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British Life


English garden with path between hedges and beds of flowers

The second English garden invites exploration, and is partly the creation of explorers.


Exotic explorations

The private, mysterious, fragrantly exotic, fruitful, and pleasantly sporting garden that we call the second English garden begins to take shape in the 19th century. This garden begins in dreamlike memories of the medieval garden's hortus conclusus and the paradises destroyed when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It takes inspiration from English cottage gardens and native flowers, and flourishes with the discovery of never-before-seen Oriental, African, and American plants. It is the creation of visionary gardeners.

By the 17th century Brits are out exploring the world, and carrying exotic plant specimens back to England. John the Elder Tradescant tramps through Europe, Russia and North Africa, returning to Britain with jasmine, pelargoniums, Michaelmas daisies, acacia and lilac trees. His son John the Younger hunts for plants in Virginia between 1628 and 1637 and brings back magnolias, the Bald Cypress and Tulip tree, phlox and asters to the house in London that he and his father, the elder John, called "the Ark".

In the early decades of the 18th century, John Bartram a British colonist in Pennsylvania, left the farm in the hands of his wife every autumn and went collecting seeds for gardeners in Britain. He travelled thousands of miles, from Lake Ontario to Florida, and when his saddlebags were full, neatly labelled all his seeds and sent large boxes to London.

Stourhead in autumn

The result of exploration was that gardens in Britain blaze with autumn colours. Stourhead, above, shows what a gifted amateur with money can do. It is largely the creation of Henry Hoare II between 1741 and 1780. The Hoare family gave their house and gardens to the National Trust in 1946.

Image: free spins no deposit win real moneyHenry Maunders, Beautiful Britain

In the ensuing century intrepid and botanically sure-footed Brits navigated raging rivers, fight bear, and scale mountains to collect specimen flora and seeds. They managed to keep their seeds and specimens safe, and well organized - no small achievement in the wilderness.

Douglas fir


David Douglas was appointed by the London-based Horticultural Society (later the Royal Horticultural Society) to bring back specimens and seeds of Northwest Coast plants for introduction into British gardens and forests. Douglas sent back seeds of the Douglas-fir, the Monterey pine, and the California poppy. He introduced some 240 new plant species to Britain before before being killed in mysterious circumstances by a wild bull in Hawaii in 1834.

Image: Government of British Columbia

Robert Fortune makes several voyages to the Orient in the 1840s at the behest of the Horticultural Society of London, masquerades as a native in the interior, where foreigners are forbidden to travel, and sends back 120 species new to European gardens, including Fortune's Double Yellow, Fortune's Five-Coloured Rose, and tea plants for India. George Forrest brings back over 30,000 specimens, including 300 new rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, gentians, and Himalayan poppies, which rouse "a fever of interest in gardening circles".

yellow exbury azaelas

British explorers in western North America in the 19th century found big western azaleas in bloom. In 1850 William Lobb sent seeds of these deciduous azaleas to England, and in the early 20th century Anthony Waterer at the Knap Hill Nursery in England developed the Knap Hill hybrids from the westerns, and Lionel de Rothschild and his gardeners hybridized Exbury azaleas at the Exbury estate. The hybrids are eight to twelve feet high, have blooms 3 to 4 inches across in brilliant shades of yellow, gold, orange, white, red, and peach. Here they are, back on the West Coast.

Not all the explorers are men. Jane Colden, who lives in New York in the 1750s, explores the wilderness and emerges unscathed to describe and illustrate the appearance and uses of numerous plants. Carried to Germany by a Hessian soldier, her book eventually finds its way to a small facsmile printing of 1500 copies and a safe if somewhat obscure shelf in the British Museum.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Not long after Jane creates her book, Augusta, the embattled Dowager Princess of Wales, endows the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Plants pour into Kew, contributing to the development of major food and pharmaceutical industries, and making lovely and flamboyant contributions to a new kind of English garden.

White magnolia petals against a dark ground

Specimens of magnolia trees found in China and America are sent to the Royal Horticultural Society and to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which today houses the world's largest collection of plants. From Kew plants go back out to gardeners in Britain, America, and the
British Commonwealth.

Photo: David Abbott
The Arboretum, Portland, Oregon

Cottage gardens

One of the first English gardeners to work in a visionary new style is Humphry Repton. The first Brit to actually call himself a landscape gardener, Repton designs enclosed flower gardens with gravel walks and romantic grottos before dying in 1818. Meanwhile, British women who love their island's beautiful wildflowers have been quietly preserving species from destruction and recreating paradise. They surround their cottage homes with glowing native flowers which wind up trees, wreathe windows, and soften the path to their door. In the latter part of the 19th century, two visionaries, an Irishman and an Englishwoman, notice the beauty hidden from the world in these cottage gardens.

