Evolution – The English Garden

I have decided to take part in Garden Walk Garden Talk’s fortnightly meme ‘Word for Wednesday’ as I think the intellectual challenge will get my brain working, especially as winter draws in as there isn’t so much to blog about.  This fortnight’s word is Evolve or Evolution.  I have pondered about this for several days.  I can’t write about the evolution of plants as this is such a huge subject; maybe I could talk about a particular plant evolving, growing from seed but I don’t have any appropriate photos which I think is important; I could write about my garden evolving but I have done that quite a bit recently.  So I have decided to write about the evolution of English garden design.  I have to right from the start  issue a warning to this post.  I am not a garden design historian or expert, this post is based purely on gardens I have visited which illustrated certain styles loosely arranged in historical order and yes I am sure there are stages missing.

So we will start with the top photo taken at Aberglasney Garden in Carmarthenshire in Wales.  The photo is of the Cloister Garden from the end of the Elizabethan period.  This is a rare example of a terraced walkway.  The grass has bulbs planted in it but not en mass as we might do now but more dotted around to create a jewelled effect.  I suspect the cost of getting bulbs from the European/Asian borders was probably quite high at this time and so they would be treated as individual gems. As with many grand gardens through the ages the purpose is to demonstrate the owner’s wealth and to provide a place for walking and talking.

We now jump forward from the end of the 17th century to the Landscape Movement of garden design in the mid 18th century.  This is Croome Park in Worcestershire about 20 minutes drive from me and the first garden Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned to design.  During this period of garden design the focus was on creating grand views.  Again, this was all about  showing wealth and in order to create the garden above a medieval church was demolished, a whole village was relocated and the manor house moved and rebuilt.  They must have needed very good imagination as unlike now they wouldn’t have been planting vast fully grown trees and in most cases the owner would never see the parkland in its full mature glory.

Moving swiftly on through time missing out  the formal Victorian period with lots of massed planting we end up at the end of the Victorian period when Gertrude Jekyll was considered the ‘must-have’ designer.  Jekyll, like William Robinson in The Wild Garden, had moved away from the vast brightly coloured Victorian bedding scheme and adopted a more naturalistic approach although not what we would consider naturalistic.  Her approach was to introduce vast herbaceous borders with the plants very cleverly coordinated and harmonious.  I should state that the borders above are not a Jekyll design but are the nearest I can find from gardens I have visited.  These are at Kiftsgate Garden and date from around 1920.

Across the road from Kiftsgate  is Hidcote Gardens (above) which is a fine example of the Arts & Crafts movement of garden design.  Jekyll was involved in this movement but it was truly taken forward by the likes of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst and Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote with the introduction of themed rooms.  I think with the Arts and Crafts movement the focus on displaying wealth was less important and it was more about the beauty of the garden, the interplay of colours and plants. Both Hidcote and Kiftsgate were created at the start of the 20th century.

If we continue to move forward to the 1940-60s we come to the garden of Margery Fish, East Lambrook Manor.  Margery Fish is attributed with taking the chocolate box image of cottage gardens so popular in the late Victorian period and created what we would now call ‘The Cottage Garden’.  Unlike the proper original cottage gardens which combined edibles with flowers along with chickens and maybe a pig the romanticised Cottage Garden style is more about artfully mixed perennials, shrubs, annuals etc.  This is a style which is very much still popular in the UK today.

Finally, I leave you with Bryans Ground in Herefordshire – a garden I adore.  This is very much an evolving garden having been created over the last 20 or so years.  There are areas which would be described as cottage gardens but then there is the vast planting of Iris siberica (above) which I think is simply breath-taking.  The ground also contain an arboretum which is progressively being added to and there is a cleverness and artistic hand behind the alleys of trees and vistas.  I think Bryan’s Ground is bringing our journey almost full circle.  The formality of the Iris siberica planting reminds me of the formality of the Elizabethan Cloister Garden but taken to another level.

I find it fascinating to look at how English garden design has evolved and the factors that have contributed to it whether it be the discoveries of plants from around the world, the need to display wealth and the shifting of that wealth to the new classes of people and then in the 20th century the idea of gardening as more of a past time for all classes rather than the preserve of the rich.

