Mention the words English Garden and romantic visions of cottages fronted by arbored gates bursting with flowers come into view. Idyllic green pastureland dotted with fluffy puffs of white and the occasional bleating of a contented sheep teases the imagination, along with the satisfying crunch of gravel beneath our feet!
Or is it just me???
A certifiable Anglophile, I just can’t get enough of the country, the people, the history and castles and, most especially, the gardens.
If you love the look, here’s how to recreate it in your landscape design…
What Makes An English Garden “English?”
I was asked this question by a friend after taking a mini-course at the English Gardening School in London, followed by a full day one-on-one with Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the infamous Great Dixter.
Right. They’re … um … in England!
Wrong answer, but here’s a better one – I hope.
When people talk about an English Garden, they are usually referring to the English Cottage Garden which, tho having humble and very practical origins, has developed over the years into an art form. They may appear to have just “happened” after someone scattered a bunch of random seed on the ground, but they are planted and developed with great love and care.
The English Cottage Garden
English Cottage gardens were born during Medieval times by workingmen who lived in the cottages of a farm or village to supply themselves with food. Until the Elizabethan era, these gardens were mainly used for edible planting, but some flowers were mixed in for pleasure. As the years became more prosperous more flowering plants were included. The easy, informal look of these pretty cottages began to attract the attention of the aristocracy and then became popularized during the Arts and Crafts movement by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.
Cottage planting is typified by a seemingly joyful and riotous abundance of color and uncontrolled charm. Plants common to the cottage look are delphiniums, lavender, lambs ears and, of course, roses.
Planting in drifts of 3 or more of the same plant gives the impression that they have just sprung up naturally. A path with material common to the area such as gravel or stone and a white picket fence complete the look. Extra props if you include a beehive and some chickens 🙂
The English Country Garden
Take the informal look of the Cottage Garden style and put it in reverse and you get the English Country Garden. Here, order reigns. This look was fitting for the large English Country Manor houses of the leisure class and was employed to make an impression!
The Country Garden is recognized as having a number of garden rooms set apart by hedges of boxwood or yew and are linked together like a daisy chain by paths and walkways, each “room” having a different theme or color scheme. They often display water features, statuary, and other artwork. Walls enclose these gardens, and ha-has are engineered to keep out livestock and other potentially destructive critters.
Tho “formal” in design, these gardens have evolved to embrace the bounteous colors and relaxed planting style of Cottage Gardens, as shown in these borders. Lawn is the material of choice for the paths one wanders to enjoy them.
Below a river of violet leads the eye down a luxurious forested “path.”
The English Landscape Garden
The Landscape Garden came into popularity in the early 18th century as the preferred replacement for the strictly-structured jardin à la française. The goal of this parkland look was to focus on the English countryside as an idyllic garden in and of itself.
It’s garden features were rolling lawns, unobstructed views to clumps of trees in the distance, and streams made into rivers or lakes with the use of dams. It was common to build a Gothic “ruin,” temple or other folly to add to the delight of visitors.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown is probably the most famous influencer of this style followed by successor Humphry Repton. This parkland-type of garden was, of course, reserved for those with lots of land to showcase.
Elements Of The English Garden
Though not so important with the Cottage style, the gardens of country manors followed a few principals that are in use in outstanding landscapes of today; One of the most important being a main visual axis.
You can see in both preceding and following images how the eye is being led through the garden beds by a main path. Above the path terminates with a bench as the focal point. The gate at the end of the path below holds the promise of more loveliness to explore beyond.
Often axillary paths lead to other sections of the garden from the main axis.
Formal English gardens are often divided into parterres, beds bordered with a low, neatly clipped hedge of boxwood. The parterres in the photo below are looking pretty bare, but when planted out with roses and other color they must be gorgeous, especially against the red brick of the arches and mellowed stone paths.
Plants are often sited with the tallest in the back of borders, graduating in height to the lowest-growing in front. Some designers like to break those rules by placing a taller, more diaphanous or see-through plant in front, like a tobacco (Nicotiana) or Verbena.
To make the most impact plants are seldom seen one-at-a-time, but are grouped in drifts of three or more. Those drifts are then repeated throughout the border or garden to give a sense of rhythm to the arrangement.
Roses are usually abundant in an English Garden. Other typicals would be lavender, catmint, echinacea, dianthus, delphinium, lupines, peonies, and hydrangeas such as the one pictured below.
A flat bed of one kind of annual is sort of anti-English style and rarely seen. Not that annuals aren’t put to use! On the contrary, planting beds will include a generous mix of all materials. Shrubs, vines, perennials, annuals, and bulbs happily co-exist together.
Fergus Garrett is a master of succession planting where, as one plant’s peak show is fading, another rises up in the space to take its place. It’s really an intense way to garden, but the reason why the borders at Great Dixter enjoy a very long season of continually evolving beauty. He is the mastermind behind Christopher Lloyd’s book, Succession Planting For Year-Round Enjoyment.
A favorite planting combination for an English Garden often easily accomplished with bulbs is “spheres and spires.” Because the globes of an allium are so complimentary with the spikes of a lupine, for example, the shapes are wonderful together.
When space in the ground is limited, there is no other way to go but up! Pergolas are a natural for this, of course, and the walls of the house are also fair game! Who can resist the charms of a wisteria or rose clamboring up the side of a home?
To see an English Garden in action, ya really oughta make the trip across the pond! Some of my favorites, including the beloved Great Dixter, Hidcote Manor and The RHS Garden at Wisley are featured in this article by The English Garden Magazine.
For a look Stateside of wonderful replications of the style, visit the Open Days schedule of garden tours from the National Garden Conservancy.
I guarantee once you’ve paid a visit you will want to bring some of that remarkable style back to your own plot of earth. What greater inspiration to celebrate romance in the landscape than with an English Garden?
PS: For more information on Succession Gardening and to get of glimpse of Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett’s accomplishments at Great Dixter, be sure to check out Succession Planting For Year-Round Enjoyment.
PPS: If you want to see a very humble example of a main axis in my garden, check out the video I did of our home at Christmastime in 2017.
This particular video in the series is only of the garden and it was done at night to show off the lights, so it will be a bit dark. To fast forward to where the axis can be seen, go to about minute 3. It starts from where we go down the stairs and ends at the fountain in the lawn oval.