You love the English garden style, but did you know it took time to achieve that look.
The new naturalistic English garden design of the eighteenth century style evolved over decades. The style was unlike anything earlier.
Horace Walpole, the writer and garden enthusiast or ‘gardenist’, was important in the new English garden style. He advocated for the more natural, less formal approach, which he claimed was uniquely English, and not dependent on the Chinese or Italian garden design.
Isabel Wakelin Urban Chase in her book Horace Walpole: Gardenist wrote: “When eighteenth century owners of landed estates first began to design gardens along naturalistic lines, they had no traditional experience to draw upon. They were working in an unfamiliar medium. They were also under the handicap of using plants, shrubs, and trees, many of them recently introduced into England, about which they knew little or nothing.
“While some succeeded better than others, it was largely owing to chance, or the beauty of the locality, or to some amount of natural artistic ability rather than to any definite rules for irregular garden design which had as yet been evolved. As Walpole remarked: ‘It is surprising how much beauty has been struck out, with how few absurdities.’ ”
So in the history of the English garden there was a sense of not knowing how to do things, bending the rules of the old form of design, and just going ahead with what landscape gardeners considered a new art form.
Today we gardeners can also push forward into an unknown zone, to experiment with how the new garden, the new landscape, will look, in a time when we are more concerned about issues like sustainability.
What do you think about the movement of a true American landscape design?
In the 1950s the editor of The New Yorker, Katherine S. White, wrote a series of garden articles for the magazine, which her husband, E.B. White, after her death, compiled in a book called Onward and Upward in the Garden.
Katherine White attributed the rise of the English garden style in America to both William Robinson and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll(1843-1932).
White wrote in one essay, “If in planting any of the shrubs or trees I have mentioned, you and I strive to obtain a natural effect, to follow the contours of the land, or to study the region we live in so as to make our planting suit it, if we naturalize garden flowers in our woodlands or bring wild flowers into our gardens or strive to make our garden blend gradually into a forest or field, we probably owe our ideas, though all unconsciously, to two great English gardeners and garden writers of the past.
“They are William Robinson, the author of The English Flower Garden, which was published in 1883 and is still a garden classic, and his younger friend Miss Gertrude Jekyll. It was these two, more than any others, who taught Victorian England, and eventually America, to make a garden, as Mr. Robinson put it, a reflection of ‘the beauty of the great garden of the world.’ ”
Thus American garden writer Katherine White paid tribute to the influence of the English garden, as expressed in the work of Robinson and Jekyll.
How does your garden reflect the design history of the English garden?
You probably like to read articles, books, blogs, whatever you can find, to become a better gardener.
James Vick (1818-1882) the Rochester, New York seedsman, saw it as his duty to teach his customers about gardening and the landscape.
He endorsed English horticulturalist William Robinson’s book The Wild Garden in his own seed catalog and monthly garden magazine.
The image included here of the low white Japanese anemone from Robinson’s book also appeared in Vick’s garden magazine of 1880 as the same illustration.
Vick is but one example of the nineteenth century American seedsmen and nurserymen who saw it as their duty to teach Americans the English style of gardening.
Pittsburgh seedsman B. A. Elliott also held up the English garden as the model for the American gardener. He wrote “We wish to acknowledge our obligation to Mr. William Robinson, of London, England, who has very kindly allowed us to use many of the beautiful engravings made for his most delightful of books, The Wild Garden. We are also indebted to this great champion of hardy flowers for some of the ideas advanced here, culled from his numerous works on gardening, which have done much to make English gardens what they are — the most beautiful in the world.”
Robinson wrote in the Introduction to his book: “In this illustrated edition, by aid of careful drawings, I have endeavored to suggest in what the system [of the wild garden] consists.”
The Japanese anemone is a perennial that grows quite easily in the Northeast, makes a great ground cover, plus, has a showy white flower in spring.
If you grow this white Japanese anemone, you continue the English garden tradition in your own garden, at least the English garden version of William Robinson.
After buying a cutting of this plant a long time ago at a local yard sale, I have grown the Japanese anemone for many years. Believe me when I saw it has spread quite a bit. I have had to compost some of it.
