What Is an English Garden?

English Garden - Hydrangeas in focus, beginning to bloom in blue, paired with a wooden bench

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Cottage gardens are often referred to as "English cottage gardens." This piece will briefly explore the aesthetic and historical differences between cottage gardens, which tend to look wilder, and English gardens, which tend to be a bit tamer.

The cottage garden comes from the time in history when two-thirds of medieval Europe's population suffered from bubonic plague. This created a demand for labor and likewise made more land available to the people who survived. Originally, cottage gardens included vegetable plants, medicinal herbs, and fragrant perennials. These perennials were planted on purpose, emitting attractive aromas, to compensate for the lack of bathing facilities in each home. Over centuries, the cottage garden evolved into a mix of English annuals and perennials with herbs, greenery, and perhaps a fruit tree for added height and bounty. All these plants can be arranged behind a low wall or border of shrubs, offering limits to a naturally wild garden.

What is an English Garden?

Born in the 1800s, the English garden phenomenon emerged during the Romantic era. The philosophy of this movement also welcomed humankind to reconnect with nature and a vast array of feelings, secrets, and stories. Responding to this societal shift and inspired by the sculptural elements of classical Italian gardens, English nobles added walls, sculptures, walkways, geometric layouts, and classical architectural elements in their landscapes. To define spaces, gardeners of the English nobility established masonry walls and/or sheared English yews (Taxus baccata). What would eventually be known as an "English garden" included beds hugging pruned perennial and annual flowers, groundcovers of similar height and texture, and flowering herbs for added food and fragrance.

History and Characteristics

By the late 19th century, the English garden became a trend for people besides nobility. Growth of the middle class caused the expansion of English gardens elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Gertrude Jekyll, who was one of the founders of modern landscape architecture, loved English gardens. Instead of planting the nobles' formal carpets, she planted full flower borders of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures. Her approach offered a relief, a retreat, from otherwise straight lines and hard surfaces seen in more formal, allegedly noble landscapes. Jekyll's shrubs created a soft background, groundcovers softened edges, and mindfully placed perennials bloomed in succession. While formal English gardens maintained certain square footage, pergolas, walls, and large-scale sculptures, more organic-style versions brought to light the Romantic era's love for freedom.

Creating an English Garden at Home

In light of all this history, the contemporary gardener may be overwhelmed with how to design an English garden at home. While this type of garden can evolve into a seemingly spontaneous space, it comes to life as a result of particular planning. Consider the emotions this garden could evoke, perhaps motivated by the English garden's roots in freedom of expression, the harmony of the natural world, and the unity of light, space, and colors. Here are a few ideas for how to add depth and diversity to an English garden:

Alternate open spaces and closed spaces. Open spaces are defined as panoramic lawns and small hills, while closed spaces are where tree branches come together and create wooded areas. Create balance between open and closed areas by adding small stone caves or other architectural structures of neoclassical, modern, and/or baroque styles.

Welcome a water element. Many experts say that a water element is an essential part of an English garden. Any water element adds a sense of reflectiveness and tranquility. On a larger plot of land, establish a pond, natural or artificial, and surround it with grasses and rocks. Otherwise, a smaller fountain or birdbath will do. Surround the fountain with sculptures or ceramics.

Add wooden elements. In English gardens, wood is the most popular material used for outdoor covers. Include a closed pergola and cover it with jasmine, wisteria, or bougainvillea. Make sure you have a place to sit and relax in your garden, too. A wooden bench, teak patio furniture, or other pieces made of wrought iron, wicker, or bent willow work well.

Bring in the materials found in your house. Stone or brick walls, which may mirror the aesthetic of your adjacent home, make fine additions to an English garden.

Build a unique structure. Creating height and functionality, a structure may add decoration or serve as a trellis for vines or climbing roses to grow on.

Add smaller objects. Place a brightly colored watering can among flowers or a gazing ball in front of an evergreen border for a little playfulness.

Don't be afraid to add more plants. English gardens tend to make the most of every little space. So go easy on any spacing rules and choose blooming plants in many sizes, shapes, and textures, which will naturally gather together and burst out of beds and planters.

Plants to Include

When creating a layout for an English garden, plan to plant in layers. Arrange taller plants in the background, medium sized plants in the middle, and shorter plants in the front and foreground. Focus on perennials. Choose what are often called "old-fashioned plants." Such romantic blooms include hydrangeas, roses, peonies, foxgloves, hollyhocks, and daisies. Choose evergreen hedges of a variety of heights such as yew, boxwoods, or laurel bushes. Pair poppies with wildflowers that will bloom during other times of the year, like cosmos, once the poppies have gone dormant. Since a well-planned English garden looks very different from season to season, plant bulbs and moss phlox to bloom in early spring and winter berries, bronze sedums, and golden ornamental grass which will likely last even through snowfall. Fill any spaces in between these perennial flowers and shrubs with annuals to create all-season color.