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The Proper English Garden

Open vistas, enclosed spaces. Brick walls, curly vines. A successful English garden will delight the senses, offering fragrant, colorful flowers, but with some sense of order.

Unlike Japanese gardens that are defined and refined, English gardens are loose, open and naturalistic, says Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist for the English Walled Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Like an English estate, with rooms divided up for various purposes, English gardens also have defined “rooms” or spaces. “You don’t see the entire garden all at once,” Heather says.

You’ll have vistas, statuary and water features. And you’ll hear the sound of water running even if you can’t see it, since water is a key element, she says. While the Chicago garden only has two major fountains, you can hear water moving in each of the six rooms. It might be a fountain spilling over into something else, but it’s tranquil and relaxing. Waterfalls would be too loud, Heather says.

Sections

While every garden is different and sections may have different names, there are commonalities for the areas you’d expect in an English garden. That could be a cottage bed, an herb garden, a cutting area, pergola garden, courtyard garden and a formal garden.

Some sections may be combined, like herb and cutting gardens, where items from both could easily make their way into the home for cooking use and display. A cottage garden often includes an herb garden and cutting garden. They might also be referred to as a kitchen garden, since it’s often right outside the home’s back door.

“The cottage garden is the heartbeat of an English garden,” says Heather, because of its practical aspects. In medieval times, the English didn’t bathe frequently, and by bringing in fragrant flowers from their cutting garden, they could mask smells.

English gardens usually have large perennial borders on the south or west side, maybe 200-300 feet long and very deep, says Heather. Often it’s in the pergola garden, aptly named because there’s a pergola in it. At the Chicago Botanic Gardens, they put a big blue bench next to the perennials, and planted the beds in blue hues because the shade is so calming.

The courtyard garden is like an entranceway to someone’s house, Heather says, with the street on one side and the home on the other. This section is often small and intimate, and Heather plants it in white to lighten the area up, because it tends to be shady.

Each section might have a different feel. While the courtyard garden might feel private, in more open areas you might feel like you’re being seen. The garden should move and change as you wander through it.

Garden Walls

Walls help define the rooms at an English garden, Heather says. They can be made out of boxwood hedges, brickwork or masonry. It’s important to use some hedges as living walls, because the evergreens behind them would die otherwise.

When using brick or masonry, you can cover the walls with vines like lavender. “Lavender brings to mind English gardens,” Heather says. She also recommends covering the wall by espalier, climbing roses, hydrangeas, Virginia creepers, morning glory or wisteria. “I have moonflower that open at night, that are heavenly scented,” she says.

In high season, you should only see a third of the wall exposed. To provide other views, Heather sometimes cuts windows in the hedges, so visitors can peek into other sections of the garden. “You can view a couple of the big statues and the sundial, and view the daisy garden,” she says.

English Garden Origins

English gardens started because people needed places to grow things, and didn’t have a lot space, says Heather. They started with trees grown in an espalier method, usually on the north and south walls. The espalier method involves trimming and often tying back the tree to grow in a two dimensional way, still allowing fruit growth. The method became popular at castles in the 1700s.

English gardens originally were known for huge vistas, in styles used by landscape architect Capability Brown. They’ve changed significantly over the years and now use more informal plantings, with neighbors communally sharing cuttings.

Gertrude Jekyll, a British horticulturist and garden designer who died in 1932, was involved in making English gardens what they are today. “She was pretty much blind when she started getting into colors,” Heather says, which is interesting because her designs are known for using flowers with vivid colors, changing each season.

Does size matter?

Garden size doesn’t matter, says Heather. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s English Walled Garden is 1.5 acres, and heavily tended by at least two full time horticulturists. If you’re creating one at your home and have more than a half an acre, you’ll likely need assistance, she says. It also depends on your goals. For Heather’s home garden, she has a small lot but it’s a “jam-packed English garden.” She plants it for cuttings to bring indoors. While it requires heavy watering every August, it doesn’t need as much work because she doesn’t worry about the garden structure. She adjusts her plantings based on what works and what doesn’t work.

Have a well laid out plan, so you can start in the spring. Reference books as well as online resources are helpful, she says.

English Gardens to Visit

While Heather is partial to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s English garden, she also enjoys Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “It’s a different scale,” she says. Brookside in Wheaton, Maryland is another favorite. “They call it the “fountain garden,” and it’s reminiscent of Sackville-West in England. The garden is much smaller than ours, but it’s breathtaking,” she says. In Woodside, California there’s Filoli Gardens, which is similar to what you’d find at a European estate.

Across the pond, English garden aficionados should visit Hestercombe, partly designed by Gertrude Jekyll. Heather also recommends Great Dickster, Sissinghurst and Kew Gardens.

Planting Your English Garden

If you’re thinking of creating your own English garden, here are some plants to consider. Highly scented flowers are preferable, says Heather.

For the cottage garden, popular perennials include phlox, Lily of the Valley and ladies mantle. Consider peonies in spring.

For herbs, try golden oregano, which has a beautiful yellow leaf, instead of a traditional oregano plant. Rosemary and parsley are also good choices.

To cover walls, consider lavender, espalier trees, climbing roses, cucumber vines, hydrangea and Virginia creeper.

English gardens traditionally have roses with really good hips on them, Heather says. In Chicago, she uses David Austin roses, which are known for keeping their scent and cabbage style.

  • Updated August 9, 2017
  • Garden
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