Do you also grow this white Japanese anemone ? What do you like about it?
Nineteenth century England produced horticulturalists, landscape designers, and garden writers who contributed to the long tradition of the preeminence of the English garden style. William Robinson (1838-1935) was among that group.
Robinson, who trained in Irish gardens and came to England where he worked in London’s Royal Botanic Garden, published both a garden magazine and several books. Timber Press recently issued a new edition of his most famous book, “The Wild Garden”, first appearing in 1870.
Robinson knew everybody who was famous in the world of botany and horticulture, like Charles Darwin, as well as Americans like Asa Gray, Charles S. Sargent, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Many American seed and nursery catalogs of that time also mentioned the importance of his writing.
His book presents a message, still important today: use plants that will take care of themselves, once they get established.
American garden writer and landscape designer Rick Darke provides an introdution to the new edition. He says, “For all of us seeking creative, practical approaches to today’s challenges and opportunities, William Robinson’s inspired response to the same issues more than a century ago offer historical perspective and suggest current strategies.”
Robinson wrote his disapproval of garden trends in England, like carpet bedding or borders with annuals, that demanded intense maintenance, and at the same time created an artificial or unnatural look. He wanted a return to a garden where the plants could just grow as they wanted, with minimum pruning, no staking, and generally less demand for garden maintenance.
Robinson confronts the issue of what are native plants and how exotic plants, or those brought from other cultures, may well become part of the landscape. He suggests beginning with local flora, but also makes allowance for exotics as part of the garden.
The setting that Robinson describes for the wild garden, or placing plants where they will thrive, could be any place in the landscape, but especially near woods, meadows, or water. Plant choice in such places is important to create a more natural look as the plants mature.
The theme of Robinson’s book seems quite relevant today. He calls the kind of planting he recommends, the wild garden or naturalizing, a term popular today. The lily of the valley is an example of a hardy plant he suggests for taking over an area. Just let it spread to create a delightful springtime look.
Does his idea make sense to you in your garden? What plants do you let go in your garden for a great sweep of flora, which tends to amaze a garden visitor?
You might think that the English garden has a definable style. Not really.
At one time it was natural, another more formal, and then a combination.
English landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818) introduced formal features into the picturesque style of garden design. According to the fabulous anthology on the English garden Genius of the Place, Repton used “older elements of design like terraces, raised flowerbeds, even geometrical planning, and the conservatory”, in order to make the garden more usable.
Repton comes at a transition point for the picturesque style, which had depended on the long lawn, clumps of trees, and the use of water to create a landscape that resembled a landscape painting.
John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, the editors of Genius, characterize Repton as anticipating” the ‘gardenesque’ style of John Claudius Loudon and William Robinson.”
Into the early 19th century Loudon became the voice for English garden style. He published many books on horticulture and an important garden magazine.
Loudon inspired American garden designer Andrew Jackson Downing, as well as Missouri horticulturalist Henry Shaw (1880-1889), who created what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden.
English gardening over the two hundred years of 1620 to 1820 saw many influences, both from within and outside the country. The style evolved, but the connection with others, like poets and painters, is clearly there.
What have been some of the influences on your garden?
You take care of your lawn, perhaps reluctantly, because it is important to you and the neighborhood.
American homeowners have been cultivating a lawn for over two hundred years.
The lawn also played an important part in the English garden style from the 17th century, if not earlier. That’s how we learned about it.
In 19th century America, seed and nursery companies sold the importance of the lawn both in the essays and the images in their mail order catalogs.
Nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1880 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly spelled out the importance of the lawn for every home landscape: “To properly make a lasting lawn, and to keep it in good order taxes the highest skill of the horticulturist, and when well executed, is the masterpiece of ornamental gardening. Without it all other improvements look insignificant. It forms the green carpet upon which all ornaments are to be placed, and its bright verdant hue imparts beauty to all.”
A few years later, in 1898, the cover on the catalog from the Illinois seed company Buckbee showed an image of a home landscape with a lawn, thus pointing out the lawn’s importance to the gardener.
When home owners read about the lawn in garden magazines and saw the lawn in illustrations in garden catalogs, it was no wonder that the lawn assumed an important role in home landscape. The lawn became the normal way to define the home landscape.
