Backyard english garden design


The Quintessential English Style Garden

The English Style Garden:
An Overview

For many, an English style garden is the pinnacle of landscape art. Whether it is due to the reputation of the English people for gardening expertise and design or for the sheer breadth of landscaping features, this is one of the most beloved expressions of the gardener’s craft.

What is the Typical English Garden Style?

Hidcote Gateway photo by Dave Catchpole on Flickr

You might describe it as country parkland surrounding a great estate. Or you might think of the intimate and overflowing gardens of a thatched cottage. Surprisingly both of these scenes are typical of one style.

For some, “garden rooms”, like those installed in many of the best private British gardens (now public destinations), best represent the ideal.

Many historical styles may be described as “English”. However, the national flavor is best thought of as a set of characteristic factors that compose a garden “in the English style”.

Characteristics of an English Style Garden

Summer Garden by Alfred Fontville captures the English border in full bloom  with spires of delphiniums and clouds of phlox.

One of those factors is a feeling of abundance, whether seen in lush grass, stands of carefully chosen tree specimens and combinations, or floriferous borders. The climate is given to a fullness of burgeoning growth, although it takes a lot of work and planning to give the best gardens their seemingly unstudied artistic abundance.

William Robinson, in advocating a more informal, permanent planting of hardy and native plants called his flower gardens “English”1.

 Thus introducing another identifier of the English style garden: the more naturalistic look with plants that appear at home in their various locations.

Marina Schinz, in her book ‘Visions of Paradise‘, put it this way:

The key to the image of profusion and luxuriance that is the quintessence of the English garden is the extraordinary variety of plants – the flowering shrubs, the herbaceous perennials, the herbs, the annuals, the bulbs, the wild flowers, and the ground covers.

Features of this Look

  • Richly layered planting
  • Full of flowers
  • Many details from weaving  and vining plants, and containers of flowers
  • Naturalistic
  • Great variety
  • Informality

Knot garden photo by Amanda Slater on Flickr

Even within Tudor knot gardens you may see a lush flowering vine peeking over a wall. Glorious shrubs within a border, or perhaps only an urn that threatens to overflow with its exuberance of planting are not uncommon. These details say “English” to us, rather than Italian or French.

But I think it is this great love of flowers, difficult to contain and restrain, which is the soul of English garden style.

Is It the Landscape Style or the Cottage Style?

When deciding how to arrange plantings and bring the look to our home gardens, which will become our inspiration? The evocative and picturesque look of the “Landscape style”? Or the rustic and intimate feel of Cottage gardens?

Cottage Style

Cottage garden

The Cottage Garden is probably the favorite variation of the English style garden. We are completely enamored with Cottage gardening in the United States. Dripping with roses, overflowing with clematis vines, bunches of daisies, pinks, and spikes of delphiniums is the picture in our mind’s eye.

The exuberant planting of Englands cottages is one of the most iconic images of the land. Even if a landscape is not given the full blown treatment of the style, details are borrowed for their inviting look.

Is the cottage style for you?

Further explore the details and features of this form:

Create a Cottage Garden

Golden Cottage Garden Scheme

Traditional Plants

The ‘Landscape Gardening’ Mode

By Humphry Repton (1752-1818) , via Wikimedia Commons

Americans have borrowed heavily from such famous landscapers as Repton and Capability Brown to create the parkland feel, complete with expanses of greenswards.ground that is covered with green grass, like a lawn

Using this style as a base for our own New World spaces, we have also evolved in adapting our gardens to our own native plants and climate regions.  This developed into what is identified now as “The New American Garden“. It was the necessary evolution for our difference in climate and the modern-day lack of garden laborers.

Whichever design direction we take, one thing is sure:

There will always be a place in our gardens for the English style to be a choice. However it might be tempered with realistic notions of what time, space, and interest will allow.

English garden style will always require constant attention to a carefully cultivated landscape. That is what makes it so beautiful and intensely personal a style of design.

Those English Roses

She would have grown old fashioned roses like ‘Madame Hardy’

Furthermore, our entire idea of the perfect rose garden depends heavily on traditional English garden examples. Â Both design and the plantings themselves take on the customary legacy of Gertrude Jekyll’s advice and the plant forms she favored.

Today, heirlooms and their modern equivalents bring strong, shrubby presence, and fragrant full blooms into both contemporary and historical flower garden plans.

Heritage Roses

Rose Garden

Designing An English Style Garden

Perennial Borders Are A Famous Feature

Well Known British Garden Designers

One of the most loved and appreciated components of the English Garden Style was the development of the flower border.

Its epitome of form was probably embodied in Gertrude Jekyll’s designs, but there are modern day masters of this gardening feature. Many of them have written marvelous books with lessons from their magnificent gardens,

  • Christopher Lloyd –The Well-tempered Garden
  • Rosemary Verey – English Country Gardens
  • Beth Chatto, Graham Stuart Thomas, and more.

I have to confess that my favorite is Beth Chatto, for her sublime combinations.

Their Books: Classic Planting: Featuring The Gardens Of Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse And Many Others

Design Elements

Bones Of A Garden

The English gardeners have written prolifically on the details of what they consider the nuances of their gardens, and of their structure.

A very important concept is the idea of a skeletal foundation to the garden as a whole, “the bones” of the garden. This is the hardscape and the visually stronger planting of trees, shrubs, and hedges.


There are details such as “weaving” in which vining or sprawling plants lead the eye through the plantings and give depth.


Long range views consisting of “drifts” of plants. Planting large enough numbers of the same plant to give the effect of a natural mass of growth. In small spaces this could be five to seven, in large areas, possibly a hundred!

All these elements are steps in creating the full and generous delight of the English style of gardening.

 English Style Garden Features

The characteristics cover the broadest definition possible, because, in fact, there are many kinds of landscapes and gardens in this style.

What are some of the types you may see?

  • Tudor Knot Gardens
  • Edwardian Perennial Borders
  • Cottage Yards
  • Estate Landscapes
  • Mixed use, mixed borders
  • Kitchen and Cloister (herb) gardens

Perennial Flower Color Schemes

English Garden with white flowers

The English flower border was made up, originally, of mainly perennial flowers. It is quite a feat to accomplish the look of full abundance in three seasons while adhering to a specific color scheme.