Welcoming English garden in bloom with lawn and bench at Oxford

The English garden at Oxford's Christchurch
welcomes scholars and visitors.



William Robinson is a gardener and journalist who leaves Ireland to take a job at the Botanical Gardens of Regents Park, London. He moves to the leading horticultural firm of Veitch, writes for the TIMES, and less than ten years later publishes The Wild Garden (1870). Robinson detests the formal patterned gardening of the time, which saw plants rigidly bedded out to resemble Oriental rugs. He wants a wilder, more natural look. Robinson has noticed cottage gardens, and so has has Gertrude Jekyll, an artist and a botanist who looks like a stout and benevolent guardian spirit. In 1875 they notice each other.

They find their design principles are in harmony, and hit it off immediately. For the next half century they collaborate together. Robinson, whose books have sowed seeds in every English garden for the last century, publishes The English Flower Garden in 1883. Gertrude goes on to design 400 gardens, publishes thirteen books, writes 1,000 articles for COUNTRY LIFE, and completes 43 articles for GARDENING ILLUSTRATED in her late 80s.

In the 1860s and 1870s, pondering the cottage gardens of British women, Gertrude had a remarkable insight. British garden designers working in the park style had created gardens with beautiful "bones" – walks, steps, archways, hedges, trees, pools of water – but they lacked flowers. Gertrude decided to put clothes on the beautiful bones.

Following Robinson's and Shirley Hibbard's lead, and inspired by both the native plants in cottage gardens and new exotic arrivals, Jekyll establishes beds of plants in great billows of colour. She designs a garden's bones then infuses the garden with a free and beautiful wantonness: Flowers rise to six-foot spires, drift like clouds and cascade like streams.

Men who love roses are working on both sides of the English Channel to create repeat-blooming varieties. Jekyll, who has a passion for roses, creates rose screens and hedges. Her roses clamber over pergolas and into trees, bedeck arbours, and fall in sprays over houses, joining in a romantic garden-house conversation. (She likes a house and a garden to talk to each other.)

Herbaceous plants, which lack woody stalks, die each fall, and grow and bloom in the spring or summer. Because herbaceous plants are so important to her gardens, Gertrude has to know what kind of soil, light, and water they like, when they will bloom, and what to do about them when they finish blooming – in short, how to design a herbaceous bed with interest all spring and summer long.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden from above

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson
create a quintessential English Garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent. Their garden "rooms," especially the White Garden,
take inspiration from American expatriate Lawrence Johnston's remarkable garden at Hidcote.

Photo: McCurdy & Company

In 1889, when she is 46, Gertrude Jekyll meets 20-year old architect Edwin Lutyens, and begins another fruitful collaboration. Miss Jekyll and Lutyens, the engaging young man who will design New Delhi, collaborate on more than 70 projects, with Gertrude contributing her sense of design and knowledge of plants.

Woman smiling in garden

We planted an English garden once. It wasn't fancy, but it was fun. After awhile we had to leave the garden, and everything we had known and loved seemed broken for awhile. But even then, during the hardest times, the English garden would remind us that living was meant to be sublime.

Beauty and boldness

Gardeners often live long lives. When Gertrude dies at 89, Robinson, who is 94, attends her funeral in his bath chair. Toward the end of her life, Gertrude Jekyll meets a young man by the name of Graham Stuart Thomas and encourages him to become a gardener. He becomes the greatest plantsman of the 20th century. She also meets a little boy in a garden, and tells him she hopes he will grow up to be a gardener. The little boy is Christopher Lloyd, and he becomes one of the happiest and most influential British gardeners of the late 20th and early 21st century.

The author of more than 20 popular and helpful gardening books, and a Country Life columnist, Christopher Lloyd is a generous and gregarious host who opens Great Dixter to young visitors, sometimes so many of them they cover the floor of his medieval hall with sleeping bags. Friends and pilgrims call him Christo, and he is always trying something new in his garden.

"We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer's gloaming," Lloyd writes tartly. "Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing." Christo chooses plants that create exciting vignettes, and gets rid of his 70-year-old rose garden when it bores him. After years of experiments, he is a powerhouse of practical horticulture and gardening ideas until the day he dies, early in 2006. What he likes to see most of all is a garden that expresses its gardener's soul.

Swan floats on water in St. James Park, London

A feeling of eternity
St. James Park, London.

