Garden styles go in and out of fashion and such has been the case of the English garden in America. Once hailed as the style, it then went out of favor, considered to be too labor intensive due to its reliance on an abundance of perennials or endless clipping of topiary structures. Yet I would argue there are always lessons to be learned from every garden, in every country, and every climate. Here’s why.
Style is not Singular
England may be a small country by American standards but that doesn’t mean every garden subscribes to the billowing cottage garden philosophy, where perennials and edibles mingle in glorious abandon. Nor do they all feature clipped boxwood topiary structures. Many gardens have evolved into a blend of the two as ideas and gardeners have changed over the years. And there are also some stunning contemporary gardens including several designed by Piet Oudolf.
No Space is too Small
Our first home in England was a cottage on the outskirts of Sheffield whose front door opened directly onto the sidewalk. There was literally no opportunity for a front garden – but I still had a pot filled with seasonal blooms and a hanging basket by the door. In fact, there wasn't a back garden either: the only outdoor space was a rear balcony which can't have been more than 4 feet wide by 15 feet long yet I filled it with colorful containers. There was a hayrack on the wall (which is still in use today on our cabin porch), rectangular planters that sat tight to the balcony railing so I could allow sweet peas to scramble up the supports and more traditional terracotta pots tucked in for good measure.
Many cottages in England only have tiny front gardens but that doesn't hamper creativity or restrict the type of plants other than ensuring scale and proportion.
In the simplest of terms, "layering" means including a range of plants of different or staggered heights. That can be achieved by the use of vertical structures (walls, fences, lattice structures, tuteurs) where a space is too small to include taller trees for example. The photo shown above – with the little blue window box, is a great example of layering, using the walls for climbers to get vertical interest as well as mounding shrubs, smaller accents and even the exclamation point of a hollyhock.
True layering goes further than this though and morphs into what some might call "succession planting". For example, planting hosta adjacent to a clump of bluebells, such that when the spring bulbs die down their space is hidden by the newly emerged hosta foliage. Or planting a later blooming perennial such as black-eyed Susan next to an early blooming oriental poppy. This avoids leaving a visible gap when the poppy has finished flowering and the foliage has been cut back.
If you've been following my blog for a while you know "foliage first" is a design philosophy I use for everything from tiny pots to acreage, and while you may think English gardens are all about the flowers, I beg to differ. You may even see gardens without any flowers at all!
If you've ever worked with a designer, you may have found them peering through your windows into the garden, or sitting on the patio and gazing out into the distance. Most likely, they were assessing what could be seen from these vantage points. We call these views "sight lines" and they are key to good design, as a way to pull you through a space either literally or at least visually.
These, like sight lines, are a key design tenet. Focal points not only give the eye somewhere to pause, they can distract the eye from unfavorable views (the neighbors deck, a utility pole or an AC unit for example).
In other words, taking the home and surrounding environment into consideration. What materials, colors, plant palettes are local? How can you relate your garden design to those? What design cues can you find?
Have you considered going on an international garden tour but hesitated because you felt you couldn't possibly find anything that would relate to your particular climate? I can promise you that isn't the case. Just because you can't grow hosta/ferns/yew where you live doesn't mean you can't translate the use of that plant for your garden. It’s not all about the specific plants that you see – even though many of us make extensive plant wish lists as we travel. Whether you live in Texas, California, Florida or Oregon you can still glean a lifetime of ideas and inspiration from England. While you may need to substitute a blue-grey Hebe for a Texas sage, or a green and white Caladium for a hosta, you can even mimic the combinations and color palettes that you see. And you will certainly get a wealth of design inspiration. Intrigued?
Come with me to England next June – I have just a handful of spots left for our unique tour Secret Gardens, Iconic Estates, and Medieval Tales of Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
One thing I can promise you is that you will find memories of those English gardens will linger long after you return home – memories of the intricately woven plant tapestries at RHS Harlow Carr, of a charming private garden tended by a remarkable lady in her 90's with equally unforgettable views of the rolling countryside beyond the weathered stone walls, and of medieval villages; their stories, cottages, and gardens all bringing history books to life.
Read the itinerary and reserve your spot here.
I can't wait to show you "our England".