English Summer Gardens – Part 3

We went to England to look at summer gardens which are all about flowers, particularly perennials and annuals. We didn’t expect to see so many meadow gardens and nor did we have the perspective of the summer garden as a continuum.

At one end, we saw natural wildflower fields, grazed by sheep and not managed as gardens at all. There are two key aspects to understanding British meadows. One is that many of our weeds in this country are in fact wildflowers in their home environment. So what might be seen as a rank, unloved and weedy infestation of dandelions, stinging nettle, daisies, convolvulus and blackberry is an entirely appropriate and acceptable meadow garden in its natural setting. Add in other elements such as cowslips and wild orchids (dactylorhizas and anacamptis pyramidalus) and you have something altogether delightful. The second aspect is that wild flowers thrive in a climate that is cold enough to stop all growth in winter and dry enough to stunt most growth in summer. These are hardly typical Taranaki conditions.

Inch along the continuum and you discover managed meadow gardens which were integral to most of the large gardens we visited. The late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter was an influential figure in popularising and enriching the meadow garden genre by encouraging a wider range of wild flowers to naturalise. The general rule of thumb for managing meadow gardens is to cut the meadow down in August (the equivalent of February or March in our hemisphere) and to leave it lying for about three weeks. This allows the seed to distribute. The hay is then raked off the meadow in order to keep the fertility low. If the soil is too rich, the growth becomes rampant and grasses will dominate. The existence of a parasitic annual referred to as Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus major) helps to keep the grasses weakened.

Meadow gardens appeal to the romantic and naturalistic instinct cherished by the English. It is not seen at all as scruffy or unkempt and it is fine to have a designated meadow area as your main point of entry to the garden. The naturalism is often combined effectively with that most prim and proper of all gardening techniques – topiary. Great Dixter does it – the large clipped yew shapes created by Lloyd Senior now stand in the midst of an informal meadow. At Helmingham Hall in East Anglia, an undulating wave of pathway is cut through meadow grasses which surround large clipped yew domes.

I don’t see many New Zealand gardeners managing this meadow genre. Our soil fertility is too high, our grasses grow too strongly and will choke out most competition, our torrential rains will flatten meadows even in summer and if the rain doesn’t do it first, then winds will. Our nitrogen levels are too high. And we tend to be a bit anally retentive and suburban, dedicated to manicured lawns and edges, let alone to glyphosate, to tolerate the casual live and let live philosophy of the meadow.

Take another step along the continuum and there is the completely contrived and totally enchanting field of flowers (without grasses). We saw this done at East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden where the field of yellow daisies had hints of blue cornflowers and red soldier poppies and it was so perfect that it took our breath away. If you start with bare earth, in the first season there are no competing grasses or weeds so all that is seen are the desired annuals. By the second season, competing plants mean that you are closer to the managed meadow situation.

Contrived but charming field of flowers at East Ruston Old Vicarage

Contrived but charming field of flowers at East Ruston Old Vicarage

We are now moving into a style of gardening which has a debt to the North American prairies and the prairie meadow style reaches a pinnacle at Wisley Gardens where Professor James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield is responsible for one of the most delightful meadow gardens of perennial flowers that you will ever see. Apparently the inspiration was Missouri meadows but the execution of the vision was achieved with gardening skills. The brief included a requirement that this garden be easily managed by Wisley staff so it went in to an area which had been cleared of weeds and grasses and probably also cleared of much of its topsoil. A rope mesh mat was laid, allowing the plants to stay anchored and a carefully chosen palette of about ten plants from seed mixed with sawdust was sown to create a sea of perennial flowers. There wasn’t a lot of foliage evident and the plants were tough performers which thrived in hard, dry conditions. It was magic. It was also in its second season already and there was no evidence of weed or grass contamination although it must be said this is managed with some ongoing minor intervention.

The Missouri meadow garden at Wisley

The Missouri meadow garden at Wisley

Move along the continuum further and you get to the classic cottage garden style which the English made their own. Cottage gardening is an indulgence of self seeded annuals and perennials, usually combined with roses, along with other shrubs and climbers such as clematis. The effect is a riot of colour and flowers with nothing so contrived as colour toned borders or stage managed plant combinations. Plants should look as if they are growing naturally where the seed falls and hard landscaping takes a back seat in this informal, romantic look. Readers who know the Armstrong’s garden in Waitara will have seen a rare local example of this gardening genre. If you have yet to visit, go and see it this Rhododendron Festival. Alathea Armstrong has it peaking to perfection for that week and it is very pretty, albeit labour intensive.

But take another step along and you come to what I call the managed cottage garden look which I associate with English gardeners such as Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse. The romantic naturalism is now combined with hard landscaping, form and formality. It is much more controlled, as can be seen in the Hobhouse Country Garden at Wisley. Colour toning becomes a major factor. Deadheading becomes intensive in order to prolong the display. Planning for successional flowering from spring to autumn is important. Constant management means spent plants are cut back and holes are plugged by bringing in fresh potted colour from out the back somewhere. Weed management becomes more critical. Many of the plants need staking. We talked to Lady Xa Tollemarche at Helmingham Hall about her borders and she manages to keep them at a peak for several months. The English do this classic garden style so well but it is not for the home gardener who sees spending every spare minute in the garden as a form of slavery. Easy care and low maintenance, I think not.

The classic Hobhouse country garden at Wisley

The classic Hobhouse country garden at Wisley

We are, dear Reader, only half way along the continuum. How silly of me to think I could summarise all we saw and talked about in 1200 words. We need to pause in the middle before moving on next instalment through the mixed border a la Christopher Lloyd, the sweeps of herbaceous colour softening formal landscaping in the style made famous by the Lutyens-Jekyll partnership, moving through the classic and intensive long borders to the recent work of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart Smith and onwards to the modern minimalism of mass planting. There is still quite some distance to go and any number of points where thinking gardeners can hop off the continuum, comfortable that they have found the point that best suits their situation.

1 thought on “English Summer Gardens – Part 3

  1. Robyn Kilty

    Love it Abbie, The english have cultivated the ‘natural’ look in a gentle so well for years I think, .
    That which happens so naturally in Europe anyway especially the alpine meadows. I saw it also in Siberia a couple of years ago too, but only glimpsed from the train – so tantalising! In Eastern Siberia what looked like Asiatic lilies and Hemerocallis, and guess what!! Siberian iris – were growing naturally amongst great expanses of non pastoral natural meadow grass. Reds, oranges and blues!!
    And Piet Oudolf and other designers so I understand, really grabbed it in the interests of ecology, Growing informally in swathes only the perennials and grasses which would survive in areas naturally, without the intervention fertilisation or added water.
    Was interested to read your reference to James Hitchmough, as I was fascinated with the first rain-garden he did at Chelsea a few years ago, and have read about him since. The sustainable co-housing we were discussing at the weekend are based on similar rain garden principals. Harnessing waste water and cleansing through swales and ponds of plants and reeds on site. No need to use council sewage and drainage anymore!

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