Photo: David Abbott

London's green spaces

Christopher Woodward, the director of London's Garden Museum, sketches some of London's green space history: For 200 years, between the accession of George I and the First World War, Britain led the world in green town planning. Paris and St Petersburg were grander, and more lavishly gilded; Turin and Barcelona were ruthlessly efficient in their application of a grid system. But no great city has ever been as green as London in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Huge green spaces formed the city's heart and when designs were invited for the development of Regent's Park in 1811 the Crown Commissioners chose a scheme which created a landscape first, and put the houses in second. The Georgians made garden squares, and the Victorians invented the public park. And in the first decade of the 20th century Ebenezer Howard began the construction of the "Garden City" of Letchworth, in Hertfordshire. Lenin went there to study how factory workers lived in houses and gardens, and walked to work across the cornfields. However, Howard's Garden City was a reaction to a London which he felt had become crowded, inhuman and unhealthy.

In 1885 the nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote After London, a novel in which the city is reclaimed by wild nature. He had come to hate a city in which the poor lived in tenements separated from nature, and flowers potted on window sills were choked by soot. His novel inspired William Morris to write News from Nowhere (1890), a story in which the hero wakes up to discover that London has become transformed into a city of small-holdings, mills, and gardens. (In it, Parliament Square has been replanted as an apricot orchard and the Houses of Parliament converted to a store for manure). Morris's futuristic fantasy has captivated generation after generation and was a particular inspiration to the planners of the 1930s and 1940s. Their generation created the Green Belt, a great visionary act of planning in London.

Inside London, eight great parks

spanning several thousand acres invite exercise, reverie, and solace.


A garden is a place to rest and work and feel transformed. At Britain's East Sutton Park in Kent, women grow "the most beautiful fruit and veg" for miles. Driving a tractor, pruning trees, potting up seedlings, planting flowers, or raking leaves, they say they love the opportunities that gardening gives for peaceful solitude, therapeutic digging when angry, the creation of beauty, and blissful immersion in the natural world. They are inmates, serving time in an open jail. Gardening is changing how they want to live.

Baby in garden looking at pink azaela flowers

A young gardener

Creating a beautiful English garden is an art, but we are bold to say you can create your own English garden by improvising on the 12 guidelines suggested below.


Planting Your English Garden

1) Think about how your garden will relate to your house. Create your garden's beautiful bones with walls of stone or brick, steps, paths, archways, and trees and shrubs. Use a wall or hedge to create private garden rooms with personal planting themes and moods. Think about a path. . .a grass path winding a few flowery feet to a place you long to be, but can't quite see, located, to your surprise, somewhere in your heart. . .

2) Be attentive to your garden's ecology, geology, light, shade, and climate, and choose plants that will be happy in your earth. Think about scents. . .daphne and violets for the spring, the citrus of magnolia for early summer, damask roses, Polar Bear rhododendron, winter honeysuckle. . .

3) Discover whether your earth is clay, chalk, sand, or peat. (This is really one of the first things you'll want to do.) Choose plants that like the kind of earth you have. Work organically. Make (build, water and turn) compost and spread it in your garden. (We swear you will hear your plants sigh with pleasure.) Establish your plants in well-dug ground, and nurture them.

4) When we feel loved, we feel someone is paying attention to us. We think plants feel the same way, and they respond to attention, and perhaps to love. Some plants like to be fed richly. Some plants don't. Some plants like to drink a lot of water. Others don't. Rather like people. Figure out what they like, and they will make you happy.

5) Plant three of the same kind of plant together or plant in drifts of colour.

Abraham Darby roses, pale pink and salmon and gorgeous

Plant old-fashioned English roses, sweetly, delectably

6) Establish your borders with woody plants like roses and hydrangeas mixed with small, slow-growing evergreens like azalea and pieris.

7) Encourage poppies, forget-me-nots, violas, foxgloves and delphiniums to self-seed in beds, walls, and borders, and help roses and clematis to clamber into pergolas and trees.

8) Give plants the freedom to grow as they prefer, and encourage relaxed, even disheveled arrangements of flowers within the harmony of your master plan.

9) Build a simple pool to reflect the sky. Unless you are a purist, plant iris and lilies in your pool (in baskets with loam and manure), and watch as they bloom, and water-boatmen, frogs, and newts join them.

10) Plant a bed with vegetables (never better than fresh from the garden and drizzled with a little butter or olive oil) and plant flowers between them to help keep them healthy.

11) Set aside a place for a wild garden where bulbs bloom under in the soft light of bare winter trees, and exotics naturalize a woodland or stream.

12) Give yourself time to enjoy your garden. The English garden is a good place to relax with friends.

Besides, you'll have plenty of time to work.

Back to The English Garden, Part One



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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass