gardeners sought out larger and more colourful forms and ‘doubles’ (a foretaste of florists societies to come) along with new fruit cultivars were avidly collected and distributed. Gathering demand for new plants and fruit varieties resulted in family-run nurseries, the new nurserymen often Protestant refugees from Catholic Europe like the Huguenots, skilled in fruit cultivation and propagation, who set up market gardens in London, Oxford and York, sometimes in the kitchen gardens of the monasteries that had been ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII , their merchandise including specialist tools, plants, herbs, fruit trees. The transformation of English estates by the introduction of autumn-foliage deciduous American trees was about to arrive.
Early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was a gathering demand for new plants and fruit varieties. Protestant refugees from Catholic Europe like the Huguenots, skilled in market gardening, and especially fruit cultivation and propagation, arrived to set up businesses in London, Oxford and York, sometimes in the kitchen gardens of the monasteries that had been ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. These were family-run nurseries that sold not only food produce but a wide range of specialist tools, herbs, fruit trees and vegetables. The Dutch, French and Walloons (French-speaking people who live in Belgium, principally in Wallonia) had long been respected for their market gardening skills bringing their experience to the coastal towns of Kent, Essex and Suffolk. A large group from West Flanders landed in Deal in 1561, moving to Sandwich (once one of the cinque ports) and making up a large proportion of the population also to Norwich, others landed at Harwich, Yarmouth and Dover.
As population increased street markets were where produce was bought but, in London at least, there was hawking from door to door. In the 17th century some market gardeners crept into the new Covent Garden becoming official in 1670 and Spitalfields chartered in 1681. There was now a branch of this marketing known as the ‘nursery trade’ which specialised in choice plants and trees, the nurserymen making selections and also importing them from the continent. Enterprising orchardists and nurserymen like Stephen Spitzer were also offering their services for garden design.