What is the allure of the English flower garden? Is it charm, mystery or the exuberant display of beautiful flowers’ I suppose it is the combination of all of these things that captures our imagination and carries us to a magical place. But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to enjoy the romance of a cottage garden. By adding a few key style elements, you’ll feel as though England is right outside your door.
I have spent years crafting my own and others’ gardens, applying lessons I have learned from the gardens "on the other side of the pond." I discovered that no matter what the size, there are many ways to enjoy an English flower garden’s spellbinding charms.
Here are some tips on how to achieve the look in your garden.
- Plant with Exuberance
Flowers, and plenty of them, spilling over walls, fences and sidewalks give your garden that rich, full mix of colors and textures typical of this style. English flower gardens are the most wonderful excuse for combining plants. Don’t be afraid to mix different plant types. Let you imagination be your guide. Try combining herbs and roses or place twig teepees covered in English peas or Malabar spinach in a flower border.
- Add Interest
While plants should be the dominant feature creating the overall framework of the garden, structures such as arbors, fences, walls and gates add charm and delight. These structures help create secret places to read, meditate or just enjoy a summer day. Pale colored roses that cover bowers and luxuriate in the light of dusk lure us outdoors. Use cascading roses to tumble over fences and wall and even climb up to the roof.
- Lose the Lawn
Lawns take a back seat to flowers. Increase the depth of your flowerbeds and borders so lawns accentuate your plantings, not overpower them. A wide path of lush, green grass running between two large flower borders acts in a similar manner as a mat border on a framed painting. It helps to tie together all the elements.
- Fill Them Up
Pots and containers spilling over with flowers are wonderful accents around the garden and the front door. Display blooming containers, brimming over with color, with the same exuberance as plants in your flower beds. Cluster the containers together for strong visual impact. Three to five pots of various sizes grouped together can give a dull corner of your patio personality plus.
- Add Height
Create vertical gardens by allowing climbing roses and vines to scamper up trellises, arbors and fences to add splashes of living color. The cascading effect is luxurious, making the garden feel ever so romantic.
- Make It Easy
Design flowerbeds and borders so they require little maintenance. If your gardening time is limited, try a mixed border approach rather than the traditional English herbaceous border of perennials. Add small trees and shrubs that support the color compositions of your perennials so you will have less to plant each year. With a permanent framework in place, you can simply fill in the pockets with annuals. This approach gives more visual punch without as much work.
- Relax the Structure
For the best effect, arrange plants in your borders with the tallest ones in the back and the shortest plants in the front. Keep in mind that English flower gardens have a casual, unplanned look, so occasionally allow a taller plant or grouping to jump forward, so it doesn’t look too structured.
- Select Good bedfellows
Group combinations of plants together that thrive in similar growing conditions. When you match the sun, soil and water requirements for your plants with the area where they will be planted, they will be healthier and happier.
- Adapt to Your Climate
Rather than try to duplicate the flowers found in an English garden plant for plant, you’ll enjoy greater success using varieties that thrive in your area, but have a similar mood, form and style as their English cousins. For instance, lavender is fussy and difficult to grow in my mid-South climate, so I substitute catnip ‘Sixhills Giant’ for a similar effect. North American native perennials such as black-eyed Susan, phlox, asters and goldenrod are hardy alternatives to more challenging classics like baby’s breath, delphiniums and Oriental poppies.
My Ten Favorite Roses for an English Flower Garden
Species Hardiness Zone Date of Introduction Description ‘New Dawn’ 5 – 9 1930 Blush pink, large, double, clusters of flowers, repeat bloomer, pointed bud, 15′ – 20′ high, 8′ – 20′ wide, full sun, sweet fragrance, good rose for cutting, blooms heavily in spring and fall, disease resistant glossy foliage. ‘The Fairy’ 4 – 9 1932 Pink, clusters of small double ruffled flowers, repeat bloomer; 2′- 4′ high, 4′ wide; full sun to partial shade; bushy, compact, short, rounded, slight cascading; good for containers, mass plantings, or partial ground cover. ‘LaMarque’ 7 – 9 1830 White with touch of lemon yellow at base, medium size, double flowers; vigorous climber, 12′ – 20′ feet, full sun. ‘Caldwell Pink’ 6 – 9 Found rose, no intro. date Lilac pink, very double, medium-sized flowers in clusters, repeat bloomer; 3′ to 4′ tall, 3′ to 4′ wide; full sun; soft looking foliage, red and purple leaves in fall. Climbing ‘Iceberg’ 5 ‘ 9 1968 White, medium, double, loosely cupped, ruffled clusters of flowers, repeat bloomer; 12′ – 15′ tall, 6′ ‘ 8’ wide; full sun; mild honey fragrance; vigorous, upright, flexible canes, can be used on arches or pillars. ‘Katherina Zeimet’ 5 – 9 1901 Pure white double blooms in clusters on short stems, repeat bloomer; 3′ – 4′ high, 3′ wide; full sun; dwarf, bushy; can stand weather extremes. ‘Mutabilis’ or ‘Butterfly Rose’ 7 ‘ 9 1932 Sulfur yellow changing to orange, pink and crimson, repeat 2 inch blooms; 4′ to 10′ high, 4′ to 6′ wide; full sun to partial shade; slightly musky fragrance; good hedge or container plant, new growth is bronze. ‘Marie Pavie’ 5 ‘ 9 1932 Creamy white, double, repeat, medium (2 inch) clusters, pink buds open to flat blush white flowers; 2′ – 4′ high, 3′ wide; full sun to partial shade; musk fragrance; nearly thornless, vigorous, bushy, prefers moderately rich, well-drained soil. Good for low border, landscape or container. ‘Belinda’s Dream’ 5 ‘ 9 1992 Pink, fat, double, high-centered, large flowers, in small clusters, prolific everbloomer; 3′ to 6 ‘ high, 3′ to 4’ wide; full sun; shrub rose; raspberry fragrance; fast growing, sturdy, upright, bushy, good cut flower ‘Russell’s Cottage’ 5 ‘ 9 1837 Crimson mauve fading to lilac, double, medium-size flowers, blooms in spring; Damask scent, 6 – 15 feet high; full sun; foliage large, rich blue-green, deeply veined.
