You know one when you see it. The English garden design is all about curved beds, winding paths, riotous color. The gardener’s hand is light. There—but just barely. It lets nature do its own thing. You might even say that the English garden design is controlled chaos.
The history of English garden design began with the revolt against the constraints of formal landscape design and classic landscape design. These two forms, with their appreciation of balance, symmetry and geometry, sit on the opposing end of the spectrum from English garden design. Where formal gardens find beauty in linearity, English gardens use undulating lines. Where formal gardens seek right angles, English gardens use few, if any, angles. The words of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744)—the “amiable simplicity of unadorned nature”—describe this style.
Impressionist painters were key influencers in the continuing development of the English garden design. Claude Monet (1840-1926) claimed that painting and gardening were his only two interests in life. When he first moved to Giverny, where he would build his famous water gardens, his first concern was to arrange the garden in a rampant, naturalistic explosion of color.
The residential English garden design has since become hugely popular in the United States. Houston’s semi-tropical climate is well suited for vine-covered pergolas, sunny rose gardens, dazzling azalea beds and bursts of seasonal color—all plant materials that fit well within the English garden’s concept of abundance.
A Quick Study of English Gardens
The English garden design is the essence of an informal garden. The different colors and textures of the plant materials—the profuse wildness—draw the viewer in, creating a feast for the mind’s eye. However, while it has elements of a naturalistic garden, it is not considered of this style. Instead, flowering plants are arranged in a seemingly haphazard arrangement that merely recalls a natural landscape.
The general characteristics of an English garden design fall along these lines:
- Plants are chosen out of personal preference or connection. It is common to find cuttings from the gardens of family and friends.
- Regional plants have prominence because they enhance the naturalistic feel.
- Plants, especially flowering ones, are grouped into smaller clumps—not drifts. The desired effect is for the garden to appear somewhat random, but not messy.
- Many different kinds of plants are used—annuals, bulbs, herbs, perennials, shrubs and vines.
- Scent is very important in an English garden design. Hence, the prevalence of roses and herbs.
- Often the garden is enclosed by a picket fence or hedge to help bring some additional order.
- Strong mix of colors.
Colors of an English Garden: Evoking the Emotions
English garden design uses plants to reach the viewer emotionally rather than intellectually. Primarily, it is done with color.
Different colors affect people differently, but generally each color has its own psychological appeal. Green is the most restful color. Pale greens and yellow-greens are perfect for an English garden design because they feel lighter, brighter and more informal. White creates a sense of space in a garden. Red calls attention to itself or what it surrounds, making it perfect for planting near focal points. Apricot, salmon and peach tints are friendly and welcoming.
Space and Elements of the English Garden Design
The arrangement of elements within the English garden space is very important. Whereas the urban garden design uses a philosophy of “less is more”, the English garden simply says “more.”
Some elements to consider for an English garden:
Gates. The garden entryway can become an important element of an English garden design. Plants can soften the garden gate, making it even more inviting.
Hardscapes. Hardscapes are non-plant material features of landscape design. Popular residential hardscape structures made of wood that work well in an English garden design include arbors, pergolas and gazebos. In an English garden, walkways meander through the landscape while providing easy access to your home and other structures. Perhaps a retaining wall, a short wall used to hold the soil in place, is needed as part of a proper landscape drainage system. If so, good landscape designers and landscape architects will construct it so that it fits the design.
Material choices. Just as flagstone and travertine work well in a Mediterranean garden design, brick and gravel complement an English garden design.
The Ever After of an English Garden
While English gardens are lower in maintenance than a formal landscape design, a landscape maintenance program is still required. Especially it will involve the systematic feeding of flowers, bushes and trees. Since trees are a vital part of the English garden, make sure proper tree preservation methods are used during installation. “A temporary irrigation system and hand-digging to minimize damage to trees and their root systems are a very important part of tree preservation,” explains Jeff Halper with Exterior Worlds. For the longer term, a permanent irrigation system is also a plus for the entire landscape since it will increase the ease of the required regular watering.