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What is an English Garden?

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  • Written By: Darrell Laurant
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 May 2018
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    Conjecture Corporation
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As it has evolved over the centuries, the English garden has become something rather unexpected — not a carefully crafted symphony of order and design, but a joyous jazz improvisation filled with surprises. The credit for this goes, in large part, to early 18th century landscape artist William Kent. Born in England but schooled in Italy, he brought a more open Mediterranean sensibility to the traditional English garden, seeing it as something that should honor nature more than the hand of man. The result was something that has been called "controlled chaos."

The transition that Kent pushed along was advanced farther by next-generation English landscape designer Lancelot "Capability" Brown. So called because he saw the capability in every potential garden spot, Brown designed over 170 parks all over the British Isles and Europe, creating striking designs with plants and damming small streams to flow in serpentine patterns. Then and now, the traditional English garden is usually attached to a dwelling — the exception being gardens designed as parts of public parks — often beginning and ending at an entrance to the house. It is intended to be an interactive environment, a place for walking and sitting and enjoying not just the flowers planted by hand, but the trees and water that often form a backdrop to the garden itself.

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This naturalistic style still reigns in English gardens today, whether they are found in the United Kingdom, the United States, or Europe. Roses climb and sprawl in an English garden, spectacular flowering bushes raise their colorful heads next to one another as if competing for attention, stone bridges or statues or models of Roman ruins peak through the verdant growth. Rather than adhering to a universal plan, they tend to reflect the personality of their creators.

Scent is almost as important as sight to an English garden. Some of the plants most often found there — besides roses — include jasmine, lavender and thyme. Hearkening back to Capability Brown, many gardens are created with themes in mind, and sown with a mixture of flowers that will bloom as early and as late as possible to create a nine-month tapestry of color. These include wallflowers, pansies, nasturtiums, Lady's Mantle and petunias.

The English garden has even found its way into pop culture. A verse from the Beatles' song "I Am the Walrus" speaks of "Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun." These days, that could be anywhere.

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