Fresh from an exhaustive three weeks driving 1800 miles to tour British gardens and their associated tea rooms, I am full of ideas and inspiration for next year’s planting schemes. The British know how to do it. The hype is real.
But what exactly is that ‘it’ comprised of? Cottagey color? Architectural hedging? Jam covered scones and cups of milky sweet tea sipped in salvia scented patios?
Or are they just dazzling us with their accents and that gentle Gulf Stream?
To answer that question for myself, I’ve combed through thousands of photos, dozens of wow moments, and a ratty notebook that smells vaguely of real ale to boil ‘it’ down to ten garden concepts I have seen illustrated throughout the United Kingdom – both when I lived and worked there and during subsequent trips over the last fifteen years.
These ideas are not exclusively British by any means, nor did many of them have their genesis on that little island. But the underlying cultural embrace of horticulture in Great Britain means you see more of these elements at the same time in public and private spaces.
Each point certainly bears exploring in more depth, and thus we’ll plan on delving a little deeper over the winter months ahead as we consider how to approach our spring gardens.
1 – Experimentation energizes a garden.
In a land steeped in conventional gardening practices and the love of tradition, you’d think the British would be the last ones to push boundaries. Yet many of the greatest gardens are doing just that. Whether they use color, form, texture or movement, they’re changing things up and bringing energy back into old spaces. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails – but treating the garden like a vibrant, living experiment is guaranteed to inject excitement into your day-to-day chores.
2 – Revolutionary design is always possible.
When experimentation works, new movements are created. Robinson’s naturalism, James’ mixed border, Chatto’s right plant, right place, Auldof’s Dutch wave to name just a few of the most popular. Don’t cheat yourself by thinking everything that is worth doing has been done already. That type of thinking is what stopped you from buying shares of Netflix and Amazon and retiring early to a little garden just south of San Gimignano.
3 – Right plant. Right place.
What is the point of growing something that merely survives and never thrives? Spindly, undernourished plants result, and the effect is dissatisfying. Over fifty years ago, Beth Chatto asked herself this question and inspired a whole new movement of gardening in the UK – putting the right plant in the right place. Taking time to consider the natural growing conditions of a plant could mean you never grow it, but for every plant you cannot grow, there are ten that you can. Find them and your garden will be glorious – and healthy.
4 – Structure is critical.
Sometimes we get so caught up balancing the thrill of immediate gratification with the inconvenience of budgetary constraints that we neglect the big picture. The big picture is structure, aka bones or form, and the good news is that you can create it with grasses, with conifers, with broad-leafed evergreens, and yes, with larger ticket items like walls, patios and fences.
Structure creates depth and perspective. Structure directs the eye and sometimes fools the senses. Structure exists when the leaves fall. Structure rewards the clever gardener with a feeling of solidity and time. Make it a priority in your planning and your garden will be infinitely enhanced.
5 – Connecting the house to the garden creates a cohesive sense of place.
It is hard to think of a British garden without thinking about the home it surrounds. The British are masters of seamlessly connecting inside and outside living spaces which in turn inspires a life centered around the pleasures of the garden.
Don’t have a 15th century half-timbered home and feeling a little bitter? Well, neither do most people in the UK, and yet you see very modest homes draped in roses, or sporting a conservatory, and becoming as integral to the garden as the plants themselves.
6 – Ordinary people can make extraordinary gardens.
On my last night in the UK, a friend and I walked down a lane in her village to her mother’s garden to water plants while she was away. Tucked between a corn field and a house to each side, her tiny garden made the most of its space and beautifully meshed the intimacy of a private space with the expansiveness of country views. I neglected my share of the watering just to stare out over the field and watch the sun set from the windows of a small summer house.
Was her mother a horticulturist I asked? ‘No, she just loves plants and goes to all the gardens and shows.” said my friend proudly.
You don’t need a certification to create something beautiful. By all means study your heart out – go to the shows, attend the lectures, take a class or two, but don’t let the idea that you ‘aren’t an expert’ stop you from creating an extraordinary garden. The British don’t.
7 – Gardens connect us with our past and our future.
It’s one of the best reasons for growing one. Some public British gardens are a testament to the past – like the Lost Gardens of Helligan in Cornwall. Others, such as the Gardens at Blenheim Palace incorporate ancient trees to link past, present and future. But many private gardens have that same sense of timelessness – aware that working around treasured features instead of removing them, and planting with an eye toward the next generation evokes a spirit of constancy even in the midst of change.
8 – Gardens and dining go together.
I am a lover of formal dining rooms and have the place-settings to prove it, but in my mind there is no better way to enjoy a meal than in the garden.
The British feel similarly, and consequently most people with a garden or patio have a table and chairs set out to enjoy meals al fresco (even if those meals only happen once a month due to British weather). When you visit a public garden you are almost guaranteed to find a tea room or refreshment tent, and it is a rare garden indeed that doesn’t subscribe to the notion that tea and coffee always taste better served in china cups.
9 – Incorporating plants within the cultural collective makes life more beautiful.
Having spent a fair amount of time arguing with the council in my last town over the need for horticultural beautification and management, I can confidently say that we don’t put the same priority on using plants to enhance our day to day lives the way that the British do.
We can blame government budgets, but private businesses are just as guilty of not giving plants the chance to enhance facades; or worse, planting poorly, maintaining abysmally and then allowing a dead Alberta spruce to grace the front steps for six months.
Whether it’s a median planter filled with native grasses or a pub covered in pelargoniums, the British get this right. I wish we’d accept that challenge on a national level and raise them a hanging basket or two.
10 – Using Latin doesn’t make you a snob
– or a geek.
The answer to: “What is that plant?” isn’t straightforward when you’re using English common names and you step outside your county, state, or country. My mare’s tail may be your horse’s tail; your love grass may be my cleavers. If you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t speak English, the situation gets infinitely trickier.
The British gardening media doesn’t expect everyone to know the botanical names for every plant, but will use them interchangeably with common ones. So do many everyday gardeners. This leads to a greater cultural understanding and acceptance – and the ability to talk Garden with a visiting friend from the Czech Republic without having to switch to politics.
I’m excited to announce that next May, I’ll be working with Carex Tours to lead a small group through many of the great gardens of Britain, ending with an exciting day at the Chelsea Flower Show. Interested in joining us? Join the mailing list for the 2019 schedule at Carex Tours.
A version of this article was originally printed in The Frederick News Post and is used here with kind permission.