Top Choices for Annuals
‘Supertunia® Vista Bubblegum’
- Full sun, moist, rich soil. Good for cutting.
- Full sun, average, well-drained soil, keep consistently moist. Excellent in the flower border or containers.
- Pansies and Violas
- Full sun to partial shade. Low growing plant, grows 6′ to 8′, prefers moist, rich soil. Thrives in cool temperatures.
- Full sun to partial shade. Some varieties perennial in certain parts of the country. Depending on variety can grow from 8 – 30 inches. Vibrant, showy plant, grows in moist soil, looks good with gray foliage plants.
- Partial to full shade. Upright plant 8 to 12 inches depending on variety. Rich, moist soil. Excellent for big splashes of color.
- Full sun to partial shade, well drained, medium rich soil, flowers in shades of white, pink and red depending on variety.
- Full sun, flowers in shades of red, pink and purple, 6" – 10" tall; 12" wide, well drained soil.
- Full sun, sturdy spires of blue, pink or white blooms, 18 inches tall, great for adding height to containers.
- Full sun, flowers in red, pink, white and violet, 20"- 28" high; 6" – 10" wide; plant in rich, well drained soil. Not suited to tropical or dry regions.
- Morning Glories
- Full sun; flower color: blue, purple, pink, scarlet, white; plant in any soil-if too rich, the vines will grow but not flower
Favorite Perennials for an English Flower Garden
‘Dolce® Key Lime Pie’
- Full sun to partial shade, slightly acid well-drained soil, can tolerate some drought but benefits from 1" water per week, especially in sandy soils. Divide clumps every 3 – 4 years, remove seed capsule after bloom.
- Full sun, perennial, blooms from mid-summer to fall, grows best in zones 5 ‘ 8, plant in well-drained soil, divide clumps every 3 to 5 years.
- Biennials grown as perennials, tall spikes of bell shaped flowers in shades of white, lilac, purple, rose or yellow, spotted with purple, fertile well-drained soil and either sun or shade. Foxglove likes to be mulched and will often self seed. Cut off the flower stalk immediately after flowering to encourage shoots that bloom later in the season.
- Japanese Anemone
- Grows 18 to 30 inches tall with flowers of white, pink, or red in well-drained, rich soil, full sun in the morning and dappled afternoon, mulch to maintain a cool root zone, water thoroughly in dry weather. Space the plants 15 to 20 inches apart and do not disturb them once established.
- Best in zones 3-7 because a long winter chilling is required, full sun, well drained garden soil, plant away from large trees or shrubs, does not transplant well and may rebloom up to 50 years, so choose your planting location carefully.
- Traditionally a favorite foliage plant for shade, new varieties have impressive blooms as well. Perennial, full sun to shade and everything in between, mounding habit, will grow from zones 5 to zone 11.
- Summer Phlox
- Full sun to partial shade, 1′ to 4 ‘ tall and bear salmon, pink, magenta, white, red or purple flowers, fertile well-drained, consistently moist soil, wide spacing helps control disease problems and maximize flower size. Cut back old flower stems to prolong the blooming period. Dieback occurs when not divided often enough. Removal of weak shoots enhances flowering on stronger shoots.
- Full sun, annual, perennial, and biennial varieties, blooming late summer and autumn, 2′-7′ tall, 2′ wide, well drained soil, not too rich, leaves prone to become riddled with insect holes, best if combined with other plants to hide foliage.
- Purple Coneflowers
- Full sun to partial shade, moist well-drained garden soil, drought tolerant once established, hardy in Zones 3 – 9, cutting flowers promotes more blooms, large pink flowers with tall button center on 3′ – 4′ stalks.
- Bearded Iris
- Full sun is best, will tolerate afternoon shade, well drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil, drought tolerate, plant rhizome so 1/3 is above surface; if planting in intense heat, cover the rhizomes no more than 1" below the soil surface; lightly mulch in winter, wet mulch causes rhizome to rot.
- Require 4 – 5 hours of full sun each day in fertile, fast draining, slightly alkaline soil. Plant crown level with surface soil. Do better when not mulched, they require good air circulation around the stems, free from foliage moisture.