A cultured garden: English gardens

A pergola at the back of a beautiful english garden
ARTICLE Jason Burgess

There seems to be two schools of thought as to what exactly constitutes an English Garden. For some it is the pruned symmetry and aristocratic formality of Victoriana. Others tend towards the more eclectic rambling colour fields of a ‘cottage’ style garden. Defining the true character of an English garden may be as convoluted as that nation’s history. 

The essence of an English garden design speaks volumes about the character, history and traditions of the English. The roots of garden design and botanical knowledge extends back via the Roman conquest to the library of Aristotle. This rich lineage has provided landscape designers and gardeners down the ages, with a slew of creative options for transforming open spaces into horticultural havens. Today there is an anything goes aspect to English garden design with contemporary landscaper’s cherry picking from all manner of era’s, styles and themes to create something truly unique. 

White bench at the end of a lavender covered pathway

For centuries, English gardens were the domains of the rich and the clergy. Most often highly architectural in design, walled sanctuaries mostly, ordered and controlled to keep nature at bay and the prevailing landscape out. Natural contours were leveled or terraced and trees and evergreen shrubs clipped or severely trained to make patterns and shapes that fit the overall design.  Geometric shapes like ovals, circles, rectangles or squares were offset by centered walkways with sundials and fountain focal points. 

Symmetry is the operative feature of these early sanctums. Brick and stone perimeter walls provided privacy while inside; arbors, fences and gates provided the framework for enclosed spaces or ‘rooms.’ Each of these zones had a unique character based on colour, shapes or other thematic devices that helped create secret places to read, meditate or just enjoy a summer’s day.

It was not until the 20thC that domestic gardening became popular. In the early 1900’s the Arts and Crafts movement whose aesthetic was based on traditional craftsmanship and materials, gave rise to a more naturalistic look. Gardens became more like landscape paintings adopting a free-flowing and continuous ground plan defined by sweeping borders and island beds -usually bisected by garden paths or wider areas of lawn. They were sensitive to site and in the main used on-hand materials. Flowerbeds were transformed with profuse colour, overhung by tall trees with layers of texture, rambling paths and water features creating a complete sensory experience. 

Rich flower bed showing off multiple colours

Contrasts are universal through all English garden styles. Their rhythms thought capable of triggering the subconscious and evoking other places, inner and outer, they create their own pictures while also framing available vistas. Contemporary garden design still utilise arches, gates and hedging to add structure and define individually planted areas while at the same time providing visual links. The eye should glide effortlessly down every path, and along each wall resting on focal points before moving on. 

Achieving flow between a house and garden can be achieved by matching the building material details used in your home with the hardscape in the garden. Keep it simple and use no more than two different kinds of hardscaping media, let the planting do the rest. Bountiful beds of annual colour can be used in symmetrical plantings to lead the eye along a pathway or to entry and focal areas.  In a north facing situation a kitchen garden close to the house could provide an abundant and practical jumping off point into the rest of the garden.

Climbing greenery, overflowing beds framed by perfectly manicured shrubbery contrast the natural with man-made. Add height to your overall space with pergolas and gazebo’s. Fully enclosed or open-ended with trellised sides, such structures provide the perfect roost for vines and trailing plants, like clematis and climbing roses. Inject some outdoor living with a Luytens garden bench for a resting spot or table and chairs for shaded summer dining. Judiciously reference classical landscapes with statuary, urns or column focal points. 

English style porch with white chairs and a heater

Create parterres with borders of neatly clipped boxwood, natives or taller yew hedges. These will provide a suitable background palette for containing and offsetting flowerbeds. Express the seasons. Use perennials to provide daubs of foundation colour then change out the highlights throughout the year. The introduction of exotic species to English gardens began with the Romans. So don’t be afraid to mix different plant types or create colourfields in each bed. 

Forget garden fashions and mix and match natives with rhododendrons, tulips, geraniums, snapdragons, chrysanthemums, dahlias and camellias. Edge the flowerbeds with lavender and roses and increase the depth of your flowerbeds and borders. Accentuate your plantings with a strip of lawn to separate each bed this will add a sense of space and contrast yet link all the visual elements.  Water in reflecting pools, ponds or fountains, creates an illusion of space and is known to induce a sense of calm. In tighter areas, cluster pots and containers together for strong visual impact and add edible herbs to create texture and selected daubs of colour. 

Be sure to talk to your Zones landscaping specialist about how to channel some of that landscaping history and transform your backyard into a lush and fragrant English themed, Shangri-la. 

As mentioned in the article, you can use Fences and Gates to give some privacy to your English garden. Check out How much do basic fences and gates cost.


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If you would like to discuss options and ideas for your english garden or landscaping project, please use the enquiry form on this page to provide us with your contact details. We will get in touch with you at a time that suits you to discuss your landscaping design and build. If you would like to provide us with more information about your project, we have a more comprehensive enquiry form on our "Get in touch" page too.

*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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