Usually a perennial border is designed with either pale colors that Jekyll described as “tender”, or some combination of brights.

In her book “Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden

“, Miss Jekyll described,plans in some detail which used gradations of both types of colors.

She also pioneered the idea of mono-colored themes and advocated those for particular seasons of bloom.

How To Create A White Garden

The difficulty of creating beauty for the entire growing season and the importance of winter interest lead to the evolution of this form to a style incorporating all sorts of plantings, including small trees, shrubs, vines, and annuals along with the perennial plant choices.

This method of combining many types of plants is labeled “mixed garden borders”.

Mixed Garden Borders For All Seasons

Many more modern garden experts suggest “mixed” garden borders inspired by her advice. These are rooted in the English garden style, but American gardeners such as Tracy DiSabato-Aust have developed the idea in inspirational ways.

This is the style of border that I have most gravitated towards in my own gardens. It gives the garden its “bones” to have a mix of stronger plants such as shrubs, and extends the seasons range. It also lends itself well to the American “wide open spaces”.

Georgian style flower garden

Dooryard gardens are also a feature of English gardening, with an intimate space of plantings that welcome visitors to house entryways. If there are no other areas of flower gardening, a doorway with a vine or containers flanking the steps, or a lacing of flowers along foundation shrubs, all can give the charm of English gardening genius without lots of garden effort that full blown borders would require. It is the luxurious abundance that overflows and greets the eye that marks this style of the gardener’s taste.

A ‘Dooryard’ garden is one which is tucked into the spaces near a porch or entry to the house. These gardens are usually viewed up close and are restricted in space, they are well suited for smaller plants, or those which grow vertically, and choice selections that provide good foliage and seasonal bloom.

Related: A Look-Into Garden

Country Garden Plants

Typical English Garden Plants, for American gardens. Country gardens located in rural areas may have very different needs from those in urban settings. It is all a matter of location and local challenges, as well as surrounding view/landscape. The same may be said of plant choices. American climate covers a large range, but very few of those climate characteristics equate with those of Great Britain.

The style may be borrowed, but the suggested perennials and other plantings must be tailored to ones site.

Articles of Interest on English Gardening …
  • A White Garden
  • Look-Into Garden
  • Sissinghurst Castle
  • Historical Herb Gardens
  • Medieval Gardens
  • A Berkshire yard that recalls poetry, fiction, and drama
  • Perennial flowers

1ibid. ‘Visions of Paradise‘ by Marina Schinz

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Gardening has been my favorite hobby for as long as I can remember. When I was 10 years-old, I convinced my parents to let me have my own garden along the west side of their house.

First, I had to prove myself by taking care of all of my Mom’s other gardens for a Summer. I was thrilled with the responsibility, because to me, picking weeds and dead-heading perennials is still one of the most relaxing things in the world. Eventually, they realized my desire for a garden wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment idea, but a deeply rooted desire of a passionate outdoors-man (I mean, girl).

I got my own garden on the condition that I had to do all the work myself and buy my own plants. I was thrilled! I overturned the lawn, tilled it under, added topsoil, compost and mulch, and used all my birthday money to buy a mixture of annuals and perennials. I bordered the edge with rocks I collected from the creek in the valley and made a toad house from terracotta pots.

That garden is one of my favorite childhood memories, and one of the reasons I’m thankful for homeschooling. I want to afford my children the same opportunity to pursue their personal interests, whether that be woodworking, small engine repair, painting, or what have you.

Years later, I spent a couple Summers working for a landscaper – by far my favorite job as a teenager! I would have done the work for free, I loved it so much. Warm sunshine, fresh air, birds chirping, and all the beauty of a zillion flowering plants, literally at my fingertips! I learned a few tricks to achieving a professional-looking design in the process and have had fun building and experimenting in our gardens ever since.

Our new house already had great landscaping “bones,” with several mature shrubs, perennials, and hardscaping in place. There’s really nothing I need to do, but I can never leave well enough alone and am itching to plant “just a few more” perennials, move this over there, dig out that shrub, divide those day lilies, and…


Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, so there may be elements to garden design that look gorgeous to me but meh to you. I tend to favor the English Country Cottage look: a bit of formality paired with a bit of whimsy; neatly clipped boxwoods next to overflowing flowerbeds; formal brick and stone next to natural river rock and mulch; flowing with geometric.

Here are 10 ways to create an English Garden look at your own house. Keep in mind that English gardens aren’t made in a weekend; they are cultivated and developed over years of enjoyment. 🙂

1. Plant a hedge of boxwoods , yews, or similar shrubs to build “walls” in your garden. They create structure, add formality and an element of surprise on the other side.


2. Repeat the materials of your house in your gardens. Stone or brick walls, fountains, and paths help the garden look like a unified extension of the house.

3. Focus on perennial plants. An English garden looks vastly different from season to season. Bulbs and moss phlox are one of the first signs of spring; winter berries, bronze colored sedums, and golden ornamental grass blowing in the wind bring beauty to a snow-covered landscape. The “in between” spaces can be filled with annuals for color all season long.

4. Make sure you have an area in which to sit back and enjoy your garden. Wooden Adirondack chairs, wrought iron, wicker or bent willow, and teak patio furniture compliment an English design.

5. Plant in layers. Taller plants should be in the background, medium plants in the middle, and shorter plants in the foreground.


6. Build a decorative structure. Picket fences, arbors, and trellises not only add height and functionality to a garden, but they also provide a place to showcase vines and other climbing plants such as roses.


7. More is more. English gardens utilize every bit of growing space. Forget spacing rules; go for blooming plants in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures that spill over into walkways, climb up arbors, and burst out of planters.

8. Add some whimsy. Too much “stuff” in a garden can make it look littered and messy, but an intentionally placed birdhouse, chair, watering can, birdbath, or gazing ball, keeps a garden fun and surprising.


9. Choose “old-fashioned” plants. English gardens explode with “romantic” blooms like peonies, hydrangeas, roses, foxgloves, hollyhocks, daisies, and cosmos.


