The English Style Garden:
An Overview

For many, an English style garden is the pinnacle of landscape art. Whether it is due to the reputation of the English people for gardening expertise and design or for the sheer breadth of landscaping features, this is one of the most beloved expressions of the gardener’s craft.

What is the Typical English Garden Style?

Hidcote Gateway

Hidcote Gateway photo by Dave Catchpole on Flickr

You might describe it as country parkland surrounding a great estate. Or you might think of the intimate and overflowing gardens of a thatched cottage. Surprisingly both of these scenes are typical of one style.

For some, “garden rooms”, like those installed in many of the best private British gardens (now public destinations), best represent the ideal.

Many historical styles may be described as “English”. However, the national flavor is best thought of as a set of characteristic factors that compose a garden “in the English style”.

Characteristics of an English Style Garden

Summer Garden by Alfred Fontville

Summer Garden by Alfred Fontville captures the English border in full bloom  with spires of delphiniums and clouds of phlox.

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One of those factors is a feeling of abundance, whether seen in lush grass, stands of carefully chosen tree specimens and combinations, or floriferous borders. The climate is given to a fullness of burgeoning growth, although it takes a lot of work and planning to give the best gardens their seemingly unstudied artistic abundance.

William Robinson, in advocating a more informal, permanent planting of hardy and native plants called his flower gardens “English”1.

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 Thus introducing another identifier of the English style garden: the more naturalistic look with plants that appear at home in their various locations.

Marina Schinz, in her book ‘Visions of Paradise‘, put it this way:

The key to the image of profusion and luxuriance that is the quintessence of the English garden is the extraordinary variety of plants – the flowering shrubs, the herbaceous perennials, the herbs, the annuals, the bulbs, the wild flowers, and the ground covers.

Features of this Look

  • Richly layered planting
  • Full of flowers
  • Many details from weaving  and vining plants, and containers of flowers
  • Naturalistic
  • Great variety
  • Informality

 

knot garden

Knot garden photo by Amanda Slater on Flickr

Even within Tudor knot gardens you may see a lush flowering vine peeking over a wall. Glorious shrubs within a border, or perhaps only an urn that threatens to overflow with its exuberance of planting are not uncommon. These details say “English” to us, rather than Italian or French.

But I think it is this great love of flowers, difficult to contain and restrain, which is the soul of English garden style.

Is It the Landscape Style or the Cottage Style?

When deciding how to arrange plantings and bring the look to our home gardens, which will become our inspiration? The evocative and picturesque look of the “Landscape style”? Or the rustic and intimate feel of Cottage gardens?

Cottage Style

Cottage garden

The Cottage Garden is probably the favorite variation of the English style garden. We are completely enamored with Cottage gardening in the United States. Dripping with roses, overflowing with clematis vines, bunches of daisies, pinks, and spikes of delphiniums is the picture in our mind’s eye.

The exuberant planting of Englands cottages is one of the most iconic images of the land. Even if a landscape is not given the full blown treatment of the style, details are borrowed for their inviting look.

Is the cottage style for you?

Further explore the details and features of this form:

Create a Cottage Garden

Golden Cottage Garden Scheme

Traditional Plants

The ‘Landscape Gardening’ Mode

Repton landscape style

By Humphry Repton (1752-1818) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Americans have borrowed heavily from such famous landscapers as Repton and Capability Brown to create the parkland feel, complete with expanses of greenswards.ground that is covered with green grass, like a lawn

Using this style as a base for our own New World spaces, we have also evolved in adapting our gardens to our own native plants and climate regions.  This developed into what is identified now as “The New American Garden“. It was the necessary evolution for our difference in climate and the modern-day lack of garden laborers.

Whichever design direction we take, one thing is sure:

There will always be a place in our gardens for the English style to be a choice. However it might be tempered with realistic notions of what time, space, and interest will allow.

English garden style will always require constant attention to a carefully cultivated landscape. That is what makes it so beautiful and intensely personal a style of design.

Those English Roses

antique rose

She would have grown old fashioned roses like ‘Madame Hardy’

Furthermore, our entire idea of the perfect rose garden depends heavily on traditional English garden examples.  Both design and the plantings themselves take on the customary legacy of Gertrude Jekyll’s advice and the plant forms she favored.

