The formal lines of this colorful sunken garden are softened by a monochromatic palette of purple annual flowers, giving it a whimsical, cheerful look.
Clusters of fragrant double roses clambering over white picket fences, fields of wildflowers and cottage gardens filled with lupines and delphiniums — this is what I expected to find when I traveled to London last spring for the first time.
Surely, I am not the only American who imagines English gardens this way. And we aren’t completely off base, because both formal and informal English gardens abound in and around London.
During my weeklong trip, I set out to learn how I could get that “English garden look” in my own Midwest garden. In seven glorious days of strolling through the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Europe’s largest demonstration garden at Wisley, the 100th anniversary of the Chelsea Flower Show, the formal gardens at Kensington Palace and more, I took more than 1,100 photos, including those you see here. This is what I discovered in my quest.
All English gardens, whether formal or informal in style, contain a few distinct elements. To adopt this look for your own Midwest garden, here is what you’ll need.
Whether you’re going for a formal or informal look, structure is the most essential element. English gardens may be natural looking, but they are actually quite controlled. Straight-edged beds, often cut into geometric patterns, are used instead of the informal curved beds that are common in the Midwest. In addition, natural materials, such as stone or wood, are used to construct walls, arches, trellises, small sheds or other hardscape elements within the garden. The strong, sturdy nature of these structures sets off the soft, billowy plants that surround them.
Structure is an essential element in English gardens. Formal-style gardens consist of straight-edged beds, often arranged in a geometric pattern, anchored by yew or boxwood topiaries.
Lawns and Hedges
“Lawns are important elements in most gardens, and the small strip of turf at the front of the border sets off the plantings,” said Chris Young, author of Take Chelsea Home (Octopus Publishing Group, 2013). Though English gardens often do not contain much lawn compared to the Midwest, the location of the lawn in relation to the garden is quite deliberate. It may be just a narrow strip between the garden and patio, just enough to draw the eye toward the beauty of the border.
Hedges are often planted along the edge of the lawn or used to outline garden rooms to provide a deliberate opening where the gardener wishes visitors to enter. Formal hedges typically consist of tightly clipped yews (Taxus spp.) or boxwoods (Buxus spp.), while informal hedges may be made of tall lavenders, such as ‘Provence’ (Lavandula xintermedia ‘Provence’).
Nearly all English gardens contain at least one piece of prominent sculpture. Formal gardens typically contain high-quality statuary, large urns or modern metalwork. Informal gardens may contain more whimsical statuary, perhaps a bit smaller in scale, but still prominent enough to be easily noticed.
“Look for a ‘natural’ place to set artwork, one that feels right and best creates the effect you are seeking,” said Philip Nash, a gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show for his contemporary designs. “Is your sculpture meant to blend in with its surroundings or is to stand out?”
Formal English gardens prominently feature high-quality statuary, large urns or modern metalwork, such as this abstract sculpture of a woman, pictured here.
Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs and Flowering Shrubs
Both formal and informal English gardens contain a generous mix of annuals, perennials, bulbs, flowering shrubs and ornamental herbs. Formal gardens typically have larger groupings of fewer varieties, while informal ones blend many kinds of plants together in a similar sized space.
The layered-planting technique is often employed in informal gardens. “The idea behind layered planting in the garden is to repeat the ecological patterns inherent in complex plant communities,” said designer Tom Stuart-Smith, who has garnered three Best of Show awards at Chelsea. “By adapting this natural pattern to a garden, it is possible to have different layers flowering at different times, usually with the lower layers flowering first.”
Island living is a breeze, so they say, and such is true on the temperate isle of the United Kingdom. Though you may picture England as cold and rainy, London is the equivalent of USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Snow is very rare and winters are very mild compared to the Midwest. As a result, they can grow just about anything in London.
When I visited in springtime, I was surprised to see that just as my lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), rhododendrons and azaleas and tulips were blooming at home, they also were blooming in London.
Blooming camellias (Camellia spp.) the size of trees, palms and other exotic plants we could only dream of growing were also thriving there. Everywhere we went we saw plants we’d never seen before, and new varieties of familiar ones, such as azaleas and primroses.
Although I cannot grow some of the plants I saw in London, it opened my eyes to the magnificent varieties of hardy perennials and shrubs there are in Europe that are not yet readily available in the Midwest. I’ll surely be inquiring about some of them from my favorite retailers next spring!
When thinking of how you might incorporate English garden elements into your own Midwest landscape, remember that your garden is an expression of yourself, a home you create. As the 18th century literary genius Goethe exclaimed, “English gardens are not made to a plan, but to a feeling in the head.” If you ever visit London, don’t miss the chance to be inspired by its glorious gardens!
From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2013. Photos by Susan Martin.