10. Just add water. A fountain, a pond, a bird bath, a lake: English gardens typically involve a water feature of some sort. Water adds a sense of tranquility and peacefulness appreciated by all who stop to smell the roses.

What’s your favorite gardening style? Are you an English landscape lover too?

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Learn The Basic Elements Of An English Garden

Fragrant Earl Grey tea among the sweet blooming roses or lounging in the shade on a hidden garden bench – these scenes are what make the English garden so special and so loved around the world. Keep reading to learn more about the elements of an English garden so you can enjoy this garden too.

English Garden Info

The classic English garden may date as far back as the first century A.D. when the Roman conquerors invaded Britain. It is believed that this primitive English garden included symmetrical gravel walkways, carefully planted short hedges, park-like open lawn space, and a small kitchen garden with herbs and vegetables. In the Middle Ages, when the English garden appeared in our history once more, it still contained a carefully planted kitchen garden along with an outdoor “room” of sorts in which to play lawn games.

Surrounded by tall hedges perfectly manicured, with a walkway usually leading around the lawn space, these outdoor rooms would become one of the defining features of the English garden. These formal landscapes often punctuated with raised flower beds were kept close to the house or castle, while the large amount of unused land surrounding the dwelling was often used to keep cattle or deer. Although the English garden has changed over the centuries, there are a few basic characteristics that you can replicate in your own garden to help add a little “English” to it.

Elements of an English Garden

When designing an English garden of your own, think perennials and annuals, herbs and vegetables, roses, shrubs and grass. Whether you’ve got an acre of garden and lawn space or just a few square feet, these design elements are your first step toward creating that English garden space.

Perennials – Perennials are the traditional flowers of choice for the English garden. Some of these include:

  • Phlox
  • Hibiscus
  • Hydrangea
  • Bee Balm
  • Lupine
  • Veronica

Annuals – Annual flowers are wonderful accompaniments to your perennials, particularly while the perennials are filling in, but don’t let them steal the show. Here are a few popular choices to consider:

  • Pansies
  • Cosmos
  • Marigolds

Herbs and vegetables – Herbs and vegetables are a natural part of the English garden and add gorgeous variety and usefulness to your backyard. Whether you choose to create a “room” specifically for your vegetables, herbs and fruits, or you mingle them into the flower beds along a walkway, the results will be simply delicious!

Roses – Honestly though, what would an English garden be without roses? The delicate fragrance and appearance of the rose adds endless depth to the garden. Try installing a climbing rose along a trellis, arbor or shed and watch the rose’s beauty grow year after year. Or you might, in classic English style, choose to prune your roses to form the same shape every year, (e.g., Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts’ rose garden), perhaps bordering your lawn space or as a backdrop to an herb garden.

Shrubs – Shrubs are a natural part of the English garden, as they help form the cozy garden rooms and add so much height variation and interest to the garden space. Whether it’s a cluster of three blue hydrangeas in the center of your perennial garden room or a solid row of hedges forming the backdrop for your lawn party, shrubs can be so useful and sophisticated.

Grass – The amount of grass that you decide to use in your English garden really just depends on how much mowing you desire to do and what you’ll want to use the lawn area for. You really can’t go wrong here.

Shaping the English Garden

As mentioned before, briefly, shapes are an integral part of the English garden. In the Middle Ages, the shape of the garden rooms and planting beds may have been more rectangular and square. Currently, the fashion in English gardens is for soft, curving lines and winding paths. Again, though, I believe it should be up to your taste. I personally like a nice square garden room bordered by flowers and herbs on all sides and large rectangular shrubs. My best friend’s garden doesn’t have a straight line to be found, however. Her perennial beds, filled with Asiatic lilies and lupines, curve and wind; you never know what you’ll find around the next corner. It’s really quite lovely, and it suits her home and the surrounding grounds well.

Another way you can add attractive shapes to your English garden is with topiary (shrubs or ivy manicured to a distinct shape such as a cone, pyramid or spiral), concrete statues, birdhouses or other ornaments. If you’ve chosen a soft, circular theme for your English garden, placing a simple concrete birdbath in the center would be an eye-catcher. Or if your garden has long straight lines like mine, you may want to add pyramid-shaped topiaries near the entrance for a more formal look.

Regardless of which parts of the English garden you choose to replicate at home, you can be proud to be carrying on a centuries-old tradition in your own backyard.

Don’t forget the croquet!

The best cottage gardens look like they planted themselves. They didn’t, of course. But the design principles they follow are simple.

The English invented the cottage garden, probably in the 1400s when even the humblest plots of land were pressed into service to produce food for families. Every inch of earth counted—with herbs, fruit trees, and flowers (which attracted bees to pollinate crops) jammed close together. Aside from being practical, the effect was charming.

Today’s modern cottage gardens look just as lovely—a spill of color as edible and ornamental plants mingle and flop over the edge of a walkway. Roses engulf a trellis. Hollyhocks lean casually against a brick wall. Here are 10 ideas to steal from English cottage gardens.

Crash Course: Gertrude Jekyll 101

Above: From David Austin, Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (Ausboard) is $28.50 in the US and £17.50 in the UK; here is it planted alongside Epilobium and Geranium ‘Brookside’. Photograph courtesy of David Austin Roses. English gardener Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) is the patron saint of modern cottage gardens, having popularized the informal, blowsy herbaceous borders we associate with country houses (in England) and picket fences (in the US).

In reaction to the fussy, formal plantings the Victorians championed, she advocated a more natural look, with plants arranged by color, height, and flowering season. For more of Jekyll’s ideas and advice, see Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden ($88.79 from Amazon; prices vary based on availability).

Breach Boundaries

Above: William Robinson, a Victorian iconoclast who invented the idea of the “wild garden,” developed his naturalistic approach at Gravetye Manor. For more, see The Ultimate UK Getaway: An Hour from London and a World Away. Photograph courtesy of Gravetye Manor.

To create the quintessential cottage garden, plant flowers at the edge of garden beds and allow them to spill over onto paths. Bonus points for fragrant flowers that brush against visitors’ ankles as they pass by.

Add Arbors

Above: Photograph by Justine Hand. For more, see 10 Easy Pieces: Perennials for a Seaside Garden.

