Elizabethan gardening manual with images of mazes, arbours and pleached bowers


This popular little manual for Elizabethan gardeners contains detailed designs and instructions on how to build mazes, knotted gardens and shady arbours of entwined trees. It explains the physical benefits of many herbs and flowers, and offers tips on how to deal with frost, snails, moles and other garden pests. Drawn from the ‘best approved’ authors, it was written under the name of Didymus Mountain, a witty pseudonym for Thomas Hill (c. 1528–c. 1574). It was then completed by Henry Dethick after Hill’s death.

Thomas Hill compiled and translated an eclectic range of books on science and the supernatural, but he also produced A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise, teachyng how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden (c. 1558), the first English printed work on gardening. Alongside The Gardeners Labyrinth, it reveals the growing idea of Elizabethan gardens, carefully maintained by the gentry and middle classes, as places of pleasure and artful display as well as spaces for growing food.

Mazes and pleached bowers: artistry and nature

Hill’s symmetrical designs for knotted gardens and mazes use intricate patterns of hedges and trees to suggest harmonious order, though of course the labyrinths are paradoxically designed to encourage visitors to get lost. Hill also describes spaces consciously ‘framed’ to produce shade and privacy. The ‘herber’ (arbour) or pleasure garden illustrated on the title page has fragrant trees ‘bound together’ into an arch. The branches ‘shadowe the walkers’ in the covered alleys beneath (p. 22), but they often have ‘windowes’ offering full views of the ‘beautie of the Garden’ (p. 24). This seems much like the ‘pleached’ bower mentioned several times in Much Ado About Nothing. With its interlaced branches, the bower creates a sense of secrecy and seduction, but it also allows those hidden inside a clear view of the scene outside (and allows the audience to see them).

Garden scenes in Much Ado About Nothing

The garden is a vital setting in the play, with key scenes drawing out the tensions between artistry and nature, openness and concealment, careful manipulation and loss of control, also suggested in Hill’s manual. Antonio describes how Don Pedro and Claudio are first overheard talking ‘in a thick-pleach’d alley in mine orchard’ (1.2.9–10), causing Leonato to think Don Pedro genuinely loves Hero. There are then two parallel orchard scenes, carefully stage-managed to trick Benedick and Beatrice into admitting their love for each other. Benedick conceals himself ‘in the arbor’ (2.3.36), while Beatrice hides in the ‘pleached bower’ / Where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun / Forbid the sun to enter’ (3.1.7-9).

Full title:
'The Gardeners Labyrinth: containing a discourse of the Gardeners life, in the yearly travels to be bestowed on his plot of earth, ... Also the Physike benefit of eche Herbe ... gathered out of the best approved writers by Didymus Mountain. [Completed by H. Dethick.]
1577, London
Book / Quarto / Illustration / Image
Didymus Mountain [pseudonym], Thomas Hill, Henry Dethick
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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