With its temperate climate and verdant landscapes, the "green and pleasant land" of England has long been associated with beautiful gardens. From the formal gardens on the grounds of castles and grand estates, to the humble cottage gardens in villages, to the allotments popular in many urban areas, England is a nation of gardeners. There are specific styles and methods of gardening associated with England, including the widespread popularity of the herbaceous border, which is full of flowers through three seasons and usually has plenty of winter interest. It's not hard to achieve an English garden look, though some knowledge of horticulture and design is helpful, to help select plants suitable for your region and climate.
What defines the "look" of an English garden? There are a number of visual themes one sees again and again: large drifts of colorful perennials, color themes, and a full look with a wide variety of textures are all common sights. Authors such as William Robertson (The English Flower Garden) helped bring knowledge and techniques for creating herbaceous borders to the public in the 1800s, marking a modern trend away from the formalism of more classical European gardens. The legendary garden designer and author Gertrude Jekyll was celebrated for her bold approach to color, including single-color-themed gardens and the geometric diagonal shapes creating the recognizable drifts of plants in borders.
Fortunately, with a bit of preparation and inspiration, the English garden look is not too difficult to achieve, no matter where you live. We offer a variety of ideas here for you to create your own.
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Drifts of Color
Large patches (what Gertrude Jekyll called "drifts") of color in the garden create a dynamic design and are especially effective when covering a long narrow planting area. The vivid deep pink of these dahlias in the gardens at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire are an eye-catching foil to the deep green espalieried cherry trees behind them.
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Structure and Contrast
The use of hedges to create high or low "walls" in the English garden creates a strong structural element that contrasts with the looser, more organic shapes of cottage style plantings. The large topiary hedge in this garden in Oxfordshire is a dramatic, somewhat formal backdrop to the airy, delicate flowers in the borders, and the shades of pink, rose and purple create a complementary color palette with the deep green hedges and trees.Continue to 3 of 30 below.
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Is anything more English than the quintessential climbing pink rose? Gertrude Jekyll found roses essential to the English garden. This garden on Cape Cod has the mild spring and summer temperatures perfect for this climbing rose to flourish. We normally think of English roses as having luscious scents; fortunately there are a number of scented pink climbers, including:
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- 'Zephirine Drouhin' (medium warm pink)
- 'Pearly Gates' (light pink)
- 'New Dawn' (very pale pink)
- 'Pretty in Pink Eden' (medium to dark pink)
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Boxwoods can be a very versatile landscape element, and in English gardens they are often used in very formal, elegant designs. But this front of house display is very simple and casual, with large ferns in the background and some simple perennial geraniums in the foreground. Keeping the shrubs trimmed to rounded shapes is easy with an electric or battery-powered trimmer. In autumn, the rich shades of green remain attractive, and the boxwoods will remain evergreen through the winter.Continue to 5 of 30 below.
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A Pop of Color
This tranquil garden space is carefully planted to have large jolts of color throughout the season. Right now the bright blue of flowering catmint (the cultivar is 'Six Hills Giant') and the pale blue iris create bold swatches of color that contrast beautifully with the more delicate pale pink and white blossoms and the neutral colors of the gravel walkway and earthy clay pots.Continue to 6 of 30 below.
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Formal design in English gardens isn't just limited to rose gardens and herbaceous borders; one often sees geometric shapes and tight plantings in vegetable gardens. This early autumn garden at Kew Gardens in west London features an array of delectable greens and herbs. This space-saving technique makes for a stunning design and can be implemented in large or small spaces.Continue to 7 of 30 below.
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Filling the Space
A narrow walkway need not mean skimping on plants. In true English fashion, this walkway has full, lush plantings on both sides, with trellised vines, shrubs, trees and tall perennials filling up the space and creating an inviting path through the garden.Continue to 8 of 30 below.
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A Garden Meadow
It's not uncommon to see a large English garden that leaves some lawn areas unmowed to create a wild meadow. There are many wild grass varieties known in England as "rough grass" that grow quite thick and keep back weeds, while still allowing some wildflowers to seed and spread as well, attracting pollinators and wildlife. This tranquil seating area with metal bench is right on the edge where manicured lawn meets wild meadow.Continue to 9 of 30 below.