Install sturdy arbors and trellises so you can train vines and climbers (particularly fragrant roses) to grow into billowy shapes against walls, next to gates, and above doorways.

Bench Logic

Above: Remodelista cofounder Sarah Lonsdale’s sister installed a bench to make it easier to regard the garden at eye level. For more of her English cottage garden, see Ruth’s Garden: Playing Wildflower Roulette. Photograph by Sarah Lonsdale.

Place benches, chairs, and chaises strategically in the garden to lure visitors to spend time sitting among the bees and the blossoms. Consider adding seats to a hidden corner, a knoll with a view, or smack in the middle of an especially pretty flower bed (provide stepping stones to guide the way).

Consider Climate

Above: Hollyhocks grow against a wall in a cottage garden in Germany. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: At Home with Katrin Scharl in Brandenburg, Germany. Photograph by Justine Hand.

In the earliest English cottage gardens, there was no room for error. Tried-and-tested plants known to thrive locally were favored because they produced the best crops. In England—or a similar climate—common cottage garden flowers include hollyhock (shown), nicotiana, poppy, foxglove, nasturtium, and cosmos. If you live in a different sort of climate, you can plant native wildflowers to get a similar effect.

6 Steps to a No-Work Cottage Garden

While formal gardens thrive on order and well-defined spaces, cottage gardens bubble in cheerful tangles of flowers that form a kaleidoscope of hue and texture.

“Cottage garden style is relaxed, colorful, and fun,” says Darrell Trout, avid gardener, writer, and lecturer, whose own garden reflects his passion for easy-growing beauty.

“A cottage garden has perhaps less regard for rules than for doing what you really love,” he says. Follow this step-by-step advice to cultivate your own corner of delightful floral abundance.

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How to Create an Easy Cottage Garden

Cottage gardens are intentionally casual. Create a garden that’s easy to maintain and looks great in every season.

1. Starting a Cottage Garden From Scratch

“Don’t create a monster that you don’t have time to feed regularly,” Trout says. “Keep your cottage garden small, and most of all, fun.” Over time, as your confidence grows, increase the size.

2. Invest in Good Soil

“Starting with good, rich, organic soil where plants will thrive with a minimum of watering and fertilizing cuts the work from the start,” Trout says. He also recommends doing a soil test to learn the type of soil you have. Add organic matter yearly, either by purchasing compost or making your own.

3. Position Plants Carefully

Much work in a cottage garden design comes from not having the right plant in the right place. As you gain gardening experience, you can push the envelope, Trout says. “But the healthiest plants—ones that need less care—are those that are in ideal conditions,” he adds.

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4. Select Sturdy Garden Plants

“Choose high-performance, almost bulletproof plants,” Trout says. “There is no absolutely right way or wrong way to create a cottage garden, so choose what you love.”

For foliage interest, try English cottage garden plants like lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Helene Von Stein’), or blue fescue (Festuca glauca). Avoid high-maintenance roses. Trout suggests growing tough, disease-resistant Knock-Out shrub roses, Meidiland landscape roses, ‘Betty Prior’ (a floribunda rose), or the old-fashioned climber ‘Blaze’.

5. Cover Soil

“Mulching helps maintain soil moisture levels and prevents weeds from growing,” Trout says. “As organic mulch (bark, compost, or leaf mold) breaks down, it improves soil. Mulch also gives the garden a neater, more unified look.”

Related: Elements of Cottage Garden Design

6. Use Automatic Watering

Trade dragging a hose around for hands-free watering. “I like drip hoses, as it’s easy to put the water exactly where you want it—and not on the foliage or flowers,” Trout says. “It’s also more environmentally correct: Less water evaporates into the air.”

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Cottage Garden Tips

These pointers will help you make an easy-to-care-for cottage garden design that looks great.

Rely on Hardscaping

Boulders, laid out in natural-looking formations and dug one-third of the way into the soil, are good year-round anchors that complement their flower companions. In addition, a picket or rustic fence makes a fitting backdrop to a cottage garden, adding order to the visual chaos of mixed plantings.

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Add Vintage Garden Accessories

It provides a convenient focal point, and, if you use it as a planter, a stage for plants so they’re not lost among their peers. Old wagons, fertilizer spreaders, bins, and baskets make good additions. Especially in cottage garden design for small gardens, use them in moderation to avoid a junkyard effect.

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Plant Long-Lasting Annuals

Be methodical about which plants you pick, whether they are cottage garden plants for shade or full sun. Melampodium blooms all summer without any coddling. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella) can’t match melampodium’s length of bloom, but it offers ornamental seedpods that last into winter. Love-in-a-mist also reseeds itself without becoming a pest, making your job easier.

Related: Top Annual Plants for Shady Areas

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Make a Path Through the Garden

Garden paths offer visual relief from crowded plantings. More importantly, they make the garden more welcoming and easier to maintain. Consider who will be walking through the garden and in what kind of shoes. This will help you decide whether to go with a soft surface such as gravel or wood chips, or a firm surface such as concrete. A grass path is an easy alternative where foot traffic is low, but it will require regular mowing.

  • By Julie Martens

“A contemporary re-interpretation of the traditional English garden” ? David Marsh, July 2106

What is an “English Garden”? We all know the answer don’t we? Especially in 2016 The Year of the Garden. Even though not all of the readers of this blog are in England I’m sure the words “English Garden” conjure up familiar and comfortable images in your mind. Maybe grand herbaceous borders or expansive Capability Brown landscapes…maybe cottage gardens stuffed with roses and hollyhocks or neatly trimmed lawn with croquet hoops… box topiary, stone urns and lead statues…suburban bedding plants or workday productive allotments? Actually maybe defining an English garden isn’t quite that simple after all.

The question came to mind when I saw this garden a couple of days ago…

“A contemporary re-interpretation of the traditional English garden” ? David Marsh July 2016

and read this description of it….

“Lawns, generous mixed borders planted with annuals and perennials, winding paths and scented rose-filled alleyways are just a few of the features of this new … garden, a contemporary re-interpretation of the traditional English garden.”

