Gardens played a key role in Jane Austen's novels – and her life. A new book explains how to recreate their Regency splendour

If you've read even one Jane Austen novel, you'll know that the outdoors plays a role almost as important as her characters. Jumbled cottage gardens, formal town gardens and sweeping grand estates provide the backdrop for everyday life, social occasions and, of course, romance.

Jane Austen didn't just use gardens as a literary device, she cherished them in her own personal life. Austen's interest in horticulture and use of gardens in her novels is the subject of a new book by writer and gardener Kim Wilson. In the Garden with Jane Austen takes us on a stroll through the gardens of Austen's day (some of which, happily, still exist), as well as revealing how we can take inspiration from Austen in our modern-day green spaces.

"Her letters are where I first noticed her love of gardens," says Wilson. "She often wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about the Austen family's gardens and their plans for improving them. My favourite garden quote in her letters is what she said about her brother's garden in London: "The garden is quite a love… I go and refresh myself every now and then, and then come back to Solitary Coolness."

The Austen family moved home several times during Jane's life, tending town gardens in Bath and Southampton, and country ones in Hampshire. After the death of her father in 1805, Austen moved with her mother and sister to Chawton Cottage, on her brother's Hampshire estate. Although a cottage in name, it had several acres of grounds, including orchards and a kitchen garden where the family planted peas, tomatoes, potatoes, gooseberries, currants and strawberries, as well as a shrubbery "very gay with Pinks and Sweet Williams". Today the house and garden is home to the Jane Austen's House Museum.

"Many plants growing within gardens of the time were wildflowers, or even weeds by today's standards," says Celia Simpson, head gardener at the museum. "Most country cottage gardens would have been a complete mix of wildflowers, cultivated flowers, fruit and vegetable plants."

Wilson says that in Austen's day, gardens were very much an indicator of social status. "Each family's garden reflected not only their needs but, if they had enough money, their social aspirations," she says. The poor cottagers of the time were mostly concerned with growing food and having a place to keep their chickens whereas wealthier families would have had kitchen gardens, but also often extensive pleasure grounds, which were places to display their wealth and taste.

"Even middle-class families such as the Austens decorated their properties with many of the same garden features that would have been in the pleasure grounds of the rich, such as shrubberies and summer houses," says Wilson.

Gardens played a major role in all six of Austen's novels. Wilson highlights Mr Rushworth's old-fashioned garden and park in Mansfield Park, waiting to be "improved", the parsonage garden of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and the boastful General Tilney's acres of kitchen garden in Northanger Abbey. "Gardens are often featured in the novels from Jane Austen's day," says Wilson. "They are convenient places for the heroines to talk privately (and maybe cuddle) with the hero, and to escape from the villain by hiding in the shrubbery."

She also points out that the outdoors was where the heroines could escape from their families and think about their problems. "Most of Austen's proposal scenes take place outside, which is understandable," she says. "It's hard to imagine Mr Darcy proposing to Elizabeth in front of Mrs Bennet."

If there's one garden feature that seemed to capture Austen's imagination, it was shrubbery. Walks through carefully arranged trees and shrubs were seen as vital to health as well as providing an attractive landscaping element. "People in Jane Austen's time thought that wet feet could quickly kill you, and the shrubberies usually had nice, dry, gravel paths that were seen as healthy places to exercise," says Wilson. "They also provided some privacy, a place where people could walk and talk without being overheard."

Jane Austen was not a great fan of city life, but her garden in Bath provided an antidote to the smoke and noise of an urban area. At No 4 The Circus in the city, headquarters of the Museums Service, a Georgian-style town garden can be found – similar to that which Jane Austen might have experienced. Archaeologists dug up the ground and found a formal garden just over a foot below the surface, complete with paths, flower beds and gravel. It has now been planted with heritage shrubs and flowers, with clipped box hedges and trellises, giving a flavour of a Georgian Bath garden.

"Many of the historic garden sites are faithful recreations and give a very good sense of what Jane Austen would have experienced," says Wilson. "Other sites are more interpretive by necessity. It's interesting to see the choices the managers and gardeners of the sites have made. For example, the garden at Stoneleigh Abbey (the Hampshire estate of Austen's cousin) follows the original garden plan closely, but uses modern, disease-resistant varieties. At Chawton Cottage, the gardener uses only varieties known in Austen's time."

If you love the idea of creating a Jane Austen-era garden at home, the book includes planting plans for a variety of gardens, from the cheerful cottage garden filled with hollyhocks, lady's mantle and geraniums to a formal town garden with box, jasmine and English lavender. "Some of the smaller garden plans of the time work very well in modern properties, or just a small section of a larger plan can be used," says Wilson, who is currently turning an area of her own garden into a small parterre garden modelled on a tiny corner of a Regency flower garden plan. "I'm going to do my best to use varieties that Jane Austen would have known," she says. "There are so many varieties of heritage plants and seeds available now, even at local garden centres. But if I had a grand estate, I might be tempted to imitate Mr Darcy's gardens at Pemberley." sm

n In the Garden with Jane Austen is published by Frances Lincoln, priced 14.99. For more on Chawton Cottage, visit www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk