English country garden style is loved all over the world.
But many beautiful ‘English country’ gardens are not even in England.
So it can be quite a difficult style to define. I’ve asked a range of experts to say what they think English country style is, with tips on how to achieve it in your own garden. These are the key elements:
- Wide path or paths
- Large borders – even in a small garden
- Lots of flowers through the seasons
- Topiary or sculpture for winter interest
- Self-seeding plants
- A lawn
- Traditional garden furniture
- A trellis, rose arch or sundial
- A pond.
The experts include Amicia Oldfield of Doddington Place Gardens in Kent, head gardeners Tom Brown of West Dean Gardens and Steve Porter of Chatsworth gardens, gardener and podcaster, Joff Elphick, and Clare Foggett, editor of The English Garden magazine.
Flowers – at the heart of English country garden style
Doddington Place Gardens in Kent is owned by Richard and Amicia Oldfield. So I asked Amicia what was specifically ‘English country garden’ about it.
‘An English country garden is full of flowers,’ she said. ‘Doddington Place Garden is bursting with flowers of every shape, hue, size and colour. And it has lots and lots of roses everywhere. And I really understood this when I went on a French gardens tour one year, and noticed that there were so few flowers in the gardens.’
What English country garden style is not…
Joff Elphick is a freelance gardener who has worked in some great English country gardens, including Barnsley House and for the National Trust. He also runs the Pot & Cloche podcast, interviewing interesting horticultural people on a range of topics.
Joff says that English country garden style isn’t cottage garden style. (See here for more about cottage garden style).
And Joff also thinks that it isn’t a landscape garden as in sweeping ‘naturalistic’ Capability Brown landscapes. ‘But it’s a broad church and many people will disagree on where exactly the boundaries fall.’
The top features of an English country garden
‘One or all of the following features might be present,’ says Joff. ‘Wide paths, deep herbaceous borders, structures, pools, rills, structures, terraces and lavishly planted pots.’
He adds that an area for growing vegetables, with a glass greenhouse, wall fruit, an orchard and also some topiary are also traditional elements.
But it’s not necessarily in England or even wholly English…
He points out that English country gardens do not need to be in England: ‘I’ve seen gardens in Chicago that are more English than the English.’
And he questions whether it is even wholly English in its elements: ‘Potager, cloche, allee, espalier, jardiniere, parterre and trompe l’euil are all borrowed names.’
Joff worked at Barnsley House, which was home to one of the great English garden designers, Rosemary Verey. She was a great influence on Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove. Joff says that she was ‘an expert at using historical references and recreating them to fit the space she had. And she took inspiration from early 15th century gardens onwards.’
English country garden style is timeless…
Clare Foggett is the editor of The English Garden magazine. It features gardens all over the UK, both small and large, and in cities and towns as well as the country.
‘ English country garden style is traditional and timeless,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t follow fashion – in fact, it can be old-fashioned, but as a result gardens of this style have a mellow, settled feeling. They seem like part of the fabric of the land, harking back to eras of great gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson.’
William Robinson was famously ‘the Irish man who taught the English how to garden.’ There’s more about his own garden, Gravetye Manor, now a hotel, here.
Joff Elphick says that if you want an English country garden, ‘start with the borders and add features, one by one, from there.’
Clare adds that because this style comes from larger gardens, it’s important to make those borders as big as you can.
She advises planting ‘traditional, classic plants like roses, clematis and honeysuckle on trellis and walls, and perennials for soft, summer colour. Think delphiniums, hardy geraniums, astrantia, Alchemilla mollis. To really clinch the English country garden look, plant anything that conjures up a romantic, dreamy feeling.’
Hard landscaping and structures can also help achieve the look. Joff suggests things like rose arches, obelisks in borders, topiary, a sundial, a meadow or an orchard if you have the space.
Steve Porter, head gardener at Chatsworth, also says that planting is the key to English country garden style. He says that English country plants include rhododendrons, clematis, roses, honeysuckle, foxgloves, hollyhocks, alchemilla mollis, dahlias and perennials.