“A contemporary re-interpretation of the traditional English garden” ? David Marsh July 2016

Since most of the garden looked nothing like my idea of a typically English garden, after a little giggling, I was left feeling rather bemused and began to wonder if actually I had any idea of what I was talking about. So then I thought best to check out what other people thought and think, so read on to find out about some possible interpretations of what makes “an English Garden”…

I should stress that this post is not meant to be, in any sense an attempt to define what the term “an English Garden” might encompass, but just some slightly random thoughts about the whole idea. What I discovered first, of course, is that “an English Garden” can mean almost all things to almost all people.

David Marsh, July 2015

It certainly seems to mean that to Visit England our national tourist organization. As part of 2016 the Year of the English Garden it has chosen 20 gardens to represent the best. Of course they might mean gardens in England rather than using ‘English Gardens’ as a stylistic tag, but leaving that little problem aside, their selection is a pretty varied bunch – From Alnwick and Beth Chatto’s via Biddulph and Blenhheim, Dixter, Kew and Levens to Stourhead, Stowe and Tresco Abbey – which show just how diverse gardens in England can be.

The full list is at:

Great Dixter,
David Marsh, Oct 2006

But can we get a bit closer to an understanding of the phrase in its stylistic sense. Lets start with the highly respected contemporary garden writer, Ursula Buchan who in 2006 wrote a book called The English Garden. In it she explained the historical trends and the work of garden makers of the past that have shaped the gardens we see in England today. She described many garden styles – formality, the landscape tradition, the Arts and Crafts style, the cottage garden and recent phenomena such as New Naturalism. And then she considered colour, water, ornament and foreign influences as well as such defining characteristics as the very English urge to grow flowers and the nation’s love of roses. After all this she summed up what defines an English garden as “informal and generous planting within a formal layout.” “Geometry” she said has been “the guiding principle… with plants undermining, ever so slightly, the purity of line.”

How does that fit in with this description in another book called The English Garden and published in 2015 by Jim Lewis, an American writer? An English garden is, he says, “like nature, only better. Nature with all the awkward bits smoothed out. And then picturesque, like a landscape painting.” Although that strikes me as much less inclusive and much more like a description of simply the English landscape garden, without taking account of the other strands of English garden history, it has the merit of being a coherent attempt at definition.

David Marsh, July 2015

I suppose one of the problems is that we live in an age when much of our life can be classified, measured and easily pigeon-holed. That leads to a desire to classify, measure and pigeon-hole everything, including those things which naturally are more informal chaotic and unmeasurable. Maybe the English garden is something that falls into second category which makes defining what it is – or isn’t – more difficult and tortuous.

Clearly, however, not everybody feels the same way. “Nothing is easier than designing an English Garden while you enjoy your home or before selling it! If you go to your local gardening store and ask them what to buy they should be totally helpful!” Needless to say the writer isn’t English with a good traditional nursery nearby or even a B&Q or Homebase as their local gardening store, but a glitzy estate agent in southern California. While we might laugh initially, I wonder if we’d be any better at outlining the principles of a Californian garden to a British audience?

David Marsh, Sep 2012

Yet more apparently serious sources also think the elements that make up an English garden can be classified. Here, for example, are some crucial points from the University of Vermont’s guide to designing an English Garden. The “natural feeling they evoke” makes them “look as if no planning was necessary” although it is. So, first choose a palette of 3 or 4 colours, then group plants together “without being symmetrical” in borders “often three feet or more wide and very curvy.” But because “An English garden is all about surprise” you don’t have to stick to that rigidly. Finally you need to add the “accessories” or “the structures” or “the whimsy.” These could be a gate, a clematis-covered trellis or a water feature, but it could also be a frog statue or some antique watering cans.

And, of course, garden designers the world over think they know what makes an “English Garden”. Here are a few examples…

“The choices are endless because the only real rule is to plant densely.”

Cressing Temple, Essex
David Marsh, March 2016

“The large lawn and stately trees are the starting point” for an English garden. “There’s a sense of flow between every part of the garden rather than separation.” But the key feature is “lush greenery”.

“A small English Garden” in Norway

“It starts with the lawn. Just think of the opening credits of the popular British television series Downton Abbey and that vast expanse of green surrounding the castle estate of the Crawley family.”

“Around here, it means a highly structured, manicured, high maintenance, landscaped yard.”

There are even advice sites telling you how to set up “an English Garden” step by step.

Step 5 of How to set up an English garden

I’ve found Russian ideas about what it means…

I am assured the title translates as something like The English Garden

and even instructions on how to make an English garden in Thailand.

Indeed Youtube is full of such delights…

“contemporary English Garden mediterranean landscape”

But my favourite has to be :”Actually, I didn’t really know what an “English garden” was until I checked the internet on Tuesday morning.” Would that all questions could be answered that easily!

Obviously I’ve been more than a little selective but there is a serious question to answered: can an English garden be defined?

The Herbaceous Border, Wisley, David Marsh, Sept 2007

South Border at Munstead Wood, by Helen Allingham, c.1900
Art Fund

Where better to check that possibility than the OED. There an English garden is defined as “(originally) an informal garden created so as to produce the effect of natural scenery, esp. one with undulating parkland, serpentine lakes, and open vistas, such as those designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (c1716–83); (later also) an informal cottage garden, typically stocked with colourful flowering plants.” So does that bring clarity? Maybe! What the OED does is offer 2 distinct interpretations, but with the important “originally” and the “later also” to make sure the reader understand that the definition has evolved and perhaps continues to do so.

Perhaps one way forward is to consider the first specific usage of “English garden” as a stylistic descriptor, rather than just another way of saying gardens in England. We might be surprised to discover that according to the OED this does not happen until 1771 and then by a Frenchman. Horace Walpole wrote from Paris “English gardening gains ground here… There is a Monsieur Boutin, who, has tacked what he calls an English garden to a set of stone terraces.” . That is reinforced by a similar contemporary French reference to the Parc Monceau in Paris “being laid out as long ago as 1778…as ‘an English garden’.”