Today, heirlooms and their modern equivalents bring strong, shrubby presence, and fragrant full blooms into both contemporary and historical flower garden plans.

Heritage Roses

Rose Garden

Designing An English Style Garden

Perennial Borders Are A Famous Feature

Well Known British Garden Designers

One of the most loved and appreciated components of the English Garden Style was the development of the flower border.

Its epitome of form was probably embodied in Gertrude Jekyll’s designs, but there are modern day masters of this gardening feature. Many of them have written marvelous books with lessons from their magnificent gardens,

I have to confess that my favorite is Beth Chatto, for her sublime combinations.

Their Books: Classic Planting: Featuring The Gardens Of Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse And Many Others

Design Elements

 

Bones Of A Garden

The English gardeners have written prolifically on the details of what they consider the nuances of their gardens, and of their structure.

A very important concept is the idea of a skeletal foundation to the garden as a whole, “the bones” of the garden. This is the hardscape and the visually stronger planting of trees, shrubs, and hedges.

Weaving

There are details such as “weaving” in which vining or sprawling plants lead the eye through the plantings and give depth.

Drifts

Long range views consisting of “drifts” of plants. Planting large enough numbers of the same plant to give the effect of a natural mass of growth. In small spaces this could be five to seven, in large areas, possibly a hundred!

All these elements are steps in creating the full and generous delight of the English style of gardening.

 English Style Garden Features

The characteristics cover the broadest definition possible, because, in fact, there are many kinds of landscapes and gardens in this style.

What are some of the types you may see?

Perennial Flower Color Schemes

English Garden with white flowers

English Garden with white flowers

The English flower border was made up, originally, of mainly perennial flowers. It is quite a feat to accomplish the look of full abundance in three seasons while adhering to a specific color scheme.

Usually a perennial border is designed with either pale colors that Jekyll described as “tender”, or some combination of brights.

In her book “Colour Schemes for the Flower Gardenby Gertrude Jekyll“, Miss Jekyll described,plans in some detail which used gradations of both types of colors.

She also pioneered the idea of mono-colored themes and advocated those for particular seasons of bloom.

How To Create A White Garden

The difficulty of creating beauty for the entire growing season and the importance of winter interest lead to the evolution of this form to a style incorporating all sorts of plantings, including small trees, shrubs, vines, and annuals along with the perennial plant choices.

This method of combining many types of plants is labeled “mixed garden borders”.

Mixed Garden Borders For All Seasons

Many more modern garden experts suggest “mixed” garden borders inspired by her advice. These are rooted in the English garden style, but American gardeners such as Tracy DiSabato-Aust have developed the idea in inspirational ways.

This is the style of border that I have most gravitated towards in my own gardens. It gives the garden its “bones” to have a mix of stronger plants such as shrubs, and extends the seasons range. It also lends itself well to the American “wide open spaces”.

Georgian style flower garden

Georgian style flower garden

 

Dooryard gardens are also a feature of English gardening, with an intimate space of plantings that welcome visitors to house entryways. If there are no other areas of flower gardening, a doorway with a vine or containers flanking the steps, or a lacing of flowers along foundation shrubs, all can give the charm of English gardening genius without lots of garden effort that full blown borders would require. It is the luxurious abundance that overflows and greets the eye that marks this style of the gardener’s taste.

 

A ‘Dooryard’ garden is one which is tucked into the spaces near a porch or entry to the house. These gardens are usually viewed up close and are restricted in space, they are well suited for smaller plants, or those which grow vertically, and choice selections that provide good foliage and seasonal bloom.

Related: A Look-Into Garden

Country Garden Plants

pink poppies

Typical English Garden Plants, for American gardens. Country gardens located in rural areas may have very different needs from those in urban settings. It is all a matter of location and local challenges, as well as surrounding view/landscape. The same may be said of plant choices. American climate covers a large range, but very few of those climate characteristics equate with those of Great Britain.

The style may be borrowed, but the suggested perennials and other plantings must be tailored to ones site.

 

Articles of Interest on English Gardening …

1ibid. ‘Visions of Paradise‘ by Marina Schinz

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