About Those English Gardens

Author: admin  //  Category: Tips

There is no place like an Eng­lish gar­den. And as a gar­dener, there was no bet­ter way to spend a week away from my own gar­den than vis­it­ing gar­dens in Eng­land. So in June, off I went on—of all things—an orga­nized bus tour.

As a prac­tic­ing semi-hermit, I’m not usu­ally enthu­si­as­tic about orga­nized group activ­i­ties. But an orga­nized bus tour of Eng­lish gar­dens makes a great deal of sense.

For one thing, the trip coor­di­na­tor was able to get us an incred­i­bly good deal on a pack­age that included air­fare, hotel, most meals and gar­den entrance fees. Because we were a small group of just 25 peo­ple, she also was able to get us into pri­vate gar­dens that the aver­age tourist would never be able to visit on their own. Trav­el­ing on a lux­ury bus meant we didn’t have to sweat the details of direc­tions or sched­ules. And finally, when you travel with other enthu­si­as­tic gar­den­ers there will always be some­one nearby to help iden­tify that splen­did shrub or drop dead gor­geous flower, not to men­tion enjoy a pub lunch or just a lit­tle sit on a well-placed gar­den bench.

Old Erringham Cottage 2

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK

Over the course of a week we vis­ited 16 gar­dens, 12 of them pri­vate rather than pub­lic gardens.

The Eng­lish coun­try­side is idyl­lic in the spring and sum­mer. The long agrar­ian tra­di­tion can still be seen in the Eng­lish coun­try­side. You still see miles and miles of ver­dant rolling hills sur­rounded by stone walls and dot­ted with idyl­lic sheep, cows and goats. Drive through the small vil­lages and towns and even the most mod­est homes have roses scram­bling up the walls, lov­ingly main­tained win­dow boxes and wildly bloom­ing peren­nial borders.

English Countryside


Old stone walls and older stone houses add to the rugged but beau­ti­ful back­drop for all the exu­ber­ant plant growth. Flow­ers are allowed to seed and grow in cracks and crevices. Roses are encour­aged to scram­ble up the sides of stone fences and gar­den walls. The warm brown color of the stone pro­vides the per­fect pal­let back­drop for both the soft pas­tels or the more flam­boy­ant flowers.

One of the rea­sons Eng­lish gar­dens are so spec­tac­u­larly full of vig­or­ous plants that in some cases are twice the size of their Amer­i­can ver­sions is that the days are incred­i­bly long. Located at about a lat­i­tude of 51, Eng­land sits much far­ther north than, for exam­ple, Anchor­age, Alaska, at 61 degrees lat­i­tude. That means that in the third week of June, sun­rise in West Sus­sex was at 4:50 a.m. and sun­set was at 9:18 p.m. That’s more than 16 long hours of day­light for the plants to sun­bathe and grow. Com­pare that to my Mary­land gar­den, which gets a measly 14 hours of sum­mer sun­light. As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, it also meant that the sun in Eng­land woke me up at 3:30 a.m. as it began its ascent over the horizon.

Plants in Steps

Then there is the issue of heat and humid­ity. I know that peo­ple in some more of the more hell­ish parts of the U.S. will scoff at my weather whin­ing, but here in Mary­land the sum­mer days can eas­ily get into the 90s and the humid­ity num­bers hover around that same num­ber. Dare to go out­side in the late after­noon and it is like swim­ming in hot air. While we were in Eng­land, some of the hotel staff and even some gar­den­ers com­plained about the heat. It was 75 degrees! Hah. I laugh at their heat!

All this heat and humid­ity pro­vides the per­fect breed­ing ground for mos­qui­toes and ticks. In Eng­land, ticks are not as much a prob­lem as in the U.S., although Google tells me that disease-carrying ticks are on the rise there as well. And when we asked one gar­dener about the mos­quito sit­u­a­tion in Eng­land she assured us that they may have a few but that “They only bite the animals—not humans.”

Well, how civilized!

Old Erringham Cottage

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


As a vis­i­tor one of the first things that you notice is that Eng­lish gar­dens are full. Packed full. Plants grow up and out and over and under and around. Won­der­fully tex­tured shrubs, such as cot­i­nus or spirea, serve as the back­drop against which peren­ni­als are wedged. Add some creep­ing vines, such as clema­tis, or a ram­bling rose scam­per up walls, trel­lises and tuteurs so that your eye is car­rier upward. Maybe there will be some clipped box­wood or a nicely shaped yew to pro­vide a bit of struc­ture as a foil to all the ram­bunc­tious scram­bling plants.

Garden House at Parsonage Farm

Gar­den House at Par­son­age Farm, Kid­ford, Sus­sex, UK

You will see broad expanses of lawns on large estates, but in smaller gar­dens the swaths of green grass that make up most of Amer­i­can gar­den real estate just aren’t to be found. And I noticed par­tic­u­larly on this trip that even grand estates are allow­ing rib­bons, patches and even fields of grass to grow high. Some­times it may be just a ring around a tree. In other places the tall grass may run along an old stone fence. In one gar­den we vis­ited the field was a true flower meadow in which wild orchids had taken up res­i­dence. I loved that the home own­ers had placed lit­tle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards on sticks around the perime­ter so that we could find the orchids.

The Grange

The Grange, Sus­sex, UK


Eng­lish gar­dens are all about peren­nial borders—really, really wide bor­ders where the plants are jam packed in so that you can’t see even the small­est patch of soil. That means that the plants touch.

