English country garden style – what it is and how to achieve it

June 21st, 2020
Posted In: Garden style & living

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:

  1. Wide path or paths
  2. Large borders – even in a small garden
  3. Roses
  4. Lots of flowers through the seasons
  5. Topiary or sculpture for winter interest
  6. Self-seeding plants
  7. A lawn
  8. Traditional garden furniture
  9. A trellis, rose arch or sundial
  10. A pond.
The Apple Store at West Dean

The Apple Store at West Dean Gardens. Its wide paths and billowing borders are very ‘English country garden style.’

The experts include Amicia Oldfield of Doddington Place Gardens in Kent, head gardener Tom Brown of West Dean Gardens , Head of Gardens & Landscape at Chatsworth, Steve Porter, 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.’

Flowers at Doddington Place Gardens

Amicia Oldfield dead-heading roses at Doddington Place Gardens. Note the depth of the borders – you need deep borders to achieve this relaxed, generous sense of abundance.

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 Elphick of the Pot & Cloche podcast

Gardener Joff Elphick of the Pot & Cloche podcast and his dog, Megan.

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.’

Statue at Doddington Place Gardens

Joff says that statues and other features that may commemorate the travels of former owners are another distinctive element of English garden style. This statue at Doddington Place Gardens and the yew hedges behind were both added in the early 19th century.

He adds that an area for growing vegetables, with a glass greenhouse, wall fruit, an orchard and also some topiary are also traditional elements.

Top English country garden style features

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, in cities and towns as well as the country.

Clare Foggett

Clare Foggett, editor of The English Garden magazine. It offers garden inspiration and practical advice, along with stunning photographs.

‘ 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.

Classic planting…

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.

Traditional English country garden flowers

Traditional English country garden plants include roses, delphiniums, foxgloves and lupins. Seen at Doddington Place Gardens

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.’

English country garden style plants

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 of Gardens & Landscape 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, deep borders

Go for full, deep borders like this one at Doddington Place Gardens. It had been quite a narrow border but was made deeper a few years ago and looks so much more beautiful.

‘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.

The gardens at Chatsworth house

These photographs by DPC photography show Chatsworth’s sweeping parkland and the famous Cascade waterfall.

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 Elisabeth Frink and Barry Flanagan.

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.’

The Sunk Garden at Doddington Place Gardens

The Sunk Garden at Doddington Place Gardens show-casing several key English country garden style features: topiary hedges, a pond, roses and that all-important lawn.

Traditional furniture…

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.’

Wooden bench at Doddington Place Gardens

A traditional wooden bench at Doddington Place Gardens, with roses growing behind.

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.

Topiary hedges and boxes at Doddington Place Gardens

Topiary boxes and topiarised hedges at Doddington Place mean there is winter structure when the borders are bare.

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.

'Hot' borders at West Dean gardens

The ‘hot’ borders at West Dean. There are just a few different plants and colours. They are repeated to give rhythm and impact.

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.’

West Dean gardens - pink borders

Note the repeated use of pink in these borders at West Dean gardens.

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 – visiting the gardens, magazine subs etc…

The English Garden magazine has a special ‘lockdown’ subscription offer at the moment.

The English garden magazine

You can see the best UK gardens, beautifully photographed, in The English Garden magazine. They’re not all ‘country’ – many are in towns or cities. And there are garden design tips and stories of how gardens were created.

West Dean Gardens and Chatsworth Gardens have both re-opened daily, but pre-booking is essential.

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…

I’m often asked for recommendations so I have lists of tools, books and garden products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate so I may get a small fee if you buy, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only include the things I use myself and think you will like!

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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2 comments on "English country garden style – what it is and how to achieve it"

  1. Richard Kyper says:

    Learned this style in England , back in the late 80’s. came back to Seattle, employed this style and my business went craaaaazy. The VERY best garden style.

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