This ties in with what as Alicia Amherst said in her influential A History of Gardening in England of 1896: “by the end of the 18thc landscape gardening had become the recognized National style of gardening of England and it was copied widely on the continent…’English gardens’ became the fashion and books were written abroad to extol the English taste, and invite other nations to copy it.” But she points out that “on the Continent one thing was lacking, which was the redeeming point of all these landscapes, and that was the green turf. Nowhere is the grass so green and fair as in England.” So maybe the spirit of the English garden is to do with green lushness and verdure after all? Or at least that when we use the phrase English garden we have just forgotten to add the word “landscape” in the middle. But that’s way off the American usage outlined above, which seems to be more about some imaginary formalised cottage garden – if such a thing is possible. It also seems to be far away from the garden I had just seen which fits neither of the OED definitions, even remotely.

The lake and temple at Wootton, Bucks
David Marsh, Sept 2014

My immediate thoughts about the contemporary take on the ‘English garden’ that I started with, was, that even if it was supposed to be typical it was only typical of a particular England. It has reminiscences of Gertrude Jekyll’s corner of England where gardens were carved out of the sandy heathland and light birch-filled woodlands of Surrey. So maybe Gertrude herself has something to say on what makes a garden specially English?

The Terrace at Brockenhurst, from Some English Gardens

In Some English Gardens, she looks at a series of gardens many of which have large elements of the then fashionable neo-Italianate style. But talking of Brockenhurst, a newly completed garden, she says that while the principles of Italian gardens may be imported, “what is right and fitting in Italy is not necessarily right in England” and “they cannot be compelled or coerced, so whether or not this is the kind of gardening best suited for England maybe open to doubt.” Gardens have to fit their locations and while the geometry can be imposed, it must be adapted it to local circumstances.

The garden at Crathes Castle from Some English Gardens

A quick search through several of Jekyll’s other books did not yield any detailed indication of her views on what particularly constitutes an English garden in stylistic terms. However Since Some English Gardens also includes a selection of gardens from Scotland and Ireland perhaps Jekyll was implying that the gardens she was describing were English in style – which given the examples she chose means English versions of Italianate! Of course that’s not particularly surprising since as Robin Lane Fox wrote: “The grand old lady of English gardening had been formed by un-English travels” .

You can find Some English Gardens in full at:

Yet the idea of an English Garden having a separate identity must have been well understood in the 19thc because , for example, Paxton and/or his pupil and associate Edward Milner designed an English garden for the Crystal Palace when it moved to Sydenham. This acted as a counterweight to the much better known Italian Garden. Now long gone Illustrated London News was delighted to discover that Leaving the “stately luxury” of the Italian gardens behind the visitor encountered “an old English green, a coppice or a wild dell” just down the path. An ‘informal’ “English Garden” was also laid out – again next to a ‘formal’ Italian one – in Regents Park in the 1860s.

Old English Garden, Battersea park

The idea of the English garden as a separate entity received another significant boost in the public mind when it was taken up by Col JJ Sexby, the pioneering head of Parks for the London County Council. He modified it somewhat but laid out a series of what he called Old English Gardens in the new wave of public parks that were being opened across the capital. Others followed in this tradition in suburban areas as local authorities created new public green spaces, often in the walled gardens associated with mansions and small estates that were being taken over and adapted.

The parc anglais at the Chateau at Chaumont-sur-Loire,
David Marsh, July 2016

The parc anglais at the Chateau at Chaumont-sur-Loire,
David Marsh, July 2016

BUT and its a big BUT none of the examples I’ve looked at really much resemblance to the garden that sparked the question in the first place. Of course, Now is the time that I should confess that it wasn’t designed by anyone English. Indeed it isn’t even in England but in the new permanent show grounds of the contemporary Garden festival at the Chateau of Chaumont-sur-Loire. These are laid out in the remnants of a beautiful 19thc cedar-filled parc anglais – another interestingstylitsic appropriation.

Archipelago, a contemporay Japanese garden designed by Shodo Suzuki, David Marsh, July 2013

Square and Round a contemporary Chinese Garden designed by Yu Kiong, David Marsh, July 2013

The new garden was designed by the staff at the horticultural college that’s based at the château and that run the festival there. Its sits across the way from a contemporary Chinese garden designed by Yu Kongjiang, head of the Landscape Department at Beijing University and not far from several contemporary Japanese gardens designed by three prominent Japanese landscape architects.

Maybe that says a lot. I can’t imagine there would be many Europeans confident enough to try and lay out an authentic Chinese, or Japanese garden, but for some reason everyone thinks they know what an English garden is…even if, like me, they probably don’t!

Grimsthorpe Castle,
David Marsh, July 2013

Final thought: maybe the simple answer is one designer’s much more pragmatic and straightforward definition: “An English garden is simply a garden that is designed to look like it grows in the British Isles.”

Oakwell Hall, Birstall

English garden

English garden, French Jardin Anglais, type of garden that developed in 18th-century England, originating as a revolt against the architectural garden, which relied on rectilinear patterns, sculpture, and the unnatural shaping of trees. The revolutionary character of the English garden lay in the fact that, whereas gardens had formerly asserted man’s control over nature, in the new style, man’s work was regarded as most successful when it was indistinguishable from nature’s. In the architectural garden the eye had been directed along artificial, linear vistas that implied man’s continued control of the surrounding countryside, but in the English garden a more natural, irregular formality was achieved in landscapes consisting of expanses of grass, clumps of trees, and irregularly shaped bodies of water.

Buckingham: Stowe Landscape GardensThe Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, England.© Patrick Wang/.com

In the 16th century the English philosopher Francis Bacon was outspokenly critical of the artificiality of “knot gardens.” He was supported in the early 18th century by Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope, who argued that trees should be allowed to grow into natural shapes; by the artist William Hogarth, who pointed out the beauty of a wavy line; and by a new attitude that nature was good. As the factotum of the Whig aristocracy, William Kent (q.v.) was responsible for beginning the wholesale transformation of the old formal parterres into the new fashion. The classic example of the transformation was at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where the greatest of England’s formal gardens was by stages turned into a landscaped park under the influence of Kent and then of Lancelot Brown.

English Gardens

Eight dos and don’ts for landscaping in the English style By Genevieve Schmidt Swipe to view slides

  • Symmetrical use of annual flowers creates a colorful and inviting entry.
  • Thoughtful use of geometric shapes like circles and rectangles gives order to the space while feeling beautifully inviting.
  • Divide the space in the landscape using hedging plants like arborvitae to create garden rooms.
  • Hornbeam creates a loose hedge and provides a clean backdrop for the tumbling perennial flowers.
  • Tulips and PJM Rhododendron provide a connection to the seasons by heralding spring.
  • Tumbling flowers feel lively rather than messy due to the neat boxwood border.