Do visit Garden Walk Garden Talk’s blog for more posts about Evolution or Evolving

Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

27 thoughts on “Evolution – The English Garden”

  1. One of my favourite Gardens to visit has to be the National trust Gardens at Stourhead. I never get bored of it as each season brings new dimensions of colour and texture

    1. I’ve never been to Stourhead but I must go one day, I dont think it is that far from me

  2. Pingback: Iris Growing
  3. I love your take on the word evolution. I enjoyed the journey through the history of the English Garden. I can’t say I like one style better than another but the last is different and beautiful!!

  4. I know the UK is a place I must visit one day. The gardens span time with styles so different, yet all interesting and elegant. I really enjoyed your walk through time and your historical look at these wondrous properties. Gardening really did evolve here, each garden and each style. Thanks for joining. I learned from this post and that is my favorite kind of post to visit.

  5. How I enjoyed this evolution post…the gardens you have showcased here are all amazing in their own right. To think a church was torn down and village relocated to install one man’s dream of a garden is almost unbelievable. The expense of doing all of this work and the amount of man-hours involved makes the garden even more impressive, but I can’t help but wonder how the displaced people felt about it back in the day.

    To have the foresight to design a garden that will not evolve into it’s full glory for decades is truly to be forward thinking. Great post!

    1. thanks Karen I’m glad you enjoyed it. There was a lot grand houses that displaced villages in order to create grand views but then they owned the villages! It must have been tough to be a villager in those times

    1. thanks – garden history fascinates me and its something I want to learn much more about in time

  6. I love all the stages of the English garden evolution. I find throughout the ages the gardens still have the “English look” to them no matter how they are structured.

  7. Coming full circle leaves me wondering – If we were Elizabethans, walking thru that garden in its prime, then what would we think and say about it? The millefleurs jewelled lawn is a lovely idea!

  8. Wonderful overview, Helen! I enjoyed your writing and photos to accompany it.

    I think that I am an inconstant lover when it comes to gardens… I like best the one I am currently looking at! And even the first would captivate I think when it came to spring time… I have a love for bulbs that keeps me thinking of them most of the year.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Wow, it takes someone so knowledgeable and experienced to do this post, very inspiring and informative. For us from the other side of the world, the English Gardens normally goes with our fairy tales, or elegant dresses and castles. Your collection of garden photos make them more personal, more earthly than what they have been ingrained in our subconscious. Thanks for the tour too!

  10. Great post, Helen. A few years ago, I was thumbing through an old gardening magazine and came across a small article about Margery Fish. I was able to pick up a copy of ‘We Made A Garden’ on Ebay. It was one of the first gardening books I read (without lots and lots of pictures that is). It’s true many of her ideas now seem rather old fashioned but I enjoyed the book (and have now bought more by her) and have ever since very much wanted to visit East Lambrook. She doesn’t seem to be very well known nowadays but, as you say, she was pretty influential. Thanks for the link to your post about visiting ELM – which made me jealous! One day I shall get there.


  11. Enjoyed your post Helen. A fascinating subject – so many changes over the years and we are but one small country. We have visited Croome Park a couple of times. It looks so natural that is hard to believe that it was ‘landscaped’ – all in all an amazing result for his first job! If you have not come across it you might enjoy Anne Scott James’s book ‘ The Cottage Garden’.

  12. Being from the USA and more specifically from Southern California, anything British is exciting to me but most particularly English gardens which always seem so pristine while retained that special natural look and feel.

    Several years ago toured through London and visited Kensington Gardens and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Wow was I impressed!

  13. What a great post, Helen. There are so many gardens in the UK I’d love to visit — although I have been to a handful, Hidcote among them. Of the archetypal garden styles in the world, of course the “English Garden” is one. But you’ve shown just how widely ranging that style can be. Cheers.

  14. A very informative post. I am so happy cottage gardens came into favor as that is what I have here. I like the natural effects of all of the styles though. They are so beautiful. And I think most American gardeners still go for English style any way they can. I know I do.

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