Given the vogue for naturalistic planting in Britain over the past 20 years – culminating in the extensive wildflower-meadow schemes created for the Olympic Park – one could be forgiven for thinking that “traditional” English garden style was on the wane. But while the publicity-hungry designers who strut their stuff at the Chelsea Flower Show have been creating “prairie” plantings replete with grasses and drifts of swaying perennial flowers (it was almost a case of “Chelsea Cow Parsley Show” this year), another band of experts has been quietly getting on with the evolution of English planting style in the herbaceous tradition. This translates as more emphasis on complex plant combinations and a tapestry effect to the border, with roses, peonies and traditional cottage flowers to the fore, and fewer grasses in sight.
Over the past two decades, Kew-trained Rupert Golby has built a loyal following in the Cotswolds and far beyond, taking an understated approach that reflects his early apprenticeship with that doyenne of traditional English garden design, Rosemary Verey. He is well known for his skill with shrubs as well as perennial flowers, often employing a classical style planned and intended for long-term effect, rather than a one- or two-season dazzling border (his relationships with clients tend to go on for years or decades). Golby’s most celebrated prolonged project is Daylesford House in Gloucestershire, home to the Bamford family and the famed farm shop and spa, where he enriched the ornamental kitchen garden over 20 years, but he has undertaken scores of other projects at manor houses and estates, too.
“I’m not a designer with a signature style,” he declares. “I very much believe in the owners being the main influence on the garden, though I also draw on the location for inspiration.” At Stanton Court, Gloucestershire, Golby has revamped an unusual garden that features several streams running across the upper lawn, a formal rose garden in the shadow of the village church and an ornamental vegetable garden. “The surrounding hills are very beautiful, and so is the water, so I have built on that.” Whereas Golby likes to emphasise the structural aspects of his work, visitors to the garden on a summer open day will no doubt appreciate the planting detail, which includes varied shrubs and fruit trees on the upper lawn, the gorgeous rose bushes and the plants in the potager. The ornamental is balanced with the productive, as at Daylesford, though on a much smaller scale.
As for grasses – the tall perennials so often referenced in the influential work of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf – Golby is unconvinced: “When I was a gardener 20 years ago, I used grasses quite a lot. I don’t now. My clients aren’t interested in that look any more. They want flowers; they want them scented and colourful. People in traditional houses want traditional gardens. I like to use material that will be there a long time – hedges, topiary, trees – while the planting around it is fairly ethereal.”
The need for some formal structure in a garden’s design is shared by Bunny Guinness, who creates plots that are regular in aspect but romantic at heart, with low walls, hedging, gazebos and pools, all festooned with flowering shrubs and perennials. “Most of my designs feature intensive gardening around the house, where I think it looks better with more structure.” A good example of this is a recent project in Oxfordshire where Guinness devised a formal garden extending up from the house, with low redbrick walls, small box balls and pyramids alongside romantic plantings such as salvias and one of her favourites, the red-flowered Cirsium rivulare.
Guinness agrees that the move towards naturalism has had a strong influence on planting: “I think we are using bigger numbers of everything; nobody uses just one of anything now.” But she’s unconvinced by the satisfaction levels. “Take a garden such as the Sussex Prairies, where very quickly, in two years, they have made the place open to the public, and used these massive drifts of perennials; to me it all looks a bit samey, and gardening it is such a pain.” For Guinness, the best recipe is a ratio of 40 per cent evergreen-hedge structure (phillyrea, yew, box) to 60 per cent perennials and shrubs. “The evergreens frame and highlight the looser stuff. And I find it easier and more enjoyable to garden.”
And so, while the past 20 years of garden design have been dominated by naturalistic planting or the so-called “New Perennials” school, led by Oudolf, which promotes the use of tall herbaceous perennials planted in big drifts and offset by substantial clusters of ornamental grasses, these gardeners are the rebels who stuck to the Great British tradition, maintaining the English cottage-garden look, packed with incident and varied colour.
The style of Xa Tollemache, Lady Tollemache of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk, is classically English, with plenty of room for happenstance and serendipity as well as emotion. Her penchant for mixing roses and grasses, with bulbs planted in between, can be traced back to the New Perennials, but her border design moves away from this description because of the number of repeat plantings used. “I do use repeats in my double borders, but – utilising Campanula persicifolia, for example – I swing from left to right with the repeat, as opposed to along the length of the border.” This marks a key change in thinking among border designers. Rather than envisaging them in linear, episodic, pictorial terms (such as cool colours at one end, moving to hot at the other), they are now creating more abstract and immersive borders that do not necessarily “read” along their length.
At Castle Hill in Devon, Tollemache created a summer garden, where the structure is provided by evergreens, lavender and grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis, “which will light up any space”. To this she added an array of flowering plants, including roses, clematis, daylilies, campanulas and Shasta daisies. But in the wide border she also deployed a favourite of the New Perennials: the fluffy-plumed Persicaria polymorpha. The influence is present, but the design remains traditional.
Warwickshire gardener Angela Collins says: “I have been slightly engulfed in the grassy world, but I’m moving away from prairie planting. I think there will still be naturalistic gardens, but with fewer grasses and more perennials.” Collins uses a narrower range of plants and blends in a few perennials, such as perovskias and veronicastrums – “spire” plants that mingle with others without dominating. She employs “five good plants” in any border, interwoven with small trees such as the hawthorn Crataegus lavallei “Carrierei” and shrubs such as the purple-leaved sloe (Prunus spinosa “Purpurea”).
It’s all about equilibrium between the old and the new. “I’m currently doing a private garden in Cheshire and it’s only my second rose garden in 20 years. I always thought of roses as time consuming and hard work, but with these wet summers you need heavyweights.” She describes the plantings between the roses as “very carefully balanced” – perhaps repeated groups of green-white-blossomed Hydrangea paniculata “Limelight” with the acidic heuchera Lime Rickey, select ferns and green (rather than the usual bronze) fennel. Fresh and zingy, it sounds like the garden equivalent of a mojito.
Devon-based garden designer Kirsty Knight Bruce liked the “waving Euro-grasses” movement enough to “go to meet Piet Oudolf 10 years ago. I’m looking forward to him becoming a grand old man and his gardening going completely abstract.” As for his influence: “I think that recently we have learnt to look at the habit of a plant throughout the year, with less emphasis on simply the colour combination. But I haven’t ‘grassed up’ too much myself, because I believe you can make borders work just as hard without them. Grasses can be very dominant and gobble up all the space, though they do die beautifully.”
For Knight Bruce, the traditional double border is “alive and kicking”. At a private estate in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, where the house was “just standing in clayfields”, she has created a garden from scratch, including 30m-long double borders with lilies, roses, hydrangeas, asters and lots of annuals as fillers. “Colour is really important to me,” she says (and as her sunken garden at Doddington Place, Kent, clearly demonstrates). “I will think about how a plant goes with another, but that does not make the border ‘colour themed’.” Contrast this with the 1980s and early 1990s, when at least a dozen books on colour theming your garden were published every year.
Perhaps it’s the romantic impulse that is most striking in the work of “classical”, traditional British garden designers such as Knight Bruce. “I want it to feel emotional in the same way as when you look at the sea or at clouds. I want you to feel taken out of yourself.”