Most nineteenth century garden books also offered a similar message about the lawn.
Though it’s not easy to go against mainstream ideas, today there seems to be more tolerance for questioning the lawn’s place in the landscape. Some gardeners no longer maintain a lawn, because they have chosen native plants, including ornamental grasses, to replace the lawn.
What do you think?
Landscape gardening in 18th century England moved in a new direction with the inspiration of artist William Kent (1685-1748).
Kent considered landscape gardening an art, as expressed in nature, with no symmetry or straight lines, but like nature, in curves.
Writer Horace Walpole in the important collection of English landscape essays The Genius of the Place said about Kent: “Kent leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”
Kent designed the house and landscape of England’s Rousham, which still stands as a mecca for those eager to see Kent’s work.
What I liked about Rousham on my visit was its lack of any commercial presence. You can visit the gardens and not be coaxed into buying a Rousham souvenir.
Last winter I heard English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s lecture at Boston’s Trinity Church where he referred to Rousham as a garden of inspiration. For his new book entitled Spirit: Garden Inspiration, Dan traveled the world to see uplifting landscapes.
Rousham encourages a visitor to walk the grounds. And walk I did, enjoying every moment, and inspired along every path.
Because Kent created it as a work of art, Rousham’s grand landscape in the English picturesque style offers a sense of rest.
What makes your garden an inspiration to you? Is there a sense of peace you feel when you are in it?
The new, long-awaited reference book Keywords in American Landscape Design, tackles terms that are important in the history of landscape in this country. In defining the term ‘ English style’, the book relies on English garden writer John Claudius Loudon’s early definition (1838). Loudon described the English style as irregular or natural, in which the grounds were formed in imitation of nature. Thus a contrast to a formal or symmetrical design distinguishes English landscape style in the early 1800s.
Andrew Jackson Downing (1815 – 1852), the American nurseryman, author, and landscape designer, in his work also calls the English style the modern or natural design.
From the 18th century the English style was picturesque and more closely resembled nature. That design became important in America in the 19th century, especially in the writing by seedsmen and nurserymen.
Charles Mason Hovey, a nineteenth century Boston nurseryman, edited an early garden magazine modeled after Loudon’s famous English magazine. Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan one day visited Hovey. Later in his own magazine Gardener’s Monthly, Meehan referred to Hovey as “for many years the chief representative of horticulture in America, who did yeoman service in its cause.” In 1840 Hovey also called the modern style of gardening the English style.
When you reject a formal, clipped look, or symmetrical focus, in the landscape and prefer a more informal look, could you call the natural or less formal, the English style?
You love the look of Central Park, the premier public promenade in America, created to voice democracy, a green space open to all.
The genius behind Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, had earlier in his career visited Birkenhead Park in Liverpool. Chatsworth’s head gardener in the 1800s, Joseph Paxton, also designed Birkenhead.
Thus a connection arises between Chatsworth and Central Park. Both share a similar English style, a picturesque view, created by lawn, trees, walkways, and , of course, water.
The definition of the English term ‘picturesque’ means as if you were looking at a painting of nature, a work of art, created by a landscape designer. The term came from the the essays of Englishman William Gilpin (1724-1804)
Last week I attended a lecture at the Arnold Arboretum about Olmsted. The speaker, Alan Banks, Supervisory Park Ranger at “Fairsted”, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, MA, said that Gilpin’s writing influenced Olmsted.
So Central Park expresses the English garden style. For over a century and half park visitors continue to enjoy a bit of escape from city life to a refreshing walk in nature.
Do you have a favorite park? What makes it special? Is it one of Olmsted’s?
You need inspiration for a garden or landscape. You borrow ideas from other places you have seen.
Visiting gardens is thus something every gardener does.
In 1850 Andrew Jackson Downing visited England’s Chatsworth,begun in 1617. He wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire. has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world”. He then goes on to describe in detail the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the garden.
Downing, a New York nurseryman, writer, and landscape designer, admired the English garden style. He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist J. C. Loudon, who published a garden magazine and many books.
What style does your garden represent? Who is your inspiration for the garden?