6 easy shortcuts to an English country garden

I read an article recently about some gardeners in North America (ok, the U.S.) who’d designed lust-worthy gardens evocative of an English country garden and it occurred to me that, despite the fact that the gardens did indeed have that distinctive English Country Garden vibe about them, there wasn’t any information about why exactly they gave off that vibe. Lushly planted flower beds? Check. Neatly trimmed hedges? Check. Some cute garden gates? Check. But is that all it takes to make a garden ooze that special charm of an honest-to-goodness cottage garden in Britain? Nope.

That got me to thinking about my own experiences helping my British in-laws with their garden in Sussex, England (shown above). They both passed away years ago but the memories of that garden as well as all the historic British gardens we visited together over the years (Sissinghurst being a huge treat–follow this link for my post featuring photos of the famous White Garden) made me realize that there really isn’t a typical English country garden to begin with but British history has shaped the unmistakable characteristics of most English gardens regardless of size or prestige. So here’s my interpretation of English country garden design simplified. Combine just these 6 elements in your garden and you’ll be well on your way to nailing this classic garden style.

One: Create a framework

There’s a reason most English gardens have a fence or wall around them and it wasn’t for privacy. Back in the day, your little hamlet might have had the occasional flock herded through town on the way to market. So you had best build a barricade around your garden to protect it from marauding sheep. Nowadays, lambs on the loose are not so much of a worry but tall hedges, brick walls and/or fences have become a hallmark of the British garden style.

A window in an old brick wall which separates two gardens at Sissinghurst.
Windows within old walls lend more linear frames for the various garden rooms at Sissinghurst Castle Garden.

Two: Add some glass

According to Janet Merza, author of A Biography of English Gardens and Their Flowers, by the Victorian era, “greenhouses had been around for quite a long time but the exorbitant tax on glass meant that only the extremely wealthy could afford to build them, and then only in modest dimension. This all changed in 1845, when this tax was removed and the middle classes were free to ape the aristocracy without bankrupting themselves.”

Greenhouses don’t have to be just for nurturing seedlings, either. I love this greenhouse, spotted on a garden tour in Toronto, Canada (shown below). I can just imagine pottering around in it on a rainy spring day.

Three: Sprinkle in some roses

You can totally create a garden in the English country style without roses but a lush abundance of these beauties broadcasts ENGLISH like nothing else. So as shortcuts go, adding some roses is a no-brainer. But you needn’t go for the fancy bloomers (seen below). In fact, you can go North American native if you want with a wild rose such as Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris), a native of Ontario, which just happens to have only five petals just like King Henry VIII’s Tudor Rose.

Four: Clash away

But the idea that a quintessential English country garden is not much more than a tasteful melange of pastel roses was thrown out the proverbial window by British gardening legend Christopher Lloyd who famously tore out the renowned rose bed at his country house, Great Dixter, and replaced the shrubs with vibrant tropical plants much to the horror of most of the nation. Bright colours and non-native ornamentals are very much a part of the English garden actually–ever since innovations in live plant shipping during Victorian times allowed an eager gardening public to get their hands on all sorts of new plant wonders. So clash away. Just remember that to get that English country garden look, even if you’re planting tropicals, you need an abundance of plants in a wide border or bed. Skinny beds and plants polka-dotting a sea of dark mulch is decidedly un-English cottage garden.

Colours of flowers

Five: Think multi-purpose

More is more in a classic English country garden. (Except when it comes to hedges. They should be neat, preferably following straight lines or used to trace out a pattern and, without exception, immaculately trimmed.)

Formal garden

But almost everything else is fair game to push to the limits of its potential. For instance, why put in a tree just for shade when you can have a tree that also adds colour in the spring with flowers, bears fruit and works as a living trellis for some other plant. My mother-in-law never met a tree she didn’t see as a support for something else whether it was a climbing rose, a clematis and/or a bird house community. So add some fruit trees for shade, vines and pies and while you’re at it, introduce kale or cabbage into your flower beds for colour, texture and dinner makings. (For more ideas on using edibles in your ornamental garden, check out my post New, Old Foodscaping Ideas For Any Garden which also just happens to cite a lot of basics of English country garden design.)

Cabbage in flower bed

Furniture isn’t just for seating, either. Placement is key because that bench or table and chair set can work double duty as the exclamation point in an eye-catching view.

Six: Add a sculpture

You may not have the massive garden “rooms” (or battalion of pro gardeners on staff) to pull off the breathtaking views like those at Sissinghurst but whatever the dimensions of your garden, if you add a sculpture, you’re adding a focal point, a personal touch, a bit of style and a whole lot of English country garden vibe.

A sculpture of a stylized female form at Sissinghurst
A sculpture shyly appears in an alcove created by a pruned shrub in the famous White Garden at Sissinghurst.

One thought on “6 easy shortcuts to an English country garden

  1. Pingback: 6 easy shortcuts to a classic Canadian garden | Ministry of the fence

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