Catherine Mahan, a landscape architect in Baltimore, Maryland, replies: Two integral components that define English gardening style are the landscape garden and the herbaceous border. In the eighteenth century, garden designers in England grew tired of the planned formality showcased in French and Dutch gardens, and instead focused their efforts on designing what has come to be known as the landscape garden. Large estates were artfully transformed into rambling, picturesque scenes. Hills, meadows, lakes, and grottoes were all constructed with the intent to emulate nature. Visitors to these gardens were directed from one landscape picture to the next by a series of paths. The gardens had to be walked through to be experienced, as each area contained its own surprises and vistas.
The English have also become widely known for their flower borders, with perennials, annuals, and sometimes shrubs combining to form masses of color. This contribution was spearheaded by the team of Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), a trained painter and garden designer, and Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), an architect, who together designed an array of gardens and country houses all over England.
Ms. Jekyll’s unique contribution came from her mastery of color theory. It seems like a simple idea now, but rather than mix colors at random in a garden, she planted broad drifts of flowers of a single color that then transitioned into another drift of an analogous color. The result was a garden composition that harmoniously blended colors and led the eye through the space. Although she worked chiefly with flowering perennials, this effect can be created with foliage plants as well. The herbaceous borders at some of the best known English gardens, such as Sissinghurst and Hidcote, to this day are reminiscent of the design trends started by Gertrude Jekyll.
I can say from painful experience that true English gardens belong in England, where the moist, mild climate and hundreds of years of gardening tradition combine to form some of the loveliest gardens in the world. However, Americans can use plants that thrive in their part of the country and still practice English gardening design principles.
For example, Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) adapted Jekyll’s color theories and designed gardens to suit the American climate in the Northeast. Two of her more notable garden designs were done for Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, which has excellent perennial borders, but is only open to the public on a limited basis. Sadly, her signature garden at her Maine residence, Reef Point Gardens, was dismantled at the time of her death.
Some other gardens that have adapted the English style, but use plants suitable to their particular climate include the Gertrude Jekyll Garden at the Glebe House in Woodbury, Connecticut; Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland; and Old Westbury Gardens in Westbury, New York.