Arundel Castle aliums and lavender

Ali­ums and Laven­der at Arun­del Cas­tle and Garden


(Aside: I have heard more than one gar­den designer here in the U.S. laugh at clients who have panic attacks because they installed plants that touch. Well, as we learned even before kinder­garten, there is good touch­ing and there is bad touch­ing. When plants touch, it is good touch­ing. Okay?)

And let me tell you about the edg­ing. Those Brits adore their razor sharp bor­der edg­ing. They are cut deep into the sod and are as pre­cise as a mil­i­tary crease. They are metic­u­lously groomed to keep it in tip-top shape. One gar­dener showed us her husband’s prized tool for this task. I was so impressed I came right home and found a sim­i­lar tool for myself.

Almost every Eng­lish gar­den I have vis­ited has a lit­tle green­house, nurs­ery beds and work stag­ing area. These work areas are tucked away so you don’t really notice them, but I always seek them out because they tell me some­thing about how the work gets done. Most of the green­houses have some sort of prop­a­ga­tion project in the works. These gar­dens are already packed full, so per­haps they are expand­ing their bor­ders, grow­ing for friends or maybe grow­ing new plants that will be sold at their local gar­den club or other fundraiser.

Rose at Sandhill Farm

Climb­ing rose at Rose­mary Alexander’s Sand­hill Farm, Sus­sex, UK

Eng­lish gar­dens are all about flow­ers and beauty. Veg­etable gar­dens are quite attrac­tive, but usu­ally quite util­i­tar­ian and tucked away so that you must go search­ing for them. Toma­toes and cucum­bers are often grow­ing in the greenhouses.

Hah! We may not be able to grow David Austin roses here in Mary­land, but we can grow toma­toes and cucum­bers with­out a greenhouse!

The British rally together with their gar­den­ing spirit too, invit­ing the pub­lic into pri­vate gar­dens as part of what they call their National Gar­dens Scheme. I love that they call it a “scheme.” Here state­side we think of schemes as nefar­i­ous plots. The British con­sider a scheme a really good idea, in this case a way of rais­ing money for char­i­ta­ble causes. Gar­den­ers can apply to become a part of the National Gar­den Scheme. They are inter­viewed and their gar­dens inspected. Gar­den­ers whose gar­den­ers are accepted into the scheme must offer some pub­lic days each year and also host pri­vate groups. Fees col­lected for the gar­den vis­its all go into the National Gar­den Scheme cof­fers and are dis­trib­uted to char­i­ta­ble organizations.

Arundel Castle Garden

Arun­del Cas­tle Garden


Lest you start to despair about how inad­e­quate your gar­den is (I did!), let me tell you that only two of the gar­dens were pri­mar­ily maintained—if not created—by the home­own­ers. At sev­eral of the gar­dens we vis­ited, we were met and guided around by the full-time gar­dener. At one gar­den, the full-time chief gar­dener told us he had two part-time helpers—one who worked two days a week and another who worked three days a week. Both are 71 years old and, accord­ing to the young-ish head gar­dener, “Have a most excel­lent work ethic.” One of the old timers was pre­vi­ously in the mil­i­tary. The head gar­dener said that he could set his watch by the guy.

His start­ing time is at 8:30 in the morn­ing. At 8:31 I hear the trim­mer start. His quit­ting time is at 4:30 in the after­noon. At 4:29 I hear him put away his tools.”
Ah, to have help in the garden.

But even if you don’t have help, a con­tainer or two or per­haps a win­dow box sit­u­ated so you can see it as you scrub up the evening dishes can perk up your out­door space. I hope you find the pho­tos as inspir­ing as I do.

Old Erringham Cottage Poppy Field

Poppy field at Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


I’ll be shar­ing more. Come along on the trip with me.


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  • Carol says:

    I loved com­ing along with you via your blog post and look for­ward to your next post about your trip. It sounds lovely, and I hope to/plan to go some­time to see for myself.

    • Robin Ripley says:

      You’re over­due, Carol! Go for it!

  • Jean says:

    Wow, how I would love a small group tour in Eng­land. Every time I go there I have a hard time get­ting around since we usu­ally don’t have a car. And those gar­dens are some­times dif­fi­cult to get to with­out one.

    Although I know most of those gar­dens have full or part-time gar­den­ers, don’t you think it’s fan­tas­tic that they even have a cul­ture of hir­ing peo­ple for that kind of exper­tise? I wish we did. Looks like you all had a fab­u­lous time!

    • Robin Ripley says:

      You’re exactly right, Jean. It’s dif­fi­cult to even find a reli­able land­scape crew around here. And the ones that you can find can’t tell a hosta from a helle­bore. Oh, the sto­ries I could tell!

  • Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I really enjoyed the broad overview you gave, not­ing dif­fer­ences in empha­sis and style. I knew Britain had a milder cli­mate, but I had never really con­sid­ered the effect of longer day­light on the plants.

    • Robin Ripley says:

      Thanks Kathy. Longer days for the plants may also mean longer days for the gar­dener. LOL

  • Kat says:

    What a won­der­ful trip! I love Eng­lish gar­dens and the whole con­cept of flow­ers “touch­ing”! I do wish we had their added hours of sun­light and milder tem­per­a­tures, but at least we’ve had lots of rain here in Mary­land, unlike recent years. I hope you’re enjoy­ing your sum­mer so far!


    • Robin Ripley says:

      Hi Kat — My gar­den is lov­ing the rain, although I must be alert now to fun­gus issues. Still, it’s bet­ter than drought, so I’ll take it. Hope all is well!

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