‘Go for full borders, with lots of colour, form and texture, spilling out over paths.’
English country garden is ‘just a layer’ at Chatsworth…
Steve says that English country garden style is ‘just a layer’ at Chatsworth, but it is the element that visitors most closely identify with.
The Chatsworth gardens date back to Elizabethan times. But the main features of the current garden were laid out in the 18th century. They include a magnificent Cascade, several outstanding fountains, a folly and more.
And the famous Capability Brown subsequently created sweeping parkland.
But additions from Victorian times onwards were more ‘English garden’ in style. These include the Cottage Garden, the Cutting Garden and the borders around the Maze.
There is an ongoing restoration of the gardens, with planting from Tom Stuart Smith and Dan Pearson. Contemporary sculpture includes work by Anthony Gormley and Elisabeth Frink.
Steve says that ‘for him, English country garden style is soft and gentle, not ordered or designed.’
English country garden style has a lawn…
Clare says that ‘in the interests of wildlife and sustainability, we’re becoming less precious about lawns. Immaculate stripes are no longer the pinnacle of desire.
But an expanse of green grass is still a quintessential part of an English country garden.’
Clare says: ‘An English country garden doesn’t follow trends. Anything vaguely modern can look out of place – contemporary furniture for example.
Better to have a weathered wooden Lutyens bench or wrought iron or wire furniture than, say, a plastic bistro set. Or try to use reclaimed stone for paving rather than something shiny, laser cut and new.’
Can you have exotic plants in a traditional English country garden?
Amicia Oldfield feels that plants like tree ferns don’t fit in a garden like Doddington Place Gardens. But this is the area where there is probably the most variation in opinion.
Steve Porter thinks that he’d include some quite tropical plants in that, such as Ricinus, the caster oil plant. The Victorian plant hunters would have brought back cannas and banana palms, too. ‘Dot them about in a relaxed way,’ he says, ‘or add them to a border as a ‘star plant’.
Add some structure for winter interest…
Steve also advises you to include some structure for winter interest. This could include topiary or pergolas.
English country garden style appears to be effortless…
Tom Brown is the head gardener at West Dean College. The award-winning West Dean gardens have been described as ‘one of the great restored English gardens.’ It’s Grade 2* listed on Historic England’s register of parks and gardens.
West Dean’s layout dates back 100 years, with glasshouses, walled gardens, fruit growing and an award-winning Sunken Garden.
Tom believes that a good English country garden seems to flow. ‘When you walk in, you’re at ease. It’s an immersive experience.’
Rhythm and repetition are key
Tom advises you to keep the number of different plants you use to a minimum.
‘Have a smaller palette, but plant them in bigger clumps,’ he says. ‘And repeat them around the space.’
‘For example, in early summer when the tall bearded irises are out, position them around the garden. When you walk in, your eyes jump from irises to irises. Your eyes start to explore the garden without your actually taking a step.’
If you think about being at a party, if everyone talks at once, then it’s very difficult to pick up the thread. Whereas if you’ve got one particular theme or one repeated colour, you can follow it or understand it much better.
And keep a naturalistic feel…
‘English country gardens don’t want to feel forced,’ says Tom. ‘So after your backbone – your perennials – think about weaving in naturalistic plants throughout.
These are plants that have or could self-seed, so could arrive naturally in the garden. They include poppies, foxgloves and ammi majors.
See here for good self-seeding plants.
Updates on visiting the gardens etc…
The English Garden magazine has a special ‘lockdown’ subscription offer at the moment.
Doddington Place Gardens is open on Wednesdays and Sundays for the National Garden Scheme. Pre-booking is also essential.
Many gardens are now open again, but most have limited numbers, so always consult their websites before setting out. But it’ll be a great time to visit a normally busy garden!
Shop my favourite gardening tools, books and products…
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For example, this is a list of my favourite gardening books, with recommendations of who they would suit if you want to give them as a present.
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