English Landscape Style Guide

Use this design sheet to help you create the perfect English landscape. You’ll get ideas for color, décor, materials, plants and fabric. It is a great starting point for any landscaping project.

English Landscape Style Guide (PDF)

View all Landscape Design Style Guides

Plants for an English garden:


Shrubs and perennials:
Tardiva Hydrangea
Mophead Hydrangea
Knockout® rose
David Austin rose

The English design style is a study in contrasts. Neatly clipped boxwood hedges contain lively, riotous flowerbeds, and natural materials like limestone or thatch combine with formal brick for a pleasing contrast of natural with man-made, flowing with geometric.

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Patrick Zaremba, an award-winning designer in Southeastern Michigan, is an expert at combining these elements. “The English garden relies heavily upon geometry,” he says. “If viewed from above, walkways are centered, and circles and rectangular shapes combine to give the landscape a sense of order.” Yet Zaremba’s built landscapes also have a softness to them from his use of flowering annuals and perennials. Here are his tips for designing effectively in this theme.


  • Do use hedges or walls to develop garden rooms. “By visually encapsulating different areas of the landscape, you can create an experience of discovery as you move through the garden,” explains Zaremba.
  • Do emulate the materials of your home in your outdoor features. By repeating the use of materials like stone or brick in garden walls, columns, reflecting pools or fountains, you bring about a sense of unity between home and garden.
  • Do select plants that change throughout the year. The best gardens “gravitate towards an expression of the seasons,” says Zaremba. Bulb displays like tulips are one of the first signs of spring, while summer blooms, fall foliage, and winter berries bring a sense of excitement and connection to the outdoor world.
  • Do plant lavish displays of annual flowers. Annuals can bloom for five months at a time, which is something few perennials and shrubs can manage. Zaremba suggests using them in symmetrical plantings to draw the eye to a pathway, entry or focal area.


  • Don’t use free-flowing, curvy borders. The English style uses geometric shapes like ovals, circles, rectangles or squares to organize the landscape. A curving border can make the tumbling English cottage garden plantings feel messy rather than exuberant.
  • Don’t choose a mixed cottage garden style of planting for every garden bed. It’s the contrast between the riot of color and the refined calm of the surroundings that makes an English cottage garden planting stand out.
  • Don’t use too many focal points. Just as a woman would never put on all of her jewelry at once, focal areas are best when each is allowed to stand on its own. One or two well-chosen pieces make more of a statement than an abundance of them.
  • Don’t mix too many different hardscape materials. Select one or two classic materials like limestone, bluestone, brick or cobble, and repeat them throughout the landscape for a sense of continuity.

About Patrick Zaremba:

Zaremba’s interest in design started early. As a child, he rambled across the rural landscape of North Oakland County and spent the majority of his time exploring the outdoors. “This was my formative playground and probably my greatest initial influence,” he says.

You can see this in his landscaping philosophy today. “My passion is to design beautiful spaces that create a sense of inner peace that you are naturally drawn to,” he explains. Since 1998, Zaremba and Company has created over 500 built landscapes, integrating home and garden for properties around Michigan.

Zaremba & Company
Clarkston, MI

Popular English gardens come in a few distinct styles such as the English country garden, the classic English garden, and the English cottage garden. In spite of the names, they belong in England only as much as impressionism in painting belongs to Claude Monet. Anyone anywhere in the world can enjoy gardens incorporating the typical features of these time-tested styles.

The English Country Garden

Gardening in England underwent a series of transformations over the ages. The natural landscape gardens in the 18th century, which came to be known as English country gardens, or simply jardin anglais, may be considered a deliberate rebellion in garden design against the rigidity of the formal French-style knot gardens of the 17th century England.

Romanticizing the natural beauty of English countryside, and taming it to suit the lifestyles of the English gentry, vast expanses of land was remodeled to feature rolling lawns ending in groves of trees or merging into large lakes or flowing springs. Flower beds, flowering shrubs, and such other attempts to add color to the landscape are conspicuous by their absence.

Elements of an English Country Garden

With a sufficiently big budget, and with the help of large earth-moving equipment, English country gardens can be recreated to include their typical features such as:


Well worn pathways in the grass made by walking can lead to different elements of interest in the garden. They are not paved.


Clipped and shaped hedges, as well as topiaries, are consciously avoided so that the landscape looks open, airy, and natural.


Large areas of lawn modeled after the undulating meadows of the countryside make up the majority of this garden style.

Garden Structures

A garden structure built to resemble a Greek monopteros or a Chinese pavilion is common. Statues or carefully constructed ruins add some interest to the landscape.

Water Elements

Water features, such as a natural lake or artificial pond made to look natural, are often part of the garden design. Frequently included is a footbridge across the water body or pier overlooking it.

Flower Beds, Shrubs, and Trees

Flower beds and pruned shrubs have no place in the natural landscape style of the English country garden. A mixed planting of native shrubs along the water’s edge is left to grow and spread in a natural way. Occasional trimming may be necessary.

Native species of trees and what grows naturally in the surrounding area are preferred over exotic specimens from foreign lands. They are planted close together to resemble a naturally occurring grove.

Plant Suggestions

  • Native plant species that grow naturally in surrounding area; shrubs may include Broom, Dogwood, Lavender, Magnolia
  • Native trees planted in clusters; may include Maple, Birch, Chestnut, Beech, Oak, Ash

Famous Country Gardens

William Kent and the famous English poet Alexander Pope were connoisseurs of the country garden. Nineteenth century American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing promoted landscape gardening based on the English country gardens. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Central Park in Manhattan, freely applied these principles in his works. The Natural Garden by Ken Druse gives valuable ideas to replicate this gardening style on a smaller scale.

The Classic English Garden

After the romantic spell of the landscaped countryside scenes which were, to borrow the words of Walter Pater, “almost offensively green”, the garden design eventually returned to formality with careful addition of color during the Victorian Era. The classic English garden style borrows heavily from the 20th century Victorian gardens that are found in every continent the British had a presence at that time.