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Vertical Cottage Blooms
It's hard to pick a "must have" flower for an English cottage garden design, but certainly tall vertical blooms are necessary for that striking, dramatic look and to add depth and height. Foxgloves, salvias, lupines, delphiniums, monkshood, asters and daisies are but a few taller perennials that lend a classic cottage garden look.Continue to 10 of 30 below.
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Formal and Wild
The grand manor house (on the site of a former abbey in Oxfordshire) and stately hedges stand sentinel beside this lovely field of wild flowers, with cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) in many colors glimmering in the spring sunshine. The contrast is breathtaking, making for a sublime vista that showcases the light at morning and dusk.Continue to 11 of 30 below.
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Espaliered Fruit Trees
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- Many English gardens feature espaliered fruit trees, a French technique that trains the tree to grow flat against a wall or fence, to save space and create a decorative backdrop. These espaliered apple trees on the brick garden wall at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire showcase the property's diverse mix of flowers and fruit trees (a small orchard lies beyond the wall).
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Soft Autumn Color
This Grantchester garden near Cambridge has a somewhat wild look, with soft late season color and many seed heads that haven't been deadheaded yet. This is a practice one sees with many English gardens: not trimming things too often and letting plants go to seed through autumn to provide food for wildlife as well as create a natural, slightly unkempt look that has overflowing textures and colors.Continue to 13 of 30 below.
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Drama, Formal and Informal
The large boxwood topiary shapes in the background of this garden in Kent are a stolid presence behind the gentle, organic shapes of perennials. Large plantings provide dramatic (yet low-maintenance) swaths of color and texture; the yellow tansy, red and yellow coreopsis and silvery artemisia add a warm-cool balance to the garden's palette of greens.Continue to 14 of 30 below.
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Layers of Color and Texture
The English cottage garden is often overflowing with flowers in different shapes, textures and heights, beckoning the eye across an expanse of color. The echinacea in the foreground may seem like the stars of the summer show here, but note how their bold, hot hues of pink and orange are balanced with the cool tones of sky blue veronica, silver artemisia and lavender alliums. The round shapes also contrast with the vertical shapes and lacy textures behind them.Continue to 15 of 30 below.
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England's temperate climate allows for a mix of hardy and tender perennials and even some tropicals for most of the year. To get this lush urban look, this London gardener brings together a diverse mix of tropical and hardy plants, with plenty of huge-leafed glossy greenery, intriguing textures and bright blooms. Putting tropicals in containers allows them to be overwintered more easily if desired.Continue to 16 of 30 below.
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Some herbaceous borders are neatly edged and manicured, but one often sees English gardens with plants spilling over their edges and onto the walkway. This garden in Belgium embraces this approach, allowing these late spring perennials to escape their beds with lush abandon. Many perennials lend themselves to this approach, especially clumping flowers like salvias, phlox, perennial geranium, and coreopsis. The huge peonies get in on the act too, leaning where their heavy blooms take them.Continue to 17 of 30 below.
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A Riot of Purple and Pink
English gardens often feature color palettes that are closely related. Late season color needn't be limited to a warm autumn palette. This garden at King's College, Cambridge has a delicious array of pinks and purples including asters, anemones, cosmos, nicotiana, and foxgloves, all spilling together and creating an explosion of color.Continue to 18 of 30 below.
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Formal symmetry is a common feature of English gardens, but notice how having the symmetry slightly off-kilter still lends an air of harmony and intentionality to this National Trust garden. Both sides of the path have herbaceous borders with purple alliums, but the full cottage style is delightfully informal. The mature wisteria trees also lend an element of symmetry but are definitely not symmetrical; not that the only twin elements here are the spiral-trimmed shrubs in the ceramic pots at the entrance to the stone building. In this case, the similar elements lead the eye on a journey connecting shapes and colors.Continue to 19 of 30 below.
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"I saw some grass growing through the pavement today" say the lyrics to English band Jethro Tull's "Jack in the Green" (about the indomitable spirit of growing things). English gardens are often places of uninhibited growth where nature is allowed to run a bit wild. Creating stone steps with plantings (here with creeping sedum) is one way to achieve this slightly overgrown look. This garden also has more ground covers (more sedum and euphorbia) planted in the walkway, and plantings of day lilies, ivy and grasses to fill in various surface areas.Continue to 20 of 30 below.
