What makes an English Garden?


When asked my favourite style of garden, I would have to say English. Its not that I don't like other styles of gardens - I certainly do - but English gardens would have to be number one!


But the term English garden conjures up many different ideas and images for different people.


To some, an English garden means the ultra formal, rectangulinear symmetry, gravel pathways, water features, and statues commonly found in classical estate gardens (not limited to England, but France, Italy, Spain, Morocco, etc).


Here the immaculate hedges, spheres, and topiary spirals add living, evergreen structure to these gardens, while formal rose gardens and annual flowerbeds thrill with their colours and aromas!


To others, the complete opposite image in conjured. A humble cottage by the local watermill on the outskirts of town, consisting of a mess of in-ground and raised garden beds, reclaimed tools being used as ornaments, all overflowing with volunteer perennials, aromatic herbs, and kitchen staples. You can often smell these gardens before you see them, and while not everyone's taste, they are a real favourite of the eco-minded gardener and homesteader alike.



Still, beyond both classical and cottage gardens, some think of rolling parklands of checkerboard striped lawns, with woodland drifts of majestic oaks, elms, and birch trees, with under-plantings of with hostas, azaleas, and spring bulbs, while others think of naturalistic woodlands, wetlands, and wildflower meadows.


The truth is, there is no single defining English style. England is an old nation steeped in rich history, and the history of its gardens are no exception. At any given time throughout the history of gardens in England, influence from Italy, France, Morocco, Rome, India, and Spain can be seen, while competing schools of thought regarding the very concept of beauty in gardens (does it come from man's mastery over nature, or nature left untamed?) can all be observed in the same street!


Even the history of wealth distribution plays a huge role in quintessential English garden design. Wealthy explorers and botanists often bought acres of land in the countryside where they got to work creating stunning, multi-roomed estate gardens to showcase different horticultural themes and moods, while the emerging middle class of the industrial revolution would plant kitchen gardens in their modestly sized urban lots to help make ends meet.


When it comes to style alone, it is impossible to objectively narrow down the defining stylistic features of an English garden, but I can tell you what defines an English garden to me:



First off, and probably most obviously, are the plants themselves. While English gardens have been heavily influenced by a love for exploration, mango trees and date palms are hardly typical of English gardens, so a plant palate realistic of England's temperate, coastal climate is essential. But more than that, an English garden is defined by variety.


The seasonal variety of England's 4 seasons, combined with the historical variety of the ever evolving and competing schools of thought of a nation with an unquenchable thirst for the exploration of exotic lands, has birthed, refined, and merged many of the styles of gardens we have come to know and love in the English speaking world.


I'm a strong believer that variety is the spice of life, and gardens are no exception! I believe to stay interested with our gardens, we need constant change, constant growth, constantly something just around the corner to look forward to, and strangely enough, constantly problems to solve.


There's always something to look forward to, always changes to be made next year, and always something to do in an English garden. Others may retreat to their tropical gardens to recapture the mood of a beloved vacation memory, while others seek to create a spiritual retreat where they can get back in touch with nature and tune out of their otherwise busy lives. But as for this plant obsessed horticulturalist, give me a canvas and a varied palate to play with, and I will be forever happy.


Stick around for future posts where I'll take you through how to create the 4 seasons look in your English garden, and dive deeper into the four subcategories discussed above.


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