Refinement in design and well-manicured looks are the main characteristics of the classic garden. Geometrical shapes dominate, and they provide a neat framework for the predetermined areas of ornamental flowers, shrubs, trees and even some vegetables and herbs. “A place for everything and everything in its place” can very well be the guiding principle here.

Elements of a Classic English Garden


A wide, brick-paved or graveled pathway connecting the entrance and exit of the garden in a straight line typically forms the main axis. Horizontal pathways may arise from the main path.


Neatly clipped hedges form the geometrical framework of the classic English garden. The main pathways, as well as those branching off from them, have hedge borders. Taking into account space constraints, need for privacy, and display of flower beds beyond, they can be tall yew hedges or shorter box hedges.


Perfectly laid out lawns have a major role in the classic design. The spaces between the hedges are planted with grass, except where vegetable patches are planned. Each lawn may have a special feature such as a pool, glass house, gazebo, or an open seating area.

Garden Structures

Structures like gazebos, arbors, and seating arrangements that facilitate outdoor life in the garden are together referred to as an “Outdoor Room” in classic gardens, and designing a small area for this room is a must in any classic English garden.

Water Elements

A fountain or birdbath in the center of the garden, or a rectangular or circular pool in the middle of the lawn, constitutes the water element in the classic English garden.

Flower Beds, Shrubs, and Trees

Flower beds have annuals or perennials planted in rows next to low hedges or in a circle in the middle of the lawn. Pastels are preferred over bright colors, but new varieties currently in fashion often find a place in the garden. Even monochromatic schemes, such as white gardens, may be planned and can be displayed to advantage against the green background.

Larger shrubs are planted singly or in small groups dotting the lawn or at regular intervals along the length of the hedge.

A general belief is that the crown of a plant is about the same size as its root spread; hence it is taken into account while determining optimum spacing between each type of plant. Care is taken to keep them pruned to maintain uniformity.

Conifers are usually clipped into columns or pyramids or other interesting topiary. However, exotic trees of special interest are often allowed to maintain their natural form.

Plant Suggestions

The English Cottage Garden

If formality is the hallmark of the classic style, the lack of it defines the English cottage garden. Their humble origins lie in the highly utilitarian gardens of the peasantry and working class families of olden times. However, the sheer exuberance and the delightful informality of cottage gardens have made them as popular as, if not more than, the classic style with those in every walk of life. It is the ideal style for those who like to putter around the garden and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Cottage garden plantings may look informal, but that does not mean that they happen by chance. A lot of planning goes into the designing of a delightful cottage garden even though improvisation can be easily accommodated at any time. Geoff Hamilton’s Cottage Gardens can take you through the history and details of a variety of garden designs.

Elements of English Cottage Garden


An integral part of garden design, curvaceous walkways of the cottage garden make flower beds and seating areas accessible. They may be nothing more than a narrow mud or gravel path edged with either bricks or a variety of plantings that serve as a border.

They are not an essential part of cottage gardens, but unplanted areas may be covered by grass to suit the personal preference. Curvy lines may be preferable to straight lines to maintain the informal character.

Garden Structures

  • Fashioned out of wood or iron and covered with climbers, trellises, arches, and fences add charm as well as vertical interest to the cottage garden.
  • Roses are a traditional favorite climbing choice, but other flowering climbers like clematis or climbing hydrangea can be just as lovely. Select climbers with scented flowers such as sweet pea or jasmine to plant near seating areas.
  • Wooden or wrought iron benches may be placed in areas that offer a great view of the garden. Urns, statues, and sculptures also can add to the visual interest.
  • There is nothing like a picket fence to transform any garden into an English cottage garden. Painted white or blue, they can be the ideal backdrop for flower beds or a seating area within a small lawn.

Water Elements

A birdbath or a small lily pond can add interest to the cottage garden, particularly when fashioned out of recycled materials.

Flower Beds, Shrubs, and Trees

Perennials are the backbone of flower beds with a few annuals added for interest. They are planted close together to display a mass of color when in flower. Bright, eye-catching flowers are welcomed but deliberate color schemes are shunned by cottage gardeners. A few foliage plants for color and texture, some herbs for the kitchen and the medicine chest, and a few fruit and vegetable crops complete the picture. Shorter plants form the foreground and taller ones are relegated to the back of the bed. A few fruit trees may be espaliered against the wall to bear maximum fruit in minimum space.

Plant Selection

English Cottage Garden Plan

Follow this garden plan to construct a pretty English garden in your landscape. If you need help downloading the printable plan, check out these helpful tips.

Garden Selection

No matter which garden style you choose, be sure to do your research before starting your project. Be sure to make a drawing outlining the garden elements including a list of plants that you wish to include. This will serve as a blueprint for your garden and will make construction much easier.

  1. Start small. An expansive cottage garden can look like an untended garden; you can always add more later if you decide to. Keep a bit of lawn to break things up and avoid straight lines in planning your garden plot.
  2. Use a good mix of plants, including a variety of fragrant flowers, and start by planting large clumps so it’s not just a jumble. If you live in a hot, dry climate, don’t be afraid to substitute Mediterranean plants or succulents.
  3. Repeat both plants and colors to create a sense of flow and harmony. Don’t forget to add tall plants for visual interest. You don’t need to worry about putting them in the back, as you might in a border, but you do want the eye to move up and around, rather than viewing one flat plane.
  4. Add some paths for access and weeding. Choose path material to complement your garden and home. Traditional materials include brick, stone, gravel, or dirt. Let plants spill over each other and onto the walkways.
  5. Add some structure with small trees, shrubs or obelisks covered in vines. Strong feature plants, like shrub roses, flowering trees, and shrubs will prevent the look from becoming blurred and gauzy. Evergreens give any garden a sense of structure.
  6. As a finishing touch, give the garden a backdrop and add decorative touches. Hedges, rustic fences or even a wall, will serve as a background that brings the garden into focus. Because of the informality of a cottage garden you can decorate with all kinds of found objects and garden accents, including trellising, vine-covered arbors, antiques, rockers, and birdbaths.

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