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Bold Cottage Containers
Using containers is an easy and versatile way to get a cottage garden look. The bold colors of the 'Thomas Edison' dahlias and red and pink variegated geraniums really brighten up the neutral house tones. This entry way also has a clean yet rustic look with the flagstone pavers and natural gravel, which is now a very popular feature in many urban landscapes.Continue to 21 of 30 below.
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While color is an important element in the English garden style, one also sees special attention paid to shapes and textures. The sensual mix of textures on display here accentuates the many subtle shades of green in this lush garden.Continue to 22 of 30 below.
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Hanging baskets of annuals are a sure fire way to add some drama to the three season garden. Many English pubs adorn their outdoor beer gardens and exteriors with bright baskets and window boxes. Here, the overflowing pots of begonias, impatiens, petunias and trailing ivy give a fairy tale look to this old thatched roof pub in Cambridgeshire.Continue to 23 of 30 below.
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Let It Grow
Many English gardens have tightly clipped topiaries and hedges, but just as many have an overgrown, wild look to them. This English style garden in Connecticut is delightfully unbound. The boxwoods here may be neatly trimmed, but the arbor has a sprawling vine full of blooms, the shrubs and trees left unpruned (for now) and the stone stairs are covered in colorful creeping groundcovers. The contrast in texture and shape is dynamic and unexpected. Trimming can still be done anytime, but isn't it nice for the garden to let its hair down sometimes?Continue to 24 of 30 below.
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A common sight in the English cottage garden is old stone planters. These may be harder to come by in the US, but luckily there are many resin and plaster containers available that provide a vintage, rustic look. This garden uses the containers year 'round (for the evergreen boxwoods), and even in spring for colorful tulips and other early season blooms like woodland phlox.Continue to 25 of 30 below.
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Even if you don't have space for herbaceous borders, you can make your patio into an English cottage-style haven for pollinators. The arbor has a lush trumpet vine that attracts hummingbirds, and the container plantings include colorful dahlias and delicate white gaura (aka beeblossom). There are so many pollinator friendly plants that invoke the cottage garden look, you can create endless combinations. Annual varieties to try in containers include flax, cosmos, zinnias and calendula, and perennials like flowering catmint, anise hyssop, salvia 'May Night' and flowering herbs like lavender, borage and oregano.Continue to 26 of 30 below.
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English gardeners love to spend time in their gardens at all times of the day, all season long. What better place to enjoy coffee in the morning or a light supper than this open terrace area? The tall hedge provides privacy and a wind barrier on chilly days. Container plantings can be moved around to create a fresh perspective and flexible floor plan.Continue to 27 of 30 below.
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Wall of Color
Making the most of a small space is a task well known to the English gardener. Planting perennials in layers so that taller plants are in back and shrubs and flowers overlap one another creates a full border of color and texture. Using one or two dominant colors gives an especially pleasing impact, as here with the pink roses and spirea both blooming simultaneously.Continue to 28 of 30 below.
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Late Season Color
The English architect William Kent (1685 - 1748) once said "All gardening is landscape painting." The true English garden is a year long work of art. Even in October, these herbaceous borders at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire are awash in color. As many of the perennials are going to seed or fading, there are still bright spots of mums flowering, and some with buds just getting ready to open. The low boxwood hedge in front stays evergreen year 'round.Continue to 29 of 30 below.
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This metal gazebo makes a beautiful yet understated place to relax and enjoy the garden. Its delicate shape and structure are perfectly complemented by the lacy blue-flowered potato vine (Solanum crispum 'Glasnevin') and the pastel blooms of plants like flowering catmint and pale pink alliums. The potato vine is a tender annual, but other flowering vines could be planted for similar effect, such as clematis.Continue to 30 of 30 below.
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Since winters tend to be mild in England, many gardeners leave plants untrimmed and leave clean up until spring, letting the foliage and stems remain for wildlife shelter or winter interest. Cold morning temperatures turn the remaining plants into a crystalline fairyland, and the garden feels both dormant and magically alive beneath the frost.
The English garden style is one of the most recognizable and well-loved in the world. Using a few basic design and horticulture principles, you can create many different English garden looks, appropriate for a variety of landscapes and climates.