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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

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What's In a Name of the English garden?

A fellow garden blogger wrote to me because I had used the term English Garden to describe the landscape of the Dillon Gardens. The writer felt that it was inaccurate to describe that garden as English because its owner, Helen Dillon, is a Scotswoman and the garden she designed is located in Ireland.

I respect the writer’s concern about the accuracy of the descriptive words, English garden. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is any other way to realistically describe such gardens. Although I have given it much thought, I still have difficulty finding alternative ways to describe enclosed landscapes made up of perennials, roses, flowering vines, and ornamental shrubs. This style of garden design was developed and refined in England and there are simply no other words to describe it exactly. Traditional? Yes. European? Yes.  Continental? Yes. Mixed? Yes.  Lush? Yes. Romantic? Yes. That garden is all of these and more. The word “English” gives the garden a precise, clear description of a very specific style. As much as I would like to make my fellow garden blogger happy, I can’t because the usage of the phrase English Garden has entered our lexicon permanently. It’s not ready for change or modification because it is used and understood universally.

However, what has changed is the look of these gardens when they are adapted in North America. For this transformation, we do need a new vocabulary to describe what has become a decidedly American garden, regardless of its origin.

Here are some factors influencing the morphing of the English garden into an American one.

  • Geological and meteorological differences between the British Isles and North America, and the many different and contrasting physical gardening conditions faced here.
  • Without a tradition of securely enclosing garden spaces, our gardens do not have walls that frame and make them cozy.
  • A desire to live in harmony with nature as opposed to bend it to our will.
  • A uniquely American comfort with wide-open, wild spaces.
  • A disdain for unnecessary rules.
  • A desire to create one’s own rules.
  • Irreverence for the past.
  • A forward-looking attitude that enthusiastically embraces new ways and ideas.
  • A lack of concern for social convention.
  • The undertaking of gardening by “do-it-yourselfers” for whom creating and maintaining a garden is no more important than any other domestic chore on a “to-do” list.
  • The multi-tasking that occurs in daily life, resulting in little time to devote to gardening.

All of these factors have contributed to modifying and transforming the English garden in North America. Some garden writers refer to this new landscape as The New American Garden. What also contribute to making this style different from the English is the inclusion of the distant or contiguous meadow into the landscape, a strong use of Ornamental grasses and native plants, and a more dramatic combination of colors.

Even the kind of gardening books that some Americans need seems to be different from the traditional publications that the UK is known for. Many gardeners are looking for books that read more like manuals for instant success rather than guidelines on developing a passion for horticulture.

Traditionalists and purists are dismayed by this trend. Some are concerned about the lack of spirit, pleasure, and adventure that results when do-it yourselfers consult manuals for quick fixes. Others are upset that ancient gardening rules, clearly anachronisms in the new world, are being flaunted. However, I do not believe that any of these changes or differences is such a bad thing. The more people that garden, regardless how they choose to garden, the stronger the industry becomes. A healthy industry encourages research into developing better and more beautiful plants and innovative, ergonomically designed tools. As well, the arrival of lesser-committed gardeners also results in a healthy support for the garden publishing industry. Because I am optimistic about these matters, I am hoping that, in the end, the perfunctory do-it-yourselfer will become passionate about gardening, just as I did.

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Reader Comments (5)

Great post Allan! I guess I always thought of an "English Garden" as a style rather than a location. We have a difficult time here in the States achieving a true English Garden because of our differing climates.


May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEileen

Allan, My own dream, when I began in my Canadian garden a couple of decades (plus) ago, was to create an English garden; more properly, and English cottage garden. Dealing with Canadian realities of weather, as well as site comeuppances such as the dry shade under (non-native) Norway maples, have caused me to adapt my plan. I'll probably always have "English" sensibilities, as it was so much a part of my upbringing. However, I embrace other ideas and inspirations. That's what's great about gardening... it grows. Even what we think of as "traditional" English gardens were once rather revolutionary and scandalous, compared with the ultra-formal styles that preceded it.

Hi! English style garden is very popular even in Malaysia. However to achieve the informal English garden look we have adapt tropical plants and flowers to suit our hot and humid climate.
Great post Allan!!

The garden has rules? I tend to do what works, which is primarily determined by nature — and even that is fickle from year to year. I love the English style garden and would love to have elements of it in my garden. 'English inspired' might be a more appropriate term. The rest of the world takes what the English have made, and go from there.

I enjoyed your post, and thanks for stopping by my own blog. I appreciate it!

May 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdebsgarden

Thanks for this article i love London its a great places to visit. I really like Hyde Park as its a great place for events such as party in the park and fairs.

October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravel Shop

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