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Your Ultimate Guide to English Gardens

Garden roses and wildflowers are calling our name.

Features Editor
medieval moat surrounding sissinghurst in england
Photography by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

If the French and Italian gardens, with their manicured boxwood hedges and ornate fountains, are a little too stiff for you, get inspired by the loose and wild design of English gardens. This landscaping style, with its lush flowerbeds and organic vibe, is all about letting nature shine. Here's what you need to know to achieve the dreamy look in your own backyard.  

 

Related: Tour a Breathtaking Garden That's Rooted in History

 

English Romance

At the dawn of the 18th century, the British cut themselves loose from the rigorous lines and symmetry of both Italian and French Renaissance gardens and embraced a more naturalistic feel, celebrated by poets like William Wordsworth (as in his ode to daffodils, "I wandered lonely as a Cloud . . ."). Two looks that grew out of this movement were the pastoral landscape park and, later, the exuberant cottage garden.

 

Landscape Parks

Legendary designer Lancelot "Capability" Brown, born in 1716, helped bring a sense of untamed beauty to the field. He (literally) moved earth, dug lakes, built hahas—walled ditches—and planted trees to create sweeping vistas that looked as if they had existed, untouched, since the beginning of time. The American designer Frederick Law Olmsted experienced Brown's work firsthand during travels to England: You can see his influence all over Central and Prospect Parks in New York City.

 

Related: A Sensory Garden That'll Take Your Breath Away in California

 

Cottage Gardens

Made famous by designer Gertrude Jekyll and her contemporary William Robinson, these spaces blend the informal (otherwise known as wild) with the formal. Plants are encouraged to naturalize, meaning propagate on their own, and colorful floral borders (or linear beds) shift dramatically from season to season as varieties go in and out of bloom—spring tulips, for example, precede summer roses, climbing clematis, and tall hollyhocks. But clean frameworks, adopted from the Italians and French, keep the beds from looking chaotic. Writer and designer Vita Sackville-West described her approach to Sissinghurst as "extravagance and exuberance within the confines of the utmost linear severity."

illustration of a window box filled with flowers
Photography by: Emma Kelly

Bring It Home

To create a window box even Peter Rabbit would stop to admire, combine different colors; include old-fashioned flowers like fragrant dianthus and four-o'clocks; and vary heights and textures. Or follow Gertrude Jekyll's advice and "form beautiful pictures" out of plants. (Select Seeds are great for old-fashioned and heirloom blooms, browse our list here).

 

Gardens to Visit

Need more fodder for your landscape design or just love the English pastoral aesthetic, then stroll these charming English gardens. If you're staying statesside, in Woodside, California, the Filoli Estate boasts sunken, walled, and woodland rooms, while the Hollister House Garden, in Washington, Connecticut, is right out of a picture book, blending notes of Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and Great Dixter

 

Four gardens in the U.K. particulary stand out. Great Dixter, the family home of writer Christopher Lloyd in Rye. His M.O.: "I take it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour effectively." Hidcote in Chipping Campden is one of England's most iconic and treasured gardens. Then there's the much-loved, much-copied white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Cranbrook. And finally, the Rousham House & Garden in Bicester is a stunner designed by William Kent in the 1700s.