‘Ah, it’s the perfect example of an English garden.’
The accent was trans-Atlantic, the stance oratorical and the tone absolutely certain.
I stood, lurking quietly in the shrubbery, inhaling the sweet perfume of summer roses and pondered.
I love gardens and will happily wander through them for hours on end, unable to name more than a handful of plants, avidly reading any gardeners’ notes I find. It’s one of my favourite pastimes.
But I have to admit to a depth of ignorance on things horticultural that almost matches my passion for plants.
So what exactly is an English garden? And why is it so beguiling?
Technically it’s a type of garden that developed in England, as a sort of genteel revolt against the formality of the architectural gardens of Europe prevalent at that time. You know, the ones where everything is grown for show in straight lines with patterns, sculpted hedges and trees clipped into unnatural shapes.
Beautiful to visit, a nightmare to maintain and just a little rigid. The gardens of the Loire chateaux are probably the best examples of this style, with neat borders and even the kitchen garden designed more for show than food.
But the English garden was soon to challenge these French and Italian inspired creations and the battle of the flower beds began.
English landscape garden
In the 17th and 18th centuries this became the most fashionable style of garden across most of Europe. Inspired by the great landscape artists of the time it presents an idealised version of nature.
The traditional English landscape garden usually includes a sweep of rolling lawns, a lake, groves of trees and the occasional Gothic ruin, classic temple or rustic bridge.
It was originally invented by designers William Kent and Charles Bridgeman who worked for a number of wealthy patrons. Chiswick House in London was probably the first with Stowe House in Buckinghamshire and Rousham House in Oxfordshire being the most famous.
But the landscape creator everyone remembers is Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown whose contribution was to get rid of all small garden designs near the stately homes and replace them with extensive views of groups of trees, making the landscape seem even larger. Brown designed 170 gardens including Petworth in West Sussex, Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Capability Brown is so famous that author Terry Pratchett parodies him in the Discworld series of books as Bergholt Stuttley ‘Bloody Stupid’ Johnson, responsible for the creation of a fifty foot deep ha-ha, named a ho-ho, a gargantuan beehive that is used for pigeons and an ornamental trout lake, very long but only one inch wide!
Most public parks in England contain more than a nod to this style of gardening; when strolling around them I often think of the late Sir Terry and his creation.
By the 19th century the grandeur of these big showpieces was being replaced by something on a smaller scale. Grottoes, temples, fake ruins and statues can still be found but there are more shrubberies, woodland walks and flowers.
This is the version most people think of as a typical English garden although somewhat ironically the best examples are found in Europe, like the Englischer Garten in Munich.
English country or cottage garden
How many kinds of sweet flowers grow
In an English country garden?
We’ll tell you now of some that we know
Those we miss you’ll surely pardon
Informality is key here, with a style that uses naturalistic design, traditional materials and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants. Without formal structure it relies heavily on the skill of the designer to create something with grace and charm.
It’s loosely based on the gardens of working class cottages where food not flowers was the main reason for their development. You can see great examples of such cottage gardens at the Weald and Downland Museum. But in the 1870s designers began working on the gardens of wealthier home-owners as an alternative to the more formal estate gardens with their rigid structures and mass plantings.
The earliest cottage gardens were very practical with vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, probably a beehive and some livestock. Flowers were first used to fill in spaces but gradually became more prominent.
Our very favourite cottage garden is the beautifully eclectic collection of plants at Five Oaks Cottage in West Sussex.
Love English gardens?
Do have a favourite English-style garden?
Or are you a fan of the formal?
Here are a few of our favourites which you may have missed.
RHS Wisley, Surrey
East Ruston, Norfolk
Leonardslee Gardens, Sussex
And of course you can discover many more with the NGS.
Founded in 1927 The National Garden Scheme gives visitors access to over 3,500 exceptional private gardens in England and Wales for charity.