Choosing the right plants for the style of your house can be fairly straightforward but get it wrong and some plants will look quite out of place. For many people the Edwardian era of the early twentieth century is the pinnacle of British gardening, but it has never really gone away because often without realising it we are still using Edwardian plants and ideas in our gardens all the time.
Remembering the Past
By combining fairly naturalistic planting with a strongly structured framework, this mix of formal and informal was often on a quite modest scale, which makes it easy to adopt today. Key features were hedges, terraces, sunken gardens, pergolas and arrow straight paths which were then adorned with relaxed planting that disguised this geometry. This style of garden continued virtually unchanged until the Second World War.
The Arts and Crafts movement had been building in momentum and relied on vernacular building materials coupled with traditional plants and a reverence for nature. The garden was always designed to look like an extension of the house and often appeared as a series of intimate linked spaces around it formed by hedges and trellis, a concept of ‘garden rooms’ that is just as fashionable in the 21st century. This structure then had plants spilling over paths and plants that self seeded so that the framework of the garden became blurred and importantly nature appeared to have the upper hand. Old fashioned fruits and flowers like hollyhocks and roses were key plants and the aim seemed to be to evoke and romanticise a distant past, which is probably why this style remains so relevant today.
The gardens at Hidcote which began in 1907 are a classic example where a series of hedged rooms with box edged beds, yew pillars and straight lines are filled with a mix of shrubs, roses, perennials and bulbs. Each individual room often had a theme and therefore a title: the White garden, Sundial garden, Rose garden and so on.
Popularisation of the Country Garden
It was Gerturde Jekyll who really popularised this style which we often refer to as country gardens and are classified more by their atmosphere than their location. It’s true that some of these gardens are quite grand – even Prince Charles’ Highgrove can be considered a country garden – but we can easily reinterpret them on quite a small scale.
The structure of the garden is vital and should rely on a geometric layout of paths and patios which are then divided by neatly clipped yew hedges. These can then form a backdrop to mixed borders of shrubs and perennials including daphne, lavender and lilac. Jekyll having trained as an artist, was enormously interested in colour and would theme a border starting at one end with blue, grey, white, pale yellow and pale pink and passing through stronger yellow, orange and red always ensuring that neighbours were in harmony and therefore never garish. She also promoted single colour borders, an idea later taken up in the white garden at Sissinghurst although she insisted that pale blue and pale pink were always introduced to liven things up a bit.
Self seeding was encouraged and the little daisy Erigeron karvinskianus and favourites like Alchemilla will happily pop up in the cracks between paving slabs or in gravel paths. Jekyll also moved away from the Victorian idea of arranging everything in ranks with the tallest at the back and this opened the door for more imaginative plant groupings.
The Cottage Garden
Bumping alongside the evolution of the country garden was the cottage garden which you could think of as the more haphazard, although not necessarily poorer, relation. Cottage gardens don’t lend themselves so readily to the clean lines and formality of smart Edwardian town houses but are best associated with more haphazard architecture. Generally smaller in size they are also more informal or even light hearted and rather than having neatly clipped hedges, are more likely to have a single yew bush clipped into the shape of a hen or a dog for example. Colour schemes are generally less contrived and controlled and although not unkempt they manage to look natural.
Lots of the perennials grown at the time have been superseded by better more reliable varieties, which generally flower for longer but they are all still familiar to us: lupin, delphinium, honesty, columbine and pinks to name just a few. But these gardens aren’t about specific varieties; they are about the mood so as long as a plant fits the style then it is ok.
Think of the quintessential rambling rose growing over the door. A hundred years ago this would have been a variety that flowered for just a few weeks and got covered in mildew. Now plant breeders have blessed us with repeat flowering, disease resistant plants in all shapes and sizes which means our gardens flower for much longer and that despite enormous horticultural advancement the actual look of our gardens has barely changed.
Plants to choose for an early Twentieth Century garden
A number of trees perfect for small and medium gardens were introduced in this time. Acer griseum, the paper bark maple with its gorgeous chestnut red peeling bark and Davidia involucrata, the pocket handkerchief tree with delicate with papery bracts remain very popular as do some of the larger magnolias. Blossom trees, particularly cherries, crab apples and hawthorn all suit the style perfectly.
Mixed borders of shrubs and perennials became popular and have become the norm in modern gardens because they are easier to maintain than pure herbaceous borders. Shrubs include Philadelphus, Buddleja alternifolia lilac and Viburnum farreri with its scented flowers.
Shrub roses also became popular and because they are low maintenance and fairly disease resistant they still have a place in our gardens. One of the most popular introductions of the time was Rosa ‘Roseraie de L’Hay’ with its pinky purple flowers
Old fashioned perennials
Aquilegia, cottage garden pinks, sweet peas, Centaurea, Phlox, Artemisia, Echinops, Dahlia and Gypsophila can all be used in quite contemporary gardens, but grouped together they all scream cottage or country gardens.
There are many perennials popular now, which weren’t available in the early twentieth century, but because they suit the atmosphere of the gardens and the architectural style they fit in perfectly. They include hardy geraniums which are now essential ground covers in so many of our gardens, bergenias, euphorbias, hellebores and hostas
All types of clematis, honeysuckle, and climbing and rambling roses are typical of this era of gardening.
[This post is provided by Andy’s friend and colleague, Mike James. Mike is a freelance writer based in the UK and a content representative for multiple award-winning garden designer Andy Sturgeon]